The Graveyard of Empires. The Fall of Saigon. Historical reductionism is hardly unexpected as a naturalized status quo in Afghanistan slides, precipitously, into the new – however predictable and indeed predicted this new moment may be. No surprise either, then, that the name of George W. Bush went unmentioned on every Sunday news show following Kabul’s fall to Taliban forces. Or that American drone warfare, Afghan government corruption, and the broader implications of US global hegemony are likewise obscured in popular conversation. For the displacements inherent to imperial fantasy remain among those implicated in its twenty-year imposition in Afghanistan. The entirety of the US governing class; every analyst, think-tanker, and DC official likely to appear in major American media; almost every US news network: all perpetuated an imperial fantasy and, thereby, the events now unfolding. Professed shock at the Taliban takeover requires the mystification of both the daily reality of war in Afghanistan and the complicity of the shocked.
I was last in Afghanistan in 2012, a moment of high sheen for the veneer of America’s “nation-building” project. Flush with leaky development funds and percolating with contractors, aid workers, and the associated human capital of foreign occupation, Kabul’s expat bars were busy and new high-rise hotels pierced the Hindu Kush skyline. But veneer it remained, and most everyone knew it. The “Afghanistan Papers,” a classified collection of interviews with US officials published by the Washington Post in 2019, forthrightly demarcated the fabrications peddled by US war-planners for eighteen years.1 The US Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, an office created in 2008 to monitor “progress” in Afghanistan, catalogued failures at almost every step, from invasion to “stabilization” to post-surge withdrawal. Soon after my last departure from the country, the Taverna, a Lebanese restaurant much beloved by foreigners, was attacked by Taliban gunmen in a significant indication of Kabul’s vulnerability. Soon the city’s social scene would drastically contract; blastwalls proliferated even in the seat of US-backed order. The façade of imperial adventure was bearing its threads. But the punditried contrivances, the willful omissions, the fantastical erasures propping up the wartime edifice never wavered. Ten years and tens of thousands of Afghan deaths later, an imperial status quo could still maintain its apparent self-evidence.
What became apparent in those middling years of the American war in Afghanistan was the yawning distance between Kabul and the rest of the country – a distance vaster, in some ways, than that between Kabul’s Emerald City green zone and the surrounding city. From the class composition of the media-NGO-industrial complex, who made of Kabul a staging ground for opportunistic moralisms and the blinkered ventures that result, to the development aid flowing through the city and almost immediately out again to corporate offices in Northern Virginia and holding accounts in Gulf states, Kabul remained a city suspended above wartime reality. While slums were constellating the city’s periphery, Kabul itself became the dreamworld of a country that could be taken or given at will, of a land where allies and enemies were clear and distinguishable, of a nation where legitimacy of leadership could merely be assigned to be popularly accepted. This suspension of disbelief in Kabul is too simply ascribed to an “urban–rural divide”; rather, the isolation of the city was borne of insularity and myopia, self-dealing and denial.
I couldn’t perceive this distance myself; it took trips to Logar province, Parwan, and Panjshir to absorb Kabul’s isolation. From Kabul, it was difficult to see the rare mineral deposits sold off to foreign interests and the displacement, pollution, and resentment that was the result. It was difficult to see the schools that existed only in the spreadsheets of subcontractors, the money for construction diverted to local strongmen while boys were educated at the mosque. It was difficult to see the endorsement for those warlords who supported American military interests while brutalizing local populations. It was difficult to see the “imprecision” – that coldest word – of US bombing raids, which killed hundreds of Afghan civilians yearly. It was difficult to see the predations of the central government from within its murky grip. Most of all, it was difficult to see the Taliban, the real ghosts of America’s war, whose reconstitution as an Afghan power bloc depended upon the corruption, casualties, and generalized catastrophe visible most everywhere in Afghanistan beyond Kabul.
