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Why Afghanistan matters



Most early commentary on the swift coming to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan has focused on how it happened and who was to blame for it. Much of the blame has been focused on United States President Biden and former President Trump. Increasingly attention has turned to the plight of people in Afghanistan, particularly women and those who helped the occupation forces and women. The quest for guilty parties obscures deeper questions about the reasons for Western involvement in Afghanistan and for its abandonment, and about their effect on the human beings affected by it.

The most important people involved are the Afghan people themselves. They have lived under the occupation and must now live under the Taliban. It is difficult, however, for an outsider to generalise about them. We do know the responses of the mainly urban Afghans who have benefited from it and will fear the leaving. These include women, particularly in cities, won greater freedom and access to education and public life, interpreters and others who have worked with the occupation forces, and minority ethnic groups who had found some respite from persecution. Others benefited through their businesses from the influx of money, or in less tangible ways through interaction with individual soldiers and the charitable activities they sponsored.

These, however, form only a small proportion of the Afghan people, most of whom are rural and have lived off the land before and during this latest invasion of their land. They will have to deal pragmatically with the Taliban and local war lords, as they did with the Taliban and the Government Forces, hedging their bets in order to survive.

The crucial Afghan group affected by the invasion and its ending is the Taliban. Their dispositions and actions will affect all the people whom they rule. We have no reason for believing that their regime will be less severe its adherence to a religious ideology focused on punitive law, and social practices marked by the control of women by men. Since first coming to power, they have been invaded, driven from power, regrouped, been attacked and finally returned to power. Such experiences do not make men gentle. 

It would be a mistake, however, to see the Taliban as homogenous. Some Taliban leaders clearly see the need for international recognition and access to Afghan funds in overseas banks. They have promised moderation. The warriors who are given local responsibility, however, will have not been trained for leadership and compromise in a time of peace. As the airport bombing shows,  they will also have to decide how in government they will relate to groups with a similar ideology. It would not be surprising if there are mixed signals.

When reflecting on the occupation of Afghanistan and its ending, we must also consider the motivation of the human beings who planned it, overthrew the Taliban government, decided to rebuild a nation in their own image, and finally decided to cut their losses and leave. Initially directed ineffectively against Osama Bin Laden after the Twin Towers destruction, the plan developed into the military occupation of Afghanistan and then into regime change and the military management of a client government.

Ultimately the leaders of the United States committed themselves to these courses of actions, and Australian leaders decided to join them, because they saw them to be in their own interest, and because they had the power to do so. In a broader context such actions were another phase of ‘the great game’ in which for over a century Western powers tried to serve their own strategic interests by using military force to control the rulers and routes of Afghanistan. Such decisions have consistently been fed by a fear of a contagious Muslim conspiracy that would spread beyond Afghanistan into the Soviet Union, the Middle East and beyond.


'For the people of Afghanistan, the great immediate danger they now face will come less from the Taliban than from the perceived self-interest of the vanquished.' 


The Russians and Americans who planned the occupation of Afghanistan looked only at their own self-interest, paying no attention to the wishes or the welfare of the persons on whom the invasion would impact. The argument for the latest occupation was essentially utilitarian, based on the argument that the desired end of punishing and wiping out a small, lethal terrorist group justified the means of invading a nation with all the consequences for its people’s lives.

The self-interest of this project, however, was masked by representing the conflict as one between good and evil. This move was fateful. In Afghanistan it also had long precedents. The Spanish and Portuguese saw their conquests in the Americas as the triumph of Christianity over paganism. The British, like the Romans, saw their actions as the triumph of civilisation over barbarism. In occupying Afghanistan the United States and Australians politicians portrayed the Taliban as violent, enslaving and authoritarian, in contrast to the civilisation building, freedom loving and democratic spirit of the invaders. In such a conflict, who could not salute the flag of freedom and democracy, even if it was flown on the frigate of self-interest?

When you act out of self-interest, you face three dangers in promoting such a self-congratulatory account. The first is that you will believe it yourself, and so carry your actions far beyond what self-interest dictates. That occurred in Afghanistan where it led intelligent men to describe the occupation as a nation-building exercise. It committed the United States to enormous expenditure on a doomed project, and ensured that when — like the Romans, the British and the Russians before them — they eventually withdrew, it would be seen as a failure and even a betrayal.

The second danger is that to clothe yourself in virtue will cloud your understanding of how you will be seen by others, including those whom your self-interest leads you to harm. You will assume that they will be persuaded by your self-proclaimed virtue and will subscribe to your ideals. They, of course, will recognise the dominant self-interest in your actions. The virtue of democracy to which politicians in the United States and Australia laid claim is based on respect for the will of the people who are affected by the actions of governments. Yet in occupying Iraq and Afghanistan they took no account of what the people of those nations wanted. Their claim could only be seen as hypocrisy.

