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Against superficial internationalism: from left exuberance to liberal tears over Afghanistan. Part 2

Last Soviet troops leave Afghanistan on 15 February 1989. Source: Commons

Previously, this two-part series of reflexions on Afghanistan, “Against Superficial Internationalism” focused on deficiencies in the European left and liberal conversations about the war in Afghanistan and the recent withdrawal of occupying forces. The essay confronted both a hasty euphoria among left-wing figures aligned with movements such as Diem25 and the Democratic Socialists of America – as well as taking on the more predictable liberal reaction, which sought to justify a militarism that ultimately only served arms-contractors and corrupt US and NATO generals. The United Nations delegate of Afghanistan’s unlucky neighbor, Iran – whose Shia regime now has a Sunni jihadist emirate at its border – recently described less glee and nostalgia when discussing the imminent Afghan food-crisis in the UN General Assembly – “When they entered Afghanistan, they brought catastrophe for Afghans, and when they withdrew, they left calamity for Afghans.”

Update on changes in the Afghan situation since the writing of the essay

A hunger-winter now approaches the landlocked emirate, before the Islamic new year. Western States’ donations to struggling NGOs operating in Afghanistan cannot do enough to assuage the abrasiveness of Western sanctions, and the resulting liquidity crisis, which play pivotal roles in this winter’s oncoming food shortages as Afghans cannot access their savings. The threat of emaciation looms over the poorest of Asian countries, eclipsing the rest of the world’s concerns about the spread of omicron. Years of US-NATO military occupation dollarized the Afghan colonial economy, establishing new dependence on the international financial order in ways that Afghanistan’s new rulers cannot begin to understand. Unlike most other regimes that long withstood US sanctions– autarchies like Iran, Syria, and Ghaddafi-era Libya – Afghanistan, lacking any self-enclosed national industry or fertile topsoil and producing mostly opioids, relies needily on transnational imports. As the US and Europe go about busily replacing traditional warfare with such postmodern tactics as drones, Twitter, and the freezing of 9 billion dollars in Afghan foreign reserves, European leftists and dissidents must bring attention loudly to the EU’s role in enabling a deadly blockade. Ursula Von der Leyen has stood by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s vague stipulations for an exemption from the embargo, which he announced at a military base in Ramstein, Germany – “If the Taliban want legitimacy and support, they must earn it” with inclusivity – referring to a vaguely defined gender-inclusive parliament: an ultimatum which neither the US nor Europe have so far demanded of client regimes like Egypt (receiving billions of euros annually in German aid for policing migrants in the Mediterranean) let alone the Gulf emirates. Western socialist’s alarm and solidarity over the Yemen crisis was resonant during the Trump years– from the DSA’s clamor in US congress, to the much more awe-inspiring actions of Italian dockworkers who seized Saudi weapons shipments. That indignation has not yet found any echo in Western conversation on post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The Biden administration proceeds with its promised combo of token reforms at home matched with imperial aggression abroad, justified in language borrowed from progressives and intersectionalists. We cannot accept the misuse of feminism and women’s issues to legitimize a people’s needless starvation. It is unlikely that women already subject to conservative Islamic law could possibly benefit from even more deprivations. Examples from Qatar and Saudi Arabia– regimes untouched by such punitive Western measures– show that economic security do allow women more means and room for rebellion even under theocracy, as revealed by such popular works of literature as Saudi novelist Rajaa Alsanea’s entertaining The Girls from Riyadh. chronicling the adventures of Saudi women.

Forgotten lessons for the left: Soviets in Afghanistan

Every invasion is, and was by its very nature catastrophic. But was there a possible exit-strategy that would have proven less calamitous, not as traumatic? Exploring that question, requires a difficult distancing from the pending emergency, to reexamine history’s unlearnt lessons.

The previous invader had been Soviet– initially wreaking devastation, officially in the hope of quelling rivalries pitting Afghan communist factions, which floated upon older intertribal conflicts. Though the Russian invasion remains a historical wound, the USSR’s exit from Afghanistan, by contrast, was controversial among parts of the Afghan population. Those upholding the tradition of the left bear a duty to closely consider the Soviet role in Afghan history, while criticizing the US-NATO invasion. 

By 1989, international monitors who were by no means fellow travelers of the USSR reported that women they had interviewed said their situation and civil liberties had significantly improved, their major complaints being the serial attacks by covert mujahideen activists – known to be US allies – who every so often ambushed an unveiled woman, hurling battery acid into her face on the streets of Kabul. This unusual moment in Afghan history receives nostalgic exploration in memoir-like feature film The Orphanage by Afghan director Sabranoo Sadat, following the education of a young Afghan orphan son of a mujahideen, who during the last years under Russian domination, has the short-lived taste of secular education while becoming a youth-league chess-champion.

The US-NATO operation enacted no comparable mission of the enlightened imperialism it often professes. In retrospect, Soviet attempts seemed more authentic in their philanthropic-imperialist ambitions. Ironic, seeing how the Soviets fervently denounced Western colonialism almost everywhere else, except in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russian-controlled. In Afghanistan, the Russians conducted an unfeigned experiment as self-declared missionaries of modernity. 

