The Fallacy of Liberal Interventionism: Afghanistan

By: Aulia Shifa Hamida

President Joe Biden’s defiant speech– in which he conceded that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building and to acquaint Afghans with the Western-style democracy- was as a matter of fact at odds with what the erstwhile Senator Biden had put his faith on when he was the chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It seems that the commander-in-chief is living proof that the liberal interventionism which has long been embedded in Washington’s tradition of foreign policy is outdated.

As Washington has made de jure recognition of the Taliban conditional upon the group’s word of honour to respect human, in particular, women rights, it has naively misinterpreted one crucial thing: the Taliban have ruled out democracy, and they have explicitly asserted that the new government would be governed by Sharia. Nevertheless, Washington can’t help but uncompromisingly appeals for teleological human rights principles as practiced in liberal democracies, which implies its utter failure mostly in understanding both religion and tradition in Afghanistan upon which its deontological ethics is based.

To have completely withdrawn its forces is to not be bothered by the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia unless the two-decade mission was indeed intended to be nation-building on the basis of Western-style democracy. One can argue if a free trade agreement removes economic barriers; entitles country partners to easier moves of goods, services, investment; and boosts labour employment and productivity, one can say that it is an economic intervention- an intervention whose morality can be defended on the basis of economic efficiency. So is the two-decade U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to counter-terrorism and to democratize the country; private companies with Corporate Social Responsibility; investors who are putting the green economy on their high agenda; and world leaders who believe that they have a moral obligation to be bothered by the track records of human rights abuses of their trading partners.

It is easy, yet unfair, to only find moral reassurance in America’s longest military intervention- which is why we should avoid the echo chamber and should not ignore the things that are invisible to our eyes at best, and to which we have always turned our eyes blind at worst. The two-decade of U.S. presence in Afghanistan indeed has its own relative virtue when being compared with the non-interference stance of its fellow democratic countries that have failed to fulfil their “negative responsibility.” Nevertheless, America’s longest war in Afghanistan had never been more tone-deaf in underestimating the power of culture and religion- the two greatest factors which carry considerable influence over political culture in Afghanistan. The 1979 takeover of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union, the then remaking of the country as the Cold War political arena, and the aftermath of it couldn’t have been more “sociologically” concrete to prove that democracy, with or without the U.S. presence, was never compatible.  Where democracy is based on popular votes and the consent of the governed – it was never within the remit of the U.S to impose (in vain) its moral authority derived from liberalism on peoples of different cultures, different teachers of morals, and different sacred scriptures that are ideologically at odds with democracy.

And one may ask which should take precedence, the imposition of liberal democracy due to its perceived superiority, that is to say, its holding individual liberty in high regard; or the sovereignty of the people being governed, that is to say, their collective liberty to choose different moral and value sources as the ideological basis for the governance of their country, even if those rule out democracy? Which one is morally superior: freedom as an object, which is the by-product of democracy, or freedom as a subject, which is an independent variable who shall decide its moral underpinnings? An American worldview often has the tendency to lean toward the two former, which subjects the U.S. to critical acclamation (albeit not always) for its national governance, but critical condemnation for its intervention in foreign soils.

Stephen Jay Gould had his fair share of embracing what he invented, in a non-dogmatic manner, as “non-overlapping magisteria” to all scientific and religious dogmatists. The non-overlapping magisteria (NOM) espouses that both science and religion are two independent variables and thus control different domains. Whereas science is concerned with the explanation of the natural world, religion is concerned with human purposes, meaning, and values. NOM objects to scientific absolutism, which attempts to interfere with morality and to religious dogmatism, which dies hard in explaining the natural world from the perspective of its sacred scripture. The dichotomy between facts and values is as much the same as the dichotomy between religious and democratically secular countries. While I neither say that the U.S. is scientifically governed, nor its democratic principles are morally justified by neuroscience- because Gould’s NOM would reject it since science should never interfere with morality- its liberal democratic principles should never interfere with religious laws. Those who are governed by man-made laws must be careful to interfere with those who are governed by religious law and vice versa.

It is, however, not to suggest that the U.S. leaves its interventionist policy, but it needs to evaluate what should really be on its high agenda if liberal interventionism were to accomplish anything in foreign soils. President Biden’s father once said to his son, “If everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you”- which should be interpreted as being selective in allocating resources relative to the threats posed and the efficacy of the use of force. Thus, Biden was right to have completely withdrawn the U.S. troops from Afghanistan, irrespective of his inconsistently defiant speech.

For decades, the U.S. has been within the confines of a fallacy of composition, believing that democracy is something that fits for all. It’s about time the U.S. left that notion- if it were to accomplish anything in foreign soils that choose different value sources other than democracy- because non-interference is what they need and should not be treated as a mere political substitute for anything to be politically compromised among one’s friends and foes. Just as democratic countries will practice democratic values, just as scientists will preserve their impartiality, so will religious countries that will practice their religious values. And to intervene is to undermine the very sovereignty of their domain.

About the author: Aulia Shifa Hamida is a research intern with the Afghanistan Security Institute (ASI) and a student at the University of Indonesia

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect the view, policy or position of the Afghanistan Security Institute.


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