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On Cultural Imperialism and a War That Was Never About Women and Girls

Do CounterPunch, Agosto 26, 2021
Por JULIAN VIGO



It’s always amusing to watch people who claim progressive politics get caught up in what seems to be a desire to get more Twitter likes, on the one hand, and on the other, to decimate their claims of justice for which their online personality purports to fight. So it went last week while on social media, I came upon a retweet, a post by a fellow writer and self-proclaimed feminist who wrote something so callous, that I had to reread her post several times to ensure I hadn’t skipped over a word or entirely misunderstood. Sadly, nothing was missed and indeed I had correctly read her tweet: “Bloody hell, just had experience that felt nearer a mugging [sic] then begging. I’m always happy to get ppl in need stuff from the shop but no so keen on being hassled after buying someone lunch, then followed with repeated demands for cash (I don’t carry it).”

From this followed a string of stories from other women who came on to sympathise, share their thoughts and the far-too-common retorts about how these men either want “drug or drink.” The woman then went on to specify that this particular beggar was a woman, adding, “I am usually totally open to helping women however I can b/c I know what the alternative is if they need cash- but she was bloody intimidating & I know wouldn’t have tried it if I was a beefy bloke.”

The word chutzpah blasted to mind while reading this tweet. To clarify, this person’s feed occasionally come up in retweets from those I follow within Twitter, usually retweets related to the gender debate. This woman is also one of the thousands on Twitter who use the platform for support, advice, or to overshare the “cruelty” of an ex while playing up the notion of progressive politics where women are concerned. Thus, I found this particular series of tweets strangely unkind given that a so-called feminist would go after such low-hanging fruit in criticising a homeless woman who: needed “cash,” probably needed more than lunch, and most certainly who possesses no mobile or laptop to witness or defend herself from the very real cruelty of on an online attack from a woman who has the money to spare and the time to bitch about the money she spent on a homeless woman’s meal. If only feminism wouldn’t have to address that messy issue of class inequality!

A few days later, this same writer posts this: “How can we support women under threat from the [sic] taliban in Afghanistan? I can’t begin to fathom how terrified they must feel- is there anything we on the outside can do?” This tweet was followed by many suggesting to re-invade Afghanistan, a recent social justice pattern that reveals the disconnect between feel-good rhetoric and the political reality that homelessness and war force upon women.

One can witness similarly staged online scenes of piety and concern by progressive as they cry for military intervention in Afghanistan using the plight of women as their raison d’être. But we’ve been here before when back in 2001 women served as the rhetorical backdrop to justify the later invasion. Certainly, feminism is in a difficult spot as this writer’s need to be seen as “kind” concerning Afghan women flies in direct contradiction to the way she treats the homeless woman whom she later uses as a prop to further her “goodness” on social media.

I begin this article with the above paradigm because this narrative represents precisely the dilemma plaguing feminism in the West today where women are now amassing on social media to express anger with Biden or to demand that he continue to bomb a country with little to no clue about the lives that have been tormented for over forty years through covert actions, various military invasion, thousands of drone attacks, targeted assassinations and economic exploitation which have taken out many innocent lives and obliterated the social fabric of tens of thousands of communities. This imperialist feminist sentiment also unveils the complete disconnect that the elite of western nations hold regarding the relationship between class and power and between imperialism and class since anyone outside of the West knows that war is a major force in destroying the rights of women and girls, especially those who are not of the economic class that has been ushered into US-sponsored gender studies courses in recent years in Afghan universities.

So, how is it that a self-professed feminist writer has missed entirely that charity not only starts at home but so too does feminism? Certainly, few of these keyboard feminists have strayed beyond their national boundaries for anything other than holiday yet the pleas asking “how to help” Afghan women peppered with cries to invade perfectly conveys how misinformed their input on this topic is.

