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A Sort of Reverie

On forgotten Afghanistan.


In 2020—the year the government of the United States signed what was essentially an instrument of surrender to the Taliban—how much time do you think American network news spent covering war in Afghanistan? 

The answer is five minutes. Not per week or per month: over the entire year. Not per network: combined. Empires have always been able to ignore their own wars; the ability to kill people without really caring about them is what’s usually called civilization. But the United States is something new: an empire so advanced, so powerful, and so blinkered that it can lose a war and barely even notice.

Eventually, though, the scale of America’s defeat forced its way through. On the twelfth of August, 2021, the newspapers reported that Kabul could be under siege within a month, and the entire country could fall to the Taliban within ninety days. In fact, it took three. There was something very surreal about the way the Taliban simply engulfed Afghanistan, amoeba-like, as coalition forces withdrew. The Afghan government didn’t even fall; it just vanished. It had never really existed. One N.A.T.O. commander told the media that they’d been prepared for a peaceful evacuation under their puppet government, or a hostile evacuation under Taliban fire. There was no plan for what actually happened. America did not flee Afghanistan in a frenzy of desperate gunfire; that might have been more dignified. The Taliban let the United States keep its small, chaotic fiefdom in Kabul airport. They worked joint guard duty alongside American troops. The people we’d been fighting for a brief lifetime simply opened the door and told us, politely but firmly, to leave.

There’s a song I found myself compulsively listening to in those final days. Toby Keith’s masterpiece of post-9/11 country-music jingoism, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” a kind of threatening letter sent through the Taliban’s door:

Justice will be served and the battle will rage
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage
You’ll be sorry that you messed with the US of A
We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.

Something magnificently dumb; the voice of a bully flailing his pudgy little fists. But at least Toby Keith understood that he was a dog in a cage. That line alone made him the most insightful commentator on the war America had: we’re here because we’re mad and stupid and trained to kill; we want blood and we refuse to understand anything else. It was the appointed experts, the smart people, the explainers, who found themselves incapable of comprehending what had happened. Even the most basic questions seemed unanswerable. What’s the point of Afghanistan? What does it do? Well, it has high unfriendly mountains, and the scars left by every empire since Alexander’s. Over two thousand American soldiers were killed there; nearly five hundred British, a hundred and fifty Canadians, ninety French, sixty Germans, fifty Italians, five Swedes, two Koreans, one Belgian. . . . The richest countries in the world met in the hills of Afghanistan to die. They took around a quarter of a million Afghans with them. Why? 

No answer was ever going to be satisfying, because the Afghan war was always unformed. For the Bush administration, it was a chore, something they had to get out of the way before moving on to the real prize in Iraq. “Go massive,” Donald Rumsfeld said, only hours after the attacks on September 11. “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” There was no real plan in Afghanistan, just the sense that someone had to suffer. A war fought to be forgotten. 

In the end, the line we ended up with was this: the war was about protecting the rights of Afghan women. And it’s true: for a relatively small class of women in the major cities, life was immeasurably better under American occupation. Meanwhile, women in the countryside had to watch as their husbands, sons, and cousins were killed by American jets or brutal warlords. As one Afghan woman told the New Yorker’s Anand Gopal, “the Americans did not bring us any rights. They just came, fought, killed, and left.”

Still, commentators in Britain and America decided that these were the stakes; the war was just an extension of their own politics of empowerment. Some even started blaming the men of the Afghan army for not putting up more resistance: didn’t they care about their wives and sisters? Maybe if the women had been given guns, they wouldn’t have gone down without a fight. This analysis didn’t really have anything to do with the actual situation in Afghanistan; it had the whiff of something much closer to hand. Let the shells fall on Kabul, let the streets fill with the dead and the dying, turn this whole country into a charnel pit, cauterize the earth with blood—because why is it always me who ends up doing the dishes?

Another interpretation is that we lost because we tried to impose a foreign way of life on the Afghan people. Once, this kind of critique would have been associated with the cultural-relativist left; now, it’s almost entirely confined to the right. Here was Tucker Carlson on Fox News:

It turns out the people of Afghanistan don’t actually want gender studies symposiums. They didn’t actually buy the idea that men can become pregnant. They thought that was ridiculous. They don’t hate their own masculinity. They don’t think it’s toxic. . . . We failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque. It’s contrary to human nature. And ideas that ridiculous can only be imposed by force, by armed men at gunpoint. The second those ideas are not mandatory—the second troops withdraw—people tend to revert to the lives that they prefer to live.

