A burka-clad woman walks along a road in Kabul on July 15, 2021. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Hussain

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, has rightly diagnosed the real cause of the American failure in Afghanistan: “Colonial enterprises have always been described as ‘civilizing missions.’” But then he takes a contradictory turn, arguing that anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan soared after the US mission was seen as an invasion. As if it wasn’t an invasion to begin with and was only seen as such after it failed to deliver promised “liberty.”

One can look away from such subjective moral analyses, which are inspired by philosophical ideals deeply hardwired in the Western subconscious. The 17th-century political and moral philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that there is no objective good or evil and only personal perspectives or law define matters as such.

As the US, a power wanting to remake the world in its image, saw its invasion as a “liberating mission,” and with a vast majority of Afghans having no proper representation, Ben-Ami does not see the mission as fundamentally a foreign invasion.

The invasion of Afghanistan and its subsequent failure are not isolated events but epitomize a pattern that defined US foreign policy after World War II. For those on the receiving end of its power, the American empire is in essence a continuation of the British colonial empire.

The US propped up and supported autocrats, monarchs and military dictators across the Global South who willingly became subservient to the Anglo-American world. This happened despite the US claiming democracy promotion as a key principle of its foreign policy.

Western policy pursues amoral self-interest in the guise of democracy. Western academy on the other hand, although arguing that science is value-free, is value-ridden with its bias toward democracy as the only valid and useful form of government. The Western experience is rooted in individualism and is at odds with social experiences more rooted in collectivist ideologies.

Islam, however, is neither completely individual nor completely collectivist, for it sees several spheres of the individual and public life overlapping. If anything, philosophically, Islam and the West should not be mutually exclusive.

Throughout the Global South, states that refused to be clients of the American empire were overtly or covertly invaded. In the past 20 years alone, the US directly invaded or helped its clients invade seven sovereign Muslim countries, killing hundreds of thousands in the process while maiming and displacing countless more.

This is not counting the colonial adventures of long-standing American allies, such as France plundering the African continent, actively supported by the US and the “rules-based order” it created, which is a fancy term for Western neocolonialism.

In Egypt, popularly elected Islamists were overthrown by American allies in the region after receiving American approval. For a non-Islamist, it delivered one simple lesson: Contend with Western client rulers and face authoritarianism or, worse, extermination. But for the Islamists, it offered two: Democracy is anathema to political Islam, and they must look for other means to seek their goals.

The Taliban exhibit what happens when local experiences mutate with revivalist movements in response to recurrent colonial interventions. Many “expert analyses” feed fears of political Islam by a hyperbolic projection of this mutation spilling over to other regions. This is despite the fact the Taliban have no ambition for or record of involvement beyond their borders.

The movement is as “religious” as it is nationalistic, in the geographic sense of the term. The problem is not the Taliban, for they would be perfectly acceptable if they stopped sticking to sharia. The individual, personalized practice of Islam is also not a problem. The United Nations, supported by key state actors, warned the Taliban not to enforce sharia rule. Political Islam, therefore, is the real bogeyman the US hunted, but in the process also created and exacerbated phobia against individual Islam.

Some in the mainstream criticize the Taliban’s treatment of women, citing the burka or the hijab as a sign of patriarchal repression, while many, like the French government, go overboard and categorize the hijab as oppression of sharia.

The West likes to portray Muslim women as damsels in distress waiting to be liberated. Supporters of this portrayal assume that all women in the Islamic world who don the hijab are forced to do so. When challenged, they argue that there is no evidence to prove otherwise. But no one asks where the evidence is that all those who wear the hijab do so out of fear and not choice.

Gender discrimination and even cruelty are globally culturally pervasive and have nothing to do with Islam. For many who don the hijab, it is a matter of choice, and to generalize otherwise is objectification. 

Pew Research survey in 2017 found that a whopping 99% of the Afghan population desired to be ruled by sharia. But such facts are lost as the history of this war is written to suit colonial sensibilities. This history attempts to obfuscate how Afghans generally viewed the American presence as brutal foreign occupation and their exit guaranteeing peace. It rationalizes the assumption that the silent majority supported the occupation, brushing aside the other Afghan women not represented by the 1% elite.

Interpretations of sharia are not homogenous within the Islamic world but the choice to select any interpretation as the supreme law of their lands, if at all, must rest with the local population.

Instead of letting Muslims independently resolve their internal disputes, the US chooses to enforce governments from the outside that suit its interests. It takes sides with a ruling class that doesn’t represent its people, thereby entrenching sociopolitical cleavages. This pattern strengthens the popular narrative that the clash of civilizations is inevitable.

The American invasion of Afghanistan brought this unfolding clash of civilizations front and center. The US has just relegated political Islam to the position of a secondary threat for now, as a bigger bogeyman has arrived on the scene.

Neither the US nor China can let Afghanistan slip into the embrace of the other. Those on the fence shudder to think that one might seek to recruit political Islam as a potent weapon against the other, as was done against the Soviet empire in the past.

Bilal Khan

Bilal Khan is pursuing a PhD in political science at the University of North Texas. His research interests include IR theory, hegemony, political violence and conflict in South Asia.