While it’s enlightening to see how a vast consumption of neoliberal media emboldens people to sound like experts in the field, the reality proves embarrassing for even self-professed feminists who are, as we say in Brooklyn, talking out of their asses. There is almost an excitement online as men and women who ostensibly fight wokeism have reinvented anti-Taliban wokeism laying clear that their mandate is to save the good women of Afghanistan while they demonstrate zero political knowledge of how women’s and children’s rights, hunger, and poverty are entirely linked to war and conflict. Zero.

This twenty-year US-led invasion and occupation have been a complete disaster on every level. Even comparisons to Vietnam are inaccurate since Vietnam had more political coherence when the US finally exited than what was witnessed this week as the C-17 retreating from the country as Afghan men clung to the aeroplane with one being killed, his body mangled in the landing gear.

For anyone with any doubt as to the inefficacy of the US-led occupation of the country over the past two decades, listen to Richard Hanania who clarifies the impact of the war and occupation of Afghanistan vituperating the incompetence of the occupation as he concludes that the entire operation was a failure of immense proportions from the tactical to the economic. The choices now are not only for those with dual nationalities to decide if to say or to leave as Patrick Cockburn maintains, but Afghan women of means must decide if to abandon the project of nation-building to work on rights for the poor women and girls who will invariably be marginalised from political power.

By 2014, the cost of the US occupation in Afghanistan cost more than the Marshall Plan that helped Europe recover after World War II. Adjusting for inflation and in today’s currency, the Marshall Plan investment would equal $103.4 billion where the war and occupation of Afghanistan have cost US taxpayers over $2.6 trillion. To put these figures into perspective, homelessness can be ended in the US entirely with only $20 billion. And those doing the funding might even take to Twitter to celebrate this fact!

Still, Twitter feminists are vasty angry with Biden despite their rights being shoved back to a pre-Taliban era as they “come out” on Twitter on gender critical. Who would have thought that women in 2021 would be afraid to say that “men are not women.” But here we are where Disney movie endings are far from the reality of women both in Afghanistan and the world over.

Rakib Ehsan eloquently sums this situation up perfectly framing these feminists as cultural imperialists:

A hypocritical band of western “feminists” seem to take a great interest in gender relations in Afghanistan, but dare not challenge misogynistic patriarchal attitudes which exist in domestic minority communities. And the US-UK “special relationship” hasn’t just made a hash of things abroad — neither country has covered itself in glory over its domestic management of the pandemic. For those Americans and Britons that have an appetite for foreign “nation-building” exercises, they must learn from the failures of the “New Afghanistan” project. It is time to be humble and concentrate on working towards getting one’s own house in order before even thinking we can restore everyone else’s.

Meanwhile, Americans and their western counterparts need to understand that democracy like women’s rights is not a one-size-fits-all package. While Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s article, “Biden’s Most Heartless Betrayal,” makes some excellent critiques of Biden’s rough pullout from Afghanistan, she unjustly critiqued Taliban’s cultural commission member, Enamullah Samangani, when he referred to the fact that women “should be in the government structure according to Sharia law.” She criticises Sharia law but elides the fact that 99% of Afghanis surveyed want to restore Sharia law according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report:


Majorities in such countries say sharia should be enshrined as official law, including at least nine-in-ten Muslims in Afghanistan (99%) and Iraq (91%). By comparison, in countries where Islam is not legally favored, roughly a third or fewer Muslims say sharia should be the law of the land. Support is especially low in Kazakhstan (10%) and Azerbaijan (8%).

This report was published twelve years after the invasion of Afghanistan and while Pew admits that these face-to-face interviews were of mostly men in the country, there are few signs that the majority of the country, to include women, want a prolonged western presence.

Every fact, when you step away from political dogma, demonstrates that the western presence was not only unwanted but that many Afghans actually wanted the Taliban back in power: from the 307,000 Afghanistan soldiers and police trained and armed by the US were unable to defeat 60,000 Taliban fighters who had no airforce, artillery or tanks, to the millions of strikes and support sorties that could not hold over the Afghan military to the brokering of planeloads of American cash that supported the economy where warlords and politicians squabbled over elections. It is time to stop pretending the attacks and occupation that the US and other nations undertook in Afghanistan did not harm the women and girls of that nation. There’s been little mention by western feminists of the tens of thousands of Afghans killed, wounded, and maimed. And this includes women, children, the elderly, hospitals, schools, and entire villages exterminated in drone attacks. Since 2001, approximately 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan wars and more than 71,000 of those killed have been civilians.