For the convenience of imperial denial displaces not only the longue durée of US Contra-creation – through which Soviet-backed countries like Afghanistan were made ungovernable – or the bankruptcy of Cold War “low-intensity conflict” doctrine. That the Taliban agreed, in 2001, to hand Osama bin Laden to a third country for trial and judgement is a fact both recognized and ignored by those who pushed for the invasion of Afghanistan. That the Taliban agreed to surrender two months after the US invasion, in exchange for the house arrest of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, seems similarly known and unknown (to adopt the language of a primary architect of that invasion). The lack of Afghan support for an inept and kleptocratic central government; the “ghost soldiers” whose salaries are siphoned up the chain of command; the absence of basic provisions (such as food and ammunition) for front-line personnel in favor of an enriched officer class; the capriciousness, if not outright racism, of the US refugee vetting process; the disappeared development dollars and sheer scale of private graft: these are problems long-understood but consistently elided by those with the power to change course. On August 7th, the day the US Embassy warned American citizens to leave Afghanistan “immediately” ahead of the Taliban blitz, the Embassy also posted a job advertisement for a full-time “public engagement assistant” in Kabul. To simultaneously know and to not know provides the flexibility to deny empire’s limits. “We’re an empire now,” Karl Rove insisted, in 2004. “And when we act, we create our own reality.” Empire may ignore its own outside, but an outside still agitates at the borders of the reality empire imposes.
2012 was also the year of the Panjawai massacre in Kandahar province, when a US Army Staff Sergeant killed sixteen Afghan civilians and wounded six others. Nine of the victims were children, and eleven were from a single family. Some of the corpses were burned. While the Taliban issued a statement promising to avenge the families of those killed and insisting on the broader complicity of the Afghan and US militaries, American officials ascribed the massacre to the derangement of one bad apple. As Taliban spokespeople rightly insisted, the massacre indicated a structural condition rather than a derivation from the norm. The military effect of the massacre was the discontinuation, after Afghan government insistence, of “Village Stability Operations,” in which US special forces conduct sweeps of contested or Taliban-controlled rural districts. The political effect was increasing forfeiture of US control over rural populations and the isolation of the Afghan government to district centers.
The Panjawai massacre can be understood as a single data point in the vast network of incidents driving Taliban resurgence after its 2001 defeat and dissolution. Just as the war in Iraq is inextricable from the war in Afghanistan (the latter a country, according to Paul Wolfowitz, without enough “good targets”), the imperial predation of Afghanistan is inextricable from the Taliban’s reconstitution and eventual victory. Billions were spent on air-conditioning for American offices and barracks while slums multiplied across major cities. The US military sanctioned child abuse by allied militias and inflicted sexual violence upon suspected militants while assuming the moral high ground on matters of sexual rights and gender freedoms. Afghanistan transitioned from a minor opium producer under Taliban rule to a supplier of ninety percent of global heroin; one in ten Afghans are now addicts while trillions in drug profits are leached from the country.
The US security establishment has known for years that the Taliban could not be defeated militarily regardless how long the war dragged on, because they knew the war nourished the Taliban and that the war was thereby predetermined to fail. Yet the war staggered onward, because they knew too that, for many, the war in Afghanistan was no failure at all. The big five military defense contractors – Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics – have outperformed the stock market by some 58% since 9/11, spending over $1 billion in lobbying efforts for a return of over $2 trillion from US government contracts.Other private entities (involved in mining, telecommunications, infrastructural development) similarly vampirized an Afghan economy driven by the perpetual-motion machine of militarized “nation-building.”2 Like the Taliban, imperial fantasy could subsist off the fat of a wartime stalemate.
Biden’s claim that the harried US evacuation of Kabul was a result of Afghans’ lack of “will to fight” contrasts with his own admission that a bloody standoff over Kabul could only have led to the same outcome. A calmer US exit relied upon more Afghan death. Once again, the prerogatives of American image management – the maintenance of a fantasy of righteous power and civilized control – supersede engagement with the reality of Afghanistan. In this case, the images could not be thus managed; the fantasy ruptured as a status quo finally broke down.
