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Civilization as intervention



The New York Times editorial on 15 August was all about tragedy in describing the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. ‘Tragic because the American dream of being the “indispensable nation” in shaping a world where the values of civil rights, women’s empowerment and religious tolerance rule proved to be just that: a dream.’

That view, in some form or rather, was repeated among Washington’s allies, many critical about the perceived forfeiture of the Western project. Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, assessed the withdrawal by Coalition forces and personnel as a calamity for ‘the political and moral credibility of the West’ and believers ‘in democracy and freedom, especially for women’. Conservative UK parliamentarian Tobias Ellwood considered the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan ‘appalling’. ‘Our exodus allows dictatorship to replace democracy.’

Such views do much to ignore that most important lesson of history: foreign interventions in defiance of local conditions, and missions inspired by civilizational change, tend to fail. Afghanistan provides no better instance of this.

President Joe Biden, for his part, never agreed with the civilizational project. As he explained in his August 16 speech, the invasion of Afghanistan had only one purpose: counterterrorism. It was never, in his mind, a ‘counterinsurgency or nation building’ mission. He also scorned those ‘political leaders’ who had given ‘up and fled the country.’

The US-armed Afghan military of 300,000 strong and ‘incredibly well equipped a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies’ had ‘collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.’ That very fact convinced him ‘that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.’ US troops ‘cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.’

The speech received much criticism. US Representative Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, issued a plea to the administration for ‘swift, decisive action’ lest Afghan civilians ‘suffer or die at the hands of the Taliban.’ Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Seth Moulton lamented the fact that the Coalition occupation had not been prolonged. Democrats and Republicans had ‘failed to hold the votes for re-authorizing this conflict for the last two decades since we invaded to find Osama bin Laden. For that, all of us in Congress should be ashamed.’   

While Biden’s comments on the unwillingness of the Afghan National Army to fight stung the nation-building advocates, they highlighted an essential truth. Funding, equipment and training in the absence of conviction and legitimacy is meaningless. Numbering only 75,000 or so, the Taliban takeover could never have been so swift or comprehensive without both conviction and local support. The picture of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani finding exile in the United Arab Emirates, rumoured to have pinched US$169 million from state coffers along the way, said much about the legitimacy of the Kabul administration.


'Funding, equipment and training in the absence of conviction and legitimacy is meaningless. Numbering only 75,000 or so, the Taliban takeover could never have been so swift or comprehensive without both conviction and local support.' 


But what was the mission? From Australia’s perspective, it also began as a counter-terrorist exercise. In October 2001, a few days after the departure of the first deployment of special forces, Prime Minister John Howard reiterated the goals of the administration of US President George W. Bush. ‘We should be clear about our aims in this operation. The immediate goal is to seek out and destroy al-Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan can never again serve as a base from which terrorists can operate.’ There was little by way of indication that state-building would become a priority. ‘In Afghanistan itself, the mission is likely to be pursued through precision, ground operations conducted by small teams of specialised forces.’

Australian special forces left Afghanistan in November 2002, only to be redeployed three years later. The mission duly changed to one of nation building and protecting an incipient, frail democracy. Australian soldiers were to, as Howard stated, protect ‘the democratic embrace by the people of that country’ and frustrate efforts made by the Taliban and ‘elements of al-Qaeda’ to prevent elections from taking place.  What followed were 20 rotations comprising 3,000 Australian personnel, accompanied at stages by regular troops of the Reconstruction Task Force primarily located in Uruzgan province.

By the time Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited Afghanistan in October 2013, the mission had morphed into the vague, imprecise nature of an indeterminate guardianship. Australia’s war, he declared, was ‘ending not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that’s better for our presence here.’

Forgotten in the desperate, teary condemnations of the withdrawal were the various brutal exploits and actions of the Coalition forces. Nation building came with fair share of destruction. There have been at least 241,000 deaths during the course of the occupation, 71,000 of them civilians. In 2017, the US military eased the rules of engagement for airstrikes in Afghanistan, which saw a massive increase in civilian casualties. The Central Intelligence Agency has maintained its old role funding and arming Afghan militia groups to fight the Taliban, the same groups responsible for grave human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings.

Australia’s own special forces have also played a part in this blood-spattered saga. The ABC’s publication of the leaked Afghan files revealed alleged instances of torture, maiming and executions. The Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry last year found that 39 Afghan non-combatants and prisoners were allegedly killed by Australian special forces personnel. 

