In the 1980s Afghanistan, two world powers converged on each other, obliterating the national borders that stood in their way. The first was the Soviet state, bent on defending the precarious gains of a 1978 Communist coup d’état that it had actively tried to prevent. The second, caught in an even more painful paradox, was an uneasy alliance of foreign-funded jihadists, Western intelligence, and NGOs like Doctors Without Borders.
The way we remember the Afghan War today is as a kind of prologue. We care that the United States (along with, far more importantly, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) helped fund jihadists because those insurgents would later turn against the United States, serving as the ultimate indictment of Reaganite Cold War politics. We care that the Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan because that failure foreshadowed the Afghan quagmire of today. We care about the Afghan War because it spawned Osama bin Laden.
Timothy Nunan’s new book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan, shows how incomplete this retrospective, US-centric view is. Though he does not venture beyond the 1990s, his argument is essential for understanding the world of imperial warfare today.
Afghanistan did not create the Islamic State, but it did serve as the laboratory in which the destruction of Third World sovereignty came to be fitted with justifications rooted both in human rights and in regime security — the recipe for modern “humanitarian interventions.”