I once visited a copper mine in Logar Province, south of Kabul. It is the world’s second largest deposit of copper, worth some $40 billion, sold to the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) for almost $3 billion, allegedly following a $30 million bribe to the Afghan Ministry of Mines.3 This was, at the time, the biggest-ever foreign investment and the largest private enterprise in Afghanistan, a country rich in oil, gas, iron ore, lithium, uranium, talc, gold, and other natural resources. The area around the copper mine included a former al-Qaeda training facility (for a time the only camp for foreign jihadists in the country) as well as a broad stretch of active landmines left behind by past conflicts. The open-pit mining planned for the site risks contaminating groundwater with arsenic and sulfuric acid and polluting agricultural areas and population centers as far away as Jalalabad, 150 kilometers to the east. The winning bid for the copper deposit included an advertisement (though no contractual obligation) to build both a small power plant in the villages near the mine and a railway line to export the copper. The 400-megawatt power plant would be powered by coal from a nearby mine (also MCC-operated) and would feed the copper mine and its smelters while providing electricity to local villages which have none. The railway line would run from Western China to the copper mine and on into Pakistan.
None of this infrastructure has been completed, even as preparations for the copper mine resulted in the relocation of nine local villages, some thought to be five hundred years old. Afghan officials in charge of villager relocation were unable to provide me with the number of those affected, though estimates range into the low thousands. Details of the compensation brokered for those deracinated are difficult to acquire. A deal struck between village leaders and the Ministry of Mines is said to have included new jobs, new homes, and new farming land for those affected, yet no arable land has been offered. The Ministry of Mines contends that displaced villagers don’t require land to farm since jobs in the mine will be forthcoming – a controversial opinion in communities that have farmed for generations, and where mining employment seems precarious at best. Some displaced villagers threatened retributive violence.
Control over Afghanistan’s natural resources has been contested throughout the US occupation. Both governmental and insurgent groups have attempted to hold land known to be rich in mineral deposits, while local warlords extract concessions from interested international parties. When I visited the copper mine in 2012, the Taliban were already picking off the skeleton crew of Chinese mining personnel. In 2020, the Taliban attacked a security checkpoint near the mine, killing eight security guards and wounding another five. While money from that mining deal, as from other resource privatizations, was critical to the continued funding of the Afghan National Security Forces – the largest expenditure of the central government – the Taliban also profited from the discontent stirred by the displacement, pollution, and corruption endemic to these extraction projects. Those who can deploy capital to profit from Afghanistan’s weak central government perpetuate, of course, this very weakness; they also strengthen the Taliban as a primary force of resistance to a rapacious status quo. In this manner, the political economy of imperialism funds all sides of the war for Afghanistan. This wartime economy could not result in peace, but only further warring. US plans to shrink this economy through the withholding of aid and cash reserves from a Taliban government will impact only those for whom extraction and its blowback provide no benefit: the more than half of all Afghans who depend on humanitarian aid to survive.
Those who will continue to propound the project of endless war and the policing of imperial frontiers will, no doubt, blame Afghans for the project’s collapse – the native leaders who “lost the will to fight” – while at the same time professing concern for the Afghan people, particularly women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. Much ink has been spilled over the political utility of militarized humanitarianism, though less interest has been taken in the US indulgence of regional warlords, the night raids and arbitrary detentions, the mass surveillance, and the obstructionist visa policies that all harm vulnerable Afghan populations. And yet, on the matter of Forever War’s alternative, the specter of Taliban governance presents a particular challenge. How to reckon with imperialism’s apparent antithesis?
The Taliban’s robust communications apparatus – pamphlets, cassette tapes, mosque sermons, DVDs, websites in various language, tweets from the battlefield, a cluster of social media accounts, even a short-lived mobile app – tracks their exploitation of terrible conditions and their self-presentation as an alternative government-in-waiting. Their return to power in Afghanistan, just ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, also returns us to the moment after those attacks, when Afghanistan was ruled by a brutal patriarchy and the US state searched for ways to assert its will.
If war in Afghanistan had resulted in a quick political settlement with the Taliban in 2001, if Osama bin Laden had been swiftly handed over for judgment, then 9/11 would not have served the historic role demanded by American political leadership. A war quickly concluded may have left Americans wondering why 9/11 happened and what its relationship was to decades of US imperial relations. Instead, consideration of hegemony’s effects could be suspended as the spectacle of US “force projection” intensified. Global empire needed justification, and a prolonged war against terrorism suited that need. The Taliban was happy to oblige; prolonged US occupation ultimately suited their needs too. If, as asserted, Osama bin Laden saw in 9/11 the mechanism for US self-destruction through imperial overreach, American defeat in Afghanistan is not, or not only, the fulfillment of bin Laden’s desire. It is the fulfillment of a system’s requirements, wherein US hegemony – and, sometimes, its opponents – demands an ever-expanding imperial project.
