Travelling with President Emmanuel Macron last month in Iraq, I was struck by the number of people who expressed a deep fear that America would abandon the country, as it has just done in Afghanistan.
I have had several chances to visit Iraq since ISIS took hold in 2014. My first three trips involved having to bypass ISIS-controlled Mosul to reach the land where the Yazidi genocide was committed. I was there to meet survivors, as well as the admirable female fighters taking on the Islamic State, for my movie Sisters in Arms.
On my most recent visit, we were accompanied by a fleet of helicopters and were able to land in the former capital of the caliphate — the now-liberated Mosul. Standing in front of the ruins of the al-Nori Mosque, President Macron delivered a message of hope. This was the very place where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had launched his murderous caliphate, only to blow it up in the face of defeat — a desperate attempt to hide behind a veneer of strength. Obscurantists destroy while democrats rebuild.
But unfortunately, the democrats sometimes leave a foundation so weak that they collapse in a few days. This is the disastrous spectacle that the world has witnessed in Afghanistan – hardly the outcome we might have hoped for twenty years after 9/11.
The visuals are horrific: Taliban soldiers strutting around in GI uniforms, driving abandoned humvees, terrorising Afghan civilians, especially women, and ultimately crushing the final bulwark of freedom — the resistance in the Panjshir valley. Tragically, this was all accomplished with the help of weapons and equipment left behind by the United States.
Carefully coached by Qatar — the best PR firm for political Islam in the world — the Taliban claims to have evolved. It promises an “inclusive” government, but this includes only the old guard members of the Taliban and the worst incarnations of Salafism.
Afghanistan is now fated to become a sanctuary for jihadists — especially for a revitalised al-Qaeda. One Afghan chieftain who led Bin Laden’s “black guard” has already returned to the country in triumph, while Ayman al-Zawahiri, the brains behind 9/11, will likely now be protected by the Emirate of the Taliban.
Several failures explain this disastrous state of affairs. The most obvious was the failure to cut off the Taliban from the drug trafficking that funded them, as well as the failure to isolate them from their sponsors, the Pakistani Secret Service.
But the most important failing was not a military one. It was psychological: it was to fail to realise that you can only beat terrorism by attacking its ideological roots — religious fundamentalism. France and Europe realised this a long time ago — only to be labelled “Islamophobes” by parts of the American media whenever they dared to robustly defend secular values.
Some in the United States seem to believe that religious fundamentalists can embrace democracy overnight. They view Islamism through the prism of their own world, believing that everyone aims for the same thing — social justice. That blend of naivety and cynicism has even led some to suggest that the Taliban have changed. After all, that is what they promised, hand on heart, during the negotiations in Doha. Surely they were telling the truth?
A similar naivety has been displayed towards the Muslim Brotherhood, often presented as “democrats”, or even “largely secular”, in the American press. Even Hezbollah and Hamas have been described as “anti-imperialists”.
Yet anyone who has closely studied Islamist movements knows that their acceptance of democracy is always tactical, viewed as a means to advancing theocracy and Islamic law. Any commitments given to the West are worthless; for the Taliban, Sharia law is the supreme goal.
Of all the extremist movements I have studied, from the ultra-religious Right to neo-Nazism, none has shown such talent at strategic subterfuge as Islamists. They know better than anyone how to instrumentalise democracy to promote anti-democratic views — or how to be victims of “islamophobia” while radicalising the muslim youth of Europe, convincing them that they would be happier in the shadow of a caliphate, rather than in secular democracies.
In Europe, defeating political Islamism will be a long and gruelling process. But in the Middle East, it will take even longer — and will have to reach beyond military interventions.
Of course, the American intervention in Iraq has not completely failed. Life for ordinary Iraqis in the Kurdish north is no longer the procession of massacres and executions that it was under Saddam Hussein.
But while they are freed from daily terror, Iraqi communities continue to eye each other with suspicion and bitterness. Some Sunnis continue to perceive ISIS as a form of protection against a government under the influence of Iran, which now arms Shia militias in the country’s many disputed areas.
The country continues to smoulder and the “Lebanonisation” of Iraq — its disintegration — remains a possibility, with the tiniest spark capable of enflaming the Sunni community once again to support a revived jihadist movement. Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS is waiting patiently on the sideline for the Americans to depart. Such an outcome would prove to be the final failure of American policy in the Middle East.
So is the era of Western “interference” dead?
Here, a distinction can and should be made between a neoconservative vision of values being inflicted by force and our duty to care about what is happening in the rest of the world. It is, after all, possible to support democracy without wishing to impose it from above by military means. Indeed, during President Macron’s visit to Iraq late last month, he specifically made this distinction and called for a new approach which he called “neither interference, nor indifference”.
It is unacceptable to undermine a country which poses no immediate threat to the rest of the world, nor has genocidal plans for its own people. But it is “indifference” to allow tyrants to thrive — first in their own countries, then globally.
For as more democratic — and “indifferent” — countries retreat, the more influence they abandon to authoritarian regimes such as Russia, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran. These states have their own methods of interference, which have nothing to do with democracy or the desire to install democratic regimes. Quite the contrary; they are ruled by tyrants and dictators who see no problem with manipulating other countries with social media trolls and authoritarian state media outlets such as RT.
Now that Afghanistan has been abandoned, the honourable course for Europe and the United States is not just to become a place of safety for those fleeing dangerous regimes. Rather, they must also support and protect democracy in the Middle East where it still survives; to champion the autonomy of countries or regions which act as refuges or alternative systems of government; to create “safe spaces”, if you will, for the ideals of democracy and equality.
It should be our great honour, and our duty, to support the miracle which is Iraqi Kurdistan, defended valiantly by the Peshmerga, and which has provided a refuge to millions of international displaced peoples from the region. This is now a rare island of relative peace and stability in the war-stricken area.
Likewise we must support the miracle of Rojava, the Kurdish northeast region of Syria, which upholds courageously progressive, secular, egalitarian and environmental values — those which the West claims to defend as its own.
This is an opportunity to remind ourselves that the Kurds are on the frontline, defending our common values. They must no longer be abandoned to Turkish bombardments, which recently targeted a hospital in Sinjar without any reaction from NATO, Europe or the United States.
Similarly, it should also have been our duty to protect the Panjshir region of Afghanistan and its National Resistance Front. This mountainous area was the last region to resist the Taliban, acting as a haven for those fleeing their rule. Panjshir was reported to have fallen to the Taliban last week but guerrilla resistance is likely to continue — as it remains in the streets of Kabul, where brave women and men are demonstrating against the Taliban and the interference of Pakistan.
Across the country, pockets of democracy to survive, as symbols of resistance to tyranny and optimism for a better future. Democracy grows from such places — from the bottom, not the top.
In our own interest — in the interest of freeing Afghanistan — we must not let these seeds of hope perish.