An urgent task is awaiting us: given the progression of events, we must liberate ourselves quickly from the limits and confines placed on the Afghanistan discourse, which have been imposed by US-centred Western propaganda for over 20 years and counting. For a start, we must not allow the future political discourse on this subject to remain hostage to American priorities: successes, failures and geostrategic interests.
For this to happen, the language itself must be challenged. This is critical if we are to glean valuable lessons from Afghanistan and avoid a repeat of the failure to comprehend the US defeat in Vietnam (1955-1975) in the way it should have been understood, not the way that Washington wanted Americans — in fact, the whole world — to understand. Vietnam was not merely an American “debacle”, and did not only culminate in an American “defeat”. It was also a Vietnamese victory and the triumph of the will of the people over the US imperialist war machine.
In US mainstream media and, to a large extent, academia, the history of the Vietnam War was written almost entirely from an American perspective. Even the anti-war version of that history remained US-centric.
Alas, in the case of Afghanistan, many of us, whether in journalism or academia, wittingly or otherwise, remain committed to the US-based discourse, partly because the primary sources from which our information is gleaned are either American or pro-American. Al-Akhdar Al-Ibrahimi, former UN Peace Envoy to Afghanistan from 1997 to 1999, and again from 2001 to 2004, reminded us recently, in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde, of the importance of using proper language to describe the unfolding events in Afghanistan: “Why [do we] always speak of an American defeat? First of all, this is a victory for the Taliban, which must be attributed to their tactical genius.” (Translated from French)
The answer to his question can be deduced easily from his own words because, to speak of a Taliban victory, is to admit to their “tactical genius”. The admission of such a truth can have far-reaching consequences.
The use of the terms defeat vs. victory is critical because it situates the conversation within two entirely different intellectual frameworks. For example, by insisting on the centrality of the question of the American defeat, whether in Afghanistan or Vietnam, then the focus of the follow-up questions will remain centred on American priorities: Where did the US go wrong? What urgent changes must Washington implement in its foreign policy and military agendas to stave off its Afghanistan shortcomings? And where should the US go from here?
However, if the focus remains centred on the victory of the Afghan resistance — and yes, it was Afghan resistance, not merely that of the Taliban or Pashtun — then the questions that follow would relocate the conversation somewhere else entirely. How did poorly armed fighters manage to defeat the world’s combined great powers? Where should Afghanistan go from here? And what lessons can national liberation movements around the world learn from the Afghan victory?
For the purpose of this article, I am concerned with the Afghan victory, not the American defeat.
The rise and fall of the “terrorist” discourse
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had a massive impact, not only on the geopolitical map of the world, but also on relevant global political discourses. Like the USSR, the Warsaw Pact and its global alliances began to disintegrate, the US moved quickly into action, asserting its dominance from Panama (1989) to Iraq (1991) and beyond. The American objective was not merely a violent declaration of its triumph in the Cold War, but a message to the rest of the world that the “American century” had begun and that no form of resistance to the US stratagem could be tolerated.
In the Middle East, in particular, the new narrative was on full display, with clear and repeated distinctions between “moderates” and “extremists”, friends and enemies, allies and those marked for “regime change”. According to this new logic, anti-colonial forces that were celebrated as liberation movements for decades fell suddenly into the category of “terrorists”. This definition included Palestinian, Lebanese and other resistance groups, even though they sought liberation from illegal foreign occupation.
Years later, the discourse on terrorism — summed up by George W. Bush’s statement in September 2001, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” — became the yardstick by which the world, according to Washington, was to be judged and divided into freedom-loving nations and terrorist, extremist regimes. The latter category was eventually expanded to include Iraq, Iran and Syria. On 29 January 2002, North Korea was also added to Washington’s so-called “axes of evil”.
Afghanistan, of course, topped the American list of terrorist states, under various pretences: initially it was for harbouring Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda and, later, the mistreatment of women, and so on. Eventually, the Taliban was labelled a “terrorist” group, leading an “insurgency” against the “democratically-elected” Afghan government in Kabul. The past 20 years have been spent in the construction of this false paradigm.
In the absence of any strong voices in the media demanding a US withdrawal and defending the Afghan people’s right to resist foreign occupation, there was a near-complete absence of an alternative political discourse that even attempted to raise the possibility that the Taliban, despite all of their questionable strategies and practices, may, in fact, be a national liberation movement.