The nationalistic insurgency of the Taliban should not, then, be considered imperialism’s other, but as the Janus-face companion to US global empire. Just as a human rights discourse can be used to maintain imperial command, so may the sign of opposition to foreign occupation reflect the self-same impulse for domination – a domination just as racist, sexist, and reactionary as the rule it seeks to replace. We have seen how Taliban recruitment efforts capitalize on errant airstrikes, rampant corruption, a failing economy, flagrant disregard for social customs, and other affronts to Afghan lives and livelihoods. We have seen how widespread disgust with endless war has positioned the Taliban as a primary alternative to American-authorized ruin. But the content of this particular alternative owes more to Cold War power games and the post-Soviet “peace dividend” than to some inherent tendency toward decolonial justice. For America’s imperial project and the Taliban’s default anti-imperialism were never not mutually perpetuating. Taliban rule is not a departure from US war in Afghanistan; it is the continuation of a violence expended by US empire and of the suffering that surges therefrom.
Every element of the US presence in Afghan life – from visa processing protocols and arbitrary detentions to expanded educational opportunities and a liberalized press – came to seem, for many, like immutable facts of nature, the self-evident status quo of a power Forever and Everywhere. This apparent self-evidence should remind us that the rule of the Taliban may quickly come to seem the same: the inevitable blowback of imperial hubris, the comeuppance of tenacious insurgency, the effects of empire’s cause. And yet, just as ideology produces not knowledge but what we already believe to be true, so too does the present moment – of weakened empire on the one hand, emboldened insurgency on the other – obscure other possibilities for contesting the work of power, imperial and otherwise. As the cruelty of the Terror War resonates around the world, US defeat in Afghanistan does seem singular. Might this defeat, then, mark a retrenchment in US global ambitions? Does Kabul’s fall signal a terminal decline in militarized liberalism? Will those who must simply endure America’s wars no longer be treated as combatants in those wars? Or are there new imperial spasms ahead?
For those lamenting the apparent resemblance with the fall of Saigon, it is worth remembering that America’s global power only increased after that ignoble episode. Today, US Africa Command is expanding its mandate. US Special Operations forces still deploy to over one hundred countries. Sanctions regimes target “rogue nations” from Cuba to Iran, while the Islamic State – that other tempting enemy – hones franchise groups from Indonesia to Mozambique (and indeed in Afghanistan too). The architecture of anti-terrorism endures domestically as well, with the deployment of Homeland Security forces and military-grade weaponry against protesters in the US. The powers granted to American counterterrorism forces in the wake of 9/11 are not being restricted in any significant way. And now the Pentagon announces the establishment of permanent Gulf-based units ready to bomb Afghanistan again. Calls for re-invasion of the country are, as expected, growing. A recent US drone strike in Afghanistan – retaliation for an Islamic State suicide bombing that killed scores at the Kabul airport – killed ten Afghan civilians, including seven children, and no Islamic State operatives. That strike will not be the last.
Guy Debord, in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, insists that “the story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive.” Debord explains how spectators of anti-terrorism must “never know everything about terrorism,” but just enough to convince them that, “compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable.”4 The so-called War on Terror, and prominent responses to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, have proven Debord’s point. But what of those whom this “story” directly affects? How is the story of terrorism inscribed upon a land, a people, a future – inscribed by both the American state and by those contending with that state for accumulation and control? The known and the unknown, the occupier and the insurgent, terror and counter-terror, victory and defeat, war and peace. Such polarities only mystify those choices not made, those interests not served, those lives left to weather yet another storm.
↑1 A typical admission, from Afghan “war czar” under Bush and Obama, General Douglas Lute: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing… We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we’re undertaking… If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.”
↑2 It is worth noting too that the US military generals who commanded the war between 2008 and 2018 have since thrived in the private sector, selling their experience to universities and think tanks, and serving on more than twenty corporate boards.
↑3 According to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, MCC President Zou Jianhui, in a meeting with US Acting Economic Minister Counselor Robert Forden, stated that every step in the preliminary mining process required the approval of numerous Afghan officials, each of whom demanded personal payment.
↑4 Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Imrie (New York: Verso, 1990), 24.