The spectacle of the Afghanistan endgame, however, was immediately accompanied by its opposite: by a reversal of this transparency and the erasure of the present. This was first seen in the desperate desire to erase digital identities. With the spread of smartphones, social media and messaging apps had become a common part of everyday life for many Afghanis. The profiles, posts, photos and videos, however, could now implicate them in any number of crimes, whether lifestyle-related or from their work or politics. Any association with western nations, international rights groups, the Afghan government or military etc. could be used against them. There were already reports of Taliban asking for phones, to check their contents. As Glaser and Smith (2021) note, a generation born after the Taliban’s first rule had a life-time of digital activity to erase.
Everyday communication through messaging apps, texts, tweets and emails, have become part of a new global battleground of privacy: of ownership and control over one’s digital trails, but with Afghanistan, we witnessed the next stage in the weaponisation of social media and personal data. The ‘post-scarcity’ past weighs heavily on present and future; digital memory has become an awesome new risk in its entanglement in the unimaginable scale and complexity of hybrid personal/public networks and archives and therein digital traces’ immeasurable capacity to haunt (Hoskins 2015, 2017). But with Afghanistan, we can speak of a ‘post-human archive’ in which such data acquires new force—becomes operational—as part of a new kind of hauntology of war (Hoskins forthcoming).
The post-human archive persists through the actions of users, social media companies and an array of actors intent on exploiting the tsunami of publicly available personal data as well as that collected, stored, shared and sold invisibly. Platforms don’t make bulk deletion easy and many depending on their profiles for family communications didn’t want to just delete them. Facebook did add a new button to lock accounts, preventing others from seeing their ‘friends’ list, but most of their help pages weren’t available in local languages. Human rights groups such as the Digital Rights Foundation and AccessNow extended their helplines to Afghanistan to help users cover their traces or install a VPN and worked to translate help pages and security guides into Pashto and Dari etc. (Glaser and Smith 2021).
Of course, these attempts at erasure went hand-in-hand with another erasure: that of the 2004–2021 Islamic Republic of Afghanistan itself. So many commentators and politicians seemed surprised at the regime’s immediate collapse, which happened so fast that the US were still in the process of leaving, turning their orderly, quiet withdrawal into a globally mediated defeat. This followed the heavily memorialised script of the military withdrawal from Saigon on 30 April 1975, a vision that continues to haunt the US, offering a perpetual template for a drive for both more and less war over decades (Hoskins 2004), including inevitably, images of the helicopter fleeing the embassy.
The real surprise, however, is why anyone thought the Afghan government would survive the US’s departure. By 2021 there was a thriving literature on the Afghan War and the multiple, interlinked reasons for its failure. The most recent of these books was Whitlock’s well-timed overview, The Afghanistan Papers, using the evidence of the federal agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) who had interviewed US combatants about their experiences (Whitlock 2021).
Whitlock’s book captures all the well-known problems of the conflict, from the lack of objectives and mission-creep to ‘nation-building’; the too small a force for security; the question of who the US was fighting; the political failure to include the Taliban in talks; the military failure to capture Bin Laden or defeat the Taliban; the lack of investment by the US; the distraction of the Iraq War and movement of resources to another conflict; the lack of history of centralised power; the installation of a corrupt government that included the warlords; the lack of western knowledge of Afghani culture; the failure of the police force and the Afghan army; Pakistan’s support for the Taliban; the failure to recognise the new insurgent threat; the lack of a plan over the conflict and deployment; divisions with NATO forces and confused command; ongoing Afghan and government anger at US bombing raids, drone strikes and night-raids and the mounting civilian casualties; continuing government corruption, the problem of the drug trade; Afghan anger at occupation forces; the failure of Obama’s surges; the problems around Aid projects and private contractors and their corruption; ANA attacks on US soldiers and the lack of trust in each other; the military lies about ‘progress’ every year; the ongoing success of the Taliban; the gradual reduction in troops and the movement towards a US withdrawal that only spurred on the Taliban. All of this, and more, had been known for years (Whitlock 2021).
