The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan last month, and the subsequent Taliban takeover of the country, triggered a tidal wave of righteous indignation from the political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic. Their stated objections to religious fundamentalism and the denial of women’s rights need not detain us for long.
Western governments have a long and consistent record of arming and supporting authoritarian states. Saudi Arabia, whose leaders are little more than a Taliban with money, is a core component of western power in the Middle East. For those who have propped up this and other states to now present themselves as crusaders for democracy is a bad joke.
As the shadow of Taliban rule falls over Afghanistan, the plight of the people of that country is real and serious. The concern expressed for them in Washington and London is neither. What is being mourned here is not the loss of Afghan life, but of Anglo-American power. The operative sentiment is not altruistic internationalism, in other words, but chauvinistic narcissism. The British and the Americans have once again been defeated in the war on terror, and they are not taking it well.
The Al Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001 occurred in a specific historical moment, one that might be described as “peak liberalism”. Communism had imploded in the east, social democracy had been crushed in the west, and the United States now bestrode the Earth as the sole superpower, presiding over the “globalisation” of neoliberal capitalism at the “end of history” itself. Thus, the Anglo-American political class, together with its courtier press and intellectuals, entered the twenty-first century drunk on their own self-satisfaction, confirmed in their own minds as the triumphant, all-powerful good guys of history. The “war on terror” they chose to wage can only be properly understood in this context.
The goals of that war went far beyond the defeat of Al Qaeda, amounting to an imperialist letter to Santa Claus. Every fantasy conquest was on the table, and nothing less than “full-spectrum dominance” would suffice. US president George W Bush informed British prime minister Tony Blair just three days after 9/11 that the US would be invading Iraq. A year later, months before that invasion had taken place, the quip going around the Bush administration was that “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”
Anything was deemed possible in the prevailing mood of megalomania. As one Bush aide informed a New York Times journalist: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Caught up in this delirium, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee hailed Tony Blair’s new foreign policy ambitions, as set out in his post-9/11 Labour party conference speech, as the “moment British politics became … missionary … in pursuit of universal justice.”
Both the Iraqi and the Iranian regimes were themselves sworn enemies of Al Qaeda. But such fine distinctions were irrelevant in what became a generalised exertion of the imperial will. The enemy was a conveniently amorphous, hydra-headed Other, the eastern antithesis of our “western values” which we were now told were under existential threat (though the precise nature of that threat was never specified). The revival of old-school colonialism assumed a familiar form: geostrategic power grabs justified by racist national security demonology and glossed with notions of a “civilising mission”.
So it was that the armies of liberal progress marched off to war against the backward tribes of the imperial periphery. And we all know what happened next: they lost.
How was it that the US and UK totally failed to achieve their strategic objectives in both Iraq and Afghanistan, despite possessing overwhelming material superiority over their enemies? How did the most powerful and technologically advanced military machine in all history wind up humiliated by disparate bands of insurgents armed mostly with little more than small arms and explosives? The reasons are manifold, but one of the most important ones is the vicious way in which the occupiers treated the local populations.
Abuses were not aberrations committed in the fog of war; they were representative characteristics of these military campaigns as they were conceived in the metropole. There is a straight line to be drawn from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman fantasising about US troops going “house to house from Basra to Baghdad” instructing Iraqis to “suck on this” and the systematic sexualised torture and humiliation of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. “There were dozens of Abu Ghraibs happening in Afghanistan,” according to Washington Post journalist Anand Gopal, “everything you could imagine: prisoners being killed, prisoners being raped, electrocuted. That was happening constantly.”
Such atrocities are part and parcel of colonial violence. An inevitable expression of any attempt by foreign military forces to impose their will on a racialised, dehumanised society. The torture, the indiscriminate bombing, the razing of population centres, the entire panoply of state terrorism – all of this was entirely predictable.
So too was the response: key sectors of the population either supporting or acquiescing to insurgent groups who would wear down the occupiers for years with hit-and-run attacks until the inevitable, exhausted departure. As Gopal has documented, the Taliban had been defeated to the point of non-existence in the early 2000s before the sheer savagery of the occupation offered them a way back in. Put simply: the all-powerful good guys of history were defeated because they were neither all-powerful nor remotely good.
The prevailing ideology makes it impossible for any of this to be properly understood or even acknowledged in Washington and London. Instead, we are now treated to passionate denunciations of the fainthearts who retreated from Kabul, accompanied by wailing lamentations that our “missionary pursuit of universal justice” has been unaccountably curtailed. This collective meltdown is merely the latest episode in an increasingly toxic identity crisis that has gripped the west in recent years.
The sociopolitical blowback from the failed “war on terror” has come in various forms. The Islamophobic and anti-Arab racisms it fostered fed a resurgence of the far right and played a significant role in both Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. Serial western military humiliations have only accentuated the core urge of the Trumpian right to put various Others back in their rightful place and reassert the correct racial hierarchies.
Such crude reflexes find more genteel but still unmistakable expression in the respectable mainstream. We hear them in the oft-repeated anxiety that the west has lost confidence in itself and its role in the world. It is there in the establishment’s palpable discomfort at the popular re-examination of Anglo-American history triggered by the Black Lives Matter uprising. Their worries are justified. The fairytales of the early “war on terror” – of the righteous west and its civilising mission – would not have survived first contact with a public properly educated in the realities of colonial history.
Those fairytales are as much a part of the prevailing power structure as capital, arms, and the oil reserves of the Middle East. Their gradual loss of purchase, and the resulting identity crisis of the west, are as central to the collapse of “peak liberalism” as the humbling of Anglo-American militarism, the dysfunction of 2020s capitalism and the looming climate catastrophe.
The question now is what will emerge from the rubble of the post-Cold War liberal order. The answer we offer as socialists has to involve a new economics and a new anti-militarist internationalism, but something more as well. We need new, better and more accurate stories about the history of the west’s role in the world, how that history has shaped the present, and how the west under socialism can be profoundly different in the future.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.