Afghan Lessons for Imperialists

As a lesson in the futility of even ‘liberal’ imperialism – if you can credit the USA with that motive, at least in part – the present situation of Afghanistan could hardly be bettered. The Americans’ (and British) mistake was to allow a mission initially designed to root out terrorists who were threatening other nations, including their own, to morph into a ‘nation-building’ one, with the object of converting the country to ‘liberal democracy’ in its Western form. That was unwise. (As of course was America’s role in backing the Taliban against Soviet-inspired Afghan communism before that.)

Nation-building of this kind, incidentally, was what the British only rarely tried to do in their empire. This was partly because the Brits – sometimes for racist reasons: the ‘natives’ weren’t up to it; partly because of their weakness on the ground: I don’t know if many people appreciate how tiny the British colonial establishment was, and so fearful of rubbing up its subjects the wrong way; but also because many of them were genuinely respectful of the cultures they were supposed to be lording it over, and harboured doubts about their own – usually chose not to interfere in those cultures; indeed, often incurring the resentment of Western-educated indigènes for that reason. In the particular case of Afghanistan, which the British army invaded on several occasions in the nineteenth century, always being beaten back, Britain also – eventually – learned from experience; an experience the US might also have profited from, if she had known any British imperial history. 

Democracy – or liberalism, or ‘freedom’, or whatever – can only very rarely (Japan may be an exception) be imposed on a country from the outside. It has to come from within. I’ve been searching for a quotation I’ve used before from a nineteenth-century imperialist, no less, who said just that, and can’t find it for the moment (stuck out here away from my books!); but no matter: in any case Kajsa tells me that Marx made the same point. That was the huge and tragic mistake that the more culturally confident American Neo-Cons (remember them?) made in Bush’s and Blair’s time; an appalling error from which so many countries – but especially Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – suffered so grievously in the age of late American imperialism, ‘liberal’ or otherwise. 

It may be a general law of empire, in fact, that bad results can often come from the best of motives. You don’t have to believe that imperialists were only after gold or oil or cheap labour or any other form of lucre (although of course many were) in order to be critical of their achievements. Many of the most unfortunate effects of colonial rule were well-meant. (There may be instances the other way round, too: transportation?) That’s important to know, because it frees us from having to make difficult moral judgments about the people and nations who indulged in imperialism. We can make judgments about their judgment, perhaps, which is at the root of my criticism of Tony Blair over the Gulf War; but that’s another thing. Blair and Bush were appallingly wrong; but that doesn’t make them necessarily evil. Foolishness can be as fatal as wickedness, and ignorance – of past history, for example – can make it worse. 

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Afghan Lessons for Imperialists

  1. I do not think that the US tried to impose democracy on South Vietnam. Dulles aborted the Vietnam-wide elections which were to be the means of unifying the country after the Geneva conference. Dulles installed the anti-democratic Diem and abetted his attempts to destroy all forms of legitimate dissent against his rule; appalling atrocities were committed by the Americans in supporting a regime no-one but the US wanted. Dulles, Lodge, JFK, Johnson and Nixon were all every bit as ignorant and racist as Trump and did far more damage. Some of them might have been liberals at home; however, their actions abroad were more in line in with outright barbarism.

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