Afghanistan and the false moralising of liberal intervention

Oliver Hotham

Image © isafmedia

A problem, at least it seems to me, is that as soon as you get yourself involved in other people’s business you have a responsibility towards them. Once you’ve intervened and influenced things, all of a sudden everything that happens in your responsibility and you have an obligation to see things through to the end, whatever that end might be.

This problem is highlighted by the Taliban’s declaration that they will retake the country when NATO leaves. They’re probably right, unfortunately. Once NATO leaves, the current government (if it can even be called that, it behaves like a nepotistic crime syndicate) will collapse, with most of its members defecting to the Taliban, and the psychopathic, sexually repressed lunatics in charge of the insurgency will roll into Kabul, triumphant in their victory. More than ten years of foreign occupation will have not made one bit of difference to what will ultimately happen in Afghanistan, except perhaps that our governments will be poorer and those in Afghanistan who did not take the side of the occupation will be angrier. Women will undoubtedly suffer at the hands of their rulers, and much of the relative progress that has been made in the country since the invasion will be undone.

We already have a model of how Afghanistan deals with a prolonged military occupation – the invasion in the 1980′s by the Soviet Union. They too were attempting to instil their preferred model of government in the country but could not sustain their military presence faced with a growing Islamist insurgency and impending bankruptcy and economic recession. The Soviet Union left Afghanistan in rubble, with the Taliban strengthened by their apparent victory. Whatever good came of the Soviet presence, secularisation of society, education for women, and an improved infrastructure was vastly outweighed by the damage the occupation inflicted on Afghan society.

In 2010, Time Magazine published a shocking front page. Stating “What happens if we leave Afghanistan”, it depicted an 18-year old girl who had been sentenced to have her nose and ears cut off by a Taliban commander for “fleeing abusive in-laws”. It was followed by a story about the plight of Afghan women, and how their lives had improved since the overthrow of the Taliban.

This manipulative headline is moronic and offensive for several reasons, but it helps to make the only necessary point we need to take into account when discussing the occupation. First of all the picture and the cover are misleading. The horrific crime which has scarred this young woman obviously took place while the occupation was happening, so it more seeks to demonstrate how incapable we are of protecting Afghan women from the Taliban. But more importantly, it highlights the real problem with humanitarian intervention in the first place – why should the citizens of a nation be forced into taking on the responsibilities of another because our governments tell us to? It’s not as though we went into Afghanistan with benign intentions – we went in to get Osama Bin Laden. And now our political and military leaders, particularly in the United States, are masking their incompetence in defeating the Taliban and orchestrating a withdrawal by waving horrifying pictures in our faces and telling us it’s our fault if women can’t go to school.

I feel a great amount of sadness when I am presented with the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan, and I would argue a failure of the left has been the failure to recognise the influence and power of NGO’s and international organisations that make distinct and concerted efforts to help people in these situations, without the need to be backed by a military. The idea that an occupation of a country can be humanitarian is a deadly mistake, and we have to stop seeing our occupation of Afghanistan through that lens. It must be recognised that we are only digging our own graves and that, should we leave, the government that ultimately comes to power will not be sympathetic to the West or to ideas of freedom and democracy.

Whilst an immediate withdrawal would almost certainly lead to turmoil in the country, it is the best bad option at this point. Afghanistan represents the last frontier; the failed military venture which finally ends the warped dream neoconservative dream of “humanitarian” war and the idea that, if we just kill enough of them, democracy will triumph.

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7 Responses to Afghanistan and the false moralising of liberal intervention

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sorry this is Oliver Hotham

  2. Anonymous says:

    Not really, my point is that the symptoms of the occupation of Afghanistan are part of a general trend when we conduct “humanitarian intervention”.

    If the only solution is military intervention, then I cannot be supportive of it. It may seem coldly pragmatic, but in a time when our governments are enormously indebted and we’re beginning to question whether we cannot afford frontline NHS services for British citizens, we cannot afford to go around the world righting wrongs.

    If you read what I said, I did not in anyway excuse any of Mugabe’s actions, merely stating that whole reason he is in power is because of the power he was able to grab during and after the prolonged civil war.

    Look at the completely objective statistics about civilian deaths as a consequence of the invasion – just because propagandists have exaggerated the fact does not diminish the horror of the deaths in Iraq – I’m not sure what your point is.

    And NGO’s were able to conduct activities when the Taliban was in power.

