Afghanistan: Graveyard of Liberalism | Henry George

We entered Afghanistan in 2001 alongside America to bring fire and justice to a coalition of fighters and terrorists that had harboured those ultimately responsible for 9/11. The destruction of the Taliban and Al Qaeda was achieved with breath-taking alacrity. And then the mission creep started, and there we the West were, 20 years later, still in the country. 

Biden said he’d get America out. He did, starting July 5 when the Americans abandoned Bagram Airbase. In the last week the Taliban made good on their steady, decades-long destabilisation and more immediate, months-long insurgency. In the end, Afghanistan collapsed in a week. One provincial capital after another was taken, some by manoeuvre, massacre and murder, others by negotiation and Afghan supplication. The 300,000 strong Afghan army, trained, equipped and paid for by the West (aka America and Britain) fell apart or fell away with hardly a fight. President Ashraf Ghani, someone meant to be an expert in rebuilding broken societies, fled the presidential palace as the Taliban fighters knocked on the gates of Kabul before fleeing the country as they knocked them down. This is not comparable to the retreat from Saigon: it is far worse. 

Let’s count the cost, shall we? Around $2 trillion. 240,000 people, 70,000 of them civilians, have been killed in Afghanistan since the West intervened. 2,448 US troops and 3,846 US contractors killed. 457 British soldiers killed, thousands wounded and suffering PTSD. For what, precisely, was this suffering for? Please do not tell me it was because we went over there to stop “them” killing us over here. While one does not need to buy into the leftist “we’re creating terrorists” line, neither did we prevent terrorism reaching us here at home. Al Qaeda and ISIS – the partial product of another of our doomed interventions, this time in Iraq – saw to that. Britain left Afghanistan in 2014, 13 years too late. 

America stayed on at varying levels of commitment and troop numbers, providing job security for the security-industrial complex and moral affirmation for politicians whose inner lives are otherwise barren of moral drive. As the Afghanistan papers published by the Washington Post show, those in charge of the operation knew it was an unwinnable conflict, a hopeless mission, seeing their job as not to lose too badly and hopefully to perpetuate their own careers under the guise of carrying out a humanitarian mission. 

The “metrics” of success presented to the public were repeatedly falsified and fake, made up to keep the plebs and media carnival barkers at home vaguely content so the military and security powers could keep feeding at the trough of an indefinite conflict. In response to the long record of defeats, blunders and missed opportunities in Afghanistan both Democrats and Republicans continued on in the delusion that something substantive could be achieved. Instead their military presence and nation building attempts amounted to Potemkin imperialism that collapsed on first contact with reality.  

The fact the Afghan government and military collapsed in such spectacular fashion after twenty years of capacity building is damning evidence of Western failure. The central problem of American foreign policy thinking is the complete inability to distinguish between what has always mattered and what has never mattered. Containing Russia through Eastern and Central Europe, and containing China through the South China sea, matter. Afghanistan does not matter from a strategic level nor from the level of national interest. It is not racist or patronising to say that ultimately, the Afghans chose this future: either by fighting with the Taliban, by fleeing from the Taliban, or by welcoming the Taliban.

It is not in our military or national capacity to impose on a society and its variegated population a vision of a liberal democratic political and cultural order that has no civilisational soil within which to grow. We spilt blood and spent treasure on a pointless mission that was doomed to failure, a failure covered over by our presence there. Afghanistan’s collapse should be the greatest indictment of nation-building policies where there was no nation to build, based on Western values, implemented by Western forces, funded by Western economies and applied by Western “experts”.

So many in the media and wider culture-forming classes rhapsodised over the ascension of Joe Biden to the American presidential throne and proclaimed that the “adults are back in the room” after four years of Trumpian turmoil. Now things would get back normal, neoliberal centrism and internationalism ruling the day. Of course, all those who were in paroxysms of joy last November and this January are now nowhere to be found. The few who dare to say anything are saying that we shouldn’t have left Afghanistan at all, and that we should’ve stayed for an indefinite amount of time. Rory Stewart said the quiet part out loud in an example of honesty rare in politics, and called for America to remain in Afghanistan forever, as it does in Germany and South Korea. This is the reality: what many have been arguing for is the indefinite defence of a Paper Tiger regime soaked in the blood of endless civilian casualties.

The system that kept the West in Afghanistan is not simply a military or foreign policy body. It is the sum-total of the habits and institutions of a trans-Atlantic ruling class that exhibits an almost limitless capacity for deflecting blame for the price of failure. James Burnham called the new class that emerged from the two world wars the managerial elite, the administrators and bureaucrats who ran the new global system of technocratic state and corporations. The problem with this system, besides its undemocratic nature, is its self-reinforcing nature in service to its self-perpetuation. Positions are now handed down in an almost hereditary way, given the way members meet, live and marry together. It has got to the point that Joel Kotkin has called this a kind of neo-feudalism. 

