Afghanistan: Beyond the Blinkers of Imperialism

By Durkhanai Ayubi

Afghanistan today has been built upon narratives which depend upon the erasure of its vast history and the dehumanisation of its people. 

It is upon the impacts of this erosion that the indefinite occupation of its lands and the obscure war on terror have been justified by occupying forces. As its historical memories have been depleted, and its narratives seized and distorted at will, it has been possible to recast Afghanistan as worthless, notable only for its troubles. So pervasive has the power of this reduction been, that in the almost two decades since the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and its allies in 2001, not only has there has been little scrutiny of the atrocities which have taken place against the Afghan people, but all failures have been recast as purely a consequence of Afghan inadequacy and irretrievability.  

Though much has been accounted for in terms of losses to the forces occupying Afghanistan, the subject of this piece is to reflect upon the implications of this persistent bludgeoning to the memory and the future of Afghanistan and its people. Beyond the narratives which cast it as irreconcilably lost in a vortex of conflict, and beyond its popular reimagining as a region to either be saved or suppressed, there is a depth to Afghanistan that must be retrieved. 

In doing so, it gives us pause – imploring us to reassemble the memory of Afghanistan, stretching past the claustrophobic confines in which its history has been trapped and thereby enriching the basis upon which its future can be imagined. And importantly, it allows us to interrogate further the universal implications of having developed a world in which power is authoritarian and masked. It is perhaps timely, and unavoidable, to begin to question the direction of a narrative of power which feasts upon human vulnerability, and upon the subsequent excision from broader societal consciousness, of any traces of the humanity of those being stripped bare.

It is here, with the now global entrenchment in such hidden visions of power, that our interrogation begins. 


One of the most damaging, and widely accepted, myths of our time has been that imperialism no longer exists. But Afghanistan today – cast in the shadow of the fracturing and polarising nature of a brutalising vision of power, dressed in language that disguises its plunder – stands testament to the persistent habit of imperialism.  


The concept of ‘imperialism’ today is closely attributed to the colonial exploits of the past, of mainly the British Crown and the French, whose creation of enslaved settler territories across the world peaked during the nineteenth century. With most of these colonies formally dismantled at the end of World War Two, and with the global shift towards international charters designed to recognise national self-determination that took place alongside, imperialism is now widely imagined to be a closed chapter of history. But colonial occupation was just one limb of a wider system of imperialism, which has not only never ceased, but at a time when the extent of technological power and the interconnected nature of human society is unprecedented, is more relevant than ever. 

Imperialism is a mindset – a belief that lesser cultures exist, whose people are subordinate and inferior, and who can be bludgeoned or coaxed (and often a noxious mix of the two) into submitting their bodies, lands, resources and histories to the political, ideological and socio-economic practices of dominating forces. While in the past, imperialism was a more brazen affair – with colonisation openly explained in the works of national poets like Britain’s Rudyard Kipling as “the White Man’s Burden” – today, it has morphed; hidden behind wars built on lies and obscured by the language of national security, altruism, freedom and moral imperative. These narratives permeate through, seeping into the bones of the collective national (and increasingly, global) body, with the power to transform even mass acts of aggression into acts of seeming benevolence. 

This occupation of lands, bodies and minds under the barely veiled guise of justice, is what the anti-imperialist, and revolutionary, Algerian writer, Frantz Fanon, called “racist-humanism”. For Afghanistan today, such schizophrenic visions of power have manifested in the form of its indefinite militarisation, the control of its affairs and the imposed administration of its government. In classic imperialist style, the justification of this intervention has been moralised such that it no longer constitutes an offence at all, but rather is glorified and praised as the American quest to eradicate the world of evil, while civilising and rehabilitating Afghanistan.

In a tranche of papers released in December 2019 by The Washington Post, named “The Afghanistan Papers”, evidence of the inherently condescending and indifferent nature of the occupation of Afghanistan by America and its allies, is laid bare. The Afghanistan Papers are a series of interviews with key strategic personnel involved in the war in Afghanistan, on the “lessons learned” during the years of intervention, as well as memos to and from then Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. What is revealed is a callous, but always morally and nationalistically defended, seizure of an entire land and its people. 

