When a country like Afghanistan is viewed through an orthodox geopolitical lens, its culture and history are either overlooked or stereotyped. Was it the geopolitical ambitions of powerful states that failed in Afghanistan, or democracy itself?
What happened in Afghanistan?
In October 2001, the US-led coalition responded to the 9/11 attacks by launching a military onslaught on Afghanistan. Officially, this intervention, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, sought to overthrow the Taliban regime that harboured al-Qaeda. It subsequently turned into the longest lasting and most well-funded liberal peace and state-building project of our time, which benefited from a substantial European backing and contribution.
After two decades, Afghanistan is unfree and continues to be beleaguered by the war’s deeply destabilising and inhumane outcomes. Although the coalition forces quickly deposed the Taliban in 2001, it rapidly bounced back and resisted the foreign occupation. In 2021, US President Joe Biden, justifying his decision to remove all support just before the Afghan national government’s final collapse, declared that a further military presence in Afghanistan ‘would not have made a difference’ in the face of a local resistance determined to liberate its country.
Against this background, the US was forced to negotiate with the Taliban and end its failed expedition, which had caused incalculable human suffering and destruction. Afghani potentates and institutions such as the Afghan National Defence Security Forces (ANDSF) crumbled immediately after their imperial backer decided to cut and run.
After two decades, Afghanistan is unfree and continues to be beleaguered by the war’s deeply destabilising and inhumane outcomes.
In order to understand this failure, it is vital to read it from within Afghanistan’s cultural, historical and political context. In this essay, I emphasise the lack, or absence, of legitimacy as a central factor behind this failure. Lack of legitimacy has afflicted Afghanistan’s politics since the British conquest of the nineteenth century. The Afghani people viewed almost all exogenous impositions of foreign-backed rulers, including externally derived norms and values, as illegitimate, and have rejected and resisted them on this basis.
The nation-state of Afghanistan emerged from external interventions when that space became a site for British–Russian geopolitical rivalry in Central Asia in the nineteenth century. This imperial clamour for influence disturbed the culturally, ethnically and regionally grounded governance that had hitherto existed in the country. Until the British invasions (1839–42 and 1878–80), the legitimacy of the ruler and political system were self-evident, and leadership was restricted to an elite that consisted of a narrow circle of relatives from the Durrani dynasty.
Resorting to violence
In 1978 the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was founded, photo: GDJ via pixabay
The British conquest undermined this structure, resulting in conflict over the right to govern and rule the country. In 1964, the introduction of the parliamentary system enlarged popular participation in politics. King Zahir Shah refused to cooperate with the new parliament, and he was overthrown by his cousin Daoud Khan almost a decade later. Khan abolished the monarchy and introduced progressive reforms. In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a communist party with close ties with the former Soviet Union, overthrew Khan and established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
This ended the dynastic rule and associated traditional mechanisms used to legitimise authority. As a result, successive governments and leaders resorted to violence to assert and safeguard their claim to power.
When the Soviet Union completely withdrew from the country in September 1989, Western interest in the war-torn country, including its heavily armed groups, abruptly ended.
During the Cold War, the country was once again a victim of Soviet-Western geopolitical rivalry. In December 1979, the Soviet Union launched a full-scale invasion that was met with widespread jihad (holy war against foreign conquest). Western powers and US allies in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia in particular) provided the jihadist movements with arms, funds and warriors. Afghanistan also became a destination for militant jihadis from different parts of the Arab and Muslim world. In this context, al-Qaeda was originally formed as a logistical network to coordinate and superintend jihadi fighters.
When the Soviet Union completely withdrew from the country in September 1989, Western interest in the war-torn country, including its heavily armed groups, abruptly ended. Afghanistan was then effectively abandoned by the international community.
The Rise of the Taliban
Meanwhile, contests over who had the right to rule the country produced further power struggles. The militarised jihadi and resistance groups began to compete for power, leading to widespread infighting and insecurity throughout the country. In 1994, the Taliban capitalised on rising popular discontent by pledging to restore law and order. This bolstered its popularity and enabled it to take control over the country, although this later gave way to a sense of betrayal when the group began to enforce its restrictive interpretation of Islam.
