The following conversation occurred across four time zones- Australia, California, Pakistan, and New York. As 7 October approaches, we felt the twenty-one-year mark of the US invasion of Afghanistan demanded an entirely different kind of conversation. We endeavor to build anew solidarities across ethical, political, and scholarly landscapes centered on anti-imperial orientations and imaginations for Afghanistan, and the world. In order to get there, we must first lodge grievance. We center our grievance, as scholars of the Global War on Terror, on knowledge production and producers on Afghanistan, particularly in relation to what we loosely call the “radical ‘South Asian left,” (primarily Pakistan and India) – a network of cosmopolitan intellectuals from elite backgrounds.
Saadia Toor (ST): Anila, after the withdrawal last year there was a flurry of panels, and with the anniversary we have seen another round of “hot takes.” I’m taken aback by the paucity of serious analysis or critical reflection within the left in Europe and North America over the US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan or the last twenty years of occupation. There were of course people like you and others who were/are deeply connected to Afghanistan in meaningful ways - trying to get people out, to get them connected to resources, etc.
Anila Daulatzai (AD): The left-ish position on Afghanistan is basically a liberal position. It is remarkable to witness what people were hoping would come out of the occupation and the work of empire.
ST: Can you say more? Obviously, you didn’t have any expectations.
AD: No expectations, only deep skepticism and horror. Anyone who considers themselves anti-imperial may have felt similarly. Perhaps in 2001, people were hopeful because large amounts of money were going into Afghanistan and they naively equated money with care- romanticized ideas of development, and something called progress? There remains a remarkable lack of attention (still) to the military-industrial complex and how the “humanitarian” and development industrial complex work alongside it for enrichment, specifically in Afghanistan. Profit aside, there is not much acknowledgment that narratives of development/progress are devices of Empire to demonstrate that empire is needed, doing good work, benevolent, despite the evidence of the immense violence. There are too many whose idea of “critical” is limited to saying some development was problematic but some was quite good, if only there had been more of that “good” development.
ST: You’re seeing people who identify as left having expressed hope in progress and development?
AD: Not necessarily expressing hope explicitly but now what it looks like are expressions of surprise. I do the work of reading backwards and ask why would you be surprised? Why shocked? To me, that means they had something resembling hope, right? Yet this IS what Empire does.
Sahar Ghumkhor (SG): If we recall the early years of the War on Terror (WoT), the “anti-war” movement did not emerge robustly in response to Afghanistan - only Iraq. Liberals and the left aligned around what war was justified and what wasn’t; whether the left directly presented Afghanistan as a just war or not it was in the way that “anti-war” was centred almost entirely on the lies told about Iraq.
AD: There were no lies about Afghanistan, right [said with sarcasm]? That is the cunning of Empire, but not only Empire’s cunning. Empire ultimately and foundationally relies on liberalism. The most stunning imperial formation was that the War in Afghanistan was unquestionable- whether as an act of revenge and/or care (for Afghan women). Scholarship too, focused almost exclusively on Iraq. With few notable exceptions early on, including Abu-Lughod, Hirschkind & Mahmood, and Mamdani, Afghanistan was left not only out of any critical organizing and opposition to the war, but also thinking with, theorizing. You had scholars studying global organizing around the war in Iraq without even thinking to reflect on the war that preceded it (and that was still ongoing).
Only after the withdrawal last year people who would be classified as left/radical came out of the woodworks to write in opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan. Twenty years too late. It is easy to critique the right and liberals on their position on Afghanistan but how about including radicals and leftists as part of the critique, given the profound lack of engagement with Afghanistan and solidarity with Afghans. Empire relies on liberalism, but do radical and leftist politics also rely on it? Something is missing. I would love to offer a more generous reading, but I am not sure how to. Why only now, after twenty years, write in opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan? There is something about Afghanistan that exempted it from any sophistication, especially by leftists. When Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick wrote the book Except Palestine, referring to so many who have progressive takes on issues except for Palestine, I definitely felt a certain kinship with that sentiment with regard to Afghanistan.
ST: The women’s question has re-emerged, apparently the only lens through which we can or should understand Afghanistan.
