Monsters, Inc: The Taliban as Empire’s bogeyman

The dominant narrative on the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan erases the decades of imperial violence Afghans suffered.

Taliban fighters patrol in the city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan on 17 August 2021 [EPA]

The 20th anniversary of the so-called “war on terror”, which began with the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, is marked by the withdrawal of United States troops and the “return” of the Taliban to Kabul. In some ways, we are back in 2001, and in others – there is no going back, given that the US war on terror has killed over 800,000 people, and displaced 37 million more.

The events of the past few days have forced on us a number of urgent questions. How should we interpret what happened in Afghanistan? How does one express solidarity with Afghans, and what forms of support should be abandoned? (Perhaps, white liberal feminist tears/fears for Afghan women and girls that still yet justify US imperial violence would be a good start.)

Do Afghan social media campaigns to #SanctionPakistan obscure the role of US empire and unintentionally foster white innocence? The #SanctionPakistan campaign justifiably organises against decades of Pakistani policies of providing material support to the Taliban, viciously racialising Afghan refugees, and leaving its Pashtun and Baloch populations to bear the brunt of state-sponsored Taliban violence, but does this exonerate US empire?

Of course, the coverage of Afghanistan, by the time it arrives on our screens, is churned through narratives that make it familiar to people – in other words, it has been read for us. Violence appears organic to its landscape and the character of its people and is presented as merely another phase, one of many violent chapters.

But the public confusion over what is going on also points to a growing desire for the analysis of events and not a mere telling of events, which requires asking some difficult questions and interrogating the presuppositions that underpin prevailing paradigms on Afghanistan.

We offer ways to understand Afghanistan differently knowing very well how fleeting this desire to know is. As we write with Afghans, what we write now is not for Afghans. Not only is it not what they need right now, it is nothing that non-elite Afghans do not already know, while those in the elite are too preoccupied with their investments and war-profiteering now being threatened to pay attention.

As scholars committed to uncompromising anti-imperial analysis, and who study the “war on terror”, we stand with others in facing the daunting task of offering critical theorising of Afghanistan today that does not add another layer of betrayal of the Afghan population. The dominance of the geopolitics of statecraft and development approaches coupled with the overwhelming whiteness of Afghanistan Studies, however, contributes to what we consider and experience as a longstanding deep crisis of knowledge production on Afghanistan.

What could we say in this moment of “emergency” that could recalibrate sensibilities and understandings for those open to recalibration? Where were the moments of “emergency” in the last two decades? The last four decades? Are we to believe that the past 20 years of war and foreign occupation were only beneficial for the Afghan people? That sovereignty only now has been lost?

The Taliban spin the ease in which it took over Afghanistan in the last days as a show of its popularity. Europe and the US spin it as Afghans are bad fighters who lacked loyalty and surrendered, abandoning their weapons and vehicles so willingly to the Taliban. Who will say that Afghans are simply tired of dying for a war that is not, and never was their war?

We have witnessed in the flurry a curious turn to the earlier defences for the indefensible invasion and the “war on terror” that it initiated. A romanticised offering of the foreign occupation provides deceptive indicators of girls in school, women working (as if this alone indicates anything) or the joys of listening to music, fashion or skateboarding.

Erased in this sentimentality is how Afghans have been subjected to layers of violence in the form of “humanitarianism”. In fact, the inaugural act of violence of the US led-war – the invasion in October 2001- has been portrayed as an act of care.

The insistence on this secondary rationale for the war re-emerges in Afghan commentators and development advocates, declaring the US withdrawal as “betrayal” and “disappointment”. An accusation of dispensing with responsibility betrays an internalised imperial paternalism: governing the natives who cannot govern themselves.

To illustrate this tangled intersection of humanitarianism, progress and violence, we refer to the long-term fieldwork of one of the co-authors of this piece. The research, from 2006 to 2012, involved accompanying widows to monthly ration distribution sites throughout Kabul.

Women who relied on food rations were positioned to compete with one another for scarce humanitarian “care”.  The number of widows assisted was being reduced, and ultimately phased out as neoliberal aid mandates attached to the occupation stipulated that aid be converted to work, eventually forcing widows to perform menial work for basic food.

In an absurd, Kafkaesque exercise, widows had to prove their aid worthiness by answering the same questions posed to them every single month. Over and over again they were required to give a rushed rendering of their lives, corroborating that they had been widowed – a monthly performance of their widowhood.

