The Return of the Taliban and the Arrogance of Empire

Second in a series on the Taliban, Afghanistan, and the United States

It is less than three days ago that American newspapers, in their coverage of rapidly developing events in Afghanistan, cited ‘experts’ in American foreign policy as being of the opinion that Kabul was not likely to be breached by the Taliban before 30 days.  Six days ago, an analysis by the US military suggested that the fall of Kabul could take place in 90 days; and in June American analysts had forecast a collapse of the government led by Ashraf Ghani in 6-12 months if the US adhered to its plan to withdraw its forces. Many of these experts and other public commentators would have sensed over the course of the last few weeks as the Taliban overran one city after another that something was amiss in American military intelligence and the assessments of the State Department.  What is most striking is that at a White House press conference on July 8, Biden was unequivocal in the affirmation of his view that the US in withdrawing from Afghanistan was not handing over the country to the Taliban:

Q    Mr. President — do you trust the Taliban, Mr. President?
Q    Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?
THE PRESIDENT:  No, it is not.
Q    Why?
THE PRESIDENT:  Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban.  It is not inevitable.

This is far from being the first time that American military analysts, policy wonks, and the myriad number of ‘experts’ have proven to be wholly inept.  The ‘mother of all terrorist attacks’, as Saddam Hussein might have said, though he had no hand in that affair, was the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which caught Americans wholly unaware and to revenge which they launched an attack of Afghanistan where the mastermind of the bombings, Osama bin Laden, was believed to be sheltering.  Then President Bush declared that the United States would go to the ends of the earth to bring the perpetrators of the terrorist attack to justice and American troops would smoke them out of caves if necessary.  Vengeance may not be the way of Jesus, but it is nevertheless biblical; and though pious words and phrases such as ‘justice’, ‘human rights’, the ‘scourge of terrorism’, and the assault on the integrity of the ‘international community’ were mentioned as inspiring the US to wage war on Afghanistan, there was never any doubt that the US was thirsting for blood.  The US mainland had not been attacked since British troops burnt much of Washington DC to the ground in 1812 and it must have been particularly grating for the Americans that they had survived the cold war, outspent the Soviets and brought down the Soviet empire, but were outdone by a bunch of Islamic terrorists who had then gone into hiding in a country that more than one American commentator has described as the home of ‘primitive’ people.

One year into the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001, bin Laden was known to have made his way out of Afghanistan to some other country—identified, a decade later, as Pakistan.  Biden has now denied that the US had any set for itself any mission, as he put it in his address yesterday morning (August 16), to create the conditions that would facilitate Afghanistan’s transition to a ‘unified centralized democracy’, and he has similarly said that ‘our mission in Afghanistan was never nation-building.’  This retrospective justification of the decision to pull out of Afghanistan is simultaneously correct and incorrect.  On the one hand, much as Biden may deny it, nation-building was undoubtedly the rhetoric that informed the decision of one American administration after another to keep troops despite the escalating costs of a quasi-American occupation.  The core mission of the US in Afghanistan, the first Obama administration declared in opposition to the Bush administration’s design of attempting a vast project of nation-building, was ‘to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future’, but at the same time it was understood that this objective could only be achieved by introducing democracy in Afghanistan in at least some rudimentary form. Thus, in this respect, Biden’s statement yesterday is not merely incorrect, but suggests rather an elementary failure to recognize, or perhaps acknowledge, that the ‘core mission’ as set out by Obama cannot be disentangled from the introduction of democratic reforms and what is called nation-building.

In seeking to understand some though not all dimensions of the extraordinary return of the Taliban to power after two decades, we can attempt to identify some elements of the present discourse around Afghanistan that are now, and will remain, of critical importance—not just for the people of Afghanistan but for the rest of the world.  Twenty years ago, writing an article called ‘Terrorism, Inc.:  The Family of Fundamentalisms’, for the now defunct The Little Magazine (September-October 2001 issue), I suggested that Americans had been ‘warned that Afghanistan has never been conquered in the last millennium, and that it will be their graveyard:  the British were unable to subdue the Afghans, the Soviets got quagmired in that hostile terrain, and it is the fate of each superpower to be humbled by the intractable Afghans.’  It may be a cliché to speak of Afghanistan as ‘the graveyard of empires’, certainly modern empires, but the Taliban themselves have declared that their victory shows the resolve of the Afghans to never be governed by foreigners.  One might think that for this reason alone the Americans, who are prone to speak with pride of their own past as one shaped by the ardent desire for self-determination, might find common cause with the Taliban.  Somehow, such a sentiment has never entered into American calculations and never became part of the American discourse on Afghanistan, not even in those very limited circles that are highly critical of US foreign policy.

