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

On the day liberal-neocon imperialism was defeated once and for all, DiEM25’s thoughts are with the women of Afghanistan. Our solidarity probably means little to them but it is what we can offer – for the time being. Hang in there sisters! The euphoric message launched into the Summer twittersphere by Greek left-wing economist and politician Yanis Varoufakis, made many online readers recoil, whether they haunt the liberal-right or the left end of the political spectrum. In response to exploding heads of liberal critics, Diem25’s frontman further clarified, “sending an army in only fuels the vicious patriarchal forces that keep women enslaved in traditional societies. It is why some of us, 20 years ago, opposed that invasion – from a feminist perspective.” Such declarations say a lot about European left politicians’ limited view of Asia, but say little about the grave Afghan predicament– which remains important for all who believe in internationalism and a post-imperial future. Rather than reach for convenient intersectionalist theory, however, one would expect the leadership of an in-name Pan-European leftist movement, to expose and hammer more on blatant European participation in American-led wars via NATO, and in ensuing European sanctions-threats against the destitute, landlocked country.

Atlanticism’s allure hides relatively simple, sentimental prime motivators– a blend of fear and nostalgia. Fear, among former imperial powers, who after seeing their military glory replaced by a mostly-mercantile advantage in the global financial system, now feel they require protection from the United States– the most successful among its former colonies– from old Cold War enemies. Nostalgia which lures European elites, alienated by a rising Asia, to seek alignment with the current superpower in order to recapture a faint glimmer of their bygone nautical empires. 

The seriousness of European participation in Afghan missions, went largely uncriticised by segments of the European left in recent years. Absurdly, far-right parties in Europe like the Dutch Freedom Party sooner raised a stink over Dutch troops aiding the Americans in Uruzgan– while European Green parties have cheered on interventionism in Ukraine and Syria.

Varoufakis by no means stands out in exemplifying a deficiency in contemporary Western leftists’ internationalism. For example, the US Social Justice Democrats allocate marginal priority to Biden’s upholding Trump’s aggressive foreign policy and starvation-sanctions towards Iran, Cuba, and other official enemies. These remain esoteric concerns for DSA activists compared to the American student loan-debt crisis. Yet the debilitation of Iran–a country under the duress of ramped-up sanctions regimens–surely influences Afghanistan, now under control of the Sunni fundamentalist vanguard, resolutely hostile to all Shia, whether Iranian or of the Afghan Hazara minority. Western alternative political commentators like popular podcasters Krystal and Saagar, with reason celebrated their country’s exit, even as it unmasked the Taliban’s success– “this is what defeat looks like” they chimed on Breaking Points, accurately. But hasty jubilee overlooks persistent US-EU embargoes’ mounting pressure on Afghanistan’s unfortunate neighbour.

During our years trying to rally Diem25’s base to act on concerns about EU foreign policy in the Middle EastIndia and Africa– for example, by organizing an Alternative Munich Security Conference last year– it became commonplace to hear European members reacting viscerally: “But what about Europe? We’re Europeans, after all, concerned about our domestic issues!” The truth here is counterintuitive. Organisations like DSA or Diem cannot have the luxury of insularity and a strictly inward consciousness, given how Europe and NATO stand at the forefront of enabling US policies that spread chaos in Latin America, Africa and Asia, whether through sanctions, the EU stranglehold on global agricultural markets, or European unbridled arms trade

In his blockbuster mockumentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” Michael Moore mocked Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” in a hilarious montage of countries rushing to aid the US war in Iraq: Holland–of course, represented by an emblematic bong-toking hippie–and similar caricatures for Azerbaijan, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine. A self-critical citizen of the land endowed with the world’s largest artillery may freely trivialise the significance of minor lapdog allies. It is entirely different, however, if Dutch, Turkish, Spanish or Romanian people express such flippant, “whatever” attitudes towards their own collaboration in these imperial projects.

For who shall bear the brunt of Europeans’ casual dismissal of their responsibility in American-led Middle Eastern wars? Refugees, once again. European self-deprecating dismissal of the significance of Euro sabre-rattling and investment in the wars in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan– with massive GDP returns from munitions manufactured largely in Central-Eastern Europe– have indirectly allowed apathetic shirking of any responsibility towards the human consequences, now trapped in wintry forests between Poland and Belarus. Contrary to the rationalisations offered by Ursula von der Leyen and the Polish government as they plug in the electric fence, Europe bears responsibility for its profitable enablement of military interventions and economic sanctions in the Middle East.  

Enter New Middlemen

Was liberal authoritarianism, along with its neo-conservative and neoliberal offshoots, forever defeated by Biden’s macabre enactment of an Afghanistan evacuation plan brokered largely between Trump and the princedom of Qatar? Far from it.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently announced his regional ally, the Gulf Sunni Islamist regime of Qatar, will replace and represent the American embassy’s role in Afghanistan, mediating between Taliban officials and the West. Qatar, which gratuitously played host to the US Central Command during the earlier Iraq invasion, best embodies the lucrative marriage between Islamic fundamentalist and free-market ideologies. The small emirate stands out as aspiring regional superpower, deploying its vast wealth to spread Wahabi Islamist cult and culture–including the burqa or full veiling of women, called niqab in Qatar– worldwide (not least in the Balkans) all while championing free market economic policies, as if these were fundamentally compatible. Perhaps they are.