Except—did any of this actually happen? Carlson’s line is, strangely, exactly the same as the liberal-imperialist interpretation; it also assumes that America was building a feminist utopia in the Hindu Kush. The same line was also deployed in the 1980s, when the Soviets were fighting their own war in Afghanistan. The Russians, we were told, were marching girls to school at gunpoint; they were trying to impose secular Marxism on a people proud of their religion and their independence. And it’s true that plenty of Afghans hated these reforms—but there were also thousands who were willing to die to defend what the Soviets had built. The Communist government in Kabul survived for three years longer than the Communist government in Moscow. The N.A.T.O. puppet regime collapsed before the Americans had even left.

You get the sense that Carlson and co. aren’t really talking about Afghanistan either. The real chaos and brutality of the twenty-year occupation barely figures; these people simply can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a country where entire families are wiped out by remote-controlled drones in the middle of the night. Instead, the Taliban become another group of angry folks from the heartland, sick of having to sit through diversity seminars at the office. All war becomes culture war when the bombs are ten thousand miles away.

Most pundits, though, didn’t even pretend that this had anything to do with Afghanistan itself. The only real question was how this would affect Joe Biden’s poll numbers. There’s an entire industry of people who’ve trained themselves to see the world as a series of inputs for FiveThirtyEight’s spreadsheet. Did Biden bungle the evacuation? But wasn’t it Trump who signed the Doha agreement? Like everything else in the internet age, the longest war in American history passed at the light-speed of communications. A moment, a flurry of clicks, and then something else. When the United States lost in Vietnam, the defeat colored national politics for decades. When the United States lost in Afghanistan, everyone was arguing about A.O.C.’s Met Gala dress within a month.

But Afghanistan is a place where time runs very, very deep. Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, was once Alexandria; the Greco-Bactrian kingdom centered on that city was once the richest part of the Hellenic world. The ruins survive, and so does the name, reaching back more than two thousand years. Somewhere in the hills of Afghanistan lies the lost city of the Turquoise Mountain, the half-mythical summer capital of a vanished dynasty. In the 1950s, archaeologists found a minaret standing alone in a deserted valley, two hundred feet tall. A fragment of a grander past. The Americans, when they came, built a Pizza Hut.

You could try to fill in the gaps in our memory: teach the empire about this place that defeated it. But while the history of Afghanistan is fascinating, most attempts usually end up lightly rewriting the “History of Afghanistan” article on Wikipedia. I want to try something else—a history of the gap itself, the story of how Afghanistan was forgotten. Because this is the story of the world, but also because there’s an answer to the unanswerable question. What’s the point of Afghanistan? To be forgotten, and to make you forget. 

Afghanistan sits near the southern edge of the great center of the world. This is the area where all rivers either drain into the icebound Arctic, or the landlocked seas and lakes: the places inaccessible by ocean. Ten million square miles of deserts, mountains, taiga, tundra, and steppe, from the Arctic to Iran and Moscow to Manchuria, locked away in the huge belly of the earth. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon describes some young Soviet intellectuals sent into the great center of the world to teach the people there to read and write: they find themselves in a place “scaled to a larger Earth, a planet wilder and more distant from the sun.” This far from the moderating circulation of the oceans, the weather feeds on itself. Summers are hot, humid, and full of flies. Winters are deadly. The rains are brief, and the people have their own extremes. Bruce Chatwin—one of the only Europeans with a spirit expansive enough to meet this place—tells a story from his time in Afghanistan:

We came to a village surrounded by walnut trees. The roof-tops were orange, from apricots drying in the sun, and girls in rose-madder dresses were playing in a field of flowers. The village headman welcomed us with a frank and open smile. We were then joined by a bearded young satyr, his hair wreathed in vine-leaves and meadow-sweet, who offered us from his leather flask a thread of sharp white wine.

‘Here,’ I said to the leading porter, ‘we will stop.’
‘We will not stop,’ he said. ‘These people are wolves.’
‘They are wolves.’
‘And the people of that village?’ I asked, pointing to a second, dejected-looking village about a mile upstream. 
‘They are people,’ he said.
‘What nonsense you do talk!’
‘Not nonsense, sahib,’ he said. ‘Some people are people and some other people are wolves.’