The Taliban’s politicisation and use of religion was something quite unique in the history of Afghanistan. Perhaps the most lucid analogy was the PDPA, whose efforts to impose socialist and secular ideological authority had similarly produced a long-running national tragedy and national dissent and resistance.
The international community paid little attention to Afghanistan until al-Qaeda metamorphosed into a global security concern. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the country was thrust into the global consciousness as a medieval space inhabited by a hateful and violent ‘Other’. The former US president George W. Bush infamously claimed ‘either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’ and, in so doing, summed up an aggressive and binary geopolitics that effectively excluded Afghanistan’s sophisticated culture, history and people.
Afghans became trapped in a neo-conservative project that sought to transform the international order and a neoliberal state building counterpart that sought to impose exogenous norms and values. In both instances, there was an encompassing disregard for Afghans’ culture, ethnic diversity and way of life.
And this is how Afghanistan was silenced. Politicians and pundits with a superficial understanding of the country dominated the ‘tabloid discourse’ (to use a phrase of François Debrix) and imposed it on the country. Ignorance combined with exclusion provided a lethal warrant for reading Afghanistan out of its cultural and historical context. Uncritical and polemical generalisations, self-righteousness and dubious claims of beneficence manifested and took form. As a prelude to military and normative interventions, whole collectives were labelled as ‘terrorists’, ‘rogue’ states, members of an ‘axis of evil’ and uncivilised ‘Others’.
Misunderstandings with the West
Western ideological doctrines played a crucial role, and Liberalism in particular provided a way of disciplining unfree subjects and (purportedly) better preparing them for civilised self-governance. Afghanistan and Iraq became twenty-first-century laboratories for a liberal state-building premised on supposedly universal values, including individual freedom, free-market economics, democracy and strong state security institutions.
This endeavour failed, despite the lavish resources invested in it. The coalition was, after two decades, forced to withdraw in a chaotic and uncoordinated manner. Although there were many reasons for this, I argue that the deeply flawed assumptions of neoliberal interventions that engendered a legitimacy crisis were foremost among them.
Liberalism in particular provided a way of disciplining unfree subjects and (purportedly) better preparing them for civilised self-governance.
Vastly unequal power and hierarchy were imposed on relations between the official West and non-European world and this produced a sense of righteousness, embodied in an appeal to ‘universal’ norms and values. The colonial/imperial ‘civilisational mission’ was therefore reinvented, in our time, as the export of Western norms, ways of governance and, above all, democracy. This resulted in local cultures and values being viewed with indifference or even contempt. These neoliberal measures were particularly ill-advised in a country where social values and group solidarity surpass individual interests.
Even when intervening powers acknowledge local notions and practices, they co-opted them in an attempt to bestow legitimacy on exogenous political decisions. Consider, for example, the US-led coalition’s adaptation of the Afghani jirga practice, and specifically its use of the elders’ assembly as a decision-making framework to resolve disputes within local communities.
In 2002, it was expanded at the national level into an emergency Loya Jirga. While jirga is a consensus-based practice in its native Afghani culture, the lead nations (the US, UK, Germany and Italy) misleadingly presented it as a manifestation of democracy and turned it into a voting system and a way to bestow a semblance of legitimacy over unpopular parameters set by Western actors and Afghani warlords and human rights violators at the 2001 Bonn Conference.
These neoliberal measures were particularly ill-advised in a country where social values and group solidarity surpass individual interests.
In subsequent years, the local population was largely excluded from externally funded, designed and implemented state building projects that did not respond to the country’s specific cultural or economic needs. For example, large parts of the funds committed to projects flowed back to donor countries in the forms of consultancy fees and profits, as observed by Thomas Barfield, the American social anthropologist who conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork among pastoral nomads in northern Afghanistan in the mid-1970s.
A tool of by-proxy conflicts
Afghanistan can be added to the list of failed liberal peace and state building interventions undertaken since the 1990s, and this further underlines the need to critically scrutinise the whole neo-colonial and neoliberal practice of exporting the ‘universal’ values of the superior culture to discipline the unruly periphery.