    “do you really disagree with the idea that everyone should, at least ideally, have human rights as we enjoy here in the UK?” How did you get that out of what I said? My point is that it is immoral for our governments to attempt to force democracy on other countries with the use of force.

    “this argument used against the neocons has recently been superbly rebuffed by those activists of the arab spring.” This argument is ridiculous. If anything it refutes the idea the neocons had that “bringing democracy” required military force, it demonstrates that people are always capable of seizing freedom and democracy for themselves. Fun fact: many of the dictators overthrown in the Arab spring were actually our allies! Mubarak, in particular, springs to mind.

  3. Tom says:

    Another reply…

    proves all the problems with intervention’ – this is simply your bias. i could flip this argument the other way and suggest that every intervention, regardless of its overall success, could be used to support the case of the critics of interventionism.

    if you think we have a responsibility to act how can you then follow this with asking ‘how we can act responsibly without the use of military force by our governments’ without recognising that intervention can be the only credible option left. for example, when gadaffi was about to slaughter the people of misrata, intervention was the most likely (or perhaps only) to prevent that. a strongly worded un resolution or sanctions would have achieved nothing for those facing imminent attack. i do not see how wanting our forces to not go is any less of an abdication of our responsibility as a nation than saying me not wanting to go as an individual is an abdication of my responsibility as an individual. Also there is an obvious problem with letting volunteers do it as your citation of Spain demonstrates – they are less likely to win or be trained to a suitable level!

    How on Earth can you blame the ‘poisonous legacy of foreign imperialism’ alone for Mugabe? the fact that other countries in africa have had leaders who do not neglect and kill their citizens in such an abhorrent manner demonstrates the fact that imperialism cannot be blamed for every post-independence problem in Africa. To characterise him as purely a consequence of previous western control is to deny him any agency or his responsibility for his own actions. You can only argue that intervention would not improve things in a country as destitute as Zimbabwe if you believe that it can never improve matters in another nation, a stance which is hard to engage with.

    in relation to germany and yugoslavia, you dismiss that they were cases of benign humanitarian occupations. Germany was cited to demonstrate that foreign occupation can have long term benefits – even though humanitarian causes were not the initial reason for war. you dismiss bosnia as being a case where intervention could work because of casualties. however, the casualties argument is a very difficult one. for instance, with regard to iraq, people point to huge statistics of people who die as a consequence of western intervention but use figures which simply represent all deaths there since invasion, hardly a fair means of assessment. they also ignore the element of continuity of previous rates of death – such as horrendous child mortality rates in Iraq as a consequence of the neglect of healthcare.

    NGOs can and do do good work without military intervention. again though, they cannot always do so. for instance, how can you argue that ‘If anything, the presence of a foreign occupation reduces the influence they can have, as they are inevitably associated with it.’ i explicitly pointed to the problems of women’s rights in afghanistan, as you too mentioned. the ngos helping on that issues COULD NOT be allowed to do their work with the Taliban, or sexually repressed lunatics’ as you aptly put it, were in charge. again, your stance lacks all nuance and does not recognise the complexities of the problems.

    i do not follow you on the what if paragraph – as i see it your article built off a ‘what if’ theme suggesting that we would be better IF we had not intervened in afghanistan? thinking about contingency and where the decision could have been done differently is surely just as much a part of your article as it is in my response.

    i can sympathise with questioning the wisdom of the neocons but do you really disagree with the idea that everyone should, at least ideally, have human rights as we enjoy here in the UK? are you that much of a cultural relativist that you see no benefits in women’s rights, rule of law, democracy, property rights, free speech etc for people in countires without those? i think the idea that some groups of people do not have/want or need the same rights is largely bunk. many people post iraq came out with the sort of drivel saying that democracy etc was a western idea not wanted by the those living in the middle east. this argument used against the neocons has recently been superbly rebuffed by those activists of the arab spring.

  4. Oliver Hotham says:

    Hi sorry took so long to respond.

    My point was that what has happened with Afghanistan proves all the problems with intervention – those in favour of it always point to some potential for an entirely benign and successful intervention in the future, when everything that has happened when such a thing is attempted displays its impossibility.

    And, to be entirely frank, I do think that, as humans, we have a responsibility to act when dictators slaughter their own people in other countries. But the question is to work out how we can act responsibly without the use of military force by our governments. I would point to the potential for volunteer forces, organisations that could organise people so that, if you want to go to fight a wicked dictator overseas, that can be organised. To me, the demand that other people (the men and women that serve in our militaries) intervene in countries whose governments you find unpleasant represents an abdication of responsibility. Brave people signed up, for example, to fight fascism in Spain in the 1930′s, taking upon themselves to fight for a cause they thought was right.

