The latest western withdrawal from Afghanistan marked not just the end of mere military occupation but reinforces the vital historical assertion that Afghanistan can’t be colonized no matter the level of the multiplication of kinetic and non-kinetic means and their corresponding legitimacy. The British attempted Afghan colonialism for approximately two centuries, starting from the 18th century and culminating in the 19th century with frequent wars and other coercive techniques.
No other nation has been so effective in colonization than the British, but they found the solution in forward-policy, which in essence was something like this: uncontrollable, and unconquerable Afghans could very least be contained by drawing up a line to keep the influence of Russia and its tributaries checked.
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By any standard of the historical evidence, it could safely be maintained that colonialism has been a marked impossibility for Afghanistan for centuries, even the most efficient Empires failed there as they rightly called it the ‘graveyard of empires.’
A beginning or ending of colonialism?
Western attempts of Afghan colonialism culminated with forwarding policy during 19 the century and best depicted by the then young Lieutenant Winston Churchill in his war report “The Story of Malakand Field Force: An episode of Frontier War”. Durand Line is but to keep the unmanageable masses contained and a state of Pakistan was cultivated and supported to be the watcher on the wall, Durand Line for the greater security architecture of the hegemons of the time.
In a nutshell, Afghanistan has been proven one of the greatest anomalies in the career of British colonialism in particular and western overtures in general. In this sequence of Afghan colonialism, the current western withdrawal is the latest testimony to this fact.
In this backdrop, the accumulated western position in the current withdrawal negotiation is basically to develop some sort of neo-colonial relationship between Afghanistan and the West, particularly the U.S. Excluding some minor semantic discrepancies in policy statements, almost all the western states including the EU converge to this central objective of neo-colonialism in Afghanistan.
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However, they diverge on the modus operandi, EU is more in favor of the cultivation of neo-colonialism in Afghanistan, while the U.S. pursuing the Law of Instrument like always is more in favor of indirect coercive means (proxies) like privatization of war in Afghanistan (Blackwater, and other private contractors) and support of terrorist proxies like ISIS, TTP and others. This neo-colonial posturing of the western powers is overtly expressed by their leaders in their recent policy statements.
Whiteman saving brown women from brown men?
During the debate on Afghanistan in European Parliament titled as:
“The situation in Afghanistan: closing statement by Josep BORRELL FONTELLES, Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.” HR Josep Borrel in closing remarks stated:
Once again, I want to express the importance and the situation of Afghan women. I see a lot of women in Parliament (Afghan)…I see a lot of the women in the government (Afghan)…working practicing a sport …3 million Afghan girls in the schools but there are two million girls that don’t go to the school. The problem is two million, can you imagine two million …from their female childhood does not go to school…let’s try to avoid (withdrawal), the other half will lose this …in this case Afghanistan will go back to medieval ages …it’s our responsibility to try to avoid it.
Read more: Afghanistan: Real surprise is that experts are surprised!
In response to Biden’s proposed Afghan withdrawal former President George W. Bush in a recent interview with DW said:
“I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm. They’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart.”
These statements are in perfect alignment with “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling. Legitimacy turns power into authority with the corresponding justificatory mechanism. Extraterritorial interventionism requires a sufficient degree of legitimacy to perform the kinetic tasks. Take the case of British colonialism, it was well documented by Edwar’s Said work that how those oppressive colonial projects were underpinned by twisting the local knowledge and exposed by the expression of white man’s burden.
Therefore, the west always has something better to give to the world and force it on others for the greater good of the locals. Different waves of western invasions had different pretexts such as crusaders, the age of imperialism and 21st century Islam’s issue of women rights:
Crusaders roughly European medieval era: we care about your spiritual health on this planet and also the rewards hereafter, therefore, you need better faith, Christianity best depicted by Desmond Tutu: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible, and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”
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Age of imperialism roughly last 500 years: British and other European powers, you need modernization and its white man’s collective burden to bring the civilization to the darkest corners of the world. In the 21st century Islam needs to improve the rights of women, hence, in resonance with Gayatri Spivik aphorism which she discussed in her groundbreakingly work Can the Subaltern Speak: ‘white man saving brown women from the brown man’ is the central justificatory narrative deployed at the turn of this century on the recommendation on Orientalists Bernard Lewis by the neo-cons in the US government seeks to justify neo-colonialism.