As the aid programmes kept reducing their numbers of beneficiaries the widows observed that not all causes of widowhood were regarded as equal:

“We figured out that if you tell them that the Taliban killed your husband, you get support. We are not useful and they do not care if we tell them the Soviets killed our husbands, or if our husbands died in the Kabul wars in the 1990s, or if our husbands died young of curable diseases, or from stress or from heroin use. They only care if the Taliban made us widows,” the women said.

Two women had crafted compelling even if fictive narratives about how the Taliban killed their husbands. They asked for help in doing the math so that everything added up – the years they claimed their husbands died coincided with the ages of their children, etc – so the deaths of their husbands by the Taliban was credible.

There were seventeen years, at least, of violence and war prior to the Taliban, yet the extent of the duration of violence Afghan women had experienced was unimportant to imperial humanitarians as they “saved” them. Personal and social histories of violence were erased and only violence by the Taliban was acknowledged. Women widowed in the four decades of serial war had to alter their intimate histories with war and violence just to be eligible enough to benefit from an occupying power’s “care”.

We offer this example not to exonerate the Taliban, nor to suggest that the armed group is not an actual author of violence, or more precisely – to suggest that the Taliban making women widows is just calculated fiction. The Taliban kills, makes widows, and will make more. The Taliban’s violence, however, cannot be seen as a pathology.

Its violence is a “normal” manifestation of exceptionally abnormal global machinations and treachery on the part of a willing bunch of actors – listing only the most significant: the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Israel, the former Soviet Union, the UK, Europe, and Afghan puppet leaders and commanders, all who participated in creating the conditions of possibility for forever incalculable violence unleashed upon Afghans.

By unhinging the global from the origins of terror, it became possible to provincialise it, localising culpability for terror into discrete bombable sites/zones, as was the case for Afghanistan. The Taliban is a remnant of these global machinations, and yet exceeds them. It is monstrous, as it materialises the cumulative cunning of an unhinged world. Afghans certainly need not be accountable for the Taliban, or to it.

What is at stake for us is recognising how certain violence is entirely obscured, erased even, when the Taliban is present. Widows are made to rewrite histories of violence for survival. Communities terrorised and made collective suspects by an occupation which treated every Afghan man as a potential militant, every Afghan woman as needing to be saved in the banality of evil that is modern state warfare.

Deaths authored by the Taliban are registered by our now sedimented sensorium, as more deathly than the deaths of Afghans by US drone strikes, air strikes, the deaths by Afghan militias (death squads) trained and funded by the CIA, the deaths of Afghans by the most criminal commanders, their militias and the Afghan state that embraced them, and certainly more deathly than Afghans dying en route crossing multiple borders, as they confront another side of the same racialised, securitised, militarised architecture they were fleeing.

The “toxic masculinity” of the Taliban fighters is somehow more toxic than unrestrained white violence, white occupation, white torture, white drones. Theirs is a violence that is otherworldly, and unlike the West, it is savage, intentional and remorseless. Theirs is a violence that sets the boundaries between the barbarian and the modern, “us” and “them”.

Why have we come to see the logic of imperial violence on the Afghan population as more logical, instead of as (or more) illogical, as (or more) illegitimate, as (or more) repulsive as Taliban violence?

Prevailing theories of the Taliban are not only racialising in the ways they present the group as a violent pathology, but also as belonging to a rural insurgency, always returning the Talib to a rural conservative Pashtun of the South – an unruly backward figure who prevents the nation’s progress.

It is also a strange reverse of the romanticism of ethnocultural nationalism which locates authenticity in those with roots in the land, here the nation is birthed in the urban centre, where modernity, not land, has breathed life into it.

How does one see beyond the global war on terror’s piles of bodies? Can we? The US empire certainly wants us to. Recent reports of war crimes by the Australian and British armies which showed Afghanistan had become a killing field, as white men so desired, gesture to the continued power of white innocence, white redemption and its global reach. Western violence, to borrow from cultural anthropologist Talal Asad, is presented as unintentional and rational, despite its murderous trail, and its overarching intent is always just. War criminals remain heroes.

We will mainly hear from a class of Afghans in the coming weeks whose careers have been forged in the war industry of “care”, which gave birth to a vampiric aid industry, both committed to maintaining Afghan dependency, even as they speak of women’s empowerment, education and progress. Another disciplining effect on Afghan discourse in an effort to be heard. Another symbolic violence that silences, even as it gives Afghans a platform.

The West loves its monsters as much as it loves its freedom. The war on terror is often told like a fairytale, of Muslim women as damsels in distress, and white knights bravely fighting brutes to free them. Monsters repel as much as they fascinate, but ultimately, they mask the violence which made them.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.