Just how the Taliban were able to run the opposition into the ground and make the government fall in a matter of days cannot of course be accounted for only by the notion that the American enterprise was doomed to failure from the outset since the Afghans will never tolerate foreigners as occupiers in their midst. There are many considerations at work here.  In my last essay, I wrote about the Taliban as non-state actors, but we can at this juncture profitably invoke the brilliant work of the anthropologist James Scott who drew a distinction between state and non-state spaces.  The fact of the matter is that the reach of the state in Afghanistan is always very limited and American boots on the ground for twenty years did not change that.  There are large tracts of the country where the state has no reach and is all but invisible.  The terrain is rugged, uncharted, hostile, and impervious to the penetration that technologies of the state have achieved elsewhere.  There are many consequences that follow, among them that the Taliban, who knew the terrain and could count on the hospitality—a key ethic among the Afghans, and one that Americans scarcely recognized—of local people, always had places where they could seek refuge.  But there are denser philosophical and psychological implications of the idea behind non-state spaces, the gist of which is that non-state spaces defy the logic of the master and make incapable the mastery that Americans have long assumed comes with technologies of the state.

Secondly, and relatedly, the so-called failure of the Afghan security forces must be scrutinized in a different language than that made familiar to us from all of contemporary political discourse, whether form the right, center, or left.  Nearly everyone is puzzled by how the Afghan security forces crumbled like tenpins in a bowling alley.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken repeatedly of ‘the inability of Afghan security forces to defend their country’ and Biden likewise stated with some weariness that the Afghan military gave up easily, ‘sometimes without fighting’. The Taliban is not one group and there is no entirely reliable account of their numbers, but the most generous estimates place their strength at no more than 150,000. The Afghan security forces, in contrast, numbered over 300,000, and over the years billions of dollars have been spent on ‘training’ them.  Yet, it is reliably reported that in most cities little or no opposition was offered to the Taliban and when their fighters entered Kabul through its four main gates they were not met with any resistance.  Much before entering Kabul, or cities such as Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Jalalabad—which they walked into without any shots being fired practically hours before making their way to the capital—as well as smaller towns, the Taliban are said to have struck deals with local elders and security forces.  Not only were the Taliban able to make inroads with little or no fighting but often arms were surrendered without resistance and the Taliban came into the possession of a large arsenal of armored vehicles, arms, ammunition, grenades, mortar, artillery, night sights, and rocket launchers—and now, after the capitulation of the Afghan security forces, tanks and over 200 fighter jets and choppers. Some have sought to explain their conduct by pointing to the corruption endemic in the security forces; others have pointed to the indiscipline within the security forces or argued that Afghans in uniform feared for their lives and chose the easier option of surrendering without a fight. 

Some of these arguments are merely lazy and rehearse worn-out ideas about the endemic corruption of the ‘native’.  To understand corruption, one might turn equally profitably to the machinations of the Trump White House and the nauseous shenanigans of the oligarchy in the US—but that is another subject.  None of the arguments about how the Afghan security forces virtually disappeared can be reconciled easily with the long-standing image of the Pathan and the Afghan more generally as an indomitable fighter who cannot be separated from his rifle.  But just what does it mean to have ‘trained’ Afghan men?  An average American soldier carries 27 pounds of gear and a few carry as much as 70 pounds; the Afghan fighter, by contrast, sports a rifle and some rounds of ammunition.  When you put the Afghan fighter and the American soldier side-by-side, the latter looks ridiculous—much as the American policeman often looks puffed up, overburdened, and something akin to a sack of potatoes in comparison with the English bobby.  There is some arrogance in supposing that men—even ‘civilians’, though it must be noted that there is no easy distinction in Afghanistan between ‘civilians’ and the ‘Taliban’—born into a culture of the rifle, wholly familiar with the terrain, and habituated to different notions of kinship can just be ‘trained’ into becoming ‘soldiers’ of the type familiar to us from a modern army. It is the Americans, on the contrary, that should have been receiving training:  barely any American soldiers or even commanding officers and generals know any of the languages spoken in Afghanistan and the history of the country is wholly foreign to them.  The American soldier, not surprisingly, reflects the general indifference of the US to most parts of the world, as well as what we can call the technological fallacy—the hubris of supposing that technology can overcome all shortcomings.

