Afghanistan is a Failure of Too Little, Not Too Much “Liberal Imperialism”

Many are calling Afghanistan a failure of imperialism, or even “liberal imperialism”. But it is more accurately a failure of half-arsed imperialism, without commitment or long-term vision.

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Afghanistan United States Soldiers Liberal Empire

Kabul has fallen to the Taliban, with Afghanistan’s cycle of trauma beginning anew as Islamic extremists begin a reign of terror. The people of Afghanistan may not have experienced an idyllic life under American occupation, but they were at least shielded from the grossest violations of human dignity that they will now face once again under a dictatorial regime that rules through superstition and brutality.

Already, we have seen heart breaking videos and photos of Afghan people climbing onto planes, mobbing airports and doing whatever it takes to escape the hellhole that has become their country once more.

What may come to be one of the most famous scenes of all is a photograph of a Chinook helicopter evacuating the American embassy in Kabul. A scene starkly reminiscent of a photograph of another helicopter, evacuating American personnel from a fallen Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

It will be almost impossible to eliminate comparisons between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, despite effort to do so. Both were drawn-out conflicts, defining a generation of young soldiers and veterans. And both conflicts were lost, leaving a generation of veterans to ask if their sacrifices were in vain.

America’s project in Afghanistan, as it had in South Vietnam, has failed. But many commentators are wrong in their estimation of why it failed.

This is to be expected. It is difficult to determine failure when there was no clear goal. In Vietnam, the United States didn’t know if it was an invading power, a police force, or a nation-builder. It made the same mistake in Afghanistan. A clash of visions and ideologies, that resulted in a half-arsed war that left many innocents dead and the world’s largest superpower retreating on crowded helicopters.

The problem with the American involvement in Afghanistan and Vietnam was that they didn’t know what they really wanted to do there. There was no clear goal or strategy. And that is because the American project in both these wars was muddied by America’s own contradictory character.

The United States is an empire in all but name. At the same time, it detests imperialism; so much so that even when it’s acting like an empire, and do what an empire needs to do, it hamstrings itself, tiptoes around necessity, and rejects its own very nature.

Many are calling Afghanistan a failure of imperialism, or even “liberal imperialism” (spreading freedom through force). But it is more accurately a failure of half-arsed imperialism, without commitment or long-term vision.

Let us not pretend that Afghanistan is better under an independent Taliban. While it may benefit a few warlords, elites, and a theocratic class of fundamentalist brutes, it has already started a string of atrocities, including sex slavery. The Taliban is not good for Afghanistan, as it doesn’t respect the rights and liberties of its people. It is also not good for the West, as it has shown itself more than willing in the past to sponsor acts of terrorism aimed at civilians in Western cities.

So, what should have been done?

Afghanistan Can’t Be Fixed Overnight

Many have condemned the American and local Afghan armies’ failure to keep back the Taliban after withdrawal as a sign of the failure of imperialism and, for some reason, neoliberalism. They believe that 20 years should be enough to build a functional armed force that can resist a hardy insurgency likely backed by neighbouring countries. An insurgency that the world’s most powerful military failed to dislodge at the height of its power, it might be added.

Twenty years is not nearly time enough to build an independent, effective military. Military tradition takes generations to build up. Factional and tribal conflicts within the Afghan military also erode any semblance of unity essential for a proper army to function.

But more than that, you can’t have an army without a nation at its back. And that requires institutions, a bureaucracy, good leadership and, fundamentally, a national vision. The United States spent the last 20 years building up an army by training troops and arming them, but they didn’t do nearly enough to build the nation behind it. They provided token education packages and often nonsensical directives, but never enough actual governance or civilian training.

By withdrawing from Afghanistan and expecting it to remain semi-stable, people wanted to drain a glass and then still expect it to remain full. The United States failed to create any semblance of a domestic government, so they left nothing in the glass when they retreated.

This isn’t a failure of “liberal imperialism”, however, but of a lack of it. It stems from a naivete that many of the same commentators condemned at the beginning of the American occupation. They want Afghanistan to be fine, but without effort. For the United States to beat up the bad guy and then leave the victims tied to the train tracks. But that’s not the way the world works. Civilisation requires constant vigilance. For the world not to descend into chaos and authoritarianism, we must guard and repair the institutions of liberty and peace.

Or in the case of Afghanistan, build them from scratch.

Afghanistan Needs an Empire

Empires and imperialism are dirty words for many. But they are preferable to Sharia, theocracy, and dictatorship. The distaste many have for imperialism and empires is irrelevant. History shows that empires are inevitable. Power will accumulate and beget more power, and then erode naturally as entropy is just as much a law as cumulative advantage.

But in the time that empires do exist, they have an important purpose in global affairs.

Empires shape the world much more than petty nation-states. And if led by a people with good ideals and strong wills, they can and have made the world a better place. Empires aren’t inherently good or bad. They’re a political entity that has taken many forms and can be used as a tool for good.

The United States now has the role of an empire, even if it doesn’t want it. But at the end of the world wars, it and its frenemy the USSR destroyed the previous empires. This left swathes of the world in chaos, as we now know many countries were not ready for independence, or just better off under the rule of a more experienced overlord.

