Afghanistan again caught the world’s attention in the last week of August, since the 15th, when the Taliban took the city of Kabul in the context of the withdrawal of US troops from the country and the flight of the ruler supported by the great power and Europeans , Ashraf Ghani. Since then, many questions have arisen about who the Taliban is, what might happen to Afghan women and about the US role in the country’s current political landscape.
O Brazil in fact spoke with Nivi Manchanda, political scientist and researcher in the field of International Relations, lecturer at Queen Mary University in London. She is the author of the book “Imagining Afghanistan: History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge” (“Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge”).
The interest in the subject emerged with the War on Terror, when seeing the way in which the US exercised an invasive policy in different parts of the world. “My initial focus was on Iraq, but in the study process, when I realized that there was a previous war that was given less attention, that there wasn’t proper analysis, that led to an interest in Afghanistan.” During the interview, a conversation about history, local politics and the issue of gender in interventionist actions in Afghanistan.
Brazil in fact: About people’s curious reaction to what happens. Taking an in-depth study of Afghanistan, how do you analyze the questions that arise: “Who is the Taliban? Were the Soviets there? What is the role of the USA? What will happen to women?”
Nivi Manchanda: This curiosity is actually a liberal amnesia, an amnesia of the white savior. The same thing happened in 2001, this thing about who is the Taliban, who is al-Qaida, who these women are, how can we save them.
But the fact that twenty years later, after countless deaths, we can say the same thing and ask the same questions only reflects that we haven’t learned any lessons, and also that we are completely ignorant and insensitive to our own implications for creating these problems.
You place Afghanistan as a place that is the object of colonial knowledge production. But you note in your book that the country is a marginal colonial place, not at the center of imperial ambitions. What does that mean?
Afghanistan’s quasi-colonial nature reflects how agents intervened in it and how they interacted with it over many centuries. The British, in the first half of the 20th century, saw Afghanistan as an intermediary zone between two significant entities: India on the one hand, because it was part of their Empire, the Crown Jewel; and on the other, Russia, the Soviet Union. Afghanistan was the middle place.
So, even though Afghanistan has been subject to invasive restructuring, to considerably wide-ranging interventions, it has never been properly placed in the remit of colonization. Afghanistan was never part of the Empire, of the commonwealth. In later years, engagement with this territory was something marginal, peripheral or instrumental. It is colonial, but not fully colonial as India was to the UK or Algeria was to France. It’s something different, and it’s surrounded by this mystery exactly because of that.
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You mention nation-building and state-building processes, which are contemporary processes of external intervention, even though they may be considered imperial. From the perspective of your study, how does this enter into imperial knowledge?
These concepts you mention are neocolonial orientalist concepts. The idea that states like Afghanistan are failed states or even pariahs is the very problem of how they are framed. Afghanistan is very complex. In fact, there is a state there today, with institutions that took a while to build, but they emerged. What the US has done is to undermine that state by supporting corrupt elites that don’t communicate with the rest of the population.
Richard Halbrooke (Barack Obama’s government special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan), for example, decided to say that AfPak (Afghanistan and Pakistan) were a single entity. In many ways, the US undermined the country’s sovereignty. They thought: “we can draw the border because international law does not apply here”. Nation-building is itself a complicated Orientalist endeavor, but even by the very criteria of the US and Western countries, they have failed to do anything worthwhile in Afghanistan.
Within this savior’s discourse, one of the main questions that arise is about the Afghan woman. Do you see any problems in this treatment?
That has been the theme. Right now, what we see is that the Taliban must be destroyed while the woman is almost always the object that can be saved. In 2001, in the US invasion, saving women in blue burkas was a big issue. Even now, the discourse in the West immediately reverted to this: “what will happen now to all these women who are back in the burqas”.
Sometimes, this speech can have legitimacy, as, yes, the Taliban is terrible and will most likely be terrible to women. But there is a voyeuristic element, as we are consuming these women’s pain. On the other hand, with this discourse, real material changes have almost become secondary. This is a sensationalism of the “savior complex”, whose other side of the coin is to destroy the bad elements, be they fundamentalist elements in the form of the Taliban or simply Pashtun men.
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In your book you work with different feminist authors and reflect on the use of the veil by Afghan women, the difference between the image we build about the use and the reality of these women who choose to wear it. How does this relate to the interventionist rescuer complex?
In fact, there is this debate about whether Muslim women really need to be saved, but Afghan women don’t need a savior. They may need material assistance, they need an end to war, poverty, civil clashes. But the salvation we talk about is, in large part, about “us”, so that we can feel better as Western spectators.
In certain contexts, the veil and the burqa have different meanings for different people. Someone can use it because they feel more comfortable with it, because it is a sign of religiosity. The veil allows them to travel unnoticed or access places they otherwise would not have. Of course, this is not to say that I am a constant advocate of state-imposed burqa policies, but taking agency away from the women who wear them is also problematic.
Indeed, one of the excerpts from her book says: “Little attention has been paid to material conditions that may be equally responsible for gender inequalities in Afghanistan. Years of war, an exaggerated militarization of society, debilitating poverty and a largely drug-based economy have had devastating consequences for the people of Afghanistan, for both men and women.”
Exactly, there are many other factors that are equally important in gender inequality that are ignored or purposefully neglected in order to make quick wins or to make them feel better, which fits into this “savior complex” mantra we’re talking about .
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Finally, I would like to address the concept of “tribe”, a term that has been stuck in the description of Afghan political groups. How much does this affect the understanding of the local context?
In fact, tribe is a clichéd term to describe the entire Afghan society, a term that has become one of those stereotypes. What I sought to do, and what is important, is that the tribe itself is an anthropological category that has been juxtaposed to the state. There is a state organization and a tribal organization.
Many sociologists and anthropologists have distanced themselves from the notion of tribe, as it does not help much in explanatory terms, as it is racialized, it is reductive, it does not help to understand the situation. This is a more direct criticism of the notion of tribe. But let’s say hypothetically that we do not accept this criticism, that we detect that some groups are tribal, with certain elements that give it the characteristic of tribality.
The problem is that in Afghanistan tribes are simply not described as valid political institutions. In other words, in this context it means that “they are late”. So international organizations or movements can say “these tribes are backward, not progressive, we can’t work with them.” Or else they treat them through a more condescending view of the tribes, who regard them as noble savages. These two forms are problematic because they do not help us to understand the diversity of political organizations in Afghanistan.
Edition: Thales Schmidt