SG: It seems preposterous that the dominant talking point on Afghanistan is the closing of schools for girls, when the country is being starved to punish the Taliban. People are literally dying directly because of “development” lies and project failures, but we are still to stuck to the story that education is what is at stake in the country. We cannot interrogate the type of education. There simply isn’t any space for it. The friend/enemy distinction has been marked on to women’s bodies playing out in a fundamentalist logic of either supporting education or not supporting education, supporting the Taliban or condemning them. Like the WoT discourse where Muslims are expected only to condemn terrorism, Afghans must condemn the Taliban, reject them as cultural regression. Within Afghan communities we see the mirroring logic of counter-terrorism when the only acceptable speech for Pashtuns is to condemn and distance themselves from the Taliban.
AD: People on social media count the days Afghan girls are not in school. I wish they had been as attentive to girl’s education under a US occupied Afghanistan. The inflated numbers hid so very much, including (but not only) the ideological aspects of the curriculum. As if the agendas of their liberal secular occupiers were neutral. Girls went to schools and learned from a teacher who had less schooling than the grade they were teaching. The last twenty years of focus on education was largely performative- not invested in building and addressing the structural collapse of the education system of the prior decades of war. Yet we are to understand interventions and investments in education as only humanitarian and therefore neutral. The projects of disciplining young Afghan minds were ideological initiatives of prime importance for each regime in the last forty years - not addressing the deepening structural issues. I have no reason to believe the Taliban will address the structural issues either- issues that far exceed curriculum content. The Taliban approach to education has also been largely performative.
SG: I also think the over-emphasis on education is racist. It presents Afghanistan as lacking its own knowledge or that there is no knowledge it can offer modern society. Knowledge must arrive from outside. We are speaking of a certain type of secular education, imported from elsewhere with a colonial modernity program in mind that serves as a cultural correction to “civilize” natives.
ST: Certainly stopping girls from getting an education is part of the Taliban’s program. What we’re trying to get at is how quickly the conversation went to some post-occupation, post-imperialist moment where it’s about looking at what the Taliban are doing without placing that in any kind of context, right?
SG: It’s about what gets emphasized and what is displaced. Images of the burqa and the bearded angry man have done some heavy political work over the past four decades, creating a sense of knowing Afghanistan. The stagnant nature of Afghanistan was a universally shared premise, that even for some ideologies could be put aside in the face of the scale of impoverishment. But what it has ultimately done is create an industry of knowledge impoverishment on Afghanistan.
AD: The Kite Runner made everyone feel they knew Afghanistan. Like white people who watched the TV serial The Wire that came out about the same time as the beginning of the US war and occupation of Afghanistan. Suddenly white liberals felt they knew the deep struggles of racialized people in Baltimore, and elsewhere, because they watched The Wire, and liked the character Omar. Omar stood as the black queer friend they now never had to have as they knew him well enough through a TV serial. Khalid Hosseini’s book did that for Afghanistan for Americans at the start of the war, and throughout the war and played the requisite role to aid and abet an imperial power and their imperial war. The world came to know Afghanistan through fiction, but that did not matter. They believed they knew Afghanistan and it had to be bombed.
ST: I have not seen the left conversation on the Taliban move beyond un-nuanced takes on them as monsters or as anti-imperialists (as Tariq Ali famously said). Looking at the ways the occupation was engineered - the whole pretext for invading and occupying Afghanistan was how monstrous the Taliban were. To go from there to the Americans spending two years negotiating their withdrawal deal with only the Taliban (and not the then Afghan Government)…
AD: Everyone acted - including US Empire and its functionaries - as if the Taliban’s swift entry into Kabul was a surprise. They hid in plain sight the fact that this was orchestrated for two years, at least. Ordinary Afghans were completely locked out of negotiations. Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief Afghan minion to Empire, the Taliban, and the United States designed the plan. Ordinary Afghans were baffled as to why those in the presidential palace feigned that they didn’t know this was happening. The Afghan government officials needed to look like they were innocent too, right? Empire turned the withdrawal into spectacle, by design.