While the interviewees and memos provide disturbing details on the chaos fuelled in Afghanistan by the absence of coherent strategy, the billions of American dollars pumped into the nation never accounted for and used to fund corruption, the direct enrichment of war criminals and warlords facilitated by American policy, the militarisation of the nation based on decisions devoid of knowledge and data, the appointment of foreign aid based on enriching individuals and companies, and the poverty of the relationships between America and its nominated Afghan government – the greatest revelation of all, is the extent and depth to which imperialism is entrenched, remaining unproblematic and unseen. What is documented is a systemised absence of the need to even question the ideas that liberation is America’s to provide or that a nation should be rebuilt in the image of those which violently occupy it. 

To the attuned senses, what these gaps and silences scream of is the very foundation of injustice upon which the dismantling of a people is based. What oozes out of The Afghanistan Papers is a meta-narrative upon which imperial power depends – one of the excision and dehumanisation of Afghan people. There are few Afghan voices, and those that do appear – like that of diplomats, governors or advisors, are captured by and subordinate to American directives. Where Afghan people are spoken of, they are divided into the category of “good guys” and “bad guys”, or, as described by one Special Forces operative, “a crusty lot of downtrodden moochers, who are as plentiful and indestructible as rocks”. This same operative signs off in his letter with the motto De Oppresso Liber and details his role in Afghanistan as “slaying dragons…sparing damsels…and the wholesale liberation of the oppressed”. This disdain for those who the occupying forces were tasked to train, is expressed similarly by another unnamed soldier, who describes these Afghans as “awful – the bottom of the barrel in a country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.” 

The indifference to Afghan people and their humanity is only further confirmed through the global response to the release of The Afghanistan Papers. As a story, for the extent of its revelations, it was largely ignored – the response by global media tepid and cautious. Where concern was expressed, it was largely to defend the right of American people not to be deceived by their leaders or to lament the sinking of a trillion dollars into a nation which, as demonstrated by its ongoing unrest, cannot, after all, be helped out of its own barbarism. The other main reflection – offered with a dampened, but ultimately unquenched sense of paternalism – was to provide supposedly critical analysis of the admirable, but futile, ambitiousness of “foreign-policy projects”, “nation-building” and attempts at the transformation of Afghanistan by various American Presidents. 

So perfect is the machine of imperialism, that its language sanitises war and violence into heroism. So deafening is the white noise of this machine, that concerns of every other hue are drowned out. So acutely accepted as natural order has its power norms become, the narratives it chooses to see and those it chooses to block, based on what helps or hinders its own aims, define global culture.  

And in this redirection of the world at will, Afghanistan’s narratives have been consigned to the convenient temporal slither in which it can be defined by the emergence terror and Islamic fundamentalism. Part of this censorship depends upon the redirection of our concerns. A large part of the Western discourse about Afghanistan remains fixated on the burqa, in a type of forceful and hubristic feminism, explicable only in its inseparability from the imperialist mindset from which this concern is born. This lamentation of Afghan women as the icons of the barbarity of Islam and the East, and the global focus on this, as though it were an end within itself rather than a symptom of decades of tension and subversion fuelled by warring interests in the region, serves to deeply normalise the unspoken imperial narrative. The confronting and oppressive nature of the burqa – and, importantly, the focus on it – further entrenches Afghan dehumanisation, normalising the sly narratives of liberation which justify freedom by force. 

In order for narratives to be redirected in this way – not only distracted by, but trapped in, dialogues which reinforce imperialism – all contextualising prehistory must be erased. 

Struck from the record, is the incubation of this fundamentalism through America and its allies flooding the nation with money and weapons as early as the seventies and eighties during the Cold War era, to counteract the influence of Soviet Russia. The proxy wars being fought between Soviet Russia and America during this era in Afghanistan, formed the foundation upon which the present American occupation of the nation is closely linked. It was during this time that the modern history of the nation was scarred by the mass physical and cultural exodus that took place as a result of the violence created by the warring Western capitalist and Soviet communist ideologies. 

