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  • Western withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the beginning of an uncertain future

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the beginning of an uncertain future



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’.

Main image: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) hosts Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in the Oval Office at the White House (Getty Images/Pool)

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 completeness, it should be noted that some of them also said they had been treated even worse by the Australian government once they had arrived here as refugees...). The fears of what a return to power of the loosely linked networks known as the Taliban (students — from their training in Pakistani madrassas, often funded by the US) are by no means groundless. The atrocities committed in the Taliban siege of Mazar-i-Sharif in the late 1990s have not been forgotten.

Nevertheless, the ‘progress’ brought by the invading forces — after twenty years’ hard fighting against the forces which they themselves had previously armed and trained against the Soviets — is equally debatable. The opium trade, which had been practically eradicated under the Taliban, boomed. Within five years, Afghanistan opium production went from 185 tons in 2001, to 5,644 tons — making even The Washington Post recognise the country as the source of 90 per cent of the world’s heroin. There are persistent reports (including from former intelligence officers and Congressmen), that US intelligence agencies profited greatly — giving this war uncomfortable echoes of the 19th century British and French wars on Qing China.


'While there are lives at risk, the Western intervention has hardly been life enhancing for many.'


The struggle for the status of women — often cited as a reason for the Western intervention — has not moved significantly since the fall of the last Taliban government, with ‘honour killings’, rapes, forced and temporary marriages and other abuses still as prevalent as before.

As the Brereton report and other current events highlight, the Taliban are not the only ones accused of unspeakable atrocities against the civilian population. Indeed, even The Guardian which, as we saw, rues the decision to withdraw, acknowledged that in 2019, more civilians were killed by troops aligned with the invaders than by the Taliban. 

All of this removes the rather threadbare justifications for a Kiplingesque continuation of the US presence. While there are lives at risk, the Western intervention has hardly been life enhancing for many. In addition, there are encouraging signs that deals might have been done to avoid the kinds of bloody reprisals which keep hatreds alive. Badakhshan, a province in the north which is the home of a powerful Uzbek militia, has handed itself over to the Talibs without a fight. This, and similar surrenders to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban of other provinces in areas with strong ethnic minorities, strongly suggests that there have been negotiations of which the occupiers have been unaware, a perception that has been boosted by peace talks in Tehran last week (Iran has not traditionally been sympathetic to the Sunni-based Taliban). It may well be that the Western withdrawal may mark a new beginning as well as an end.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) hosts Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in the Oval Office at the White House (Getty Images/Pool)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Afghanistan, US, America, withdrawal, Taliban, Tehran



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Existing comments

My gut reaction is this is like "rats ignobly deserting a sinking ship". It is evidence of American decline and disengagement from the world. Like so many foreign entanglements it would have been the best that they never been there in the first place. That said I do feel grave concern for those who have stuck their necks out for human rights in various ways. Australia seems to be slow and loathed to give refugee status to such individuals.

Ivan Tchernegovski | 13 July 2021  

Justin, A thoughtful commentary Afghanistan has ejected western Armies before, notably the British, the Soviets and now the U.S and its allies. There are enormous similarities between the defeat and that of the U.S. Australia and allies in Vietnam. Like the Vietnam 'adventure' the United States and Australia failed to understand the history and reasons for the civil wars occurring in both campaigns . I served in Vietnam in the closing year of our involvement (1970/71) . I am concerned for the well-being of those who assisted our forces. I have sad memories of the way we treated the Vietnamese who we abandoned in 1975.Once again we are leaving people to a horrible fate once the Taliban gain power. I also feel for our veterans who like us , will experience mental and physical aliments for decades to come.

Gavin O'Brien | 13 July 2021  

Gavin O'Brien is on the money. I believe a resurgent Taliban, aided by our 'friends' in the Pakistani military, will re-establish their horrific rule in Afghanistan, Meanwhile, back in Australia, where the game should be containing Chinese expansionism, our pathetic Defence leaders have screwed up weapons purchasing, leaving us exposed.

Edward Fido | 13 July 2021  

Edward, who are these 'us' who are at risk of being 'exposed'? This is, with respect, part and parcel of the vocabulary of neocolonialism, albeit of the gentle and patronising 'White Man's Burden' variety. For my part I celebrate the opportunity for the Afghanis to sort their future out for themselves after more than a century of murderous external interference. (Another example of this kind of misplaced talk was when I read a communication from an Executive Officer of the National Catholic Education Commission referring to the people of the Middle East as 'Arabians,' which are, in educated parlance, a breed of horse!)

Michael Furtado | 20 July 2021  

At times I am unsure what part of an alternative universe your ideas and comments come from, Michael. 'The Afghan People' you refer to would be the nonweaponised majority. Under the Taliban's former regime they had no say in the ghastly, medieval setup which banned women's education in direct contravention to authentic hadith (sayings, examples) of the Prophet Muhamad pbuh. We are witnessing another Taliban takeover. God help them!

Edward Fido | 22 July 2021  

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