ST: Although a spectacle that didn’t really reflect well on them, right? They disappeared and ghosted people who worked for them. That didn’t look good. But they didn’t care, and that’s the working of power as well, right?
AD: There was also: “darn, we could have planned better, we should have planned better…maybe next time, lesson learnt.”
ST: Yes, that haplessness, that was very much how the liberal media in the US played it, right. “Who could have known?”
AD: Innocence. The ever-humble Empire. When you have an enemy as brutal and violent as the Taliban it couldn’t be anything but messy. The US certainly cannot be blamed for this fumbling withdrawal because you are dealing with savages, pure savages all around, right? The critique was only of the withdrawal, not of the war, as if to believe that the entire war was not as fumbling and insanely violent as the withdrawal.
SG: Think about all the imagery that circulated with the ‘return’ of the Taliban. Like we were back in the late 90s, leading up to the 2001 invasion. Time stands still in Afghanistan.
ST: It was all very much the White Man’s Burden. Twenty years in Afghanistan and you’ve left it exactly how you found it, right? I mean, that’s the narrative.
AD: Exactly how they found it minus the hundreds of thousands they tortured, killed, and buried who are still only partially counted for. People were critical of the exit, but only the exit, not the war- i.e. people couldn’t leave the airports and blah blah blah. That just looks like a bureaucratic mess that could have been better managed. Not that Empire manufactures bureaucratic messes.
ST: Yes. The cruelty is the point too, right? That connects to this idea prevalent on the left - that the US withdrawal signals the end of Empire, and a sort of celebration of that. And if I remember correctly, Ali Oloomi takes this on and says these events are not signs of Empire’s failure as this was all orchestrated by the US. Maybe it didn’t manage to do all it wanted to do in Afghanistan but if you think that’s what the US was actually there for, you’re falling for the US narrative, right?
AD: Many on the left were ecstatic in announcing US Empire’s defeat in Afghanistan, egg on the face of US Empire, and all. I’m stunned by the simplicity of that take. It’s not just a simplistic take on Afghanistan but a simplistic take on how Empire works. If they think this indicates a failure for Empire then what indicates a success? All my understanding of how empires have functioned and my studies specifically in relation to Afghanistan signal this is no failure, this IS a success.
ST: Yes! And being able to leave on your own terms is also a success.
AD: Being able to leave on your own terms, but also to blame Afghans for their “own” war. We poured billions of dollars into training them, and they just didn’t have the heart.
ST: That’s precisely the White Man’s Burden, right?
AD: For ten years the US set up this narrative. They’re un-disciplined, smoke hashish, they drop their weapons, and run. The Afghan national army and police lost so many. They no longer wanted to die for merely a job. They felt no ownership of this war, despite US attempts to ‘Afghanize’ the war, make them believe it was their war. I wrote a piece for the Costs of War Project in 2015 - this was not their war to fight (5). This was an American war against the Taliban. They were foot soldiers. If they found another job that paid more (or even less), they took it. It was a job that paid money to support their families. Nothing more. The narrative crafted by Empire was that they just didn’t want it enough (not sure what it is/was), and just handed over the country to the Taliban.
ST: I find it astonishing that over the twenty years of this particular occupation and the much deeper history of even just the contemporary wars and occupations in Afghanistan that the left commentator’s knowledge of Afghanistan is still rather superficial.
AD: For the left, Afghanistan has boiled down to this: Afghanistan didn’t become the indigenous-led socialist state because the US intervened by giving weapons plus more to the Mujahideen, shattering the utopia that Afghanistan could have been. A romanticizing of what could have been in Afghanistan if only US Empire didn’t do its ugly work, as if they were the only uglies at work. There is a complete failure to account for the violence done by socialist regimes in Afghanistan, whether Soviet-backed or not and/or before or after the Soviet invasion. The glorifying of Afghanistan as the space for Muslim dreamscapes is easy to critique, after all, they are Muslims. Glorifying Afghanistan as the space where the global proletariat’s dream would have been realized IF ONLY without accounting for any of the violence socialist regimes enacted upon Afghans is duplicitous. If you’re not going to account for the violence that imprisoned students, farmers, teachers, members of the ulema, and tortured and disappeared hundreds of thousands, then you have no business commenting on Afghanistan at all. If it is going to be a selective critique of violence and only certain authors of violence, you are peddling Islamophobia, and are part of the problem.
