On February 11, US President Joe Biden announced the allocation of $3.5bn belonging to the Afghan people to cover lawsuits by 9/11 families. Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves, which this money is part of, had been frozen by the US administration since August 2021, when the Taliban took over Kabul.
The move sent shockwaves far beyond Afghanistan as the country was thrown into yet another phase of the American war: the intentional starvation of the Afghan people. The range of sentiments expressed by media commentators and Afghan and non-Afghan “experts” alike vacillated between anger and shock, horror and surprise. These reactions seemed to reflect a remarkable insistence, a refusal, to see the US for what it is – a brutal empire through and through. When an empire shows you what it is, believe it.
To be surprised at Biden’s decision to steal Afghan money is to have been invested in the image America has sold to the world: that it is a force for humanitarian good, despite the decades of destruction, the reign of terror it operated with impunity, the torture, renditions, raids, drones, extrajudicial assassinations, and now the mass starvation of an entire nation. To be surprised means to believe the great liberal fantasy that America’s revenge war in Afghanistan was “the good war”. To be surprised means to exonerate the Empire for its brutal and extended violence in Afghanistan and accept that it is simply a series of blunders, miscalculations, unintentional incidents from which there are “lessons learned”.
The ritual of surprise here is symptomatic of a delusional attachment to the idea of humanitarianism itself. Faced with the nakedness of imperial theft, commentators fumbled to explain the callousness before them. One argument maintained that Afghans were also victims of 9/11. While acknowledging Afghan suffering, the argument centred on American injury, locating Afghan victimhood only in relation to it. It also ignored the fact that Afghans were victimised well before 2001, when their country became a battleground for the Cold War between America and the USSR. The second argument emphasised that no Afghan was involved in the 9/11 attacks. While true, it suggests that if an Afghan national had been involved, the invasion and subsequent 20-year brutal occupation of the entire country would have been justified. Instead of pleading Afghan innocence, we need to see this act of imperial robbery within the context of the US colonial venture in Afghanistan.
To speak of American power is not simply to document its cruelty abroad, but to understand how its innocence works to return us to its original wounds, its victim status. It is to remind us of what and whose injuries ultimately matter. This is also currently made clear by the Western world’s military, political and economic support for Ukraine – a white European nation – against Russia’s ruthless invasion; it highlights the racial economy of grievability. In 2001, the US Empire launched Operation Enduring Freedom, which was supposed to not only exact revenge against the Taliban but also bring “enduring freedom” to the subjugated natives. Within a few years, success was claimed: democracy was established through elections, millions of girls and women were being educated, public health was making significant advances and nation-building was progressing.
Unlike Western Europe after World War II, which got the Marshall Plan that focused on reconstruction – of local industries, damaged infrastructure, etc – Afghanistan got a different kind of plan, one driven by what analyst Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”. Afghanistan was turned into a deregulated zone for corporatisation, privatisation and militarisation, which invited mobs of Western companies, contractors, NGOs, and “democracy builders” to make a killing, quite literally. Today, the evidence of imperial-funded disaster capitalism is here for all to see. Afghanistan suffers from an aid-dependent economy ruthlessly denied self-sufficiency, crumbling infrastructure – much of it built with military operations in mind – ghost projects, and abandoned or under-resourced schools and clinics. Under the US occupation, Afghanistan experienced what Zambian economist Grieve Chelwa describes as “pop development” – development that does not really develop. An untold amount of funds went into skateboarding schools, beauty parlours, micro-loans, and “bullshit jobs” – as American anthropologist David Graeber called them – for unemployed Afghan women and men instead of projects that could have addressed the huge infrastructural damage and social devastation caused by serial conflicts.
The billions of dollars promised for “reconstruction” went into the bank accounts of imperial functionaries and local collaborators tasked with “rebuilding” Afghanistan – most making its way back to Empire. “Reconstruction” was the lie that oiled the death machine of the war on terror, while humanitarianism and development were the epic grift through which a military occupation, war economy and a vampiric aid industry fed off Afghan victimisation. Afghans were duped into taking their money from under their toshaks (mattresses) and putting it into a “modern banking system”. Workers were paid through bank-based electronic transfers, part of the “progress” and promise of economic modernity.
What was hailed as “progress” by organisations such as Amnesty International, which in 2012 encouraged NATO to “keep the progress going”, vapourised with the imperial withdrawal. In this context, Empire’s decision to steal Afghan money and give it to imperial citizens is really not surprising. The announcement of the imperial theft reminded us of a scene one of us witnessed 16 years ago, while conducting anthropological fieldwork in Kabul. An international NGO had gathered Afghan widows who were beneficiaries of one of its programmes to meet two American women in their thirties, who had been widowed in the attacks on 9/11. It was not a particularly extraordinary scene given the immense presence of foreigners in Kabul during the occupation, many of whom were imported to manage Afghans. But it was telling.
As scholar Sherene Razack has pointed out, the “paradigm of saving the Other” is tightly linked to the material system of white privilege. “The paradigm precludes an examination of how we have contributed to their crises and where our responsibility lies. With its emphasis on pity and compassion, it is a paradigm that allows us to maintain our own sense of superiority.” We should not be surprised then that the 9/11 widows aligned themselves with a war effort that made widows of other women. Nor that some 9/11 victims and their attorneys feel entitled to money belonging to other victims of political violence. This combination of cruelty and compassion is the thriving paradox of the Empire and is what summons white victimhood to declare whose lives matter.
Biden’s decision does not require course correction for America. This is America. We are reminded of anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon’s declaration half a century earlier on where victims of the Empire must go when colonial fantasies about the “west is best” are shed: to turn away and look elsewhere for inspiration and answers. In Fanon’s “elsewhere”, Afghans will discover not only a shared experience with other survivors of imperialism, but perhaps may embark on a process of identifying and articulating for themselves the ways humanitarianism and liberalism lie at the very core of the Empire that currently starves them.