Afghanistan and the West
The other day, I watched a blurry smartphone video made by a man who was clinging to the side of a military airplane as it took off. I don’t know the fate of the man, but it’s likely that he fell from the sky and died shortly afterward. He was “seeking a better life” in the West, but he ended his life as a meat pancake in his homeland. He had a marvel of modern technology in his hand, the smartphone, which gave him access to a vast store of knowledge. He could have just googled “Can you hang onto a plane?”. But I guess he never thought of that.
Everyone interprets current events through their preferred narrative. The left will try to blame Trump for the US failure in Afghanistan, or perhaps George W. Bush. The right will blame Biden, or point to the long escalation under Obama. Reactionaries will talk about the futility of nation building, and maybe even cheer the Taliban as fellow enemies of the neoliberal global order.
I have my own narrative, or frame, through which I interpret current events. I tend to interpret current events as examples of big historical processes, such as demographic change. For that reason, I tend to focus on aspects of the event that others ignore. One such aspect is population growth.
The population of Afghanistan almost doubled from the beginning of the US invasion in 2001 to the withdrawal in 2021. The fertility rate in Afghanistan was very high at the beginning of that period. It is somewhat lower now, but still well above replacement.
Fertility is not uniform. The more fundamentalist Muslims have higher fertility than the slightly less fundamentalist population. Almost everyone in Afghanistan is a fundamentalist Muslim, by Western standards. The overwhelming majority want a society based on Sharia (Islamic law), according to a Pew Research study. However, within that population some are more traditional and some are more modern, in terms of beliefs and behavior. The more traditional are out-breeding the more modern, and have been for a long time. That is one of the reasons for the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world over the last 50 years.
In a way, religious fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity, but not just a psychological reaction. It is a biological reaction. Modern civilization allows almost all children to live to adulthood, which (ironically) makes a traditional way of life more adaptive, because high fertility is the best reproductive strategy in this environment. A belief system that keeps women in the home, making babies, is adaptive in the modern environment. Ironically, the most “backward” people, such as fundamentalist Muslims or the Amish, are the most adapted to modernity.
The future belongs to those who show up and fight for it. Afghanistan is full of young men, many of them born since the US invasion of 2001, who are willing to fight for the future. That is why the US failed in Afghanistan.
The neocons were Western imperialists, in a sense. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they believed that the modern liberal state was the end of history: that it was destined to replace all existing political systems, given enough time. They believed that oppressive regimes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan were standing in the way of progress. They believed that if they toppled those regimes, modern liberal societies would rise in their place, given a little help from the West.
That conceit was brutally falsified by the failure of Western intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, by the “Arab Spring”, by the rise of China, and by the failure of immigrants to assimilate to Western societies.
Of course, the neocons expected to enrich themselves and their friends in the process. I don’t want to attribute altruistic motives to them. But they did have an ideological narrative that they used to justify their military adventures and social experiments, and I think most of them really believed in that narrative, as much as the Taliban really believe in Islam.
That narrative made them blind to certain things. They did not understand the importance of demographics in determining the future of the world. They did not understand the weakness of the modern liberal system: that it is actively engaged in pulling the demographic rug out from under its own feet. They did not understand the strength of fundamentalism in the modern environment. So, they failed.
Ignorance of reality often leads to catastrophic failure.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan is not significant for military or economic reasons. It is significant for ideological reasons. Afghanistan shows that the West is not at the end of history, but is instead at a historical dead end. It shows that moral progress (defined by modern Western standards of morality, of course) is not the driving force of history. It shows that the West, in spite of its military superiority, is weak in many ways.
Of course, most people in the West are blissfully ignorant of these things. Like the man clinging to the airplane, they are looking forward to a better future.