Violence by Muslim actors and violence by leftist actors feels equally like violence to Afghans. Sahar and I bear the brunt of accusations that we are Taliban-sympathizers because we refuse to allow the violence of Empire to be trivialized, yet socialists do not have to account for the violence their project’s regimes enacted?
SG: Liberal imperialism divides the world into freedom and unfreedom, clash of civilization, etc., offering geopolitical frameworks to justify western violence. The “anti-imperialist” left similarly reads the world through its own reductive geopolitics of what constitutes resistance. We recently see it with many on the left, either denying or diminishing mass murder by the Assad regime in Syria. The specificities of people’s histories are irrelevant in the grand narrative. Afghans become mere extensions of one’s preferred imperial will.
ST: Certain South Asians who identify as leftists reflect a deep kind of Islamophobia when it comes to talking about the Taliban and the WoT. I know that both of you have experienced this when you’ve made your critiques of the War of Terror in Afghanistan. I was called a Taliban apologist in Pakistan because of my anti-drone politics.
AD: I certainly see something similar- the ease secular modern Afghans embraced the project of progress, and so easily label the few who critiqued it as Taliban sympathizers. Too many Indians are specialists on Afghanistan without ever being accused of this. We wanted to confront the ease in believing that the violence done by Empire was far more civilized and far less than violence by the Taliban. We were accused of being Taliban sympathizers because of our interventions in that article.
SG: The reactionary responses we received for thinking more critically about the war were disturbing. Our subjectivities as Afghans, Pashtun, women, Western, were weaponized to silence our efforts to produce knowledge enabling us to understand the violence, rather than simply document it. But it was also about the politics of how “the expert” is constructed. I’m an Afghan with little academic expertise on Afghanistan beyond reference to the WoT, Islamophobia, and the racialized knowledge production in a world that still uses and weaponizes orientalism in devastating ways. I was mindful of not writing about Afghanistan through abstractions. The WoT is an important lens but it takes on different shapes within the country and one cannot understand that without being there, having the cultural knowledge, speaking the language. The particularities of Afghanistan are absolutely necessary to problematize the very knowledge produced by non-Afghans and directed for western consumption.
We must acknowledge that those who do take on this responsibility cannot simply do it from a distance. Afghanistan is simply impossible to understand deeply without cultural literacy and knowledge of Pashto and Dari (at minimum). It’s strange for me that there are academics and writers – often Pakistani and Indian – who write on Afghanistan but do not meet even the basics of what would constitute expertise. The way “brown-ness” is constructed and deployed as part of the knowledge/power nexus is something we need to pay attention to.
Also shocking is the aggression we’ve received from some on the left, policing how we think and apply anti-colonial theorists to Afghanistan. In fact, the way a prominent UK-based Indian academic corrected my reading of Frantz Fanon and his call to turn away from Europe on social media is a stark example of the way in which “brown-ness” is weaponized.
AD: The people in the elite Islamabad-Lahore-Karachi to Oxbridge and/or US/Canada pipeline are entitled enough to consider themselves THE left of Pakistan. I do not include here the alternate histories and genealogies that produced activists and intellectuals who do not have these locational and other privileges - an organic left, such as people I meet daily throughout Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPk) (and who exist in other spaces and places in Pakistan) but the largely performative elite left of the metropoles who occupy and are given/occupy a tremendous amount of discursive space. How would you sum up how this Pakistani left engage Afghans and/or Afghanistan, Saadia?
ST: I don’t claim that I have absolute knowledge of any sort, but to the extent that I have been involved in left circles, I am not aware of anything beyond a critique of the Pakistan state’s interference in Afghanistan starting with General Zia. In the past year, we didn’t see a lot of active solidarity from the South Asian left. What do you think explains this? Perhaps you can connect this question of solidarity to the Pakistani left you speak of.