In this practice, culture and values are not used to champion and advocate for co-existence and productive exchange but are used to serve power and achieve hegemony, create client regimes and spheres of influence, and sway the international order. And this explains that indomitable local resistance to forced ideals does not originate in their Western character (after all, not all Western values are neoliberal) but rather because they are intimately connected to imperial conquest and domination. They abolish the agency and will of subjects and reduce them to passive and reactive beings who must be disciplined. And this is one of the main reasons why an internal legitimacy deficit has bedevilled the Western interventionist framework in Afghanistan in particular and the Global South more generally.
On the eve of the US retreat from Afghanistan, Western analysts resorted to readymade orthodoxies that represented the entire country and society as a ‘vacuum’ that would be filled by either China or Russia.
First, this claim neglects the Afghan agency. Second, in subtly applying an imperialist geopolitical rationale, it represents the country as a Western possession that is likely to be ‘lost’ to other global powers. This is not to dismiss China’s economic and security interests in the country, but rather to question the zero-sum assumption which holds that relations between two countries with shared borders and an established history of cultural and economic exchange (through the Silk Road) should be viewed as someone else’s loss.
When a country is viewed through an orthodox geopolitical lens and tabloid knowledge, its complex and diverse culture, history and people are either overlooked or portrayed in orientalist ways. In his book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama took Afghanistan’s diversity as being tantamount to ‘violence and conflict rather than creativity and resilience’.
Historically, the country’s ethnic diversity was effectively a secondary consideration in any case, as its few cursory moments of mutiny were more often actually a small circle of elite politicians feuding over succession struggles. As the historian and anthropologist Thomas Barfield demonstrates in his book, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, it was not this diversity that precipitated nationwide infighting, but rather Anglo, Russian and American invasions and proxy wars that sought to establish geopolitical hegemony and spheres of influence.
Strong group solidarity
Afghans who remain loyal to their traditions (for example through how they dress, their architecture and strong group solidarity) often appear to outsiders to be culturally stagnant and lacking the ability to change. And when this flawed reading is enmeshed into foreign policy imaginaries, it provides the perfect rhetorical ammunition for imperialist civilising missions and interventions that take on the guise of freedom and humanitarianism.
After the invasion, Western countries rushed to implement the liberal peace model and reshape the country in their image. Yet they ignored the kernel aspects of Afghanistan’s society, namely its strong culture, group solidarity and proud self-image.
Afghanistan’s culture and society consist of a complex mosaic of ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that have historically coexisted and cooperated peacefully.
This is reflected in the country’s national identity, and specifically its progressive non-ethnic and non-ideological character. Although it is a Muslim nation (about 80 percent Sunni and 20 percent Shi’a and Ismaili), religion, as Thomas Barfield observes, is ‘not an ideology but [an] all-encompassing way of life’.
This diversity and non-ideological nationalism have inspired cultural co-existence, dynamism and resistance to internal and external radical impositions. For example, PDPA and Salafi attempts (Taliban and since 2015 the Islamic State in Khorasan province) to enforce ideological authority and rigour have met nationwide opposition and resistance.
A pivotal country in the region
Here it is also worthwhile to mention a few examples of Afghanistan’s contribution to civilisation that are usually occluded in popular discourse.
Abu Hanifa, an eighth-century Afghani Islamic scholar born in Baghdad to Afghani parents, generated the most tolerant and widespread school of jurisprudence in the Islamic world. The flexibility of his school of Islam, to which the overwhelming majority of the country’s population and the Islamic world adhere, enabled religion to become a way of life rather than a ruling ideology. Ein zentrales Land in der Region
Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi (commonly known as Rumi), the renowned thirteen-century poet whose pious and romantic poetry left a lasting legacy in Arabic, Persian and Turkish literature, was from the Balkh province of Afghanistan. His translated work can be found in most European languages and mainstream bookstores, and his influence extends even more broadly.