The reason we were discouraged from considering such a possibility is the same reason why US-Western-Israeli propaganda insisted on removing any distinction between Daesh (ISIS), Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Houthis and many other such groups. On the one hand, discussing the particularities of each movement requires real knowledge of the history and formation of each one separately, and the political circumstances through which they continue to operate. This kind of knowledge is simply non-existent in the cliché-ridden, soundbite-driven mainstream media. On the other hand, such understanding is inconvenient, as it complicates the deception and half-truths necessary for the US, Israel and others to depict their military occupations, unlawful military interventions and repeated wars as fundamental to some imagined global “war on terror” and, as some European intellectual circles prefer to dub it, a war on “radical Islam”.
However, unlike Al-Qaeda and Daesh, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban are not trans-border militant groups fighting a global agenda, but national liberation movements which, despite their emphasis on religious discourses, are political actors with specific political objectives confined largely within the borders of their own countries; Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan, respectively.
Regarding Hamas, London-based author Daud Abdullah wrote in his book Engaging the World: The Making of Hamas Foreign Policy that: “Hamas sees foreign relations as an integral and important part of its political ideology and liberation strategy. Soon after the Movement emerged, foreign policies were developed to help its leaders and members navigate this tension between idealism and realism. This pragmatism is evident in the fact that Hamas was able to establish relations with the regimes of Muammar Gaddhafi in Libya and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, both of whom were fiercely opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
It was also Abdullah who became one of the first to draw the parallels between Palestine and Afghanistan as soon as the Taliban declared victory in Kabul. In a recent article in the Middle East Monitor, he wrote, “Palestine and Afghanistan are salient examples. Throughout history, their peoples have witnessed numerous invasions and occupations. After two decades the US has finally run out of stamina. Similarly, they will eventually realise the futility of supporting the Zionist occupation of Palestine.”
Indeed, the lesson of Afghanistan must be studied carefully, especially by resistance movements that are undergoing their own wars of national liberation.
Now that the US has officially ended its military operations in Afghanistan, albeit not by choice, the emphasis on the so-called “war on terror” discourse will certainly begin to fade. What, though, will come next? While another interventionist discourse will certainly fight for prominence in the new American thinking, the discourse of national liberation, based on legitimate resistance, must return to the centre of the conversation.
This is not an argument for or against armed struggle, as this choice falls largely, if not entirely, on nations that are struggling for their own freedom, and should not be subject to the selective, frequently self-serving, ethics of Western moralists and activists. It is worth mentioning that international law does not prohibit people from using whatever means necessary to liberate themselves from the jackboot of foreign occupation. Indeed, myriad UN resolutions recognise the “legitimacy of (oppressed people’s) struggle by all means at their disposal, including armed struggle”. (UN Commission of Human Rights Resolution 1982/16)
Nevertheless, armed struggle without popular, grassroots support often amounts to nothing, for a sustainable armed campaign, like those of Hamas, Hezbollah or the Taliban, requires deep-rooted social and socio-economic support. This proved as true in Vietnam as it did earlier in Algeria (1954-1962), Cuba (1953-1959) and even South Africa, where the history of armed struggle has been largely written out in favour of what is meant to appear as a “peaceful” anti-apartheid struggle and transition of power.
For nearly 30 years, partly as a consequence of the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the seemingly uncontested rise of the American empire, almost any form of armed struggle in national liberation contexts has been depicted as “terrorism”. Moreover, in the post-9/11 US-dominated world, any attempt at arguing otherwise earned any daring intellectual the title of “terrorist sympathiser”.
Twenty years have elapsed since the American invasion of Afghanistan culminated in the defeat, not just of the US but also of the US political discourse on terrorism, resistance and national liberation. The resulting victory of the Taliban will extend well beyond the borders of Afghanistan, breaking the limits imposed on the discussion by western-centric officials, media and academia, namely the urgently needed clear distinction between “terrorism” and national liberation.
The American experiment, using firepower to control the world, and intellectual hegemony to control our understanding of it, has clearly failed. This failure can and must be exploited as an opportunity to revisit urgent questions and to resurrect a long-dormant narrative in favour of anti-colonial, national liberation struggles with the legitimate right — in fact, responsibility — to use all means necessary, including armed struggle, to free nations from the yoke of foreign occupation.