AD: Indeed, these Pakistani leftists will rehearse the role Zia played in Afghanistan, the chalaaki (cunning) work done in refugee camps in Pakistan to recruit for jihad, and then Musharraf joining the “with us” side of the WoT – all factually correct and well-documented. Yet considering how close geographically Afghanistan is to Pakistan, and how many Afghans live and labor in Pakistan, no member of this left has taken the care to study or write, or work organically to support and labor for Afghans in their own country (Pakistan), as a form of reparations, in individual capacities but also as part of a robust civic reparations movement. Besides taking a leftist ideological position, using Afghanistan as a space to map out their Marxist and/or Leninist theories and imaginations, and/or to index their anti-establishment positions on the Pakistani state/army, there is little to nothing in forms of material solidarity, gestures towards reparations, even acknowledgment of the urgency for reparations.
ST: Is it not better that they not write on Afghans and Afghanistan?
AD: I would not want them to write about Afghans, as the bechaara (wretched) figure, but about the ways Afghans have been interpellated into the WoT through the Pakistani state. An ethnography of the Pakistan state, Pakistan publics as subject to narratives of who Afghans are and what they are doing in or to Pakistan. Not Afghans as subjects of research but the Pakistan state, everyday practices of exclusion, and/or inclusion through labor regimes. An ethnography that would implicate this left in the regimes of neglect.
ST: I feel Sanaa Alimia is doing that…
AD: Sanaa Alimia is a stunning human and researcher. I have nothing but love, respect and awe for her sincere work. My critique is aimed at the Pakistani leftists who play “native enough informant” to speak on Afghanistan, the bro-hort, who never pass the mic, as what they have to say is always so much more important than what anyone else could say. Their “work” on Afghanistan is never rooted in those material practices of everyday solidarity and care that can only be cultivated when you share the same space as Afghans. It’s as if the deep work of building a critical solidarity with Afghans who are everywhere among you is just too impossible. How can you critique Zia and his policies, Musharraf, and every other major Pakistani political figure, US Empire, and out-of-touch elite liberals in Pakistan when you yourself have not created or cultivated, given your life or parts of it to a movement that understands the need for reparations for Afghans in Pakistan (for that which can be repaired) and that understands that centering Afghans is a prerequisite for any attempt to build solidarity? These leftist movements claim to center workers, but surely Afghans are among the most subaltern laborers in Pakistan?
And it’s not just the bros in this left. Many self-proclaimed radical feminists in Pakistan peddle their own forms of racism towards Pashtuns and Afghans. I have been subjected to racism by far too many radical Pakistani feminists. Feminist Pakistanis supported the Pakistan army attacks against the Taliban in Swat and Waziristan as a critical feminist mode of solidarity. I frankly did not expect a nuanced position on Afghanistan and US Empire from such feminists.
Afghans do not trust the Pakistan State, or Pakistanis - and I will here also include this Pakistani left -for good reason. They claim to have the requisite critical understanding of the politics and history, yet as individuals or as a movement have done little to nothing to acknowledge or address the structural forms of discrimination and disenfranchisement of Afghans in Pakistan, form a politics of solidarity, a politics of reparations, for the millions of Afghans in Pakistan, and in Afghanistan. I consider this a failure of unforgivable magnitude. You cannot claim a politics that does not exist beyond words, as how you chose to act, or not, is in fact your politics.
ST: It is surprising how easy it is for Indian and Pakistani leftists to position themselves as experts on the war on Afghanistan, the occupation, the withdrawal. That the experts on Afghanistan and the WoT are too often people who are not affected in some personal or direct way by the WoT needs to be seen as a problem. They do not come from parts of the world impacted directly by the WoT nor do they belong to the category of Muslim/Arab/Middle Eastern and so have never experienced Islamophobia in the West, never been interpellated as potential terrorists or sympathizers. Their expertise tends to operate at a very superficial level, despite being dressed up as radical anti-imperialist analysis. In my experience of doing anti-war organizing within South Asian American spaces I have found many of them - usually Indian - to be seriously compromised by varying degrees of Islamophobia which they disguise -like white liberals- behind a concern for Muslim women and Muslim queers. (I want to also note that I have also had the good fortune of having Indian comrades who are true allies in struggle.)