During this era, an extreme version of Islam, until then unknown to Afghan history, was being encouraged into reality by covert American operations funding rebel groups to counteract the effects of what was, at the time, Afghanistan’s communist government. The mass civilian killings and upheavals began, with almost half of the population of Afghanistan becoming internally or externally displaced as refugees. The aura of the nation was scrambled, lateral violence took over, and the Taleban emerged. It was upon the basis of this vulnerability that Afghanistan could so easily be derided and susceptible to, years later, having a war on terror unleashed upon it.

But before this scrambling still, Afghanistan was on a trajectory towards evolution and democratisation according to its own spiritual and cultural resonances. These efforts were not perfect, and like the histories of all nations, had its flaws, but these were, in the fifties and sixties, attempts by its leaders and thinkers to steer it through transformations based on the teachings and philosophies of its own legitimate narratives, rather than on the basis of enforced ideologies. The nation’s constitution of 1964 stands as a beleaguered testimony to its efforts towards socio-economic liberalisation, including women’s rights and education reforms. 

Importantly, also censored is the region’s ancient history and its significance in the evolution of the story of human civilisation. Sitting at the centre of the ancient Silk Roads, what is today Afghanistan saw the ebb and flow of the dynasties and philosophies which underpin the shared history of East and West. To reconjure just a few slithers of its past, is to see a picture of the now long denied history of the interconnections that define the human story.  On its ancient lands, Zoroastrianism was born; Alexander married Roxanne; the furthest reach of ancient Athens sat as a Greek city in Aï Khanum, complete with an Acropolis, citadel and gymnasium; Buddhism flourished and then spread East into China; and the Moghul dynasty was born. 

It is from the heat of histories such as these that the aura of Afghanistan was forged. But for as long as these are truths that remain buried, the nation is bleached of all intellectual and human value. The violence against it is rendered palatable, the racist-humanism to which it is subjected is rendered benevolent, and the obliteration of its tomorrows is rendered inconsequential.

This noting and normalising of histories of a nation outside of that which is used to justify its oppression, is useful, not as an attempt at exceptionalism, but simply to say we exist. We had histories before, and we anticipate futures beyond, the disfiguring imagination of an enduring, invisible imperialism. 

Today, in a world of seemingly perpetual crises, the problems of the Afghan people may seem distant, easy to exploit or to sideline and ignore. But in truth, it is the same vision of power that prevails in Afghanistan – that is an idea of power that is eclipsing, entitled in its belief of rehabilitating others in its image, and that reserves dignity only for a few – that has led to the manifestation of many of our present global dilemmas. Compounded by the reality of a world that is increasingly knitted together, the travesties unfolding in places like Afghanistan, can no longer be ignored. 

Imperialism may at first seem like a bygone problem, but it is, as we have seen in Afghanistan, alive and well. It is further energised and infused as it binds together with the contemporary strands of extreme wealth centralisation, mercantile capitalism, frantic nationalism, gender disparities, climate crises, widening technological gulfs and mass global displacement. Each are inextricably linked strings in the bow of a power that shoots the destructive arrows of racist-humanism that deflate the prospects of real human justice and equitability. 

Through the unabated persistence of such power, we are puncturing into non-existence fair ideas of justice and human dignity, slipping further into the abyss generated by the silences upon which its impersonal and dehumanised vision depends. In this silence, the interconnections which have long defined our shared human history, and upon which our continued survival depends, are muted out of our narratives. It is in remaining blinkered to, and separate from, these truths, that we passively submit ourselves to active rage and tyranny. This is not power, but collective self-destruction. 

What being Afghan has taught me, is the importance of the insistence upon all that has been hollowed out. In recognition of the fullness of all that is discarded, I retrace myself. It is in the void, that I find the memory of humanness. It is in the expanding abyss that I see the outline of its reversal. 

It is here, inspired by my censorship and animated by my erasure, that I find the words for a vision of power which transcends the desire to dominate narratives, into one which depends upon claiming the freedom to narrate my own. 

And it is here, lured into this ever-shifting expression of my depths, beyond the confines of that which we are perennially being cultured into accepting, that I am lucid to the universalism innate to the human condition. 

It is only by re-narrating the globally sanctioned basis of power as one which recognises the degree to which we are each echoes of one another, which includes these reverberations into the overall symphony of our humanity, that we can truly be complete.