Taliban & liberalism

Published December 23, 2022
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

IT has been 14 months since Afghanistan was handed over to the Taliban by the most fearsome military force the world has ever known, the US army. For most of this time the narrative has been that the regime in Kabul is markedly different from the one that ruled in the 1990s, willing and able to conform to liberal norms of conduct.

The government of Pakistan, has, of course, propagated the virtues of the Taliban 2.0 more than anyone. Washington will never admit it publicly, but it has acceded to the gradual normalisation of the Taliban regime.

So any crocodile tears being shed by Pakistani and US officialdom in the wake of recent disclosures that Kabul is banning women from university education are cynical at best, and despicable at worst.

Here in Pakistan too, the glaring contradictions at the heart of official policy vis-à-vis the Taliban are being laid increasingly bare. The daring with which the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) created a hostage situation in Bannu feels like a case of déjà vu that played out repeatedly in the early 2000s.

There have been regular reports of resurgence of milita­ncy in Waziristan, Lakki Marwat, Zhob and increasingly diverse Pakhtun geograph­ies like Kurram, metropolitan Quetta and Swat.

The right wing thrives on the ruins of imperialist wars.

The Qaumi Pasoon popular uprisings in Swat and other regions against this resurgence were a breath of fresh air, like the ongoing street protests led predominantly by women in Kabul and other Afghan cities.

But for the most part the liberal intellectual explanations for, and political articulations of, a response to social forces like the Taliban are highly deficient. In fact, liberalism — and its historic twin, capitalism — are very much responsible for the repeated resurgence of illiberal movements like the (Afghan and Pakistani) Taliban, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Hindutva, etc.

The story can go back further, but for at least four decades, the liberal-capitalist order championed by the US and ruling classes in the rest of the world has failed both racialised and gendered working people in Western societies as well as the historic peripheries of the world system.

On the one hand, we are sold liberal rhetoric about human rights, women’s rights, zero tolerance for religious militancy, racism and sexism, etc. It is such rhetoric which has driven so-called ‘humanitarian interventions’ by the world’s self-proclaimed policemen in numerous Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan, the Arab world and north/sub-Saharan Africa.

On the other hand are the undisclosed, real reasons for such interventions — preservation of military-strategic power of state establishments, and the rapacious profiteering of powerful class and corporate interests. Where direct ‘humanitarian interventions’ are either not required or not possible, state and class power is sustained by relatively more banal policy impositions made by bilateral and multilateral donors, like those that we are living through in the form of IMF conditionalities.

It is on the ruins of imperialist wars and innumerable forms of social and economic dispossession that the right wing thrives. It is a fact of history that jihadism represented a strategic intervention by the American Empire and complicit regimes in Muslim countries — like the Zia dictatorship — to undermine the Soviet bloc and Third World nationalism.

Today, these Frankensteins have morphed into social forces in their own right, sometimes needing to be eliminated via liberal playbooks that invoke terrorism, and at other times still deserving of patronage in the name of strategic interests.

It is folly for progressives to invoke the same liberal slogans as states that are committed to nothing other than cynical interests. Afghanistan under Taliban 2.0 contains precious mineral deposits that are craved by Western go­­vernments and emer­ging powers such as China.

The idea that any of these big players is interested in defending supposedly ‘universal’ liberal values is naïve and does nothing to serve the long-term interests of Afghan women and girls — or any indigenous populations that are sitting atop strategically important territory and/or resources to be extracted for profit.

Let us also not forget that Pakistani Pakhtun regions in which the TTP is making a comeback are well endowed with oil, gas, minerals, etc. As are other ethnic peripheries — just think of the shameless pillaging of Reko Diq and other parts of Balochistan.

The establishment here may well continue to patronise religiously motivated militants for decades, but this is not the only story in explaining the re-emergence of the TTP, or, the rise of newer social movements like the TLP. Neither is this story limited to Muslim-majority contexts, as the phenomenal rise of the Hindu right wing in neighbouring India confirms.

We need a different story to challenge both right-wing ideology and the material interests of empires, corporations and state establishments.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2022

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