The Children of Moloch
Updated: Mar 26
The United States-Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan peace deal has been represented in the press and in the imagination of most people as the end of America’s longest war. In exchange for American troop withdrawal, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Khorasan. This exchange is a necessary predecessor to an oncoming Intra-Afghan peace process, wherein the Islamic Republic and Islamic Emirate, likely through foundational legal means, will reform into a national unity government. Many usual critics of Donald Trump, such as Mehdi Hasan writing in The Intercept have become the unlikely supporters of this peace process.[i]
The obvious criticism is that this is not a peace deal, but more of a “reduction-in-violence deal”. Furthermore, one can question either the Trump administration’s or Taliban’s dedication to a truly peaceful future; the issue of a fourteen month withdrawal and an oncoming administration in ten months; the high chances that the Taliban don’t have control over whether groups likes Al-Qaeda and ISK inhabit Afghanistan as a shelter; the almost guaranteed fact that CIA will still be in Afghanistan; or the likelihood of a failure in the intra-Afghan peace process.
But none of these issues are substantive criticisms of the peace deal.
These criticisms assume that this peace deal is actually a peace deal. Calling this agreement a peace deal is a marketing choice for an election year. In reality, this is a security agreement similar to the British Imperial “lashkar” militias in the 19th century.
Simply put, 19th century British imperialism in South Asia was an argument over whether or not the British should rule over South Asians as Englishmen or as “oriental despots”. The East India Company solution, and the solution of liberal universalists like John Stuart Mill, was to rule like the good Englishmen back home. Implicit in liberalism was an idea of maturity and coming of age, in the same way children must learn to reason and have no rights until they do, colonized people must be taught to reason, and have no rights until they do. The story of British imperialism through the E.I.C. in India and to the Kush until the year 1857 is a story of liberal rule. However, in 1857, a mass mutiny broke out in central north India, where Sepoys, or Indian soldiers, turned on the British and a civil war ensued. Though the Sepoys were defeated, this revolt disillusioned the liberals and conservative imperialism came to power.
Conservative imperialism simply argued the following: since we cannot enlighten the subject peoples, we must rule them through their own culture. Thinkers such as Henry Maine argued that the culture of the other was unchangeable, in his own mind, India was a place where the past lived. Through making the other permanently in the past, one removed the need to create for them a future. The living past could not be changed. The conservative imperial imagination reframed the enlightenment not as a process of universal becoming, but rather as an exceptional and unique development constrained to western Europe.
This change meant that practically the British Crown took control of India in 1857 in response to the crisis of the sepoy mutiny and E.I.C.’s failures. The Crown would not change India, but preserve it by ruling through traditional rulers. This is called in Central and South Asian studies “indirect rule”. Such rule would happen through local autocrats indirectly instead of directly from Calcutta.
On the Afghan frontier this meant that instead of attempting to change the tribal order, tribal leaders would be integrated as a whole, into a singular system, under the imperial order. Tribes with a knack for raiding would receive subsidies and be allowed to form militias for the British. Once hostile to the Crown, these militias, through subsidy and coercion/diplomacy, now became its chief military agent in the area. This policy came to be known as the Sandeman system which was practiced primarily in Baluchistan in the 1870’s and 1880’s. The founder of this system, Robert Sandeman, coined the famous phrase “…hearts and minds…”. He was remarkably successful primarily because he saw indirect rule and coercion as a way to stabilize the tribal order, and subsequently cheapen and stabilize imperial rule.
When the Sandeman system was taken elsewhere, such as Waziristan, and later Malaya, then Somalia, it was less successful because it required changing the tribal order, or the order of whatever problem the British faced. In other problem areas this system failed because it required changing rather than stabilizing the tribal order.