Maybe it was the drying apricots that repulsed Chatwin’s guide. This is not a place for growing: until mechanized irrigation arrived in the twentieth century, year-round agriculture was confined to a few scattered oases and river valleys. In the great center of the world, you live and move with your herds. And when farming societies arrive with their fences and fields, you swarm over the steppe to burn their cities and slaughter everyone you find. 

Everyone knows about the Mongols, but they were only one of the empires spat out of the blind depths of the land. The Sumerians lived in terror of “the Amorite who knows no grain, who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after death.” Those Amorites eventually settled and founded a city; we call it Babylon. The Greeks knew of the Scythians, a vast steppe culture that extended from just north of the Hellespont to the borders of China. According to Herodotus, “the Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle.” They’re still around: the Ossetians, their distant descendents, live in low Soviet-era apartment blocks in a tiny patch of land split between Russia and Georgia, and export zinc-bearing ores.

Often, the center of the world worked like a huge human conveyor belt. An army of nomads would be defeated at the Great Wall of China, and turn away into the roiling steppe. A few years later, another tribe was pushed out of its western limits, to smash against the gates of Rome. In the fifth century, Priscus of Panium tried to write a history of these barbarians. The Saraguri, he wrote, were driven into Roman lands by the Sabirs, who had been attacked by the Avars, who had themselves been attacked by an unknown and mysterious people. Those people were on the run too, from “man-eating griffins coming from the ocean.”

In historical terms, this long churn only stopped the day before yesterday. The last of the great steppe-born empires, the Ottomans, lasted long enough to have an air force. 

There’s a lot of myth that surrounds these peoples, and it’s hard not to get sucked in. Sometimes, when I’m reading a bad book or watching a bad film, I imagine a horde of horse warriors pouring over the horizon, come to behead Sally Rooney’s neurotic protagonists, to raze the little coffee shop where they meet, and erect a yurt in its place. We will drink mare’s milk here; we will raise fat-tailed sheep among the ruins. The sound of throat-singing, and a bow rattling against a single string; a hymn for the eternal blue sky.

The reality was never so stark. In Europe and the People Without History, the Marxist anthropologist Eric Wolf explains:

It is not that pastoralists could survive in independence of the settled zone. Although pastoralists were specialists in livestock keeping, moving with their herds in search of pasture and water, they usually depended upon cultivators to furnish them with grain and artisan products. Pastoralists and cultivators were thus often linked by necessary exchanges. The terms of these exchanges depended upon the distribution of power between the exchanging populations. 

Farming societies tend to imagine the interior as sheer emptiness and chaos. Even philosophers can fall into this trap—Deleuze and Guattari, for instance, describe nomad space as “smooth,” undifferentiated, deterritorialized, a zone of pure movement. “The point is between two lines.” Nomos against polis. In fact, this is the opposite of the truth. 

The major agricultural zones of Eurasia—China, the Indian subcontinent, and the Mediterranean basin—are arranged radially around the great center of the world; the best route between these blocs was always through. The great center was structured around fixed points, the oases and well-watered areas where goods could be unloaded and exchanged. Wolf again: “Any group that seized control of a major connecting link could insert itself into the transport grid to its own benefit, or else cut off connections together, accentuating the compartmentalization of the cultivable archipelagos.” The peoples of the great center could act like valves in the earth’s plumbing, directing its flows or cutting them off, damming them into deep reservoirs of wealth. Ordinary consumer goods were almost always traded within local economic spheres; what passed across the great center of the world were luxury objects and thought. The great center became very rich in both.

In the fourteenth century, the warlord Timur devastated the northern trade routes to China from the Black Sea. (He had a habit of building monumental walls out of cemented human skulls.) For a hundred years, all continental commerce passed through his Afghan heartland; the city of Herat was the scene of a renaissance every bit as impressive as the simultaneous quattrocento in Italy. This is where al-Kashi calculated the size of the sun and the moon, and where Ali Qushji proved the rotation of the earth. Its gardens were lined with artificial weeping willows made from gilded leather. Babur, great-grandson of Timur and the eventual conqueror of India, grew up there. “The whole habitable world,” he wrote later, “had not such a town as Herat had become. Khorasan, and Herat above all, was filled with learned and matchless men. Whatever work a man took up, he aimed and aspired to bring it to perfection.” Or, as one courtier complained, “it is the sad nuisance of Herat that a man can’t stretch his leg without its touching a poet’s backside.”