The third danger is that you will corrupt your own public discourse to the extent that any appeal to such values as truth, respect, democracy, humanity and virtue are dismissed as the camouflage of self-interest. That is the harvest that Western societies now risk reaping.

For the people of Afghanistan, the great immediate danger they now face will come less from the Taliban than from the perceived self-interest of the vanquished. The people will be at risk of starvation. If Western nations, which are already walling themselves from refugees do not consider the humanity of the Afghan people they may again see it to be in their geopolitical interest to withhold funds and to support armed resistance to the Taliban. In that case they will sink further into the moral morass by inflicting this further cruelty of famine on an already much abused people.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Kabul city view, Afghanistan (Christophe Cerisier / Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Afghanistan, Taliban, occupation, self-interest, geopolitics



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Oh so true Andrew "For the people of Afghanistan, the great immediate danger they now face will come less from the Taliban than from the perceived self-interest of the vanquished. The people will be at risk of starvation. If Western nations, which are already walling themselves from refugees do not consider the humanity of the Afghan people they may again see it to be in their geopolitical interest to withhold funds and to support armed resistance to the Taliban. In that case they will sink further into the moral morass by inflicting this further cruelty of famine on an already much abused people." I genuinely hope this will not happen but there are already indications they may, what a difference it would make to seriously talk to the new government when it is formed about practical programs that can be supported by the US Australia and all the other foreign nations who engaged in the occupation.

Annette Brownlie | 26 August 2021  

In times of chaos we seek the prophet.
Andrew your analysis based, as it appears on the ‘Prophet’ Jesus of Nazareth, provides a view for those of us seeking “truth “ as a counter narrative to that of the imperial powers.
Tragically it is consumed by those who take seriously the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and not those who plan and defend invasions!

Martyn Robinson | 26 August 2021  

We should also take into account that most of the money spent on the war returned to the US Defense contractors, like the bomb makers Lockheed Martin etc. . Did they make big profits? And then we must also ask if the US was hoping to secure access to Afghanistan's vast mineral resources, including Lithium.
The stated lofty motives for invading Afghanistan do not add up , on any level. Has it just been the latest play of " the great Game" ?

Liam O'Dea | 26 August 2021  

Thankyou on this day

Pamela | 27 August 2021  

Your comments are a salutary lesson to our political leaders. As has been the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, we the voters were not consulted through our representatives , the Parliament, prior to John Howard sending our armed services to join the Allies, lead by the U.S., into the morasses that were Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some sixty years ago, Bob Menzies sent us into the morass that was Vietnam . Menzies imposition of National Service meant I was called up and served as a 'Medic' in Vietnam in the last year of our campaign there. In each case the stated objective appeared to be to save the population from a fate of suffering under a draconian dictatorship, whether Communist as in Vietnam or a secular dictatorship in Iraq or a religious fundamentalist tyranny in Afghanistan. In each case the ordinary people, whether in Australia or the affected (invaded) countries, were not consulted as to their wishes.
The results have been the utter devastation of property, lives and culture, leading to the final humiliating defeat for our forces . The result on the morale and lives of the servicemen has been and will be impossible to quantify. The impact on the innocent civilians of these countries will continue for generations. What angers me is the attempt by our leaders , both past and present to justify their actions and insult the intelligence of those of us who served and suffer with comments like; 'noble service and selfless sacrifice'. How dare they?

Gavin O'Brien | 27 August 2021  
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So well said, Gavin.

Michael D. Breen | 27 August 2021  

How does this man do it so unerringly, eloquently and consistently! A stunning example, yet again, Andy, of unpacking the Commandment to Love in the contemporary policy context. God Love You!

Michael Furtado | 27 August 2021  

Thanks you so much Andy for your analysis of the situation in Afghanistan. Can we count on the USA and her allies now sending humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people? I wish it were so. Pirrial

Pirrial Clift | 27 August 2021  

Tragic, tragic avoidable stuff.
Fortunately the jihadists sects of in Afghanistan are at as much enmity as Christian sects; and both nations suffer from fundamentalism. It is suggested that the venom of the Taliban was inflamed when they experienced the materialism of the Americans.
But that is so much speculation.
What we do know is that Australia went into Afghanistan with America, as with Vietnam and Iraq. Isn't it time we sorted out who we are? Whom we chose to play with internationally? Having given up on Mother England we got in with Uncle Sam. To fill the vacuum needed by a young nation in search of parents. Tricky U.S allies who never win wars. Nah, the only ones who win and win substantially are the arms manufacturers so they need to promote wars.