The American peace deal with the Taliban is an attempt to buy off the Taliban through development promises and fold them into the Afghan security and judicial apparatus. It is not a peace deal, it is a step towards indirect rule and coercion in imperial strategy. This turn has happened because the military and the establishment elite have realized the Taliban leadership cannot be defeated, necessarily then, they must be co-opted. In fact, if anything, since 1992 the Taliban have become more organized, capable, and intelligent as time went on. Moreover, since the process of war-making is the process of state-making, and the Taliban, with a dependent economy of 200,000, have been war making for twenty eight years, they have become more capable and organized.
What has inspired this turn in American colonial policy is many things, but events in Iraq may be the most significant. In the same way the Sepoy Mutiny in north central India encouraged massive change on the Afghan frontier through the disillusionment of the colonial elite, the protests in Iraq and call for the removal of American troops have disillusioned the modern colonial elite of the notion that subject peoples can be changed. Iraq in 2020 is to the United States as what India was in 1857 to the British. Both change the imperial imagination through this disillusionment. The other cannot be changed, only managed.
And Afghanistan will be managed as long as it is violent, and ironically Afghanistan will be violent so as long as there is the presence of a subsidy system in Afghanistan. The subsidization of tribal militias may sound like a good way to stop violence, but the actual consequence is to financially incentivize violence.
Let me tell a story. In Waziristan, after the Durand Line was drawn in 1893, which marked the furthest extent northwards of British imperialism, there was a bisected tribe. The part of the tribe on the British side was violent and so received a subsidy to stop fighting. It worked. But soon, the tribe on the other side was violent. No frontier expert could understand why, until one day, while speaking with a tribal member, the member said something along the lines of “..we wanted the subsidy too.” British intervention had showed Waziris that violence brought subsidy.
The financial incentivization of violence is the central problem of Afghanistan. This “peace deal” is a part of that problem. Development projects in Afghanistan have been a record of incompetence and failure at best and corrupt abuses of power at worst (as SIGAR has shown), assuring that the incentivized means of living for some but not all Afghans will be violence in the foreseeable future. This is accentuated because since the rise of maritime based trade, Central Asia has been on the decline. As trade became ocean based, the silk road declined, stripping Central Asia of its wealth. From Samarqand to Kabul, poverty worsened throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The surviving routes were the few lifelines of economic development in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the same time as trade became sea based, armies became infantry based. For centuries before the arrival of the British, there had been a mercenary economy of Pashtun horsemen that had brought much wealth to Afghanistan. With the arrival of the British in India and the use of infantry as the dominant unit of war, this economy died too. The consequences of these dual revolutions in Central Asia still exist today. As Nick Land wrote in Meltdown “…as renaissance rationalization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off. Logistically accelerating techno-economic interactivity crumbles social order…”[ii] Afghanistan is one of those crumbling social orders. Things fall apart as accelerating orders of magnitude growth in the planetary commercium multiply and divide social lives. The dual collapse of Afghanistan’s mercenary and land trade economy have further accentuated Afghanistan’s reliance on the subsidy.
The fact remains that Afghanistan’s most peaceful period is when the government received aid, and the tribes received aid from the government alone. From the early 1930’s to the 70’s, Afghanistan was relatively peaceful if poor. Giving aid to tribes directly, through international development or subsidy, will re-incentivize violence. Being violent means state attention. Even if all goes best, there are many other groups in Afghanistan who already feel a distinct sense of resentment towards people who commit acts of terror and violence, especially so these acts of terror and violence get them government positions and international money. Finally, an unresolved issue in Afghanistan is that any single political divide could cause the civil war to re-escalate. It is often forgotten that the international community has forced Afghans to accept warlords into democratic elections and that these warlords, having taken advantage of development projects to further perpetuate violence, understand how to play the game well.
A professor of mine once wrote that unlike the French in Algeria, there are no pied noirs in Afghanistan to maintain American interest.
