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Western withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the beginning of an uncertain future

  • 13 July 2021
  The famous Afghan-born poet and mystic Rumi once opined that ‘Ignorance is God’s prison’. It seems an appropriate way to start a consideration of the latest imperial dream to die in that country. Afghanistan literally means ‘land of cavalry’ and originally — around the tenth century CE — referred to the home of the Pashtun ethnic group, known for their skill as riders. The name has only designated the country as a whole since the nineteenth century, being used that way first by the British — the first industrialised Western power to enter the ‘graveyard of empires’.

Nowadays, following centuries of abortive and semi-successful empire building, Afghanistan is a melting pot of peoples and nationalities — Pashtun, Uzbek, Hazara and Tajik being the main ones. Pashto is a major language, as is Farsi (in the shape of the dialects known as Dari and Hazaragi). Nevertheless, it is still fair to say that the idea of an Afghan national identity is a recent, and largely externally imposed construct, with family, ethnic and linguistic ties being far more important historically.

Unfortunately, the idea that external players can impose their own idea of order on this strategic part of Central Asia dies hard. The departure of the US is proceeding even more shambolically than its exit from Vietnam (fleets of vehicles abandoned in their military bases overnight — sans keys, by some accounts, with no notice to their local proxies). By contrast, the humiliating Soviet withdrawal of 1989 — in daylight, at least, and with colours flying — looks like a model of good order.

Already, however, there are voices calling for a rethink: ‘the effect of the withdrawal will be felt most keenly in Afghanistan, where there are justifiable fears that the Taliban are poised to reclaim power‘, wailed The Guardian. This is all too reminiscent of Kipling’s (possible parody of the) justification for a previous empire:

'Take up the White Man's burden — / Ye dare not stoop to less — / Nor call too loud on Freedom / To cloak your weariness; / By all ye cry or whisper, / By all ye leave or do, / The silent sullen peoples / Shall weigh your Gods and you.'

It is true, though, that lives are in the balance and that people will undoubtedly suffer as the scales shift. I have heard tales of horror from Hazara refugees forced to flee their homes with their families killed as they watched. (For