By contrast, under NATO and tribal oversight, the landlocked mountain region cornered the global heroin market. (US military personnel received strict orders not to interfere in “local cultural practices” of warlords molesting young boys – a laissez faire, multiculturalist attitude if there ever was one. William S. Burroughs would have been impressed. Alienated Western strategists, pretending to concern themselves with Afghan cultural sensibilities, could not even be bothered to figure out the few valid reasons why some in rural Afghanistan may, at one point have welcomed the otherwise vastly unpopular Taliban. Ironically, Taliban, contrary to Western overseers, won popularity in villages because they promised to abolish the practice of tribal lords sexually accessing young boys. Islamists call many of these tribal customs El Jahilliya, or “The Barbarism” pertaining to the era of pre-Islamic tribal law.

NATO policies of supervised, lax cultural relativism were entirely distinct from the Soviet strategy of imposing the model scientific-materialist lifestyle every which way, a stern and stony Homo Sovieticus, coldly indifferent to local tribal custom. (In former Yugoslavia, for example, after limited success sending Albanian and Bosniak socialist women to the villages to persuade communities to abandon the headscarf, the system decided to outlaw the hijab by force – a pattern repeated further East in the Soviet orbit.)

This is not to justify such hubristic missions of imposed Enlightenment values. But it shows that a once important realm of opinion within the Left has utterly vanished from the conversation, just as it quite literally disappeared from the map. The memory of the global Left, West and East of the knocked-down iron curtain, has been significantly shaped by post-Cold War amnesia, as to what the real battle of ideas within the Left once looked like. As a movement of historical consciousness, traditionally driven by activists who were also non-academic historians, today’s left needs to re-explore these past experiments and errors to better map the present.

Maimed country

At the very least, one hopes that now the Taliban can stop planting, and start uprooting IED’s – Improvised Explosive Devices – which, hidden by Taliban in the soil, commonly destroyed the legs and genitalia of soldiers, and added to the layers of devices sown by local and invading forces over a half-century in that unfertile land, producing a calamitously high rate of futureless maimed children, and otherwise handicapped Afghans. According to the EU parliamentary website, whereas in 2005 2.7% of the Afghan population was “severely disabled,” the figure rose to 13.9% by 2019, while the Asia Foundation study reports 40.4% of Afghans to be “moderately disabled.” The plight of the maimed country’s enormous disabled population went overlooked by media which prioritized concerns (largely justified) about women in Kabul, now no longer the last stronghold against the Taliban. This neglect is unfortunate. While the West cannot advise Taliban on how to apply Sharia law, the EU remains the global example in accommodating needs and rights of disabled people with technology undreamt of by previous generations. A Western export of technology and prosthetic aids for the mass of maimed Afghans, requires no invaders and would do more to convince the people that Western society and science really have something to offer Afghans other than drone strikes. There are no Quranic objections to apparatuses aiding the disabled – to the contrary, why should only the maimed US and NATO soldiers, who lost their limbs while taking orders to wreck the place, benefit from glorious Western medical inventions, while the Afghan maimed can only resort, at best, to wooden legs or crates?

Endorsing such a campaign for Afghanistan’s war-maimed, without going through the labyrinths of the NGO world, would recall the leftist tradition at its best historical moments – such as when the socialist states pre-1989 opened their medical and engineering universities to African and Asian students. We learn from the best examples from socialist history, as well as from errors, such as interventionism and the attempts to impose illuminated values. 

Iraq, the forgotten mirror to the Afghan situation?

The military machinery which invaded Afghanistan in 2001 remained in place in Iraq since 2003 though the intertwined Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns were justified on similar grounds as part of Bush’s failed “War on Terror.” Iraq seems forgotten, despite the greater likelihood of a functioning local government, without US armed forces acting as overseers as they did in the Afghan “nation-building” experiment–which, behind humanitarian veneers of a stabilizing or nation-building mission, served as the front for a historic money laundering operation, according to Wikileaks.

Few commentators pointed out the self-contradictory US policy: withdraw from Afghanistan, while continuing to hang around in Iraq. With comparably more developed institutions, press and society, Iraqi popular opinion is clearer than in the Afghan case, and if the majority population and the unpopular Iraqi parliament agree on anything, it is that they have wanted to US out, long before Trump’s assassination of neighbouring Iran’s general Solimani on Iraqi soil. Iraqi government has been grudgingly slow to respond to democratic pressures from its population, as the reaction to recent protests showed, but doing so won’t require US battleships on standby.

Washington’s willingness to finally call its farce and acknowledge the Taliban victory in Afghanistan – while it continued deploying troops to Iraq in September despite announcements for planned US withdrawal by 2022 – is a contradiction that demonstrates once again how US hegemony, even during the Cold War, had always dreaded the emergence of secular nationalism in the Third World, as a more significant immediate threat than either the rise of Marxism or, for that matter, the spread of Islamism. Marxism had seldom taken hold among the rural masses in most countries, rarely exceeding the ranks of young urban intellectuals. Perhaps some form of long-term dialogue was missing.

Today, just as the left must learn anew to endure debates with people we do not agree with, we must almost vocally oppose sanctions imposed on regimes we cannot like or identify with, such as Belarus, Putin, Assad, the Ayatollahs or the Taliban. Thus far progressive movements like Diem25 – an in name Pan-European movement whose leaders pride themselves on having founded the Progressive International – as well as the Democratic Socialists of America have largely avoided such troublesome gray areas, preferring to embrace the comfort-zones of projecting Western middle class values on everything and everyone in sight. A superficial internationalism has its glamour, its radical chic. Yet we cannot afford the long-term irrelevance that promises.

Arturo Desimone is an Aruban-Argentinean writer and visual artist. His essays on politics have previously appeared in Informed Comment, openDemocracy, and elsewhere.