“The previous U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan, as well as the withdrawal from Iraq, reinforces this sentiment. Simply put, there is no constituency of pied noirs to force this fight in Washington. In contrast to colonial regimes, imperial ones lack the roots and interests in local society that give the former staying power.”[iii]
That’s wrong. There are figurative pied noirs, they are the warlords, who excellently manipulate the international elite and global audience. The former perpetuates the violence to receive the aid, the latter advocate for aid in counteraction and deliver the aid. The former threatens women the latter defend them, creating a morbid accidental feedback loop of gender commodification. In 2001 Afghan women had to become modern, now they must be protected. Though many in the aid community sincerely desire to protect women and the fear is justified, the constellation of forces present and methods of aid ensure that the receiver, not the giver, has the advantage.
Though Afghanistan began as an imperial encounter, it is now an exercise in colonial policing expressed through a conservative policy of indirect rule, as empire turns towards a colonial policy of indirect rule, increasingly the blame for the failure of liberal politics will be placed on the culture of the subject peoples, heightening racism while simultaneously deepening the weaponization of women. We have seen nothing yet. The ramifications will occur in the American metropole and in the Afghan periphery, in the former case women’s liberation will lose content through the loss of hope and in the latter indigenous feminism will be hit in the anti-feminist post-withdrawal blowback.
The peace deal is a rearrangement of security policy that exchanges American soldiers for Taliban fighters. A real peace will only come with a timeline for subsidy draw down and that subsidy must be locked by the government, until that happens, there is no peace and cannot be one because the issue is one of financial incentivization amplified by fragmenting social order, not one of military engagement. When that happens, there might be peace.
Likely the subsidy must be continued for some time after withdrawal, but so as long as the institutions that actually manage the programs that support and utilize subsidy funds themselves are underfunded, private actors will have the majority of contracts in aid dispersion. An underrated and primary problem is not that aid doesn’t work, and in fact public institutions are the best groups to deliver aid, but due to an unquestioned austerity doctrine the consequence is underfunded public institutions, even institutions like USAID, which leads to an over reliance on private contractors that are corrupt. For example, the UN has a smaller budget than the American beer market and more money was invested in the movie A Bug’s Life than in the United States Institute of Peace in 2019. Institutions are marginal and need help. They rely on the private market. Relying on private institutions ensures that instead of working with indigenous groups, such as radical women’s groups in Afghanistan or labor organizations that desire universal healthcare and state led development, cooperation with Afghans is limited to neoliberal Afghans, despite the political fabric of Afghanistan being composed of everything from radical and Marxist women’s groups to strategically Maoist Talib fighters. Aid stabilizes the status quo rather than challenges it. Changing how much aid is available and how it is given would drastically improve Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is so far an unsolvable problem, but hegemonic powers are responsible for making this so. The fragmentation of Afghan society is a consequence of internal American fragmentation, as Afghanistan’s women’s progress and development has been inextricably linked to American internal contradictions. The Trump deal, not offering internal reform and at best accentuating the consequences of austerity through cutting aid budgets and forcing reliance on private actors, facilitates the further fragmentation of Afghanistan. Worst of all, the instrument of reform, financial subsidization, is a policy that facilitates violence. The tool of peace is the tool of war. Beyond border lines and ideology, the wealth of empire is the cause of violence. Moloch is not a maw, but a mother, which has midwifed her children from the nurseries of Fallujah to the pine nut farms of Jalalabad. [iv],[v]
Reframing the peace deal as a security rearrangement is important as it is incumbent upon a critical audience to engage meaningfully with the peace process. The purpose of this criticism is not to find any of the thousand reasons not to do something but instead facilitate a clearer understanding of the forces at play in our lives and across the world. The time of monsters like Bush junior may have passed, but the years of Moloch’s children are just beginning.
[i] https://theintercept.com/2020/03/02/on-afghanistan-three-words-i-never-thought-id-write-bravo-donald-trump/ [ii] Nick Land, Meltdown, 441. [iii] Benjamin Hopkins, The Problem With Hearts and Minds, 27. [iv] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/19/us-depleted-uranium-weapons-civilian-areas-iraq [v] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-attack-drones/u-s-drone-strike-kills-30-pine-nut-farm-workers-in-afghanistan-idUSKBN1W40NW