Withdrawal or drawdown?
In original Trump era document, which provided the roadmap for the U.S military pull-out is marked with the expression withdrawal. This document is titled: “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” It has total four clauses discussing the general roadmap while clause two of this document states: “A timeline for the withdrawal of all U.S. and Coalition forces from Afghanistan.”
In addition to this, Anthony Blinken’s recalibrated policy under Biden Administration was conveyed to Afghanistan with a letter addressed to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The letter states “we are considering full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st as we consider other options.” Conversely, Biden’s recent press conference on Afghanistan was titled “Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.” So, the expressions withdrawal and drawdown appear as interchangeable in the policy document of the U.S.
In this situation, almost all western capitals’ policy statements are fluctuating between withdrawal and drawdown, with the U.S. leading the charge. In this speech Biden used drawdown 6 times, withdrawal 4 times, leave 11 times, victory 0 times and defeat 2 times. In this context, what is an ontology of withdrawal, or more precisely what is the difference between withdrawal and drawdown? The essence of contemporary U.S foreign policy in relation to Afghanistan resides in these two keywords i.e withdrawal and drawdown. Withdraw is associated with matter-mobility spatially from point A to point B in its relative wholeness.
Conversely, drawdown entails episodic dripping of that matter from spatial position A to position B. Element of time is the marked yardstick that differentiates both expressions. The posturing of the U.S or Western Afghan policy is withdrawal, and but pursuit is drawdown. Withdrawal presupposes the tangible existence of the matter in a particular spatial-temporal location, which is being driven out in its wholeness at an accelerated pace.
This tangible material is the west’s kinetic capability which is supposed to be driven out in its wholeness from Afghanistan to its intended destinations. This presupposition of the existence of the matters in a disjointed point A is basically colonialism, which is physical occupation and therefore, by the declaration of the withdrawal, the occupant is supposed to pull out in its wholeness within a finite time period. On the contrary, drawdown entails the mobility of the matter at a relatively slower pace as well as in bits and pieces like the water dripping from the huge water tank.
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The matter is transported from point A of spatial-temporal context to point B in partiality and with infinite time. In this case, drawdown entails that U.S and allies’ total kinetic capabilities are to be transported in bits and pieces over an extended period of time which is indefinite. Drawdown is synonymous with neo-colonialism in which recalibration of the internal balance between regular and irregular warfare as well as corresponding coercive and cultivation modus operands are being repositioned.
The country which goes by the name of the U.S. has a history of infinite drawdowns, not finite withdrawals. In view of the U.S. track record of the withdrawals from different countries like post-war Germany, Japan, South Korea, Gulf States, Western hemisphere with over 800 declared extraterritorial military bases, it is safe to assume that this country has no withdrawals it only has the record of drawdowns: entrenched shadowy presence wrapped in allusive semantics of withdrawals. Withdrawal as contextual semantic entails here the pull-out of the physical coercive means by replacing them with the invisible, shadowy means.
Neo-colonialism and Afghanistan
Now the vital question to ask is if Afghan soil has historically never been fertile enough or conducive to the colonial projects (colonial impossibility), are there any chances for the success of (drawdowns) neo-colonialism? Or in other words, Afghanistan has effective resistance against external coercion, how it’s going to respond to the renewed western cultivation modus operandi? Such a question warrants prior ontological clarity regarding the expressions of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
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The former denotes the direct physical occupation of the subject country by the mother country while the latter details the indirect rule through proxies of the locally trained subjects. Colonialism operates with enhanced direct coercion, applied through military, police, paramilitary and other institutions while neo-colonialism functions with more of the method of cultivation of the local collective- subconscious. In a nutshell, the colonial rule is perpetuated with instrumentalization of the local knowledge primarily twisting the discursivity in the fields of history, language, and other social sciences and disciplines.
