Why the West won’t let Afghanistan define itself

From Rudyard Kipling to Joe Biden, the West has stuck to its orientalist misunderstanding of Afghanistan and its people, writes Hameed Hakimi.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 28 July 2023 2 minute READ

Western perceptions of Afghanistan are rooted in the colonial past. In the first half of the 19th century, British colonial officers such as Mountstuart Elphinstone, Alexander Burnes and Charles Masson were the pioneers of a ‘knowledge community’ which defined the country for the empire and its subjects. The result painted the country as a combination of ‘violent geographies’ and places of ‘exception’ which lay beyond the enlightenment and civilization.

Such depictions of a mysterious land inhabited by ‘fierce people’ or ‘savages’ also occurred in novels and literature. In one of his poems entitled The Young British Soldier, published in 1890, Rudyard Kipling reinforced this image of savagery, extending it to Afghan women: 

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains 
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Blatant orientalism

Such a blatant orientalist prism would have felt strange to those familiar with the contributions to civilization from the people in the area that spans today’s Afghanistan and its surrounding regions. Rumi, Avicenna, Jami, Sanai and others hail from these places and continue to have relevance. Fast forward to the aftermath of the Global War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks, and such lazy cliches and colonial tropes re-emerge, the most common being Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of empires’.

Yet, from the perspective of Afghans and their neighbours in the region, the country has hardly been intellectually or economically isolated. It was part of the historical Silk Road that connected China to the Roman Empire and allowed mutual trade and the exchange of ideas. Afghanistan was not only invaded by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, among others, but their rule and influence continued for generations.

The West continues to see Afghanistan as a burial site for civility

Today, the West continues to see Afghanistan as a burial site for civility, where outsiders inevitably face trouble in their encounters with ‘the unruly Afghan tribes’, a belligerent people in a harsh terrain immutably involved in conflicts.

When the Taliban seized power in August 2021, US President Joe Biden said: ‘The events we’re seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united and secure Afghanistan − as known in history as the graveyard of empires.’ He went on to claim that America’s 20-year intervention could not ‘overcome centuries of history’ in Afghanistan. But Biden’s claims that the US has no responsibility for the chaos in Afghanistan have been debunked, not least by Congressionally funded studies.

Colonial legacies

The West’s dominance in global politics has meant that colonial legacies continue to colour perceptions of Afghanistan. This is not restricted to academia alone. From journalist reporting to the scores of ‘experts’ designing development and aid projects, and advising political and military leaders, western dominance has been palpably evident in Afghanistan after 2001.

The fusion of military and humanitarian civilian programmes such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams allowed western experts to be embedded with Nato troops throughout the country. For example, the Human Terrain System (HTS), a US army programme, embedded social scientists, primarily anthropologists, with military units to help them understand social and cultural aspects of Afghans’ lives.

In practice, this was hardly anthropology and seemed to serve the US counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan. Social scientists embedded with the HTS offered self-aggrandizing accounts of their experiences while depicting rural Afghans in a patronizing, purely negative image as rugged and hard-bitten who owned emaciated livestock and had malnourished children.

In Kabul, a community of western analysts, aid workers and private security firms, akin to the 19th-century colonial ‘knowledge community’, dominated portrayals of Afghanistan. They also played a central role in framing western policy on the country, blocking Afghans from having a meaningful say in how their country was represented in the West’s policy decisions.

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When the US military intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, President George W Bush justified the invasion in part by promising to ‘provide humanitarian aid’ to Afghans. At the same time, the Bush administration refused to allow any political process to integrate the Taliban into the new polity.

Nearly 20 years later, Biden’s assertion was that Afghans were unable to govern properly and that even empires failed to ‘unify’ Afghanistan. In both instances, Afghanistan and Afghans have been seen through a prism of subordination.