Despite an identity politics forged deliberately in full opposition to Occidental cultural and military colonialism, Salafist Islamism has always proven eager to embrace free market principles, and to be a useful though sinister ally, willing to fight both communist insurrectionaries and secular nationalism until the ruination of either. Qatar will now expand its brand of cultural imperialism in Afghanistan, helped by US and regional allies, despite the emirate having supported jihadism and militant Salafism in the Syrian warzone and in Europe. 

Taliban functionaries best understand guerrilla warfare and mob-justice–making them more dependent upon guidance from Gulf States like Qatar on how to govern. Iraqi parliament, by contrast, has its technocrats willing to run the country without foreign overseers, whether from the US or from Gulf princedoms– which is not to ignore the incipient sectarianism in the Iraqi parliament. But sectarian divides were promoted by the occupation for decades: to their own horror, American officials helped steer the fragmenting region towards a broader Shia alliance spanning the governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria and the insurgency in Yemen. Meanwhile, as Afghans like Ali Abdi clarified speaking to Left-East, both the occupying government and Taliban seek to inflame the Sunni-Shia divides. The persecuted Hazara minority, traditional victim of Afghan regimes, remains predominantly Shia. In post-Saddam Iraq, as in Afghanistan, American occupations reinvigorated a dangerous identity politics, almost as if by design, further fragmenting these societies, reviving ethnocentric and sectarian consciousness by playing upon group interests while not offering any binding or inclusive project that would allow the people to forget group-affiliations. When exported to the poorest countries, the American brand of identitarian culture war does not lead to the same quasi-comedic antics as it does at home. 

European Perception Management: a PR success story

Liberals had the predictable reaction to the astonishing Afghan withdrawal– indignation about women, followed by seizing a Taliban stick with which to beat the anti-imperialist left for having ever opposed the occupation. Despite accounts of widespread abuses and exploitation by US-NATO military forces and their tribal allies (as decried by politicians like Malalai Joya) Western pro-occupation critics, from the editors of liberal anti-woke outlets like The SpectatorAreo and Unherd, to the Twittersphere– feel that continuous US presence was justified. Both pro-war liberal reaction, as well as the anti-war-lite Varoufakis’ “Hang in there, sisters!” exposed how intellectuals try to project Western contemporary feminist fashion onto the Afghan warzone, and onto Asia generally.  

Violent melancholy and lamentation over withdrawal, expressed by European officials, proved the efficacy of what the CIA called its “perception management ops” in Europe, orchestrated to garner support for European participation via NATO in Afghanistan. A bullet-point-bulleted CIA “Red Cell” memorandum from 2010, spilt by Wikileaks and comically titled “Why (European) Apathy Might not be Enough” revealed the PR mindset, where several of bullet points in a tellingly cruel manner describe the ventriloquistic usage of Afghan women.  

Few media observers with acumen bothered to ask, while either celebrating or denouncing withdrawal, without getting too much into the details of how evacuation was executed. The devil is in the details, as those whose visas were not processed in time by the US embassy understood all too well. Former UN envoy to Afghanistan Benon Sevan, in an interview with Jadaliyya compared how the Russian embassy processed the visas of its collaborators, to the recklessness of the US embassy only preoccupied with its immediate personnel and citizenry.

Since the memorandum, Atlanticism’s propaganda machine demonstrated its seduction skills over the next decade of garnering European approval. The energy and dollars poured into persuasive campaigns, emphasises the importance of European countries’ invested participation in US military conquests. Leftists and anti-imperialists in Europe must confront any local underestimation of the relevance of European countries’ contributions to American wars. It simply does not suffice for the European left to limit its critique to merely US foreign policy.  It is not enough for a socialist leader to sign a petition in the NY Times asking Biden to relax Trump-era sanctions on Cuba, while representing an in-name Pan European movement for a leftist political economy: Diem25’s leadership has kept silent on EU sanctions imposed on Syria, Iran, Venezuela and Belarus. Meanwhile, Belarussian officials point to sanctions, using these to justify forcing refugees into frozen Polish forests. 

Much of Diem’s base beyond the Balkans– as discovered in movement-wide interviews our team conducted– tends to see NATO as a potential protector. That is a tragedy for internationalism, which results from the movement’s figureheads having been all-too-fearful of alienating the large German middle-class membership that currently shapes the organisation’s values. The aforementioned statements reinforce a view Varoufakis previously expressed, with dumbfounding frankness, in past conferences– that EU foreign policy will never change. It must change, however– for the EU foreign policy is a crime against solidarity and against itself. Remember Gramsci’s admonition: to have optimism of the will, not only pessimism of the intellect.

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