Michael D. Breen | 27 August 2021  

Afghanistan has never been a completely cohesive state, but more an idea. It is multi-ethnic, with the Pushtuns (Pathans) being the largest and most dominant ethnicity. They have a history of lawlessness and intertribal violence. Ultimately, their warrior code Pushtunwali and tribal loyalties are at least as important to them as their adherence to Sunni Islam. The Tajiks - basically Sunni Persians - are the next largest minority. The legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud was a Tajik. The only coherent opposition to the Taliban is led by his son, Ahmad Massoud. Most Afghans - often dirt poor and now in danger of severe hardship, even starvation - do not want pseudo Western-style democracy, especially the sort of corrupt one which was overthrown, but a government which allows them to continue in peace unmolested by extremist zealots who have no idea what real Islam is. The Prophet Muhamad pbuh, in days of almost universal illiteracy, left an authentic hadith (recorded saying) that anyone who educated his two daughters was guaranteed Paradise. What do the Taliban do? They deny women education. They will, no doubt, soon be granted recognition by Saudi Arabia and the more repressive and regressive Gulf States. Direct political and military intervention in Afghanistan is always dangerous, but much of what Australia did in terms of education, especially women's education and women's health was thoroughly laudable. Biden was right to pull out. The regime was corrupt and kleptocratic. Support for the Afghan people - not the Taliban - should be careful, targetted and kept out of grubby, kleptocratic hands.

Edward Fido | 28 August 2021  
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Thank You, Edward!

Michael Furtado | 29 August 2021  

Russians didn't occupy Afghanistan.
In late 1979, the seriously overwhelmed PDP government asked Moscow for help to ward off the mujahideen (Islamic guerrilla fighters) and foreign mercenaries, all recruited, financed, and well-armed by the CIA. The Soviets already had been sending aid for projects in mining, education, agriculture, and public health. Deploying troops represented a commitment of a more serious and politically dangerous sort. It took repeated requests from Kabul before Moscow agreed to intervene militarily.

Romina | 28 August 2021  

After the recent drone strikes, if I were an extremist, either a Talib or ISIS Khorasan, I'd be very scared. The US can cut off the heads of this Hydra. Pakistan, the father of the Taliban is a failed state now. India, a major, modern military power, could bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age. Iran, the major Shi'ite world power, sees herself as the protector of the Hazaras. The Turks, returning to their Ottoman and Sufi roots, look verely severely at Wahhabis. I don't give the Taliban long. How do you think the US found where Osama bin Laden was? Money talks. US intelligence can be very, very good. The US forces covered themselves in glory during the evacuation. Biden was right. My concern is for the ordinary Afghan, not the religiously-tarted-up bloodthirsty villains of the Taliban or ISIS-Khorasan. Khorasan once produced great scholars, Sufis and poets. A Taliban Afghanistan will only produce bloodshed and suffering.

Edward Fido | 30 August 2021  

Thank you Andrew. You have raised some very pertinent issues about the situation in Afghanistan and Australia's role in the whole saga. The recent events in Afghanistan should cause us to question very deeply the alliance we have with the US.
As you point out, Australian leaders decided to join the US because they believed it was in our national interest. various Australian leaders have said the same for a long time. This explains our involvement in the wars in Korea, Indochina, the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc. And our leaders have also supported US client states in morally dubious actions eg the Indonesian dictatorship role in East Timor, West Papua and Aceh, Israeli's actions against Palestinians and Saudi actions in Yemen and others.
The US role in Afghanistan began well before 2001 however. It supported the Mujahideen - the forerunner of the Taliban - in the 1970s and 1980s to help topple a pro-Soviet government that was far from perfect, but which allowed women to have a much greater role in society.
The reasons for the US wars against Afghanistan and Iraq following the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers were based on flawed reasoning. The weapons of mass destruction (deception?) were never found. The perpetrators were Saudis - not Afghans or Iraqis. But George Bush Jr wanted a war and was backed to the hilt in this by Tony Blair and John Howard. The death toll related to the Twin Tower attacks was 2977. According to Josh Martin in The Independent , 363,000 civilian lives have been lost. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/911-civilian-casualties-iraq-afghanistan-b1912816.html We should remember this when we reflect on the deaths at Twin Towers. I think it should cause Australians to consider what our role is to be in the world. We could become truly independent and non-aligned and be working for peace, human rights, social justice and effective care for the environment instead of being a US sheriff.

Andrew Andy Alcock | 12 September 2021  

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