American empire has been stuck in a place where, to use Polybius’s words, “it can neither endure its condition, nor the means to overcome it.” In the context of Afghanistan, learned strategic thinkers and broadsheets of imperial privilege like The New York Times, will fulminate over roads not taken. But this exercise, as valuable as it might be, misses the wood for the trees. These questions re-enact the presumption of imperial omniscience, innocence and power. In Phil Klay’s masterpiece, Missionaries, Lisette, a journalist who has spent time in Afghanistan, asks the question: “Any wars right now we are not losing?” She promptly thinks the answer is Colombia. But this answer turns on how one defines “not losing”. The exorbitant privilege of empire is you even get to define what counts as loss and shrug off its costs.
There is a long litany of losses. The wars in Iraq, Libya, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon; the coups from Iran to Chile; the creation of secret instruments of violence in assorted places from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Laos, Honduras, El Salvador; sanctuary to autocracies and exporters of violent fundamentalism from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, each of whom have subverted the US’s own aims. Ask the question: “Did intervention leave a place in a better condition or achieve an objective with least violence possible?” The answer often turns out to be “no”. The tens of thousands of civilian casualties testify to that.
Often progress was set back. The Middle East had many functioning states, pockets of urbane modernity, till the geopolitics set the stage for worse forms of fundamentalist reaction. The exact shape of the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda is no more over-determined by the interventions of great powers, than it is by some more primordial essence of a culture. But it is impossible to deny that they are products of modern imperial politics: Its unsettling of local societies, its encouragement to violence, its support of fundamentalism, its breaking up of state structures.
At the heart of empire is the debasement of moral identity. Empire has seven deadly sins. The first is corruption. Internally, empire always empowers corrupt practices, the legions of lobbyists, arms dealers, hucksters, who begin to constitute the secret sinews of the state and channel its war booties. Externally, the reliance on mercenaries, the sordid deals with all kinds of unsavoury groups, the casual saturation with arms, the implication in illicit trade, make empire resemble a gangster operation that has blowback on the state it represents. Corruption ensured both that the US Treasury was drained and no state was built in Afghanistan. The second sin is self-deception. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, America knew exactly what is going on. But the stakes in keeping the myth of imperial virtue and imperial power produce self-deceptions of the most extraordinary sort.
The third is a morality that, to use Tagore’s phrase, “is split down the middle,” committed to the very things it disavows. What does the rule of law mean when empire itself enacts a regular lawlessness? What does a “humanitarian mission” mean, when it licenses an outsourcing of torture or disregard for civilian life? The fourth sin is its continual expansionism. The omniscience of empire is apt to give every local conflict global significance. But it also has the need to remind the world of its resolve to remain preeminent. That needs war. The fifth is hypocrisy. The more power tries to stretch, the more it deploys double standards. Some hypocrisy is inevitable in politics. But it becomes the defining feature through which the world understands imperial power. The sixth is a cult of violence. There is an abiding paradox in US strategy. The creation of stable states and societies requires the pacification of violence. But there is something bizarre about modern imperial counterinsurgency strategies. From Iraq to Afghanistan to western Pakistan to the drug wars, the abiding legacy of this empire is saturation of societies with arms and militias; as if creating armed factions in society and militarising, running it awash with cash, will ever get you a stable state. The seventh sin is racism. Even the most liberal-minded empire will create a hierarchy of those whose lives matter; even in its emancipatory mission it cannot get away from reinforcing claims of superiority that generate resentment.
There are no easy solutions in Afghanistan. The corruptions of empire made withdrawal long overdue. But the tragedy of the American withdrawal is that even in trying to extricate itself, America ended up enacting the sins of empire, not overcoming them. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is not an end of the corrupt political economy of violence. The great powers will be new proxies who produce the same cycle of violence and civil war. Withdrawal does not signal a commitment to greater multilateralism or the rule of law. Withdrawal will not produce an honest reckoning with the self-deceptions of empire.
Will the Taliban reinvent itself? There is reason to be deeply sceptical that it will. Will it become like a poor Saudi Arabia in the Eighties — a power the West had no problems with, even when it was internally repressive or exporting jihad? Or will anarchy follow? Or will now the internal fissures of Afghan society produce a new political dynamic? No one truly knows.
But the modality of US withdrawal exuded the fundamental sin of empire: Its reinforcement of race and hierarchy. The tropes used to justify the mess of this withdrawal all underscore this. It is the Afghan president, their army, that is to blame, as if after 20 years of intervening in a society, the US had no responsibility. Suddenly, the pretext of common humanity, and universal liberation, which was the pretext of empire, turned into the worst kind of cultural essentialism. It is their culture, these medieval tribalists who are incapable of liberty. We veiled the fact that they are entirely the creation of modern war.
And finally, this shocking sense of, “Frankly dear, we could not care a damn,” about the Afghans who reposed trust and risked their lives. Fundamentalism has drawn its motivating energy, not from God, but from cultivating grievance against imperial hierarchies. The Taliban’s victory is not just a morale booster for fundamentalists everywhere. The US management of the withdrawal will give fillip to fundamentalism’s deepest psychological impulses. It is an anarchic world, each for their own.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 21, 2021 under the title ‘The sins of empire’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.