The late August spectacle of a failing state, therefore, was misleading. This wasn’t a failing state because it had never really been a state. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was a simulated state—a phantasmatic state; the spectral image of a functioning, rooted state. Perhaps all Afghan states have been simulacral: has any Afghan government unified the nation under its authority, when, for most of the country, the state has never been a presence or force, with only local authority, leaders and justice? The US, therefore, followed this tradition of simulation, pouring money and effort into the creation of yet another simulacral state; one, this time, with all the trappings of democracy—voting, representatives, executive government and infrastructure projects to improve the regions and tie them better to the centre. In reality, however, few across Afghanistan knew anything of the government, had even heard of Karzai, or had any identification with the outsider forces representing central authority, whether the hyper-equipped and alien-looking US forces, or the Afghan army or police.
This was a government with limited popular legitimacy, that didn’t represent all of the Afghanis, with endemic fraud and corruption at all levels, and whose structures only survived because of the external support and money continually poured into it. Its democracy never stood on its own and never really seeped into the bones of the Afghanis, being eclipsed in the fight for the county’s future by the rooted Afghani culture and deep beliefs, religious certainties and commitment of the Taliban. Because this wasn’t just the simulacral image of a state: it was one made in the image of the west. The US provided not just the organisation and finances, it provided what it thought of as the ideal model to be replicated, with little understanding of the centuries democracy had taken to develop, the complexities of modern mass-democracies, their cultural specificities and their own limitations. However, just as the west regularly received the bounty of a globalised, outsourced capitalism which arrived in containers on its shores, so it thought its own political system could operate as a reverse-gift, that it could be containerised and transported back to the developing world, to be unpacked at its overseas destination.
Just as the US had thought that Iraq could be instantly transformed into a Neo-Liberal, free-market economy, with a stock-exchange filled with computers, overseen by a modern, democratic state (see Chandrasekaran 2006), so, Whitlock confirms, the Afghan government was also created as a simulation of the US. He quotes Richard Boucher, former State Department chief spokesman, who admits, ‘I think this idea that we went in with, that this was going to become a state government like a US state or something like that, was just wrong, and is what condemned us to 15 years of war instead of two or three’ (2021, p. 38). Instead of following traditional structures of tribal interrelationship and organisation, the US model would be flown in. This extended to the army as well which was designed ‘as a facsimile of the US military, forcing it to adopt similar rules, customs and structures in spite of vast differences in culture and knowledge’ … ‘they were all trying to train a Western army instead of figuring out the strengths of the Afghans as a fighting people and then building on that’ (2021, pp. 57; 58).
Building projects, including bases and barracks, also followed western ideas of provision, ignoring cultural differences—urinals were used as drinking fountains and toilets were broken as Afghanis squatted on them, towel racks were broken off the walls and even kitchens and chow-halls suffered from different cooking traditions (Whitlock 2021, p. 63). Similarly, attempts to impose a western-style system of justice failed within a culture where ‘tribal or religious codes of conduct’ and the authority of elders to resolve disputes had been in place ‘for generations’ (2021, p. 66). Even the imposition of a fixed time on Afghan soldiers proved too much when many couldn’t tell the time and temporality itself was experienced differently (2021, p. 72).
With the sudden withdrawal of its ideal model and of the system that had maintained it, the simulacral copy collapsed. Indeed, the US simply ghosted the Afghanis—they fled Bagram airbase at night, without even telling the new Afghan commander, who discovered they’d gone hours later, after looters had got in (Gannon 2021)—and so the Afghanis, in turn, continued to copy their model, ghosting their own government and the US in turn.
We might, from this perspective, see the Afghani simulation as a remarkable success in copying not just western democracy, but also in—ironically, parodically—copying its failure. The new beacons of democracy, Afghanistan and Iraq, were set up during the War on Terror, by a US that was throwing out the Geneva conventions and civil rights and rendering, interrogating, waterboarding and torturing its own democratic values—as Jean Baudrillard commented, in the images of the wired-up, hooded man from Abu Ghraib, ‘America … had electrocuted itself’ (Baudrillard 2005). Thus, the Afghan government was put to work to implement democracy at a time when US drone strikes, air strikes, special forces operations and ‘night-raids’ were killing targets without due judicial process, killing civilians and entering their homes by force, tying up families whilst they were searched. Meanwhile, in Iraq, civilians were also rounded up to be interrogated in Abu Ghraib about Al Qaeda’s role in the insurgency, before being abused and tortured and released without charge.