The failure of the state building exercise also accompanied another synoptic delusion: that the Taliban, if they could not be defeated, might be contained with a Western-armed local defence force. In adopting this formula, NATO made the same error that the Soviet Union had done in the 1980s. Then, Moscow hoped to keep a communist regime in Kabul functioning, defended by demoralised troops in the face of the determined mujahedeen.

The critics of the withdrawal are now returning to a few hoary old chestnuts: that the Taliban will either be weak in maintaining order, thereby permitting Afghanistan to become a staging post for global terrorism, or fail to contain rival war lord groups. These points are particularly disingenuous, given previous Western support for such warlords as the notorious ethnic Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum and his rival, the Tajik Atta Muhammad Noor, both of whom had previously pledged qualified allegiance to Ghani. They will be rearming and awaiting their next spoiling role, looking for such old sponsors as the CIA.

The theme here is telling, and a tired one. It is one of paternalism. Afghanistan must be protected by outside powers. Afghans, likes squabbling children, should not be permitted to sort out their differences or steer their own nation building exercise.  Well may it be for them to have peace, but it can never be one dictated or shaped by the Taliban. Ellwood, in a rare moment of candour, reveals the rationale behind trumpeting about about women’s rights and democracy in the country. ‘Would it not make sense to stay close to the Afghan people given the importance of this bit of global real estate?’ The roots for the next intervention are already growing.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: The city of Kabul can be seen at sundown from the rear deck of a U.S. Army helicopter (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Afghanistan, Taliban, nation building, military, withdrawal, democracy



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Some historical perspective: President Truman, a WW1 veteran, often rejected advice from those he dubbed the “striped pants” boys in the State Department. President Eisenhower warned of the Military-Industrial Complex. President Reagan proclaimed, “drain the swamp” of Washington bureaucracy. George H.W. Bush, a WW2 veteran and old-time realist, liberated Kuwait and then left. But in Washington, old-school realism was giving way to democratic idealism. President Clinton got involved in Bosnia and Kosovo¸ and after 9/11, George W Bush totally embraced Washington’s new policies. After Michael Flynn’s 2012 Defence Intelligence Agency report warned that American support for the so-called Arab Spring insurgencies would create a new caliphate movement, Flynn became persona non grata.
An independent outsider, President Trump successfully achieved the Abraham Accords, defeated ISIS, and rejected the Iran agreement. The Washington Swamp and its court eunuchs will do almost anything to protect their careers, pensions, and subsequent lucrative deals with defence contractors. Michael Flynn was forced out and Trump was impeached for not following “US policy” when speaking with Ukraine’s president, notwithstanding the Constitution giving the President primary authority to determine US foreign policy. A 48-year creature of the corrupt Washington Swamp, Biden quickly reversed most Trump policies.

Ross Howard | 24 August 2021  

Such views do much to ignore that most important lesson of history: foreign interventions in defiance of local conditions, and missions inspired by civilizational change, tend to fail. Afghanistan provides no better instance of this.
This is an important lesson that we in Australia have never learned, our involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan is as a poodle to America.
When will we grow up?
When will we think about ourselves as independent, when will act and speak of Independence?The rest of the world community must look at us and think, when will they grow up?

Kevin Vaughan | 24 August 2021  

Binoy a good article.
Unfortunately the Taliban is well armed and inured to violence and could wreak bloody vengeance on all those who colluded with the occupation troops and the US inspired Kabul Administration.
If some of the massacres they have inflicted in the past
are any guide then what is to come could be like the genocide inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
One would have to ask if the 241,000 deaths been in vain? Heaven help those people who are in the Taliban firing line.

Francis Armstrong | 24 August 2021  

The problem with America is that they think the whole thing is a movie set in the Wild West. America is the faultless, extremely handsome sheriff riding a white horse, loved by homely women cooking lashings of apple pie and backed up by a posse of conscripted, simple minded deputies who believe that are riding their scrappy horses behind the resplendent sheriff to rid the West of baddies. Some of the deputies are as shrewd as sewer rats despite possessing the intellect of dung beetles and join the posse for their own aggrandisement hoping to attain the admiration bestowed on the sheriff. Unfortunately the director of the movie never seems to get the ending right despite the tone and cadence of the musical sound track accompanying the fade out of the scene of action. .

john frawley | 25 August 2021  
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I endorse your sentiments, JF. And I was also captured by your provocative word-making ability. Please think about submission of a longer article to the secular press.

