Through a Kaleidoscope Darkly: Afghanistan’s Groundhog Day
- August 16, 2021
To anyone who wants to look, it is clear that the grim scenes unfolding in Afghanistan are not just another tragedy for a country that has been repeatedly smashed and abused in the latest variations on the ‘great game’ for more than forty years now. The ignominious collapse of the US-led ‘nation-building’ project also marks the passing of what may well go down as the shortest ’empire’ in history, and it also brings to an end a brief period in which America – and more broadly ‘the West’ – tried and failed to use its unrivalled military power to remake a world in its own interests and its own image.
Watching this debacle unfold has brought back memories of Tony Blair’s speech on October 3, 2001, in which the lineaments of the new ‘liberal humanitarianism’ were presented to the Labour Party Conference only four days before the US-led coalition began bombing Afghanistan. Blair’s speech was aimed primarily at his own party, and was partly intended to assuage the anxieties of his own party members and ministers who were anxious about the more belligerent statements emanating from the Bush administration.
Blair’s message was no less belligerent, but it was also much cleverer than anything the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld came out with, and it was steeped in the ‘progressive’ moral fervour of a politician who came from a very different political tradition. No American politician could have made the following famous statement:
The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause. This is a moment to seize. The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.
This formulation was very different from the ‘we’ll smoke ’em out/whoever isn’t with us is against us’ rhetoric that George W. Bush was prone to. Unlike Bush, Blair presented the new era of limitless war as a progressive and humanitarian enterprise.
To do this he invoked a 21st century vision of the world that ‘nineteenth century ‘white man’s burden’ imperialists would have understood – a world in which civilised nations had an obligation to use military force to raise up those sick, and ‘savage’ regions that had been decoupled from the train of progress.
Seen through Blair’s humanitarian/imperialist gaze, those parts of the world that needed saving were reduced to their imagined geographical/cultural components.
Thus Gaza consisted of ‘slums’ rather than refugee camps – a recognition that would have drawn attention to the inconvenient role of Britain in creating the Palestinian diaspora. ‘Northern Africa’ was nothing but ‘deserts’ – lawless spaces where terrorists can breed – a construct that entirely ignored the role of the Algerian state, for example, in the Algerian civil war. And Afghanistan was nothing but ‘mountain ranges’.
All these areas were located in what US military strategists would later call the ‘arc of instability’ or the ‘periphery’, and which Blair’s favourite foreign policy guru Robert Cooper called ‘the jungle.’ All these areas would be subjected in the years to come to regime change, war, invasion, occupation, drone strikes, special ops, extraordinary renditions etc. To Blair’s imperial geography, these areas were only home to ‘ignorant’ and ‘starving’ people who were ‘our cause.’
Many commentators at the time commented on Blair’s ‘moral fervour’. Few commented on the curious combination of binary ‘good versus evil’ imagery and the glib shallowness that characterised his invocation of a world supposedly crying out for a dose of purgative military violence.
Blair agreed that ‘we’ should try to ‘understand the causes of terror’ while at the same time insisting that ‘nothing could ever justify the events of 11 September, and it is turning justice on its head to pretend it should.’
This conflation of ‘understanding’ and ‘justifying’ is typical of the slick and banal ‘debate’ prevailing on both sides of the Atlantic in the aftermath of 91/11.
No one with any sense or decency was attempting to ‘justify’ the 9/11 attacks, but there were many who questioned the response that was emerging, and feared -rightly as it turns out – that the attacks were being used as a justification for a swathe of lawless ‘counterterrorist’ violence that would be counterproductive and even more destructive than the disease it was intended to cure.
Blair insisted that the action ‘we’ take would be ‘proportionate; targeted’ even as he invited his listeners to support limitless war in the regions he invoked. And beyond the moral fervour, he also made arguments like this:
Today confidence is global; either its presence or its absence.
Today the threat is chaos; because for people with work to do, family life to balance, mortgages to pay, careers to further, pensions to provide, the yearning is for order and stability and if it doesn’t exist elsewhere, it is unlikely to exist here.
This notion that the ‘chaos’ over there impinges on our yearning for order and stability ‘over here’ has been a recurring theme in the war propaganda of the ‘war on terror’ ever since – almost invariably as a pretext for military action. In the case of Afghanistan, Blair made the following promise:
To the Afghan people we make this commitment. The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before.
Now, nearly twenty years later, we have walked away, and the Taliban are back in power. An army of 300,000, trained, equipped and funded by the world’s only superpower has collapsed overnight, after a war that has cost nearly a trillion dollars and killed more than 100, 000 Afghans.
All this is a calamity for a country that has been the victim of its strategic position throughout history. We should lament this tragedy. We should pressure our governments to help refugees, and to use diplomacy and aid to ensure what protections can be put in place for women, girls, and ethnic groups that are likely to be the victims of the Taliban’s latest iteration.
And when politicians like Rory Stewart tell us that ‘The West needs to take an extraordinary long hard look at itself’, he’s right – up to a point.
But from what I have seen and heard these last few days, neither he nor any other politician is looking as far back as they need to, let alone take responsibility for twenty years of militarism that have created more ‘chaos’ and more destruction than the ‘order’ that Tony Blair presented to a country that, even then, should have known that it is easier to break countries than it is to put the ruins back together.