    ‘Would Zimbabawe not surely be better off had Mugabe been toppled by outside forces?’ No. Absolutely not. If you think that a military intervention into an already unstable country whose enourmous problems, let’s be frank, are a result of the poisonous legacy of foreign imperialism would be good, then you are sorely mistaken.

    Vis-a-vis the argument about intervention post-war Germany and former Yugoslavia, see my above response. I don’t know nearly enough about the situation in Sierra Leone to make an informed assessment.

    With regard to NGO’s, there are great deal of war-torn, stricken countries where they operate and do a huge amount of good without a military intervention. If anything, the presence of a foreign occupation reduces the influence they can have, as they are inevitably associated with it.

    My statement on the Taliban taking over is based on their own words, the weakness of the Afghan government (and the lack of loyalty that it commands from the Afghan people), and the huge support the organisation receives from Pakistan.

    And the intervention in the former Yugoslavia was, at least in my view, extremely neo-conservative. “Thinking that human rights belong to everyone, neoconservatives support democracy promotion by the U.S. and other democracies.”

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Oliver Hotham says:

    Sorry took so long to reply to this.

    Your point about the Taliban ‘lacking conventional fighting capacity’ seems to me to be incorrect, after all, they seem to have done a pretty good job in fighting the highly advanced armies of NATO in the past ten years. It is entirely feasible that they could once again take over the country.

    I do concede the point about referring to them as ‘sexually repressed lunatics’ – I may have gotten a little carried away with the language. But I do believe a group which treats women like beasts of burden, organises institutional rape, and is generally oppressive to all and sundry do probably have issues.

    And I should have referred to them as mujahadeen, you are entirely correct.

    But I cannot agree about the cases of Bosnia, Germany, etcetera which you cite as cases of benign ‘humanitarian occupations’. The civilian casualties alone discredit the idea of the benevolence of the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia. And the problem I find with comparing, say, the situation of post war europe to our current foreign policy is that one inevitably plays the ‘what if’ game. ‘What if we had not intervened to stop Hitler?’ is always the question asked. But if we’re following this argument I could say ‘well, we shouldn’t have approved the Treaty of Versailles’, or ‘we shouldn’t have gotten involved in World War One’.

    My point is that we have no moral right to be pushing for ‘stability’ in Afghanistan, as we had no moral right to intervene in the first place!

    Thanks for commenting!

  6. Andrew Noakes says:

    “They’re probably right, unfortunately. Once NATO leaves, the current government (if it can even be called that, it behaves like a nepotistic crime syndicate) will collapse, with most of its members defecting to the Taliban, and the psychopathic, sexually repressed lunatics in charge of the insurgency will roll into Kabul, triumphant in their victory.”

    There is a lot wrong with this. Firstly, it is highly unlikely that the Afghan government will collapse once NATO leaves. Unlike the government, the Taliban lack conventional fighting capacity, which means they’ll struggle to take the cities. They might win eventually, but it will take time (and a lot of help from Pakistan). Secondly, why do you think that most of the Afghan government will defect to the Taliban? The Taliban are a Pashtun insurgency with a history of genocidal violence against the other Afghan minorities; other than Karzai, most of the Afghan state is led by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras (but mostly Tajiks)…i.e. the ex-Northern Alliance. These people will never go over to the Taliban; in fact, many of them refuse even to negotiate with the them, which is a huge problem in and of itself. Lastly, to call the Taliban leadership ‘sexually repressed lunatics’ is more than a little rhetorical. Incidentally, in rural Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban were a liberalising force with respect to women’s rights; for example, they abolished the Pashtunwali tradition of Baad (look it up). The picture is a little more nuanced than you make out.

    “The Soviet Union left Afghanistan in rubble, with the Taliban strengthened by their apparent victory.”

    Unless I have misread this, then this betrays bad research. The Taliban did not defeat the Soviets; the Taliban did not exist at that point in any significant sense. They (the talibs) were certainly not strengthened by the victory, since the various Mujahideen factions took control of Afghanistan; the Taliban subsequently went to war with the Mujahideen and won, more or less.