Pam | 25 August 2021  

Attaboy, Binoy! Flawlessly explained and from no better a source than the NY Times! Those who are escaping are a small, privileged, western-educated plutocracy. Whatever their background and regardless of their politics, we owe it to them to take them and leave the Afghanis in peace to work out their evolution towards modernisation for themselves, rather than have it thrust upon them under the pretence of a well-intentioned effort to seed democracy and build liberal institutions of the kind that we ourselves are still developing. History has shown, as you rightly observe in your citation of the Russian precedent, that Afghanistan, ever since the time of British adventurism from India, has withstood the interventions of foreign aggressors on their soil. Your analysis also replicates that of several others from outside the politico-military establishment complex, such as George Kennan and John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy's Ambassador in New Delhi, who towards the end of his life reflected that it had all happened before: in Egypt, Iran, Vietnam, and many other 'theatres of war', where paternalistic cowboy intervention, a naive cover for fortune-hunting, mineral-resource extraction and exploitation, and overall puppet-regime control over internal and foreign policy, triggered much more harm than good. Thanks!

Michael Furtado | 25 August 2021  

The West hasn’t left Afghanistan. Its presence, in gigantic amounts of present and future aid greenbacks and euros, is still there. Afghanistan has been independent since 1921. Between then and 1973, it had plenty of time to get its act together. If the reporting is going to be honest, it will admit that without the civilisational success of the West to keep propping it up, the level of stagnation in the country would be even lower than it is now. But, ‘country’ is a veneer. A ‘country’ is simply an area of earth over which a particular culture holds sway. The machine of a culture is the psychology inside people’s heads and what can we say? For most of the people there (or, at least, those with guns), the psychology is backward. Hence, the need for more greenbacks and euros to keep the crib going. Hence, the continuing success of the West in keeping the backward places of the planet afloat. If it wasn’t for the Gaza-like situation of women and children as trapped hostages of the men, the West could pull all assistance out of Afghanistan and let China and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation foot the Taliban’s bills.

roy chen yee | 26 August 2021  

Thanks for the article but I think it needs a bit more "balanced" insight. Afghanistan was severely damaged by Russian forces and the Taliban were then forced to leave their remaining homes for 20 years under the subsequent occupation by "the Willing" forces. There was already a humanitarian accommodation crisis before they were forced away to the mountains and their homes were taken by other civilians or destroyed; they lived in exile for survival with little option of surrender. Now the Taliban want to go home; why is there such a lack of basic understanding that the war is lost, the occupation is over and much as the Taliban are considered pariahs that they have a need to return to a post-war normal life, even in Kabul. America was ready to spend billions on weapons to police the territory but have failed after devastating the place...now the Taliban are the bad guys for allegedly maintaining harsh social rules to try to control a country in crisis. Of course the other Afghans don't want the Taliban to return and re-occupy their own homes because they will displace the squatters. This reminds me of Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf's celebrations in Iraq which are short-lived in the scheme of a success. The olive branch offered by the Taliban that they have changed is currently about the best outcome on offer.

ray | 26 August 2021  
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Great post, Ray!

Michael Furtado | 28 August 2021  

I think it very dangerous to see ourselves as 'civilised' against other, often quite ancient societies. British Law took hold in India because it fitted in with what was basically a secular, civilised Hindu underlay to the despotic, whimsical and corrupt Moguls. Abraham Eraly, superb Indian historian, berated his fellow countrymen for not having enough spine and suffering foreign domination far too long. I concur. The British should've left well before 1947. It was the same in Ireland, where they basically denigrated a sane and civilised people as being unfit to govern themselves. The Irish were white, so they had to be denigrated as Catholic. Chesterton, a truly great Englishman, saw through the Imperial Vision for what it was. Keir Hardie, amongst the founders of the British Labour Party, always supported Indian independence. We have sane, moderate voices like that now. We need to listen to them. The Australian Labor Party supported Indonesian independence. Countries like Sweden have a sensible foreign policy and strong defence. We need to be like them. I love America and had relatives there but I think we need to realise, like Afghanistan, we cannot ultimately rely on them. They did save us in WW 2 and we should be eternally grateful for that. Times move on. We need to update our shoddy defence preparedness now.

Edward Fido | 28 August 2021  

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