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“Their Taliban, our Taliban, everybody’s got a Taliban,” left filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted, with an image that juxtaposed Taliban fighters with Republican Trump-supporting insurrectionists on January 6. For Moore, the American right trying to overthrow the election in the United States and the Taliban seizing power in Afghanistan are part of the same phenomenon of reactionary authoritarian intolerance.
Their Taliban, our Taliban, everybody’s got a Taliban. They’re at their best when they confiscate the halls of power. pic.twitter.com/Wi8fMSz7nx
— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) August 17, 2021
As a progressive myself, I can see how it’s certainly tempting to draw parallels between rabid misogynist religious movements over there and rabid misogynist religious movements closer to home. But it’s also important to think about why we’re so eager to project our domestic political situation on a country and a movement with a very different history and very different struggles. Our eagerness to use Afghanistan as a winning argument in domestic political disputes doesn’t help Afghan people. On the contrary, it’s part of the dynamic of imperialism that has made our involvement in the country, and in many others, so destructive.
Following President Biden’s decision to end America’s 20-year war and remove troops from Afghanistan, much of the country has fallen to the Taliban. This is the same movement that imposed a harsh regime of blanket oppression, especially on women, when they were last in power. Taliban successes have sparked a wave of commentary in America as people from across the political spectrum try to use Afghanistan’s plight to advance their own causes and denigrate their enemies.
Conservative Never Trump commenter Cathy Young, for example, suggested the Taliban proved that “every progressive who has ever emitted mewling noises about how ‘problematic’ Enlightenment liberalism is” should shut up forever. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton blamed the Taliban resurgence on a US military weakened by “critical race theory,” the right’s current domestic bugaboo. Fox News host Tucker Carlson used the chaos in Afghanistan to double down on standard MAGA rhetoric, comparing desperate Afghanistan refugees to an “invading force,” and linking Democrats to immigrants. And, again, Michael Moore took the opportunity to link the Taliban’s reactionary agenda to the reactionary agenda of the right in the US.
In his influential 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said explained that Western understanding of the East is a projection. Discourse and scholarship about the East isn’t really meant to understand people elsewhere, he says, but is instead a way to justify Western dominance and highlight Western virtue. “From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself,” Said argues. “Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”
Said was talking most directly about scholars and academics in this passage. But his broader point is that the West doesn’t really care about the East in itself, seeing it only as a forum in which to play out its own dreams and to grind its own axes. The West’s interest in Afghan people as people is limited. We’re much more focused on their utility as rhetorical props to advance interests and agendas we do care about.
When we invaded Afghanistan two decades ago, we didn’t do so to help Afghan people. We did so because the destruction of the World Trade Center had unleashed a great wave of anger which could be channeled into and stoked by military adventure. In the US, the Taliban were seen as the main global icons of radical Islamic terrorism and violence, so it made sense to target them even if the actual people responsible in this case were Saudi Arabians probably acting without state sanction. The US claimed that we invaded because the Taliban were hiding Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the attacks. But President George W. Bush later said he wasn’t really concerned with Bin Laden personally. Symbolism was more at issue than any one person.
Similarly, in announcing the Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden insisted that he would not pass on the war in Afghanistan to a “fifth president.” His focus for the future is not on the Afghan people, but on how the war will affect a future political leader in the United States. Afghanistan in Biden’s imagination is a tragedy and a problem for some unknown powerful Westerner. As for the Afghan people themselves, Biden blames them for lacking “the will to fight for the future.”
The point isn’t that we should stay in Afghanistan. For what it’s worth, I don’t think we should. Rather, the point is that, invade or withdraw, occupy or leave, left, right, or center, in American discourse and American consciousness, the Afghan people hold little space in themselves. We care about them as they are useful to our own political goals or as they can advance our own desires.
Imperialism is a destructive force. One important reason is that colonizers have no accountability to, and therefore little interest in, the people whose borders they violate. The invasion of Afghanistan was a disaster for people there and the withdrawal is a disaster. Most Americans don’t really care, except insofar as the various disasters can be used to score political points.
Our casual solipsism is perhaps even more deadly than our malice. If there’s one depressing lesson to be learned from the current discourse, it’s that America isn’t interested enough in Afghanistan to learn anything from it.