What exactly, therefore, was this democratic model Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to follow? Perhaps the failure of Afghan’s democracy can be seen as a parodic simulation of the western model’s destruction of its own values during the War on Terror. From this view, even the much commented upon corrupt, oligarchical nature of Afghani ‘democracy’ can be seen as a commentary on western democracies, where, too, lobbying power and influence comes from money, special interest groups trump the needs of the people and, as they showed in Afghanistan, private companies systematically fleece the public purse. And, perhaps, this corruption, instead of being a failure, had a positive outcome for the US after all. Just as Baudrillard famously argued that ‘Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest [of the US] is real’ (Baudrillard 1981, p. 12), so the ‘corruption’ of the Afghan and Iraqi governments at least helped further the myth that the US model remained a ‘real’ democracy at a time when it had globally-jettisoned those values.
Over time, as the ‘forever wars’ wore on, the west began to lose even its own public commitment to democracy, with the rise of East European anti-liberal, right-wing populists (in Poland and Hungary), the success of the far-right (in Germany and France), the rise of nativist, populist politics intent on denying rights to others (the UK) and, finally, in the rise of Donald Trump, on the back of nativist and white-supremacist support. In the year that the Afghan government collapsed, Trump had managed to reject the verified result of a democratic election, galvanise his supporters to ‘stop the steal’ and rile them into an insurrection intended to overturn the entire democratic electoral process in the US. In collapsing so simply and so completely, Afghan ‘democracy’ showed not its failure to imitate US democracy but actually how well it had copied the failing US model.
However simulacral the state, of course, the gains it brought for many were real and these will all be reversed. The erasure of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan wasn’t just an act of suicidal auto-destruction, it is an ongoing process that the Taliban will carry out, in their desire to return to Sharia law and values and to wipe-out the existence of the last twenty years, restoring their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This will be an erasure of human rights, women’s rights, freedoms, culture, media and sport etc. Already, as Kabul was entered by the Taliban, hairdressers closed and western-style shop-front adverts were being painted away.
Of course, the Taliban are now subject to the same Web 2.0 transparency as any other regime, with a smartphone equipped population able to film and share their actions. The 11th September video that spread showing Taliban soldiers beheading an Afghan soldier and celebrating whilst holding his head, for example, undermined their claims of peaceful transition and amnesty (Catling 2021). Meanwhile, Afghani women are already using the power of social media to protest the Taliban, as seen in the September 2021 #Donottouchmyclothes hashtag and the October 2021 viral video of two women singing with their burqas on, defying and challenging Taliban rule (Glinski 2021; Nasimi 2021). How long internet and social media access will be allowed remains to be seen. The erasure of communication is another likely result here.
But the Taliban’s erasure is also directly murderous. There are many reports of Taliban revenge against those seen as too-connected to the former regime or with the advances it produced. On the 20th October, reports emerged of the Taliban beheading Mahjabeen Hakimi, a member of the Afghan junior women’s national volleyball team and member of the Taliban-persecuted Shiite, Hazara ethnic group (Bhalla 2021). The Taliban also have a new tool to help in this persecution and murder. As Jacobsen explains in her book First Platoon, faced with the ongoing problem of even knowing who the enemy was, the US implemented a huge, digital biometrics programme capturing detailed biometric data ‘on 80% of Afghanistan’s 22 m population’ (Jacobsen 2021, p. 242). The war in Afghanistan, therefore, became ‘the quest for identity’, with the discovery of the insurgent’s ‘true’ identity being seen as holding the key to the war (Jacobsen 2021, p., 141).
The failure of the US’s ability to even know who they should fight was summed up by their final act of violence, their drone-strike against claimed IS suicide-bombers on 29th August that, they later admitted, killed 10 innocent civilians (Smith 2021). The Taliban, in contrast, have a clearer vision of their enemies and in August it was reported that their victory now gave them access to the biometric data held on the US programme’s devices, as well as on the Afghan government databases (Guo and Noori 2021). The erasure of the Afghan Republic will likely continue with the ongoing erasure of those who served that government and related agencies.