I have already suggested that whatever the differences among the Afghans, and the hostilities between ethnic groups, Americans were clearly seen as foreigners and as members of an occupying force.  While I have suggested that the Taliban may have forged links with local communities, the Afghans have a history of resistance to centralized state authority and to that extent there is no doubt that there will continue to be resistance to the Taliban as they once again take over the functions of a ‘state’. It would be difficult to overstate the sheer indifference with which most Afghans evidently treated the notion of Americans as liberators.  Many will dispute this characterization, pointing especially to their role, as the Americans themselves fondly imagined, of freeing Afghan women and girls from the shackles of drudgery, sexual abuse, illiteracy, and servitude.  The question of gender, the Taliban, and the American occupation and mission in Afghanistan is critically important and I will take it up in the following essay as it is deserving of lengthier treatment.  For the present, however, the resurgence and return of the Taliban poses difficult questions not only for those who seek to promote democracy around the world and are enamored of the idea that ‘democracy’ is the culmination (or nearly so) of the human aspiration for freedom, but even for those who live in those countries which are generally seen as established democracies.  The unpleasant truth is that democracies are under severe, indeed unprecedented, stress everywhere in the world.  The US presents perhaps the starkest example of the peril to established democracies, given that many Republicans are, by every measure, the Taliban of their own country.  The world will now have to ponder whether the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is not in fact an ominous portent of the impending demise worldwide of the short-lived idea of democracy.

The Impunity of White Terrorists

Vinay Lal

What transpired at the US Capitol on January 6, President-elect Joe Biden noted, amounted to “sedition”, an act not of “protest” but of “insurrection”.  He was joined in this characterization at that time by a few other Senators and since then many public commentators have endorsed this view.  Some are inclined to use somewhat softer language, deploring the shocking lawlessness and descent into anarchy.  Many other elected officials and public figures bemoan the desecration of the “temple of democracy” and still others wonder whether America can any longer boast of being “the shining city on the hill”.

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Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century

There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic:  is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power? 

In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”.  America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well:  though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives.  In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos.  The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either.  And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel.  Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally:  democracy in the United States itself become imperiled.  On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world.  It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.

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The Year that America Unraveled

It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”.  The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”.  Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom.  “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.

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Coronavirus in Native American Communities: The Charade of “Thanksgiving”

General Jeffrey Amherst’s letter of 16 July 1763 advocating for the use of every method, including the “gift” of smallpox-infected blankets to American Indians, that might aid in extirpating “this execrable Race”.

Every nation has its, to use the word commonly invoked for such purposes, “myths”.  Just how myths, lies, and fictions differ from each other is an interesting question in itself, but in his classic essay of the late 19th century, “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan put forward the arresting idea that a nation cannot be forged without some shared notion of “forgetfulness”.  Americans, especially white Americans, have for generations been brought up on the idea that the annual celebration known as Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November for many decades, marks the occasion when the Pilgrims first sat together with Native Americans and they broke bread together in celebration of the first successful harvest.  This recounting of that idyllic past disguises the forgetfulness which would become critical to the making of America.  The other name for that forgetfulness is “genocide”.  It is for this reason that, in common with many other Native Americans, the United American Indians of New England mark Thanksgiving Day as the “National Day of Mourning”.  As this collective of Native American organizations states, “Since 1970, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”

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Conspiratorial America: QAnon and the Great Awakening

Third in a series on the 2020 US Election

America is right now in a strange place, many would say.  Though the Presidential election was “called”—as one Indian commentator in the state of Bihar, where an equally interesting election has just drawn to a close, stated, he now perforce has to add this new term to the electoral vocabulary common to India—some days ago, the sitting President of the US refuses to acknowledge the election results. Trump’s supporters plan a massive rally in the nation’s capital on Saturday in a show of force intended to convey to the man who now believes that he practically owns the White House that they will form his stormtroopers.  There are rumors that, come January 20, Trump may be running a parallel administration.  Perhaps, much like Venezuela, the United States will have two presidents and the world will be divided between those conferring recognition to either of the two claimants to the throne.  There is some talk of militias taking to the streets and even of “civil war”.  Uneasiness hangs in the air.

