Afghanistan and Progressive Foreign Policy

Paul Thompson and Frederick Harry Pitts

With many in the UK and elsewhere depressed and heartbroken by events in Afghanistan, some quarters of the left have seemingly exulted in the defeat of the US and UK forces and their Afghan allies. For some within the Labour Party and the wider left, there was only one lesson to be drawn – the necessary failure of what the likes of Yanis Varoufakis labelled a “liberal-neocon imperialist” intervention and occupation.

Left commentators like Paul Mason are right to highlight how liberal interventionism has been undermined by the legacy of the Blair and Bush era. Underpinned by overly optimistic fantasies of a new unipolar global order of peace and prosperity, Western governments vastly underestimated the practical, political and military obstacles to creating new, democratic institutions in divided and economically underdeveloped societies, ruled by patriarchal, sectarian political elites. 

It cannot be denied that the experience in Afghanistan confirmed how difficult it is to build up state capacity from scratch. But the kind of failure associated with the likes of Iraq cannot be the sole prism through which every other security or humanitarian intervention is framed. Setting aside the merits and justifications of the original 2001 NATO-backed intervention in response to the 9/11 attacks, the events that followed in no way fit an easy narrative of imperialist occupation and oppression.

There are doubtlessly many things that could and should have been done better or differently. This is particularly true of the period following the cessation of the military campaign in 2014. But any balance sheet would show real advances in women’s rights, democracy, human security, civil society and economic development. It is important for the left to acknowledge these small gains, however piecemeal and imperfect, and their underpinning conditions of possibility and preservation.

However, some left responses to emergent foreign policy issues find themselves overburdened by the longstanding conceptual baggage of ideas like ‘imperialism’, squeezing out room for analysis of these concrete achievements and the threats posed to them. Such responses purport to analyse the world through a historically ‘materialist’ lens focused on how material factors determine foreign policy, but this theoretical framework ironically fails to produce any practical politics matched to the real material specificities of lives in danger, freedoms at risk and the means available to protect them.

In a context where the relatively small Western military presence represented a thin line protecting a fragile set of basic freedoms for the people of Afghanistan, rushing to crow about the defeat of the ‘occupying powers’ runs the risk of affirming a return to fundamentalist rule – as is now laid painfully bare, the only plausible alternative to the emergent and imperfect democratic experiment instituted following the Taliban’s removal from power nearly twenty years ago. The left’s response should be measured against this reality, on the basis of the world as it really is rather than the make-believe world called into being by ill-fitting conceptualisations of ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’.

Mason and others are wrong to argue that because of the failure of a particular model of liberal interventionism, there is nothing that democratic nations can do in situations like Afghanistan. Refracting all foreign policy through the lens of military intervention, the anti-imperialist left imaginary lacks interest in the other diplomatic and humanitarian means at the disposal of democratic nations confronting challenges like that in Afghanistan. Open Labour’s recent statement on what could have been done militarily and politically to prevent a total Taliban victory is a rare exception, emphasising humanitarian intervention to preserve what Mary Kaldor calls ‘human security’.

Low points on the left

Open Labour’s statement was one of the few effective responses to emerge from the left in the last week or so, admirably shorn of apologism and score-settling over the Blair years. Particular lowpoints of the left response included Varoufakis’s condescending call for Afghan women to ‘hang in there sisters’, the Socialist Campaign Group’s proposal for reparations to be paid to the new Taliban-led government, Stop the War’s absurd claim that the intervention had served ‘no purpose’, Young Labour’s conspiracist statement demeaning Afghan attempts at democracy, and Jeremy Corbyn’s call for ‘regional powers’ like China, Russia and Iran to step in and help steer the incoming Taliban regime.

Met by understandable criticism on social media, these salvos exposed to greater scrutiny a longstanding moral and ethical malaise among the left. Indeed, in light of the present situation these abject sentiments may well serve to sway some to abandon the default and ultimately disastrous foreign policy positions that have been par for the course among too many on the left for years.

What stood out, for many, was the complete lack of empathy for those about to lose freedoms and, in some cases, lives. Disavowing any immediate or direct actions, the most the left offered were transactional pledges of ‘solidarity’ and calls on the government to take more refugees. While the latter is of course welcome, the overall response did little to conceal a casual disregard for any practical defence of the small but meaningful gains made by women, minorities and civil society in Afghanistan itself.

Whilst for some the dogmatic and tone-deaf response of the anti-imperialist left has been brought into sharp relief by recent events, it is no aberration. Last year we co-authored a pamphlet on progressive foreign policy for the Labour Campaign for International Development and Open Labour, critically reconstructing the worldview that drives the dominant left approach to conflict and violence beyond our immediate national borders.

Mischaracterised on the hard left as ‘warmonger internationalism’ and the hard right as a work of ‘wokery’, the pamphlet focused on the outdated and binary ‘campism’ of a substantial, though by no means all-encompassing, portion of the contemporary left. This campist mentality grants agency solely to a Western bogeyman seen as responsible for all the ills of the world. Meanwhile, it excuses the actions of any actor opposed to the West as an automatic and inevitable reflex. This ‘resistance’, no matter how authoritarian or reactionary, is understood as the unthinking consequence of material determination. At the same time, this dehumanising perspective patronises local forces and mobilisations that actively resist these authoritarians and reactionaries, portraying movements for democracy and human rights as the unwitting dupes or complicit stooges of Western hegemony.