    “The idea that an occupation of a country can be humanitarian is a deadly mistake”

    I would agree with the comment above. Japan, Germany, Bosnia, Sierra Leone are all successful examples of humanitarian occupation. The occupation of Bosnia is still ongoing, if you count EUFOR.

    “neoconservative dream of “humanitarian” war”

    As said above, the neocons have no monopoly on this.

    “if we just kill enough of them, democracy will triumph.”

    We gave up on democracy in Afghanistan a long time ago. Now the aim is stability (i.e. to prevent Afghanistan from turning into the Somalia of South Asia, which is what would happen if we were to withdraw immediately).

  7. Tom says:

    I strongly disagree with much of this article. I too am critical of Afghanistan (and Iraq too I assume) but this should not automatically translate into a rejection of any or all intervention as you seem to suggest. There seems to be an unresolved tension between your arguments that Afghanistan was not about humanitarian imperatives on the one hand whilst on the other using the failure of Afghanistan to dismiss the possibility or justness of any humanitarian intervention. Intervention in Afghanistan followed 9/11 and the desire to remove a safe haven for terrorism. If you object to that rationale for intervention then fine, criticize that. Do not slander intervention to aid the weak as something monopolized by neo-cons. Your sweeping statement that ‘the idea that an occupation of a country can be humanitarian is a deadly mistake’ neglects the benefits which can occur from foreign occupation. What about Germany and Japan post-world war II? Are they surely not now better off for having had a sustained occupation and considerable American control / investment? This also lacks all nuances, suggesting that humanitarian intervention is always doomed to fail. What about Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone?

    The implication too is that you think that no humanitarian intervention elsewhere you be correct. However, where interventions were ceased prematurely, such as in Somalia, are the people there really now better off as a result of the continuing chaos? Or those areas without intervention – what about the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe for instance? Would Zimbabawe not surely be better off had Mugabe been toppled by outside forces?

    I also disagree with your opinions on responsibility. You open by stating that ‘a problem, at least it seems to me, is that as soon as you get yourself involved in other people’s business you have a responsibility towards them.’ It seems then that you argue that responsibility only follows intervention which implies that we have no responsibility to others, in other countries, regardless of whether or not we are involved. I definitely do not think that. Do you believe that when Gaddaffi was threatening to slaughter civilians in Misrata, we had no responsibility to act? With Syria’s leaders massacring their people, should we really do nothing? Responsibility is not simply a consequence of action and acquired by those who intervene. It also exists for those who do not. Doing nothing is a decision and can constitute an abdication of responsibility. The old cliché that ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ is indeed a cliché but it has an element of truth. Perhaps you will point to examples of countries where we have not acted as proof that intervention is never primarily driven by humanitarian concerns. To that I would again refer to Kosovo, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. And just because we cannot attempt to help every country does not mean that we should not try to help any countries.

    You describe the Taliban as ‘psychopathic, sexually repressed lunatics’ yet think there could be no case for intervening against them? I know it was not why we went in – but you deny that it could be a reason for other interventions in countries with such despicable beliefs? The fact that you recognize ‘relative progress’ would surely suggest that you could at least support such intervention in theory. You also put the case that NGOs can and have achieved progress there but suggest that this can be ‘without the need to be backed by a military’. Are you genuinely suggesting that Western aid and agencies to help strengthen women’s rights would be able to remain in the same way as they do now if the Taliban were to take Afghanistan back?

    You say our intervention will automatically be followed by a Taliban takeover. I do not see how you can definitively make such an assessment. Rory Stewart MP, a man who probably has far more experience of Afghanistan than either of us (and supports withdrawing from Afghanistan), is extremely critical of that argument:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/rory_stewart_time_to_end_the_war_in_afghanistan.html

    You finished by stating that ‘whilst an immediate withdrawal would almost certainly lead to turmoil in the country, it is the best bad option at this point. Afghanistan represents the last frontier; the failed military venture which finally ends the warped dream neoconservative dream of “humanitarian” war and the idea that, if we just kill enough of them, democracy will triumph.’

    It is wrong to characterize all humanitarian intervention as neo-conservative: you seem to have based this view on history that stretches back only to 2001. The people in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone might give you a very different perspective. Of course Iraq and Afghanistan were mishandled but they do not represent some final answer that proves that one nation cannot help people being terrorized by their own government. I believe that there is a need for a healthy skepticism about foreign intervention but your article instead is simply a blanket denial that any benefits from overseas humanitarian intervention could have occurred or be possible in the future.

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