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What the US Election Tells Us About America

Los Angeles, 5 November 2020, 11:45 AM

Second in a series on the 2020 US Election

It appears, at least as of this moment, that Joe Biden is headed for the White House in January 2021.  A considerable segment of the American people will feel greatly relieved, as indeed they should, and what many characterize as the ‘nightmare’ of the last four years appears to be coming to an end.  Biden had, among other things, declared this election as a referendum on ‘decency’ and many Americans will doubtless feel grateful that their country, long accustomed to viewing itself as the world’s greatest power, the leader of the free world, and as a shining beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, has had its reputation restored.  There were fears that the election would be marred by violence but even international observers have declared themselves satisfied that the election proper has been conducted fairly, insofar as there does not appear to have been any violence at polling states, and indeed little effort appears to have been spared in ensuring that voters had multiple options to cast their ballots in the midst of a major public health crisis.  None of this detracts from the ugly fact that for weeks Trump and his election campaign team had been making attempts to obstruct mail-in ballots from being counted and that lawyers representing the campaign have filed multiple legal challenges to bring the counting of votes to a halt.  That there should be any question at all about whether votes should be counted or not is astounding and will be the subject of a subsequent essay.

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Voter Suppression: As American as Apple Pie

First in a series on the 2020 US Election

With just one day to go before the American Presidential election, the signs are unmistakably clear that voter suppression remains a fundamental problem in American electoral politics.  Among the many ways in which American democracy may be distinguished, and certainly not for the better, from other democracies is its long, unparalleled, and entirely unabashed record of voter suppression. One might think that voter suppression is a relic of the past, its history rooted in the idea, present at the inception of the Republic, that the right to exercise of the vote could only be granted to select constituencies.  To the contrary, the practice of voter suppression has displayed a striking resilience, suggesting the manner in which American democracy is as much rooted in the idea of exclusion as it is in the notion of inclusivity. Indeed, though Americans like to flaunt their democracy as the envy of the world, American politics is virtually unthinkable without voter suppression.  It is as American as apple pie and its remains, to the present day, a weapon with which white supremacists, whether parading as armed militiamen or dressed up as governors, senators, state officials, county clerks and registrars, intimidate some people from voting and in some cases outright deny them their constitutional right to vote.

A demonstration carried out by African Americans in front of an Indianapolis hotel on 14 April 1964. A white man holds a Confederate flag. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)
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Just Who Are the Racists? And the Progressives? Excerpts from a conversation with Rev. James Lawson

Today, at 10 AM (California time), the Reverend James M. Lawson, one of the principal architects of the “civil rights movement”, and at the age of 92 an extraordinary fount of energy who remains a peerless example of the practitioner of nonviolence who leads by his moral example, and I–together with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a lifelong activist in human rights struggles–will be taking part in an hour-long panel discussion on “Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Continuing Quest for Justice and Peace”.  Rev. Lawson was last seen on the national stage just a few weeks ago, when he was called upon to speak at the funeral ceremonies for Representative John Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia who was one of Lawson’s proteges in Nashville where the nonviolence training workshop was pioneered by Lawson.  John Lewis, of course, went on to become a major figure in the movement, taking part in the freedom rides, becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, perhaps most famously, marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma.  Rev. Lawson delivered a stirring funeral oration for John Lewis.

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Identity and the Colossal Failure of Contemporary Electoral Politics

Part III of The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

In an effort to understand what the rise of Harris might mean, it may be more productive to enter into the vortex of her life and the belly of that beast called American politics in a more tangential fashion.  I would wager to say, on no authority except my own hunch as a reasonably educated and moderately well-read person, that Kamala Devi Harris was very likely named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88).  That this hunch is far from being a demonstrable fact is immaterial since the invocation of Kamaladevi’s name suggests both the possibilities that are inherent in Kamala Harris’s gradual and probable ascendancy to the pinnacle of American politics and, though this will be less evident to most people, the profound misgivings that one must necessarily have about electoral politics–especially at this juncture of history.   It is almost inconceivable that Kamala’s mother, Shyamala, was not inspired by Kamaladevi, a fiery Indian nationalist, socialist, and feminist who was a major figure in India’s struggle for freedom and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi.  Kamaladevi was not only a staunch advocate of women’s rights but a leading exponent, at a time in the 1930s when even feminists in the West were reluctant to advocate for the complete equality of women, of the idea of equal pay for women and men. She was the first woman in India to stand for elected office, losing her bid for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926 by a mere 60 votes!  Kamaladevi forged extensive contacts with socialist feminists around the world, led satyagraha campaigns in India, and preceded Shyamala Gopalan in making her way to the United States as a single—or, more accurately in this case, divorced—woman for a lengthy visit which took her to prisons, American Indian reservations, and reform institutions in an attempt to understand the underbelly of American life and initiate a transnational solidarity of the oppressed.

Kamaladevi&SarojiniNaidu

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (center), with her sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, to her left, at the Simla Conference

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