But when Robert Byron visited the same city in the 1930s, on first seeing the minarets of the Musalla he thought he was looking at a bombed-out factory, with its “grove of giant chimneys.” The mosque complex had been dynamited in 1895 during a border skirmish with Russia. It’s still in ruins today. “On closer view,” he wrote, “every tile, every flower, every petal of mosaic contributes its genius to the whole. Even in ruin, such architecture tells of a golden age. But the life and the men that produced these buildings hold no great place in the world’s memory. Has history forgotten it?”

If it has, it’s because at the end of Herat’s century of glory, the shape of history changed. In 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed a Portuguese fleet around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean. For the first time, the intensive grain-farming regions around the edge of the world could communicate with each other, without having to pass through the great center. This communication was not always friendly; the Lusiads, Luís Vaz de Camões’ Homeric retelling of the voyage, is mostly an account of the various acts of glorious piracy the Portuguese got up to in their new playground. But in the fifth canto, as the armada rounds the southern tip of Africa and breaks open the world, they find something standing in their way:

Even as I spoke, an immense shape
Materialised in the night air,
Grotesque and of enormous stature,
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard,
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes,
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay.

This is Adamastor, a Titan unknown to the ancient world. He notionally represents the storms of the Cape, but there’s something very terrestrial about this monster. He explains that he was in love with a sea-nymph, who escaped his advances with a particularly nasty trick. “Convinced my beloved was in my arms, I found myself hugging a hillside of undergrowth and rough bush.” Adamastor flees in shame to the far end of the world, where

My flesh was moulded to hard clay
My bones compressed to rock…
And of all tortures, the most agonising
Is that Tethys surrounds me, tantalising.

The storm that Adamastor promises us never comes. Once his story is told, the Titan simply vanishes. “The black clouds dispersed and a resonant moaning echoed over the sea.” The Portuguese sail on into the Indian Ocean, and this mournful, earthbound figure simply dissolves away. Adamastor is the last relic of a world that’s no longer necessary in the age of oceanic trade. Unwanted, chased to the edges of existence. Adamastor is an Afghan.

In fact, the change took another century; the Portuguese may have opened the sea route, but they couldn’t keep it. Originally, trade across the great center was carried out by peddlers—in the historian Nils Steensgaard’s account, “that humble servant of world trade who, with his small stock of goods, is forever traveling from market to market.” And the Portuguese, when they arrived, were only “peddlers on a grand scale.” The chaotic price signals and low market transparency of the inland trade system remained. It took the British and the Dutch to appreciate what opening the oceans really meant. Where the Portuguese had simply taxed naval commerce—encouraging smugglers to keep using the land route—the great joint-stock corporations of northern Europe used their significant reserves of capital to rationalize every part of the flow of commodities, from production to distribution, reshaping the world around oceanic highways. The new geography replaced the oasis-cities of the great center—Kashgar, Samarkand, Merv, Herat—with another set of small bodies of water surrounded by land: the straits in Malacca, Hormuz, Aden, Gibraltar, and, after the construction of the canal, Suez. In 1622, the British East India Company defeated a Portuguese garrison in Hormuz; by the end of the nineteenth century, every single one of those points was under British control. 

Even so, the empire still had its nightmares of continental power. In 1904, Harold Mackinder presented his paper on The Geographical Pivot of History to the Royal Geographic Society in London: in a few brief pages, he had founded the doctrine of geopolitics. For Mackinder, history wasn’t a struggle between races and peoples, or belief systems, or classes, or civilization against barbarism; instead, it was mostly a function of landmasses. He identified the great center of the world as the “pivot” of history: Europe only became Europe through centuries of warfare against invaders from the pivot area. For a while, Europe had won out—but Mackinder insisted that the age of maritime power was ending. The heartland would return.

