BBritish MPs this week let out a long howl of anguish over Afghanistan. His immediate targets were Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, politicians who were on the prowl when the Kabul deck of cards collapsed. But their real concern was that a 20-year collective experiment in “exporting Western values” to Afghanistan had fallen into chaos. The MPs wanted to blame someone other than themselves. A politician is never as angry as when he is proven wrong.
Like their fellow congressional representatives, MPs somehow expected the ending to be pleasant and orderly, with speeches and flags, much like Britain’s exit from Hong Kong. Instead, tens of thousands of Afghans who had lived in an effective colony during years of NATO occupation had come to believe that the West would never leave or somehow protect them from retaliation by the Taliban. They were quickly disabused.
In 2006, he was at dusk on a castle wall overlooking Kabul with a young UN official. He had just heard that the Kandahar road was no longer safe. “Why,” he sighed, “Afghanistan can’t be more like Sweden?” I tried to see if he was smiling, but he was grimacing. For another 15 years, armies of Western soldiers and civilians dumped staggering amounts of money into the country. They created a wildly corrupt Western dependency, where about 50,000 Afghans they have ties to the West that are now deadly. As for the army “trained in the West”, one of their trainers told me it was mainly for show. An occupying power could not motivate local youth to kill their compatriots who could soon rule them. He rightly predicted: “They will just walk home.”
It’s been 22 years since Tony Blair gave a speech in Chicago lecture the United States on its doctrine of international intervention. He wanted the West to invade countries around the world not in self-defense, but to save people from oppression everywhere. It was a reformulation of Alfred Milner’s Victorian concept of moral imperialism. British politicians on both the left and the right have long been uncomfortable with abandoning milnerism as the acceptable face of empire. Global surveillance is somehow embedded in Britain’s political DNA. All of Blair’s wars of aggression were applauded in the House of Commons.
Many people have spoken this week of the “decline of the West,” lamenting the collapse of America’s moral authority. However, these theories are beside the point. The belief that our moral values are somehow meaningless unless imposed on those who do not share them is imperialist intolerance. It also leads to absurd biases. Iraq is now thought of as “bad interventionism”, as opposed to the “good” version of Afghanistan. The virtue of the latest invasion led President Obama in 2009 to bless the war in Afghanistan with an “increase” in soldiers, bringing the US total to 110,000, mere target practice for the Taliban.
American gunboat diplomacy, which was initially supposed to heal the wounds of September 11, 2001, opened the door to false morality and a trillion dollar nation building fantasy. The catastrophic return of the autonomy of the Taliban became its inevitable conclusion. The United States, with Britain as its lackey, committed the cardinal sin of liberal interventionism: reluctance. The desire to intervene is always followed by the desire to withdraw. Traditional empires at least pretended they would never leave. As things stood, Afghanistan replicated the exits of India, South Africa, Hong Kong and Iraq. If you invade and conquer a strange state, you possess it, but then you must repudiate it. The western government has killed an estimated 240,000 in Afghanistan since 2001, more than the Taliban ever did. He has not left morale, just a mess.
We must assume that strategists in Washington and London are now planning interventions in Taiwan and Ukraine against the possible expansion of China and Russia. If you ask taxpayers to spend billions on defense, you need something to prove it. So you pretend, as Johnson did in his strange conversation with Biden this week, that “Profits” were made in Afghanistan. You accuse non-interventionists, as did former Conservative leader William Hague, of demonstrating “the weakening of the Western mind.” In a recent columnThe Hague called on Great Britain to continue invading foreign countries when “our common humanity demands it.” In doing so, he sounded like Pope Urban summoning the First Crusade.
The concept of a global police force, so often cited, requires some framework of global consent. When the United Nations was founded, that consent was ingrained in the first chapter of your letter. It indicated that all members “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state.” On that basis he achieved general consent, though not always obedience. The end of the cold war and the supposed superiority of western liberal values encouraged the United States and Great Britain to declare a “responsibility to protect” all those oppressed by their governments. The authority of the UN charter, rooted in national sovereignty, collapsed and the UN gave way to the United States as a self-proclaimed policeman.
American Cold War historian Francis Fukuyama wrote recently that the United States “is not likely to regain its former hegemonic status, nor should it aspire to.” There is no such thing as a global cop. Individual nations serve humanity best by example or charity, not war. Military intervention is rarely, if ever, humane. Western regimes have enough problems to deal with in their own countries. If you yearn for moral outreach, it should be through the imperialism of ideas, receptive minds and open doors, not guns and bombs.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism