By Friedrich Kratochwil

Ruminations about the fall of Kabul

September 14, 2021 - 17:50

The hasty retreat of the U.S. from Afghanistan and the re-establishment of Taliban rule in Kabul are certainly events that justify further critical reflection. But such a reflection is neither helped by attempts to prophesize about “the future” of the world, of the West, the East or whatever, nor is it as simple as connecting, for example two past events and draw a straight line which presumably discloses where we are going, as the narrative line “from Saigon to Kabul” suggests. For one, yes, Vietnam was a defeat of U.S. policies, as is the “loss” of Afghanistan, and here the undeniable disaster of the hasty and nearly irresponsible withdrawal will provide ample room for criticism, but the “meaning” of the event will probably remain contested.

In pondering such a question, we quickly realize that we have to cast our net wider than tallying up the losses since even after the disaster in Vietnam the U.S. did not disappear from the world stage. As a matter of fact, the end of the Cold war and the chances for a sensible and less dangerous world order emerged subsequently, brought about by the careful management of the U.S. and Soviet relations bringing also other nations including formerly “occupied” areas on board.  That in the end those chances could not be institutionalized and did not result in robust and workable arrangements is truly one of the tragedies of our times.  Recalling those facts suggests that critical assessments are ill-served by the simple-minded analogy of “winners and losers” taken from the strictly defined template of a (card)-game,  even if drawing on such analogies is popular among mass audiences, academics (“we won” the Cold War, or ushered in the “end of history”), or even politicians (as the pathetic Trump presidency showed).  The simple reasons for this mistaken analogy is, that the point of the political game is precisely the “making” of rules rather than just entering a game with specified ex ante rule, which are in a way self-executing – if you violate a rule of chess you are no longer playing chess – which is entirely beside the point, Similarly problematic is the analogy of policymaking to applying of rules to a case, as much of the “norms-research” by self-appointed constructivists in international relations suggests because making ac political choice is not the same as engaging in an act of administration or even adjudication.  

That much should be obvious, if one is not befuddled and prefers to wallow in the simplistic gloating over the defeat of the forces of evil or – looking on it from the other side, i.e., of the loser (and his allies) that now everything is in jeopardy so that we just have to redouble our efforts and make no compromises in the future. While, of course, the latter stance is hardly sensible, victory might be an equally problematic advisor, as it seems to vindicate the winner’s view, instead of suggesting the need for a critical postmortem assessment.   I hope therefore that powers in the Middle East- from Saudi Arabia to Emirates, Iraq, and Iran will think a lot more about the implications of this event than just gloat over this “victory” in the name of Islam.  

It is this type of stereotyped thinking in terms of uncritically accepted analogies, although rather common in both the public debates and even the scholarly discourses, which I want to probe in this contribution.  Shoddy thought ranges from the “truths” of realism to the prediction of the eventual victory of human rights (of course understood in terms of the projects and priorities which “people like us” -a la John Rawls- pursue), to the notion of the duty to “do Gods work” - as one of the main culprits of the last sub-prime crash at the Wall Street so disingenuously put it.  All such obfuscations prevent us from taking care of the problems of praxis and of making policy, instead of just trying to realize some pre-existing blueprints which are often not even worth the paper on which they are drawn, or which are based just on assertions addressed to searching, but often rather uncritical audience, in order to impress it.  But then again it could worse if policies base on such phantasmagoric notions are pursued -without much ado and even a bow to propaganda- directly by “fire and sword”. 

To that extent the difficulties ahead of the “victorious” Taliban are considerable. They will have to prove that they are more than just a cohort of determined fighters who can organize resistance against outsiders - forcing the latter to retreat through clever handing of pyrotechnics and “local knowledge” - but that they are also capable of transcending the deep cleavages in their society for the pursuit of common projects when no external enemy provides anymore the glue for collaboration. Here the adeptness in using force becomes a curse rather than a blessing, as it tends to escalate conflict, that could lead to full-fledged civil war or an unstable stalemate of persistent, even though lower-level violent conflict, or to widespread “passive” resistance, all of which would disable common policies.  Force, coming out of the barrel of a gun is thus hardly a “trump” on all occasions, or as Napoleon once so aptly remarked: “You can do a lot of things with bayonets, but one thing you cannot do with them: to sit on them”. 

True, the Taliban have changed over the years and have apparently also acquired more recently considerable skills in handling monetary instruments to deal with the backwardness and poverty within the inherited territory.  However, for becoming a new Switzerland, or even an oasis for tax dodgers, a lot more is required than military hardware plus a functioning surveillance system which will treat insiders harshly but outsiders and their in-transparent dealings leniently. In short, without meeting those above-mentioned demands enabling the pursuit of common projects, there is the danger of getting stuck with the role of being the “grave for empires” and of remaining a garden for the cultivation of poppies, which in their “processed form” and by means of functioning (black) “markets”,  meet the never-ending demand of Westerners for “recreational” drugs.

Perhaps the prospects are, however, a bit better than I make them out to be, and we can perhaps perceive already a kind of silver lining on the horizon. Given the embarrassed policy-making machineries in Europe and of parts of a global civil society carrying out humanitarian projects, both groups might have a stake in continuing the impossible dream of transforming Afghan society by outside “help”. In this convenient narrative - making already its rounds in Europe- the West failed because it never actually tried to “really” tackle the task it set for itself.  So, help without much talk about the attached “strings” might be the token for atonement or a move by the “donors” for saving face. If we think that this is the proper scenario, we still have to face the fact, that we simply sweep then first part of the problem i.e., its “do-ability”,  on which this interpretation rests,  under the rug by assuming that humanitarianism is a self-justificatory action that transcends political concerns.   That might be all well in theory – and some of those projects such as those pursued by the Red Cross or by the Doctors without Boundaries actually “work” precisely because of their (assumed) non-political nature. But how difficult it is to preserve this line becomes clear only on the ground as can be gathered from the many reports of the often disenchanted “helpers” and some detailed case studies.  Besides, it is hard to believe this “noble lie” of an apolitical humanitarianism can be maintained in this case - and is not just be used as a temporary convenient prop - when an entire human rights agenda with clearly political projects ranging from the protection of private property rights and free markets to sexual preferences and lifestyles, and free elections, lurks in the background.    

Here we quickly enter the problem of whether the focus, on larger political orientations rather than on the pragmatic and temporary muddling through providing us with better tools for assessments, as my interviewer intimates.  Of course, moving to the broader picture is in a way heuristically fruitful, but not every “large scheme” will be illuminating, despite its popularity. To that extent, we could e.g., use the traditional left/right dichotomy for deciphering the puzzling internal and external political developments.  Then the disastrous policies and the “fall of Kabul” become emblematic for the growth of right-wing sentiment especially in the U.S. and or for the rise of “populism” in Europe. In this way, we “see” that inventing an enemy diverts attention of the population from governmental failures, while also allowing the other party which opposes governmental policies to vest itself in the garb of progressive universalists.   However, while I do not deny that we had to witness significant transformative changes in last decades, both in domestic and international (or perhaps better: global politics) the links between the identified “drivers” of these developments remain to be researched rather than postulated. In short, I do not think that the old conception of the protagonist left– standing for progress- and of the right being emblematic for “reaction”, does much of the explaining. At worst, it leads to the replay of the ideological position familiar of the immediate post-war times in which especially left intellectuals in France tried to argue that the SU must be supported as it represents the best hope for a new humanity, in spite of Stalin’s terror exemplified by his gulags and show trials. 

Here a quick reality check is in order. Significantly it was the active communist Tito and the chairman of the Soviet KP Khrushchev who had to debunk this myth long before the voices of the victims could be heard in literature.  Western academics were-if not silent - nevertheless severely criticized – within the academy as well as by supposedly “progressive” left parties – if they showed interest in finding the origins or roots of totalitarianism and dared to compare fasicsm, Nazism and Stalinist “socialism”.  Similarly myopic is the argument that domestic unrest and terrorism can be attributed solely to fascist and racist right-wing – as if we did not have of the Brigade Rosse in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany.  The terrorist attacks by external movements were saved from their nationalist “rightness” by simply dubbing them “liberation” movements in line with the argot of “leftist” progress 

To that extent, it seems to me doubtful that the violence of dschihadists and of nationalist ultras –the former growing up in the banlieues of Paris the latter in Norway or Germany,   can be understood in terms of the old cleavages, or the mechanist image of a “drift”.  This is, of course not to deny that many Western societies long considered to be well integrated have experienced severe strains in the last few decades, that do call into question the Kantian/Hegelian phantasy of an “end” of history. The findings indeed raise the further and perhaps more interesting question of why democracies, which supposedly supply the best approximation to realizing universal values, seems to falter not only by revolution – and here the “silent” revolutions are especially significant – but also that they can falter quite ironically “democratically”, i.e. they do so while following the prescriptions of democratic systems. 

There is, of course, no point to enter into these rather complicated debates save to mention in passing out some interesting points, which the editor mentions in his questions to me: the role of academia and the even broader issue of knowledge.  So, I take the liberty on concentrating on the (in)-adequacy of our conceptual frameworks for understanding and – even more importantly- of “making” the social world. To that extent I shall leave the issues of religion – which I addressed at least obliquely in a previous gloss in this paper – in abeyance, save to note that the dominant discourse of “secularization” has run its course and exposed – quite ironically given its ideological stance - its own religious roots in prophesies and eschatological expectations. 

Let us, therefore, turn to the role of academia and its close symbiosis with the policy-making circles: it is of course no new problem, as the example of Plato’s ill-fated expedition to Sicily shows. It has been particularly well documented in the case of the U.S. in which the same role-reversal between academics and decision-makers which can be observed within the policy-making machinery (economics and foreign affairs) as well as between regulators and (former) occupants of private industry. The latter leads easily to objections to the capture of the controllers by the controlled and – and here explicit legal separation-barriers become necessary – but one should also ponder the prudential issue of the usefulness of some form of a separation of powers between the academy and government. 

More problematic is, of course, the Platonic argument that philosophers have to rule the state, as they are in possession of true knowledge. It is the thesis of “unity of truth” that justifies such a claim, even though over time Plato took a more distanced view (see his Politikos, or his last work, The Laws), although his student Aristotle remained scathing in his criticism of his teacher. For him abstract ideas and the recognition of the natural order of things cannot be relied on in practical question because of their contingency and their location in time rather than space, which calls for adducing “local” or circumstantial rather than universal knowledge, (what “works here” “what situation is this”), and of the fact that social ordering occurs not by manipulating natural forces but by utilizing concepts. The latter invariable contain contestable evaluations which involve more than purely cognitive issues. Finally, the appraisals these concepts facilitate span different and incommensurable domains even though all actions are directed towards a final goal: eudaimonia which is problematically translated as “happiness”. Thus,  because of temporality, contingency, and incommensurability this “directedness” of all action is not subject to a simple efficiency criterion (if x is a means to y then I have to do x if I aim at y and my efforts are rational if I accomplish this by the least effort) . Here issues of conflicting values arise and in the absence of a common currency by which they can be traded off, choices have to be made “all things considered”,  rather than in terms of a specifiable price  (The happiness of being with my children is not easily trumped or traded off with the honor and reputation I gain by publishing,  which might entail neglecting my children).  

It is this reduction of the issue of choice that also neglects time, in particular the history and genesis of a “problem”, which valorizes imagination and the “knowing many things” rather than one “unshakable truth” (Descartes). Being able to compare and see similarities and differences among things, of finding one’s way quickly in a choice situation rather than losing time by costly searches for further information -which do not have a “natural” or definite end and engender the possibility of coming up empty- become now crucial characteristics of “real choices”.  Since these characteristics are defining and have to be attended to, instead of being “assumed away” so as to make calculation easier or provide us with a logically more cogent and parsimonious model of action.  

Those defining distinctions were emphasized in the Aristotelian and humanist tradition, but they have been elaborated in different ways in our times by Isiah Berlin, Philip Tetlock, Herbert Simon, to name just a few. Needless to say, that these unorthodox had a difficult stand in academia where the reduced rationality of neoclassical economics reigns supreme. To that extent, the issue of how to think about problems is preempted by a notion of science (by assumption, and inference) which actually never was – as the history and philosophy of science show (Kuhn, Toulmin, Putnam) - but which- quite, fortunately- not even the natural sciences adopted. Biology did not become physics and modern logic- contrary to the firm belief on the stringency of logic- creates its own paradoxes (vide Russell’s paradox, Wittgenstein) which, in turn, bodes ill for the claim that it is unconditionally and universally applicable.

What does all this mean for the issue of understanding politics and for training people for advising decision-makers?  Above all, it would suggest that modesty and thoughtfulness should not be sacrificed on the altar of “scientific” certainty which is unavailable – at least in the form specified by of positivist epistemology – since most practical choices are more complex. They are not limited to problems of maximization (even if a minimax criterion is introduced and the imperfection of information is endemic in strategic situations). Besides, the generative capacity of trust and works rather differently than most economists suggest due to their “methodological” commitments and myopias. Here Kant’ “dove” provides a telling gloss on the dangers of certainty arrived at through a “theoretical” simplification. In the introduction of his Critique of Pure Reason (A 6, B9) he writes:

Mathematics gives us a splendid example of how far we go with a priori cognition independently of experience. …This circumstance, however, is easily overlooked …Encouraged by such proof of the power of reason the drive for expansion sees no bounds.  The light dove, in free flight cutting through the air, the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in an airless space. 

In spite of such warning that with assuming away friction in order to get a better understanding of what makes flying possible, we lose the actual subject which we try to understand, “high powered” modeling has been the rage in social sciences. Ironically the objections are simply passed over by pointing to the “theoretical” criteria of parsimony, elegance and cogency they possess.  Given these virtues, it seems to matter little what they tell us about world in which we live and act.   

Similarly, if one looks at most of the public affairs schools in the U.S. and Europe they are mostly run by economists - or worse - by failed economists turned administrators. Focusing nearly exclusively on the issue of “scarcity” (of money) - certainly a real problem in “inefficient” non-market organizations - they are deeply convinced that universities and schools of higher education have to be run according to business principles. Given this frame of mind, it matters little whether you sell cars, salsa, computer games, toilet paper or diplomas. Based on the metaphysical assumption of the continuity of nature, there has to be also a corresponding continuity that links book-keeping to peace-keeping! After all, there are numbers and your “products” can be assessed by the analysis of the job placement of your students, your scholarly contributions can be evaluated by citation statistics and by the testimony of hapless politicians who found your ideas useful and tried to apply them in the real world. Technology freaks are praising the use of new technologies “required” by the emerging electronic battlefield or they advocate the militarization of space in order to gain control, given that we are not doing that well in actual ground combat.  Closer to earth we are treated to the democratic peace argument although the actual working of this “system” to be constructed remains more than murky and has led to several political disasters, not to mention that the shining examples embodying this theory of design (the U.S., UK, EU) are not doing too well – and that is putting it mildly.   

But aside from those errors which are in a way part of the praxis and of the production of knowledge, what has to be attended to is that the structure and the priorities of the former republic of letters have fundamentally changed. This is not only due to incidental stupidity and fortuitous factors which might account for incidental errors, but systemic failure requires a different approach: a showing of deep-seated social changes that have undermined the old system. Here the “ivory towers” of yore, come to mind as a template that could be used as they once allegedly existed in splendid isolation. But that picture might be rather misleading as knowledge production in academies and institutions of higher education were not only with the emergence of modernity “political projects”, as not only Hobbes and Descartes demonstrate, but before that also the colleges and universities with their links to the Church and the sponsorship by kings amply attest to this fact.  Thus, it would be gravely mistaken that former institutions of learning, such as medieval universities were idyllic places of learning exempted from the tides of politics. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the marketization of knowledge in our times has linked the public and the realm of knowledge in fundamentally different ways. 

Paradoxically, the new and the old ways show however several similarities. Precisely because learning is a fundamentally social enterprise learning by authority and learning in a group of peers or in the laboratory or among peers, presupposes certain social virtues. One of them is deference to authority, even though the vetting of knowledge-claims among peers differs in the type of authority which by tradition was entitled to settle disputes among the scholars.  But as students quickly learn, that might be in practice “the same difference”:  getting along and learning to satisfy the systemic requirements of passing “objective” tests - be they the quoting of canonical texts -which was the old way- or submitting now one’s findings to  “peer review” always implies both deferences and also comes - at least – with some strategic behavior. To that extent the issue of authority is always present although “naturalized” by being usually taken for granted and bracketed (deference). But, as we can see such “deference” is a far cry from the notion of a “clear and Compellent” proof, that is plain to all if they just follow the presentation, and that truth will appear at the end (as the old Greek aletheia (truth) means literally “not being hidden”). 

It is precisely the attempt to short cut debates and controversies that necessitates the introduction of an authority, even if one appeals to universal reason, or nature, rather than an established “artificial” authority of a person or office. This move has paradoxical implications.  First, far from being based on a simple deictic procedure that points to the a “there” like the existence of a stone, it is not a brute fact that convinces by its existence – contrary to all ontological speculations -  but it is a self-authorizing authoritative statement, very much like the Hobbesian sovereign of yore. This pronouncement of the sovereign “works” even though he is virtually never present and acts through institutions-   because it says so and in virtue of a shared belief. This notion of a “declaration” then does important work by establishing what can be said and what is out of bounds, but paradoxically also subverts the productive surprises and fight that keeps the search for knowledge alive. Actually, universal agreement could only mean entropy and authority would no longer be necessary and probably self-destruct.  

And if that were not enough there is again a third paradox which counteracts the seemingly deadening implications of the first and the second one. The third paradox is that even if the standards of universal reason are clear, they usually are not entirely perspicuous (not like numbers) but have to be applied and interpreted, and this engenders processes that are bound to create controversies and result in different action-directives as the recent debated of what to do in order to deal with the Corona pandemic demonstrates.   The notion of demonstration a “full view” sometimes called the “view from nowhere” -which shows you things as they are, which has no background, no central, as compared to peripheral vision, no perspective, as everything is perspicuous to you and all others “right minded” - is, of course, only a phantasy.   This can indirectly be observed by the asymmetry between “proving a point”, as opposed to showing that one’s hypothesis was false. Although disproving an accepted truth is according to standards scientific criteria equivalent to proving a point, we all know the former is mostly a thankless task and you are in for an uphill battle.  After all skeptics are mainly considered to be party-poopers, rather than “scientists” who are positive and productive who are cohorts one wants to have around.  

Those preliminary observations highlight some of the (inevitable?) pathologies of knowledge generation, especially if knowledge production becomes organized on an industrial model. At that point even universities become “firms” as the old model of a “corporation” – which the universities originally were - gets eviscerated and become just business enterprises which thrive on routines and manipulation (incentives).  They might work satisfactorily in normal times, but they prepare us ill for crises and times when the bets are off and the normal cleverness for running machines and production processes no longer suffice. Then the “power of judgment” and re-thinking of what one is doing is required. 

What has all that to do with “The fall of Kabul”? Well, the tragedy of Afghanistan does not “make sense”, but it could have sense if we come to our senses and “re-think” - not in the mechanical sense of doing again the same things- which produce our “normalcy” and create the (fake) universality of the laws and generalizations of the social realm and which we are after when we want to explain as scientists. Instead, we have to “re-think” (as in the German:”nachdenken” suggest) i.e. to ponder our choices and take responsibility for something of which we are part even though we might not have had a direct hand in it.