Afghanistan has experienced a continued western presence since former President Jimmy Carter initiated a covert program through the CIA to financially support the Afghan rebels, the mujahideen, in July 1979. Operation Cyclone (1979 to 1989), was one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken with more than $20 billion in U.S. funds being funnelled into the country to train and arm Afghan resistance groups. Operation Cyclone leaned heavily toward supporting militant Islamic groups that were favoured by the regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in neighbouring Pakistan, rather than less ideological Afghan resistance groups that had been fighting the Marxist-oriented Democratic Republic of Afghanistan regime since before the Soviet intervention. Operation Cyclone was one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken. Funding began with $20–$30 million per year in 1980 and rose to $630 million per year in 1987. Funding continued after 1989 as the mujahideen battled the forces of Mohammad Najibullah’s PDPA during the civil war in Afghanistan (1989–1992).

The Soviets were unable to suppress the insurgency and withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, precipitating the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, the decision to route US aid through Pakistan led to massive fraud as weapons sent to Karachi were frequently sold on the local market rather than delivered to the Afghan rebels. Gilles Kepel, French political scientist and Arabist, contended that Karachi soon, “became one of the most violent cities in the world.” Pakistan also controlled which rebels received assistance. Of the seven mujahideen groups supported by Zia’s government, four espoused Islamic fundamentalist beliefs—and it was these fundamentalist groups that received most of the funding.

And let’s not forget that the Taliban were part of a larger proxy war between India and Pakistan where the Taliban was Pakistan’s proxy and the Northern Alliance India’s. C. Christine Fair writes about her experience as an analyst at RAND, a think tank that specialises in research analysis for the American armed forces, noting that she had a “ground-floor view of American decision-making in Afghanistan and the shocking ignorance about Afghanistan among American policy-makers”:


As many of us noted, the amount of pilferage and destruction was kept to a minimum: just enough to keep the Pashtun trucking mafia satisfied and below the threshold which would force the Americans to shift to air supply. Why was this? Because the Taliban were never an insurgent group. They were and are a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pakistan. This war in Afghanistan has been greatly beneficial to Pakistan. Not only did the United States receive copious subsidies to support the war in Afghanistan, it was never penalized for continuing to undermine it.

There are many more problems in how the US attempts to conquer the Taliban have been represented within western media that tend towards a very black and white narrative to include the posturing of the original invasion as being about women’s rights as media was flooded with images of women in burqa—women who prior to 2001 were virtually invisible in western media. Bookstores created their own Taliban sections with more books replete with burqa photos and even within those book sections entirely unrelated books like Not Without My Daughter, which has become a go-to for feminist orientalism.

Even the coverage of the Taliban’s opium production in the early 2000s read like a bad turf war between gangs where the reality is—and the US should know this best of all—the illicit drug business has regularly played a role in transnational politics with poppy cultivation soaring 37% during the pandemic. It was partly due to the Taliban’s opium production that it managed to oust the Afghan government. Yesterday we were told that the Taliban will no longer allow the production of opium, so perhaps they will go into producing the 510 thread battery for CBD or vape pens? The bottom line is that the Taliban have engaged in a defense of their country and once again pushed out a foreign body trying to colonise its land and people.

There is something deeply troubling about a group of women on Twitter crying for the re-invasion of Afghanistan or the importation of their political values believing this will bode well for anyone, least of all women and girls. Like the British writer who moans about a local homeless woman needing cash, feminists elide the reality of women in Afghanistan who have been fighting for their rights for decades. Take the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a political organisation that has fought for women’s rights in the country while denouncing religious fundamentalism since its founding in 1977. RAWA has also opposed the US policy in the region, the US-led attacks and the US-backed government. While I loathe the term “white feminism,” I am wholeheartedly in agreement with Rafia Zakaria who writes, “Afghan feminists never asked for Meryl Streep’s help—let alone US airstrikes.” Afghan women are completely capable of deciding their lives and political futures.

