The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan was colonialism that prevented Afghan self-determination

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<span class="caption">Afghan women march to demand their rights under Taliban rule during a demonstration near the former Women's Affairs Ministry building in Kabul.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">(AP Photo)</span></span>
Afghan women march to demand their rights under Taliban rule during a demonstration near the former Women's Affairs Ministry building in Kabul. (AP Photo)

Colonialism — and, more specifically, decolonization — is a sensitive societal issue. Statues have been pulled down so as not to celebrate the legacies of slave traders or politicians deemed offensive; student activists from Canada to South Africa want to rid themselves of Eurocentric reading lists; and museums are wrestling with how to represent African and North American Indigenous Peoples.

Read more: National Day for Truth & Reconciliation: Universities and schools must acknowledge how colonial education has reproduced anti-Indigenous racism

Questions are also bound to be raised about the occupation of Afghanistan now that the international community has withdrawn and the Taliban have taken over. There can be little doubt that for the past 20 years, Afghanistan has been a colonized state.

Observers both within Afghanistan and outside the country fear the Taliban’s return to power will erase 20 years of human rights progress, particularly for Afghan women. There have already been reports that the Taliban have revelled in sabotaging critical road and infrastructure built by American forces.

Punishing the Taliban for harbouring al-Qaida

The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States was motivated by no other purpose than to end the Taliban’s sanctuary to al-Qaida terrorists who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Indeed, with the exception of the destruction of sixth-century Buddhas and the attention New York Times journalist Bob Herbert paid to the treatment of women under Taliban rule prior to the U.S. invasion, Afghanistan was largely ignored by the international community.

American intervention had nothing to do with human rights and everything to do with U.S. self-interest. Only once the Taliban were removed did President George W. Bush boast: “We continue to help the Afghan people lay roads, restore hospitals and educate all of their children.” This is often a convenient rationalization for colonial rule.

An Afghan boy plays beside a road as the sun sets.
An Afghan boy plays on the side of a road as the sun sets in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

While the West paid lip service to Afghan traditional political institutions, such as the Loya Jirga — an assembly established to select leaders and air the day’s grievances — they could not have operated in the absence of American power, as the U.S. withdrawal has now made clear. This is the unavoidable irony — sustaining local institutions required outside power.

Afghans and non-Afghans alike rightly despair about the future. “It all stands to be lost,” Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, recently told the CBC. Many mainstream news organizations have accused Canada and the West of abandoning and betraying Afghanistan.

But how can we reconcile these competing claims that colonialism of any kind is detrimental with this more specific view that Afghanistan has been “failed by the West?”

Progress was made

Several Canadian diplomats warned against the 2001 invasion of distant, culturally unfamiliar states. Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who spent 130 days as a hostage of al-Qaida in West Africa, argued that a more effective approach is to punish the terrorists rather than engage in too much social engineering.

Intervention cannot be about turning states “into Saskatchewan or Nebraska,” he said in reference to Mali. “And it won’t be about exporting our social safety net or funding a government or anything else.”

There’s no doubt progress was made in Afghanistan, at least initially. Schools were open for everyone, a democratic process was established, the rights of women were acknowledged and women served in the government.

Read more: On the brink of disaster: how decades of progress in Afghanistan could be wiped out in short order

But these rights and gains do not represent self-determination if they are dependent on American power.

So what’s to be done? There have been signs that ordinary Afghans are prepared to take risks of their own in order to protect a way of life more in line with liberal-democratic norms. That’s a positive outcome in terms of the well-being of Afghan women, in particular.

But it would be almost impossible for local forces to take down the Taliban again in the absence of American military power, and it would require further conflict. It’s ironic that with the American withdrawal, the total collapse of the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban victory, Afghanistan is now closer to peace than it has been in decades.

Afghans sort through second-hand clothes
Afghans sort through second-hand clothes at a Kabul park. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Animosity towards the West

Westerners shouldn’t delude themselves that Afghans were unreservedly grateful for the American presence over the past 20 years.

As much as they hate the Taliban, many Afghans also hated the corrupt warlords recruited by the West to impose order in a state with no consolidated political infrastructure.

In many cases, the mere presence of western forces elicited animosity. Indeed, portraying the occupation as an invasion from the West has been an effective way for hardline groups like the Taliban to gain power.

While liberal democracy may be the only acceptable form of government in western countries, it can be a hard sell in Muslim states that were themselves once colonized by those same liberal democracies.

Militiamen loyal to a northern warlord pose for a photo
Militiamen loyal to Ata Mohammad Noor, a powerful northern warlord, pose for a photo in August 2021. (AP Photo/Mirwais Bezhan)

Contrary, then, to what’s been said about Afghanistan being a “failed state,” the country under the Taliban was, and perhaps is again, relatively viable, although theocratic. It was Afghanistan as a liberal democracy that proved to be a failure.

Democratic and human rights often depend on power that can only come from outside. But those who want change only through intervention should also be clear about the moral implications — and the long-term costs — they’re willing to assume in sustaining Afghanistan as a colonial state.

Instead, maybe those concerned about the well-being of Afghan citizens should not be fearful of standing aside and letting them sort out for themselves the kind of country they want.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Ian Spears, University of Guelph.

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Ian Spears does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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