Perhaps Corona has distracted the public. Maybe it was the excitement about Trump, maybe it’s the world climate catastrophe, maybe the West has already got used to the role of the unconscious viewer. In any case, the withdrawal of its troops, who once stood there to defend human rights and democracy against the terror of the Taliban, did not cause the shock that would be appropriate for such a surrender.
The last German soldiers are said to have left the country in July and the last US soldiers by September 11, and no one can say that their mission has in any way been fulfilled. It has been twenty years since the US and its allies came to end the civil war in Afghanistan and rob terror of its resources. After twenty years, they leave with no success other than a passing one. A few schools and hospitals were built – and most of them were destroyed again. For a few years, the “warriors of God” had to seek refuge in the mountains – and are now reclaiming province by province. A few girls and women gained education and freedom of movement – meanwhile they are threatened with the burqa again.
One would think it would be worth an hour of mourning, a public moment of despair and admitted helplessness. If there was still a touch of moral seriousness to the principal commitment, an admission of guilt would even be due – the guilt towards the Afghans who could be won over to the democratic cause and are now abandoned. Is it even permissible to lure people so far out of their circumstances, however miserable they may be, without protecting them from relapse?
Western TV was happy to show the famous girls’ music school in Kabul, often combined with the gloomy question of what will threaten the musicians in the future. However, this question was not addressed to the NGOs and the troops that made it possible for women to do what could now become impossible again. If the Afghanistan mission at that time had exhausted itself in a punitive expedition after 9/11, the question would not have to be asked. But in fact it was the declared goal from the beginning to let a civil society emerge, to promote emancipation, to pursue what was generally called nation-building at the time, namely to allow mature citizens to grow up for a democratic state.
But what will happen to the mature citizens in the undemocratic state of God? Are we too weak to admit our failures? Or too hardened, too resigned for the chain of Western failure in recent years? We did not protect Hong Kong from the loss of its freedom, the peoples of Syria from their dictator, turn Iraq for the better, let Lebanon go to the dogs – in this respect we may no longer understand that we wanted to take on responsibility in Afghanistan at the time.
The troop withdrawal encounters a mood between exhaustion and shrugging. The fact that the US and its allies are now throwing a country that they wanted to shape for a free democracy into the throats of totalitarian Islam, against which they have fought for so long, will be remembered by all enemies of freedom in the world.
The enemies of the Enlightenment in the West have already noticed the ideological crisis. There is a congruence between the Afghanistan debacle and the resurgence of cynical cultural relativism. The West, so say the new relativists, should not consider its concepts of reason and law, including human rights, to be universal, let alone impose them on other peoples and cultures; that is colonialism. What seems good and right to white civilization should by no means be taken for granted by other civilizations.
Interestingly, they do not say: What seems unbearable to white women, their disenfranchisement and subordination to men, is by no means unbearable for women of oriental or other cultures. Nor do they say: lashing with a stick and chopping off limbs may be wrong in European eyes, but correct in Arab or Iranian eyes. You remain in the vague of respect for the other, an understanding tolerance towards “diverse” cultures. They only demand self-restraint and self-criticism from the West and renounce the export of their own standards. But nothing more needs to be asked for, because that already means: surrender to barbarism. Only that the relativist would of course reject the formulation, because for him or her, there is no barbarism, only different cultures.
In the light of this latest (but actually ancient and reactionary) theory, the intended nation-building in Afghanistan would have been a presumptuous, rightly failed act of colonialism according to Western democratic ideas. And by the way, at the beginning of the campaign there was actually the naive, still quite self-assured idea of a flanking, non-military clash of cultures. People believed in the soft power of the ideas that were carried along, a lifestyle that had to be introduced, and ultimately even in the effect of videos and pop music – in an unconscious analogy, possibly with the chewing gum that GIs distributed to the defeated German population in 1945 and there for the American Way of Life.
As of today: absurd. You have to go through old newspapers to be able to believe that this kind of soft power has really been relied on, which now naturally seems to us to be too soft. But on the other hand, betting on them was not so unrealistic and also not unhistorical, because the civil war in which the West intervened had been raging in one way or another since the thirties of the 20th century, since the first western-inspired reforms. Since then, radical and moderate Muslims, reactionaries and reformers have faced each other, and on the side of such reformers, the Soviets also intervened in 1979.
Even they could feel called, it wasn’t pure propaganda, they too did nation-building, admittedly communist, with the construction of hospitals, kindergardens, educational institutions and measures for the emancipation of women. Seen in this way – beyond ideology and the Cold War – the European Enlightenment against Muslim despotism also began in the form of the Soviet invaders (because Marxism is part of the European Enlightenment program). The Russians failed, just as the Americans did. In the sense of the cultural relativists, one could speak of a double failure of the white man and his colonial presumption.
If not – yes, if in truth neither the Soviets nor the Americans had fought alone against the souls of the Afghan people. In truth, they were always proxy wars, with many foreign powers. Always there: Pakistan and Iran, but also the US early on. When the Soviets were in Afghanistan, the Americans did not hesitate to finance Islamist mujahideen who were supposed to fight against ungodly communism – and which later became the Taliban, who have now driven the Americans out with Saudi money and Pakistani support. Something like that, greatly shortened. In this respect, only so much is true about the reproach of colonialism that it was part of the policy of competing powers to also impose their respective culture and form of government – as in the Peloponnesian War, when the Spartans wanted to establish their oligarchic form of government in the conquered territories and the Athenians theirs democracy.
A relativistic punch line – such as there is only a struggle of equally justified or dirty interests – does not fall away. Everything is just the same in terms of power politics – from the standpoint of freedom and human rights it is by no means the same whether they are promoted or trampled on. The West’s guilt and failure do not lie in its insistence on its humanitarian ideas, but in its half-heartedness. It is dishonest to fight totalitarian Islamism in Afghanistan (or Iraq), but to remain connected to countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that support this Islamism.
The US and Germany are serious about their advocacy of democracy and human rights – but it shouldn’t cost too much. You wish the demonstrators in Hong Kong all the best – but you don’t want to sacrifice business with China. They also disapprove of the Saudi promotion of authoritarian Islam, but they want to sell tanks on to them. That is the moral scandal – and to dampen it, cultural relativism comes in handy. Its advocates may see themselves as critical of colonialism and “leftist”, but in fact they only alleviate the bad conscience of the profiteers when they declare that the West should not believe that it is doing anything good by exporting its values. “Bingo!” The businessman will shout. If he doesn’t have to believe it – all the better for business.