Meanwhile, those on the right not least of which is Tucker Carlson, have expressed concern that the invasion of Afghanistan has become part of American cultural imperialism and part of a larger pattern that the west needs to end. He was ridiculed on social media for this contention but he has recently and rather astutely covered much of the cultural imperialism that the US government has been pushing in the region to include programs in gender studies and gender and security exporting western notions of gender and “affirmative action” which largely has summed up to a disaster.

Documents by USAID reveal that a recurring theme is how these cultural imports caused political turmoil in the region by “focusing on gender made things more unstable because it caused revolts” whereby “gender had to be part of so many projects” on both the US and Afghan sides of the projects. All this is hugely ironic since the current theatre of neoliberals on Twitter demands that the US “re-invade” Afghanistan or that women and girls be allowed a special immigration status to be expatriated to western nations. Given that the gender ideologues have been pushing for gender self-identity, this proposed special immigration status for women and girls would translate to all men and boys being eligible to have this special status through identifying as the opposite sex.

Where the west creates a cultural soup of anti-science, gender-as-sex monotheism, it is hardly surprising that Afghans are as deeply puzzled about why westerners have come to culturally impose their values, ideas and anti-science notions which are effectively the flip-side of what the Taliban has historically imposed on men and women. In step with the recent western phenomenon of cancel culture, Afghans have also been punished for complaining of the Taliban. These men and women might find themselves in good company alongside the scores of women in the UK and the US who are now jobless for speaking out against gender ideology.

As my friend Madeha al-Ajroush used to tell me, the problems of women’s corporeal freedoms are the same from the Arabo-Islamic world to the west, stating: “In the west, you force women to reveal their bodies, in our part of the world we are forced to cover our bodies up. It’s the same problem with two different manifestations.” However, now with the prevalence of cultural imperialism being used abroad to enforce western ideas of identity, gender and freedom, it’s more the case that women are being forced to cover up the very meaning of the word that defines them and their experiences as women. Bombing Afghanistan to death is never going to change the reality of women’s and girls’ human rights there any more than bombing Parliament will quell the current retaliation against women’s and girls’ rights in a country where its national health service and other national institutions are now referring to women as “chest feeders” and “uterus havers.”

Trump’s promise to end the occupation in Afghanistan is now ended with Biden’s action of having closed that theatre of war. Many would say this is 19 years too late given the harm it has caused the country, men and women who have suffered under a harsh war and takeover of their government with nothing to show for trillions of dollars and scores of lost lives. It is time that the West leaves the good people of Afghanistan to form their own country, government and society. The last thing they need are western do-gooders who track records in the regions brings a new meaning to disastrous.

Those who believe that the end of this occupation was wrong, please review recent history which has come to its full violent circle. A group of insurgents dismissed as “medieval Islamic fundamentalist savages” who would be vanquished before the modernising actions of the West have shown up—as many generations of previous Afghan fighters have before them—the futility and absurdity of meddling in their country’s affairs.

For western feminists who want to help women out and support more colonial intervention in Afghanistan, here’s my advice to you: just don’t. Instead, the next time a homeless woman in your town asks you for cash, give it to her. Hell, go to a cashpoint and give her money so she can make the very choices you claim that women don’t have! Charity and political practice begin at home and feminists in the west have a lot of housecleaning to do beginning with how they elide the voices and concerns of the poor, the working class and those who do not have access to elite institutions and media.

The Afghan women of RAWA have been doing this work for decades and instead of pretending that we have to teach Afghan women how to do feminism right, it is likely that the western feminists venting their anger about homeless women might need to learn from the good women of Afghanistan. At the very least Afghan women know what class consciousness, feminist solidarity, and anti-imperialism are about.


Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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