Since the end of World War II, the ruling ideology of this class has been either a left or right-wing form of liberalism. This ideology entered its short-lived triumphal phase following the conclusion of the Cold War, partly ended by the USSR’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan. Of course, those in power and high on victory didn’t learn any of the lessons from this most recent example of the graveyard of empires. But as Reinhold Neibuhr understood, liberalism is a form of “soft utopianism,” the driving force of which is moral and technological progress: “faith in man; faith in his capacity to subdue nature, and faith that the subjection of nature achieves life’s final good.” 

From its roots in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1689, liberalism is rooted in the assertion that individuals are born in “perfect freedom” and “perfect equality,” and that the goal of politics is to make these ideals real. Locke’s Second Treatise gives a rationalist view of our political life with every tie other than consent that binds us together abstracted away. Liberalism ignores the encumbrances of inheritance, family, community and locality that all comprise what we call culture. It also prioritises the choosing human will over the physical fact of our embodiment and extends this truncated view of life to the role of our physical environment, particularly the role of geography. 

For Locke, and for many of his liberal descendants, there is no inherent limit to the size of the state or the number of people whose property – including their own selves and their rights – it can claim to protect. Liberalism fundamentally places no boundaries or borders of any kind. For Locke, nature’s law meant “mankind are one community.” As a result, political boundaries are nothing but a product of human “corruption and viciousness.” Further, Locke argued for the existence and entrenchment of a cognitive and therefore moral elite, the “industrious and the rational” morally justified in ruling over “the querulous and contentious,” for the purported uplift of both. Locke applied this vision to the nascent societies in the New World, and it was John Stuart Mill, the great 19th century liberal philosopher, who said that Britain and other white European nations were justified in conquering and ruling the “backward” peoples of Africa and Asia. 

It is no surprise that liberalism leads to imperialism, when there is no intrinsic limit to the defence of property, at base one’s own person and one’s rights, nor the inherent moral need for the industrious and rational to rule the querulous and contentious. As David Miller argues in On Nationality, the universalism implicit in liberalism, which believes in a duty to protect basic rights, allied with those “who believe in a general utilitarian duty to promote the welfare of fellow human beings,” means that a “benevolent imperialism” is a logical and, for them, morally serious proposition. 

Given that many states do not protect their members’ basic rights, alongside the fact that on universalistic grounds we can accord no essential value to unchosen communal obligation or to national self-determination, what is the objection to subjecting these people to benign outside rule? As Miller points out, “why make a fetish of self-government if your basic rights will be better protected by outsiders?” Hence you have 20th century liberals like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek calling for a world state, and 21st century neoliberals calling for intervention and nation-building to protect the rights of minorities in countries on the other side of the world. Right-liberals go abroad to protect and spread economic rights, while left-liberals go abroad to protect and spread human rights.

As Niebuhr saw, the problem is that this view of the world fails “to understand the tragic character of human history.” Liberalism’s blindness to communal, social, geographical and cultural reality means that it “does not see the perennial difference between human actions and aspirations… the inevitable tragedy of human existence, the irreducible irrationality of human behavior, and the tortuous character of human history.” Liberalism ignores our nature “both strong and weak, both free and bound, both blind and far-seeing.” This blindness to the exigencies of reality and to its own nature mean that liberals, as Patrick Deneen tweeted, “believe their worldview to be a natural order that arises in conditions of perfect free choice, and not an ideology that must be enforced. From this error arises the foreign policy disasters of the past half century.”

Ultimately, the central fact facing us is that the “idea of a universal civilisation is a recipe for unending conflict,” as John Gray rightly argues. The last twenty years of Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya should have made us alive to this. The central flaws of liberalism enumerated by Niebuhr mean that, according to Gray, “Our leaders cannot admit the narrow limits of their power. They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another — anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship. They need a narrative of continuing advancement if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world, so they are driven again and again to re-enact their past failures.” 

It is unlikely that the catastrophe of Afghanistan will lead to a reformation in the worldview and conduct of the managerial Overclass. Its self-reinforcing nature and perpetuation of its own structure means that it cannot learn from mistakes: anything, from delightful to disastrous, simply means that its existence is more sorely needed than ever. Liberalism was buried in the sands of Afghanistan along with the Western and Afghan dead. The class who it motivated and legitimated continues on, a zombie feeding on the dead of the crusades it launched. 

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