Ironically, this campist worldview rhetorically deprives its favoured counterhegemonic forces of agency, preserving the West as the only significant global actor. The ‘rest’, meanwhile – an amorphous amalgam of rising powers, subordinate states and liberation movements – can only limply respond to its evil deeds. This denial of agency does little to advance the cause of self-determination and democracy, and leaves the left bereft of an intellectual basis to plausibly account for the repressive, destabilising and even genocidal actions of states and movements perceived as opposing ‘the West’. Moreover, by solipsistically seeing the West as the centre of the world, the campist left seeks a nationalistic ‘peace in one country’ at any cost, demanding the UK, US and allies wipe their hands of the war and violence that will continue to be experienced by civilians elsewhere.

This orientation extends to Afghanistan, where the left recognises only the Western intervention and overlooks the role of other powers in the Afghan conflict, aswell as its centrality to geopolitical contests between them. The left lays responsibility for the failure of this ‘unwinnable conflict’ solely at the door of the US, UK and NATO forces. Yet the Taliban is no marginal, ragtag militia. It has been armed and supported in various ways not only by factions in Pakistan, but also buttressed to some extent by other regional powers and Gulf states, few of whom had an interest in a democratic Afghanistan. In other words, there was a lot more than one ‘intervention’ going on and those who armed and backed one of the most repressive and reactionary political forces on earth bear the primary responsibility for what we are now seeing unfolding, rather than those who, until recently, sought to combat it.

Tilting at windmills

The campist approach also obscures the role of other global and regional powers like China, Russia and Iran – the importance of which to contemporary geopolitics also seems lost on the US and the UK. In this way, the disastrous and avoidable denouement of the coalition’s exit from Afghanistan is a matter of profound regret not only for Afghans, but also for its wider strategic consequences. Whilst governmental and public weariness with so-called ‘forever wars’ is understandable, seeking to shape foreign policy primarily in line with the contingencies of internal political calculations has limitations. Regardless of whether we wish to turn and look away, persistent diplomatic and foreign policy challenges will continue to face democratic nations and shape their domestic politics.

President Biden will feel this more than most. In our Open Labour pamphlet and elsewhere, we cautiously evaluated the extent to which Biden would represent continuity with presidents Obama and Trump on the role of the US in the wider world, including in the Middle East and other conflict zones like Afghanistan. We documented how the US had ceded ground to Russia in shoring up the Assad regime in Syria, and how Iran had manifested its regional aspirations unchallenged through the proliferation of proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the centrality of Afghanistan to broader global rivalries seems lost on Biden, aswell as his UK allies. Together they aspire to leave behind commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as part of an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ in support of systemic competition with China.

But this is a mistaken way to wage a ‘new cold war’ where China itself is flexing its muscles diplomatically and militarily beyond its Pacific backyard – including in Afghanistan, with which it shares a border. China’s likely recognition of the Taliban regime paves the way for investment in reconstruction and rare earth mineral extraction characteristic of a growing network of client states and dependent economies. The failure of both the Trump and Biden administrations to anticipate these consequences exhibits precisely the lack of joined-up thinking weakening liberal democracy worldwide at a time of crisis.

We were hopeful, at the time of Biden’s inauguration, that he would realise the promise of his pitch to reassert American power on the world stage as a guarantor of free societies, human rights and liberal democracy, as well as spark a wave of industrial, economic and social renewal capable of providing a progressive and competitive alternative to the authoritarianism of China. Unfortunately, events of the past weeks may fatally undermine his plans, including for a ‘summit of democracies’ to bypass the weakness and complicity of UN bodies.

Labour’s response

With the left some distance from power and influence, then, the Afghanistan debacle is primarily a story of the complacency of the centre and right. But it is particularly incumbent on the left, in its historical specificity as an emancipatory force, to recognise and confront the consequences of an eroding liberal world order for the preservation of local and global spaces for radical or reformist politics. Recent events in Afghanistan expose some of the major intellectual and ideological faultlines in the Labour Party. Given impetus by the fresh approach to foreign policy introduced by Lisa Nandy in the Shadow Foreign Affairs brief, the leadership’s response to the Afghanistan crisis shows that the mainstream of the party has overcome the severe limitations of the Corbyn years.

It is a common refrain that foreign policy does not fly on the doorstep, but occasionally a crisis emerges that resonates with a public, whose understanding has been aided by excellent on-the-ground journalism. As Tom Hinchcliffe notes, Afghanistan is one such example. Labour have adeptly occupied some of the terrain this has opened up to advance critiques of the government’s handling of the crisis. Aswell as chiming with the public mood, the party’s response has ably highlighted the incapacity of the conservative and populist right to live up to the defence of liberal democracy projected in the government’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda.

The unfolding human tragedy in Afghanistan transcends political calculations, but the party’s positioning on recent events has had the effect of turning what has been a serious weakness in recent years – defence and foreign policy – into an emerging strength. As the Biden presidency continues Trump’s isolationism in the US, and the Johnson government exposes the empty reality of Global Britain, Labour has the opportunity to repair trust and confidence around defence and foreign policy at a time it is slipping away elsewhere on the political spectrum.

Whilst representing a vital step in Labour’s moral, political and electoral renewal, this will be small solace to those subject to Taliban tyranny and Islamic State terrorism in Afghanistan. There are hopeful signs that allies will step into the space the US vacated to carve out an island of human security amidst the crisis. Echoing calls made by Open Labour and others, the French government were leading efforts at a UN level to guarantee military provision of safe passage to civilians in Afghanistan. Sadly and somewhat typically, the UN Security Council left the proposals in a significantly watered-down state. Nonetheless, humanitarian corridors or safe zones are just one example of what can be done beyond outdated dogma and craven calculation.

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