At this point, the heartland meant Russia: “Russia replaces the Mongol Empire.” And where the Mongols had their pastoral nomadism, Russia had its railways. Mackinder wrote:

The Russian railways have a clear run of 6000 miles from Wirballen in the west to Vladivostok in the east. The Russian army in Manchuria is as significant evidence of mobile land-power as the British army in South Africa was of sea power… The century will not be old before all Asia is covered with railways. The spaces within the Russian Empire and Mongolia are so vast, and their potentialities in population, wheat, cotton, fuel, and metals so incalculably great, that it is inevitable that a vast economic world, more or less apart, will there develop inaccessible to oceanic commerce.

Shipping means goods have to be loaded and unloaded multiple times, but you can build a railway straight from the factory to a warehouse on the other side of the world. Railway power directly threatened the British thalassocracy. In Europe, Mackinder wrote, German coal transported overland on lines that lay “midway through Lombardy” became more competitive than British coal delivered by sea.

This was a theory built for its times. For half a century, Britain had been playing a “Great Game” against Russia for domination of the great center of the world, convinced that the Russians were trying to open up a land route to India—where, like Timur before them, they could throng over the hills and leave Delhi in ruins. The Russians, for their part, were mostly unaware that this Great Game was even going on. When the emir of Afghanistan received a Russian envoy, Britain invaded. As everyone knows, the invaders were slaughtered; this is part of the myth of Afghanistan as the “graveyard as empires.” Less remembered is the Army of Retribution that the British sent afterwards, to loot and murder their way through the country. (This is to say nothing of two more Anglo-Afghan wars, both of which Britain won.) Sir Henry Rawlinson, one of the Army of Retribution’s commanders, was present for the sack of Kabul:

Numbers of people (about 4000 or 5000) had returned to Caubul, relying on our promises of protection—rendered confident by the appearance, ostentatiously put forth, of an Afghan Government. They had many of them re-opened their shops. These people have been now reduced to utter ruin. Their goods have been plundered, and their houses burnt over their heads. The Hindoos in particular, whose numbers amount to some 500 families, have lost everything they possess, and they will have to beg their way to India in rear of our columns.

I wonder whether any of the N.A.T.O. commanders read Rawlinson’s journals in Kabul airport, as another Afghan government turned out to only be an appearance, and another train of desperate ruined people poured onto the runway. I wonder if they felt a shudder, the huge gears of history rumbling in circles under their feet.

When the headquarters of the maritime empire passed from London to Washington, the Americans also inherited Mackinder’s geopolitics; both Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were devotees. The Cold War, for these men, was never really about workers or capitalists, Bolshevism or the American Dream: it was just great-power politics, the Great Game in ideological drag. Sea versus land: the point was to prevent the Soviets swallowing the entire Eurasian landmass. So, with the Cultural Revolution in full swing, Nixon arrives in Beijing to shake hands with the Great Helmsman and detach the margins from the great center of the world.

In fact, I think the opposite is true; I think all this geopolitical stuff was really just a way to make a deeply ideological struggle seem worth fighting to people who liked to think they were above ideology. By the second half of the twentieth century, it should have been impossible to take Mackinder’s nightmare of a railway-riding Mongol Empire seriously, because the world was once again being completely transformed. 

In 1966, the first shipping container crossed the Atlantic; over the next decade, international trade in manufactured goods grew twice as fast as actual production. Before the container, freight cost represented about a quarter of the sale price for some commodities; today, a T-shirt can be made in Indonesia and shipped halfway across the world with the cost of transport adding a single cent. In other words, shipping is effectively free. Major ports are no longer noisy, dirty places full of sacks of coffee and crates of spices, entire warehouses for salt and pepper. Instead, every single one is stacked with the same rows of standardized metal boxes. In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher describes a visit to the port at Felixstowe:

Approached from the countryside, from Trimley marshes, the cranes preside over the rural scene like gleaming cybernetic dinosaurs erupting out of a Constable landscape. There’s an eerie sense of silence about the port that has nothing to do with actual noise levels. The port is full of the inorganic clangs and clanks that issue from ships as they are loaded and unloaded; what’s missing, at least for the spectator watching the port from a vantage point outside, are any traces of language and sociability.

Every port is a blank nowhere; under its aegis, so is everywhere else. A single material culture has enveloped the world; everyone, everywhere, is now in desperate competition with everyone else. The container abolished distance—factories no longer need to be anywhere near their markets; as long as there’s access to the sea, the only thing that matters is the cost of labor. In other words, poverty is the great natural resource of our times. Place becomes a kind of trick, a hologram thrown up by this constant movement. Olives are grown and processed on the far side of the world, but the oil is bottled in Italy and sold as Italian. Sometimes, place is a waste product. The former industrial regions of the West have become little Afghanistans, zones that are simply no longer necessary, tracts of unwanted world. Deleuze wrote that the nomads have no history, only a geography. Our society has neither. Just circulation; the frenzy of objects. We have become the barbarians of our nightmares.