Empires serve an important role as peacekeepers in global politics, but also for setting global norms and standards. The British abolished slavery and the world followed (albeit some slower than others). The United States did the same with its monetary systems and its hypocritical attack on the notion of imperialism itself.

Some may argue that the United States does not have an inherent responsibility to spread liberty, protect smaller nations or take up the mantle of a hegemon, despite being one. By refusing to act like an empire, the United States’ inaction has and will throw the global system into a chaotic flux, which opens the way for less desirable contending empires. Even then, however, one could argue that that is not an American’s problem. They didn’t make any promises.

But the United States did commit itself to one thing. By occupying Afghanistan, it committed itself to protecting its people from the tyranny of extremists, warlords, and villains.

America committing itself to protecting Afghanistan isn’t good enough, however. Merely stationing a garrison and training some local troops isn’t good enough. And transplanting a Western system without fundamentally shifting the values of the people of Afghanistan is definitely not good enough.

What Afghanistan needs is an honest, wilful, and upfront liberal empire, although in polite company this might be referred to as a committed humanitarian intervention. One that is committed to a multi-generational project to govern, uplift, and bring Afghanistan into the fold of a civilisation that respects the rights of all its members.

To accomplish this, the United States has to do more than just appoint a corrupt local regime. It has to make a deliberate effort to direct and train a local government, staffed with senior American administrators if needed, to form institutions that adapt local norms to the standards and morality of a civilised nation.

Trying to force Afghanistan to be the United States won’t work (not that the Americans actually even tried to do this), but that shouldn’t stop it from establishing a middle ground: A moderately liberal Afghanistan that takes into account the decentralised nature of its tribal system, and the need for its individuals for liberty and protection.

Succinctly, the United States should have done more than occupy Afghanistan. It should have attempted to govern it, to work with local leaders. That’s a necessity. but they should also have made it clear that they are there to stay for the long-haul. Nation-building takes generations, and the United States should be following in the footsteps of the British in training specialised colonial officials (and the tag-alongs like teachers, entertainers, contractors, etc., who supported the colonial endeavour) who move to foreign countries fully, expecting to retire and die there. And these officials should be overseeing a local mandarin class and training them, starting a legacy of institutional knowledge.

Until such time that Afghanistan can qualify to be truly sovereign and sustainable, it should be governed by people who know how to govern.

American imperialism, as people like to call it, is anything but. It’s a petty, cruel and inhumane game of propping up regimes then leaving, or just acting as security. But these regimes are merely reflections of the very reason the United States got involved in the first place. If a country has been colonised, it implies there was an enabling factor for that colonisation. Not merely a temporary case of a bad government. There is a systematic issue at play, and a simple regime change is not good enough.

Regime change and propping up an unlikable local ruler didn’t work in South Vietnam and it definitely didn’t work in Afghanistan. The solution is to build a regime from scratch over generations.

Should the USA Have Left?

Perhaps it was right for the United States to abandon Afghanistan. A weird conclusion to an article making the case for a liberal imperialism, it is acknowledged. But it is difficult to evaluate the United States in Afghanistan because they had no real goals and their overall foreign policy is hypocritical and confused.

If the interest of the United States is to save money, soldiers, and to cut their losses, then withdrawing may have been the right decision. Fixing Afghanistan won’t be quick and easy. If they don’t want the job, then they may as well just give up. Sunk costs or not.

But this does not represent a failure of liberal imperialism. Even the greatest tool in the hands of a fool will not be enough. And the United States has proven that despite all its material capacity, it lacks the will, patience, and diligence to be a responsible imperial power.

Perhaps, then, it is right that they withdraw. It may be good for them. It may save them a lot of money (doubtful). But don’t for a second pretend this is good for Afghanistan. The “sovereignty” or “self-determination” of the Afghan people (read: the sovereignty of inhumane, immoral criminals, not ordinary people) is cold comfort to the 15-year-old girls now being forced into marriage by a regime that belongs in the dark ages.

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  1. Helgard Muller Reply

    This is a curious article for a libertarian blog – defending liberal interventionism along neoconservative lines…

    But I guess there is the utopian and rationalist believe in liberal universalism. The other problem with this argument is there was nothing resembling a moderate Afghani liberal order outside the capital and a few enclaves – but even those folded quickly which speaks to how fragile this political order was in the first place.

    Two great reads (importance of national / group solidarity and purpose):

    The bigger article is good but it has the riffs that matter from the paywalled Telegraph piece:

    1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

      Good to see you’re back! Seems you can’t help but keep coming back. 🙂

      Afghanistan is doubtlessly a very illiberal society. But so was the entire world, until it liberalised.

      Just because something is, doesn’t mean it must remain so.

      I for one intervene when evil is perpetrated and I can do something to stop it. I hope for a world in which that becomes the case for all.

      “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

      I’d rather evil doesn’t triumph.

    2. Helgard Muller Reply

      Great read, touches on some of your comments to my reply…

  2. Liberal Universalism and the Western Export of Mass Democracy - Rational Standard Reply

    […] debate against myself and Hermann Pretorius also appealed to a universal rule against “imperialism.” Every ideological conviction at some level of abstraction appeals to universal rules – […]

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