SG: Contemporary discussions around the issue of representation have largely remained at the superficial level where the mere inclusion of Afghans is a political good in and of itself. We must dig deeper in terms of what the ethics of inclusion and representation really mean here. We are simply not satisfied with having Afghan scholars speaking on Afghanistan. We are asking what does it mean to include an Afghan scholar? Or an Afghan scholar of Afghanistan? Or a non-Afghan scholar of Afghanistan? What knowledges or authorities are exercised here? As I said earlier, my intervention on these issues are limited precisely because I only meet one criterion. What’s at stake here is a knowledge production that isn’t grounded and doesn’t safeguard itself of being embedded in active imperial wars. What is at stake are the conditions of truth– how we arrive at it, the cultural literacy and language that aids this process and the scholarly training required that can responsibly translate and build on that knowledge with the rest of the world.
What knowledge is produced is important but why that knowledge is produced requires urgent attention. Anila and I for instance wrote about the dangers of who writes on Afghanistan and why with reference to drone scholarship.
ST: Sahar, what you’re underlining is that we are not advocating for some lazy liberal politics of representation that states that only Afghans should be able to speak about Afghanistan. We are making a much more important political argument.
The left we are talking about is one that is connected to the circuits of knowledge production where knowledge is a commodity, and something that can be used to brand one an “expert,” rather than a prerequisite for building solidarities and movements.
There are non-Afghan brown scholars who have openly stated that they became interested in studying Afghanistan as the result of a “fascination” – a shockingly and unreflexively Orientalist statement. I feel – I hope – that a white leftist making such a statement would be immediately called out but somehow their “brown-ness” insulates them from critique even at this very basic level.
AD: Such people will also orient (pun intended) their work towards “the decolonial” and analyze discourses where Afghans are racialized as part of their scholarship and never think to critically examine their own fascination with Afghanistan as rooted in racist and Orientalizing modes of seeing and studying Afghanistan. You can call out historical narratives as racializing, but what about your own entry into the study of Afghanistan?
SG: Yes, and that the fascination is always at a distance, but to enjoy from that position. It is also colonial in that it is about othering, exoticizing, eroticizing even. A desire for knowing the “fascinating” Other and thereby a desire for mastery, as Edward Said tells us.
ST: In my work, I am critical of the Pakistani military’s role in the War of Terror. However, along with being called a Taliban sympathizer, I (and others such as me) have been dismissed as “diaspora” scholars. Meanwhile, other scholars from South Asia - situated in elite universities in the Global North, often unmarked by Muslim-ness but nevertheless able to trade on the cache of being non-white - get to speak for/about Afghanistan and get to be rendered experts.
Again, we are not interested in a liberal politics of representation. It’s not about thinking that any and all Afghans are better than non-Afghans. We’re critiquing the fact that in the neoliberal academy expertise about Afghanistan does not seem to require even the most basic knowledge about the place – language, for example, or history – or any long-standing commitments to the place…
SG: Our attempts to complicate political violence and shift the gaze away momentarily from the Taliban to consider the scale of violence over the past few decades have been consistently met with accusations of being Taliban sympathizers, having Pashtun privilege. These accusations become placeholders, a “knowledge” to delineate violence, Taliban, Afghan injuries, and Afghan agency.
What Afghans say in this moment tells us a lot about how knowledge production works on Afghanistan. Strangely, given the centrality of Afghanistan to the WoT, there was little critical engagement by Afghans with the WoT. It was as if the WoT had become a backdrop, a part of the natural landscape of Afghanistan. Why did Afghans think that the War was simply a side story to the nation’s progress and development? Raising the issue of the WoT always met with fierce resistance. I was told by some in the Afghan diaspora that to critique the WoT was to excuse the Taliban, when in reality the state and its allies had committed violence that eclipsed any other violence. There simply is no comparison. Decades of propaganda on what the war in Afghanistan was about has had a damaging impact on how Afghans see themselves and how they identified the problems in the country. We describe the Taliban as bogeymen not to diminish their violence but as a way of bearing witness to the histories of violence.
ST: These are crucial issues. It is certainly time to air grievance; after all, it is the 21st anniversary of the invasion. Thank you Sahar and Anila.