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897) is another eminent Afghani scholar whose thought and activism inspired the entire Islamic world. He resorted to culture and ideas as way to resist Western imperialism. He established the Islamic Modernism movement that critically scrutinised well-established Islamic concepts and practices to accommodate modern ideals, including those related to civil rights, democracy and technological development.
These three examples demonstrate the weak foundations of the rigid binary divisions that position the narrative of the civilised (West) in direct opposition to the uncivilised (East/Orient) —and vice versa. By implication, the assumed conflict between Western and non-Western values is a contrived colonial formula that neo-colonial discourse reinvigorated to justify intervention and amplify hostility. This narrative, and others like it, collapses when culture, humanism and a longer perspective are forthcoming.
In 2010, the Obama-Administration concluded that the intervention had to end, photo: Janeb13 via pixabay
In 2001, noble ideals such as democracy, freedom, human rights and peace were pushed into US grand policy designs with the aim of transforming the international order. However, this strategy has been eclipsed by subsequent global events and trends, including the US decline, Russia’s resurgence, China’s rise and regional realignments. The Taliban’s resurgence in 2005 and fierce Afghan resistance also made the US and the NATO mission in the country unsustainable. By 2010, the Obama Administration, despite approving an increase in troop numbers in the country, had already concluded the military intervention had to end.
When the US eventually retreated, it betrayed moral principles and the people of Afghanistan, who paid the ultimate cost. It also sent shock waves through Washington’s closest allies, both in Europe and the Middle East, who began to question the US’s credibility.
Exploitation of ideals and values
The tragic and inhumane consequences of the Western intervention and its exploitation of venerable ideals and values must now be critically interrogated. And here I should highlight that it was co-option and leveraging of democracy, human rights and freedom in the service of imperialist geopolitical ambitions of powerful states, and not the principles themselves, that failed so abjectly and conspicuously in Afghanistan.
There is a vast difference between an organic cultural and social dialogue, exchange and revision (through, for example, education, immigration, literature, trade networks and tourism) and exchange through conquest and terrorism. Culture cooperation, exchange and democracy do not grow out of the barrel of a gun, perhaps except for the radically different contexts in the cases of Germany and Japan.
The tragic and inhumane consequences of the Western intervention and its exploitation of venerable ideals and values must now be critically interrogated.
Military power and supercilious claims to universalism and truth underpin Western interventions in non-European spaces and cultures. When power and proclaimed ‘truth’ are deployed externally, they tend to denigrate and flatten what is particular and cherished about cultures of the ‘Other’.
Exogenous impositions wrapped in humanitarian discourse in search of hegemony and geopolitical objectives are opposed to humanistic understanding and cultural exchange, and they generate neither legitimacy nor trust between societies.
On the contrary, conquest and domination incite anguish, fear and deep mistrust between communities and cultures. Culture and mutual understanding are simultaneously realms of peaceful cooperation and places where arbitrary discursive boundaries between ‘us/them’ and Western/non-Western lose traction.
If Europe wants to chart a different, humane and peaceful path, it must eliminate colonial patterns and hierarchies from its foreign policy. To that end, as Edward Said sharply argues, critical humanism, humanists and intellectuals are muchly needed to duly and carefully unsettle what is presented as universal, unproblematic and self-evident.
About the Author
Research fellow at the College of Europe in Warsaw
Dr Emile Badarin is a research fellow in the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair (ENP) at the College of Europe, Natolin Campus, in Warsaw that was founded in 2020. He focuses on international politics and foreign policy with the Middle East and the EU as his area of study.
A selection of books and articles:
Palestinian Political Discourse. Between exile and occupation. Routledge, London 2016
Politics of Recognition, Elimination and Settler-Colonialism. In: Critical Sociology, 2021
Localising Resilience: Discursive Projections, Entrapments and Domination. In: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2021
Aid, Security and Fortress Europe: EU Development Aid in the Middle East and North Africa. In: Routledge Handbook on EU-Middle East Relations. Routledge, London 2016
Politics and Economy of Resilience: EU Resilience-building in Palestine and Jordan and its Disciplinary Governance. In: European Security 30/1, 2021
Culture Report Progress Europe
Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.