Conversely, neo-colonialism is more of psychological in its nature like the scarecrow: an imaginative source of fright for the locals which is a symbol of superiority deeply entrenched into the local collective-unconscious. Colonialism is more of actuality while neo-colonialism is psychological and imaginary, but far effective in producing ontological results. The former primarily targets the tangible resources with raw material extraction for industrialization at home while the latter chiefly targets the ontological foundations of society, culture, identity, or way of living of the local people.
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Colonialism was a British specialty while neo-colonialism is North American modus operandi started with Monroe Doctrine 1823 and later exported across the globe like a pathogen. Contemporary, U.S, and allies are preparing this pathogen of neo-colonialism for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: the sovereign-social?
Charles Tilly’s aphorism ‘war made the state and state made the war’ which actually provided foundations to Bellicist literature, fails to make sense in Afghanistan’s case. There exists a whole range of literature that discusses the cause-and-effect relation of this failure of the sound state of Afghanistan after centuries of wars. However, the main hurdle in the formation of state or centralized political order in Afghanistan is the sovereign-social. A state is the outcome of the compromise between political autonomy and the corresponding social autonomy.
The balance between these two domains of autonomies produces a state. If social is more autonomous than political then the outcome is the weak state, however, if political is more autonomous than the social then the excessive (authoritative) state is the outcome. Liberal western states evolved out of the womb of social, postcolonial states like Pakistan are drilled into the local society with coercive institutions such as the bureaucracy, police, and army.
Western societies as mothers of states voluntarily delegated their autonomy to their corresponding political infrastructure, the state. On the contrary, post-colonial societies like Pakistan are still struggling with the right balance between social and political autonomy, as the balance of autonomy still tilts in the favor of social against the political.
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In this theoretical matrix of social-political play, a country like Afghanistan is devoid of both these experiences as it never experienced a centralized state entity in its entire history. Unlike, neo-liberal and postcolonial states, the Afghan experience is the anomaly as the social’s autonomy is elevated to the degree of sovereignty. The entire Afghan struggle historically has been to resist the formation of any political entity which penetrates into its corresponding local social and appropriates subsequently its normative, ethical orders. In other words, Afghan historical effort has been to resist the autonomy of the political and preserve the sovereignty of the society.
Therefore, Afghan social has remained sovereign which entails that it has resisted in absolute terms the penetration of the centralized political infrastructure. Therefore, they have fended off historically the multiple efforts of the direct coercion to keep the social in its sovereign or the very least the elevated degree of its autonomy. However, the west with new modalities is going to try cultivation rather than historical coercion under neo-colonial arrangements which are doomed to fail as the mediums of such cultivation are not existent or not sufficiently efficient to perform such sophisticated tasks.
Neo-colonial Afghanistan: structural impossibility?
The nucleus of neo-colonialism consists of a web of the interpenetrated international financial and political structures which limit the choices of the victim state. To that end, the victim state must have elaborated structural presence in this web. Mostly, a postcolonial state is the favorite candidate as its structural presence in the manipulative web is deeply entrenched due to historical path dependency.
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Afghanistan is not a postcolonial state or for that matter, a proper state in any fashion measured against the classical Westphalian state as well as its multiple variants in these different parts of the world. The state which west propped up after the Afghan invasion at the turn of this century has no future keeping in view the Taliban’s kinetic capabilities as well as the resistance from local sovereign social.
The architecture of the Afghan state is not supportive to the international neo-liberal economic order. The Afghan state is structurally not evolved enough to be fitted and tamed by the extractive international economic institutions like IMF and World Bank. Therefore, in view of the theoretical lenses of structuralist IR theories, Neo-Realism and Neo-Liberalism, the Afghan state has inherent structural inadequacy to be well fitted and managed by the dictates of international political and economic order.
The author is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sargodha. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.