Afghanistan’s Return of the Strong Gods

Nation-building abroad was a fool’s errand, but the fall of Kabul may have troubling implications closer to home.

Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee the group’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. (Photo by – / AFP via Getty Images)

There was no good way for the war in Afghanistan to end, but even the pessimists didn’t think it was going to be this bad. Mere days after the long-awaited drawdown of U.S. troops, Kabul has fallen and the nation has effectively been handed over to the Taliban.

In a scene that Tony Blinken assures us is nothing like Saigon, helicopters descend on the U.S. embassy to evacuate stranded personnel. Tales of Taliban brutality already trickle out to the West from refugees and scattered journalists remaining in the country. U.S. forces struggle to hold the Hamid Karzai International Airport as full planes scramble to take off; images seem to show desperate Afghans clinging to the outsides of the planes, only to fall to their deaths mere moments after leaving the ground.

It is, in short, an unmitigated disaster—a tragically, appropriately horrid end to two decades of ruin. This has been, for those willing to admit it, the final and irrefutable assurance that we should have left Afghanistan long ago. Twenty long years and untold American and Afghan lives have been spent only for the country to backslide into Taliban rule the moment U.S. soldiers left.

The prevailing narrative as to why is simple: Western democracy would never have taken root in Afghanistan, which is fundamentally a primitive, tribal society; any imperialistic attempt to transplant an American system there was doomed from the beginning for the simple fact that Afghanistan is not America.

There is an important element of truth here, but it is not the whole truth. The disaster in Afghanistan is not just a lesson in particularism. This explanation fails, for instance, to consider why other imperial endeavors lasted so much longer when they were no less foreign to the places and the people they controlled. All empires fall—plenty of them in Afghanistan alone—but why did the American empire fall there so quickly? This is a problem that cannot be reduced to overextension, certainly not when the logistical and technical capacity of the American imperial apparatus surpassed each and every one of the more lasting empires of the past.

This is the key: America, the last imperial force in the West, failed because its feckless elite have adopted a creed with failure written into it. (Paging James Burnham…) To fully understand the failure, we have to recognize what Tucker Carlson called, in a blistering Monday monologue, “the main lesson of the fall of Kabul: We are led by buffoons. They have no idea what they’re doing; we know that now. They’re imposters. Everything they touch turns to chaos—not just there, but here.”

Carlson continued with a bit of a Freudian slip: “America is—uh, Afghanistan is not the first country our leaders have left worse than they found it.” We must consider the possibility that the gospel of American Progress—democracy, liberalism, equality—failed in Afghanistan not because it is not Afghan but because it is false. Because, if we are really being honest, it’s not doing too hot on the homefront either.

One of the most underappreciated political books of the last few years is The Return of the Strong Gods, by First Things editor R.R. Reno. In it, Reno argues that, in reaction to the malignant nationalism of Nazi Germany, Western intellectuals had completely forsworn the “strong gods”—“the old attachments to nation, clan, and religion”—in favor of an open society, an ideological and technocratic liberalism that placed a rationalized vision of human rights and ideal order above all else—including a sober view of the reality on the ground.

It was this postwar consensus (which Burnham aptly called “the ideology of Western suicide”) that two generations of American elites tried to export to the Middle East. But its failure was built-in: Because the human tendencies perverted in National Socialism were themselves natural and good, suppressing them wholesale could never serve human or social flourishing. That suppression would always be unstable, and perhaps just as corrosive as active corruption. We cannot export a product built to self-destruct and then pretend to be surprised when it explodes.

Reno quotes a single sentence from Emile Durkheim that could summarize his entire argument: “This state of incertitude and confused agitation cannot last forever.” In Afghanistan this was certainly the case, and on the turn of a dime confused agitation gave way to militant Islamist tyranny. In America, just how the strong gods will manifest on their return remains to be seen.

But the return is inevitable, and fighting it only means the return will take a hostile form, which it does not have to. Suppress the natural human passions toward order and loyalty, faith, place, and blood, with shallow promises of voting rights and forward motion, and eventually those passions will erupt—in Afghanistan’s case, in a tide of jihadi rage. Our return will not be so dramatic, but, severity aside, the mere fact of return is an unavoidable counterpunch to the liberal creed that took hold of the West after the Second World War.

C.S. Lewis, hardly a reactionary, noticed a similar tendency against natural order in 1943 and warned us of the backlash:

Watch the faces, mark well the accents of the debunkers. These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut—whom no rumor of the polyphony, the dance, can reach—men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honor a king they honor millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead—even famous prostitutes or gangsters. [To Lewis’ list we could now add a few, more troubling, examples.] For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served—deny it food and it will gobble poison.

We found Afghanistan already weak and put it on a 20-year starvation diet: pseudo-democracy (which is even worse than the genuine article), global-utopian liberalism, and—of course—McDonald’s. It’s no surprise that the poison was swallowed—more from resignation than any real suicidal tendency—the second we turned our backs.

If we don’t learn the lesson brutally taught this week, then America won’t—uh, Afghanistan won’t be the last country our leaders leave worse than they found it.

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