When the superpowers went to war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it had become one of the least valuable patches of imperial real estate on the planet. Unlike Pakistan, Afghanistan had no sweatshops to produce goods for export; it had almost nothing the world needed. In a way, this was the point. As the Soviet system fell into crisis, their Afghan adventure was supposed to show that socialism could still emancipate the most backwards regions of the earth. When the Americans armed various sadistic local warlords, it was to show that it couldn’t. They didn’t imagine they could turn the wreckage of Afghanistan into a beacon of capitalism—they just wanted to deny it to the Soviets. (Pakistan, the other great player in the war, similarly wanted to avoid being encircled by a Moscow-Kabul-Delhi axis.) Abandoning the country to Salafi Islamism must have seemed like a decent compromise. As the British before them knew, this place is safest as a blank.

Still, the war did, in a way, finally re-integrate Afghanistan back into the global economy. To fund the fight against the Soviets, and the civil wars that lasted from 1989 right up until the Americans left in 2021, the mujahideen started growing opium. 

The poppy is a polemophage: it grows out of war. Opium poppies took over China from the deck of a British gunboat and spread across southeast Asia in the wake of the American war in Vietnam; if the nuclear missiles ever fly to wipe out all human life, chances are that the world will be inherited by fields of poppies, waving their giant irradiated heads. Most famously, poppies were the first plants to grow on the churned-up battlefields of the First World War. Afterwards, they were adopted as a symbol of remembrance, which was an extremely strange thing to do. For thousands of years, the poppy has been a symbol of the night: the murk of dreams, woozy forgetfulness, narcosis, and death. You might as well promote the Olympics with hemlock—but forgetfulness works in strange ways. The remembrance poppy was first championed by Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the Butcher of the Somme. From the start, it had an odd aura of militarism: remember the dead, but forget the sheer pointlessness of the war that killed them. Today, in Britain, it’s a culture-war standby, most aggressively promoted by people who’d prefer to forget the lessons of World War I or any other war: a myth of heroic sacrifice, a red beacon that draws you trance-bound into the mud.

In all its history, though, the poppy has never enslaved any country as thoroughly as Afghanistan. A report from the United Nations in 2019 found that opium is not just Afghanistan’s biggest product: its value exceeds all the country’s legal exports put together. One in ten Afghans are involved in the opium industry; ninety percent of the world’s heroin comes from there. In a sense, heroin is a last, distorted remnant of the trade that once made Afghanistan rich. Drug smuggling networks are still based on the peddler model, and as the Portuguese discovered in the sixteenth century, black market traders usually prefer to go overland. There are two major heroin routes out of Afghanistan: one goes through Iran to Istanbul, the other through the central Asian republics and Russia. In other words, heroin smugglers retrace almost exactly the route of the old Silk Road.

In the years since the American invasion in 2001, opioid abuse in the United States has become commonplace—most of all in the micro-Afghanistans, the Midwestern heartlands, the places that fell out of the world. Much of this stuff is not actually from Afghanistan; its synthetic, oxycodone and fentanyl, pumped out entirely legitimately by large corporations for people who no longer want to experience the world. Still, I wonder if there’s a connection. In 1818, de Quincy wrote of his dreams:

I have been every night transported into Asiatic scenes. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c. is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual . . . I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins at the heart of eternal pyramids.

Coleridge, too, saw flashes of the great center of the world in his dreams; famously, he composed Kubla Khan “in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium.” For anyone who has any experience with opiates, what’s really striking about these experiences is how unfamiliar they are. I only used heroin a few times in my teens and early twenties, but I never had visions of pagodas, or pleasure-domes, or the terrifying antiquity of ancient lands, just a kind of infinite numbness. The world was flat and quiet, and I simply was not there. On those nights there were no dreams.

Two hundred years ago, the poppies spun visions of the vast age of the great center of the world. Today, that place has been hollowed out, forgotten, and now thousands of people in the post-industrial West live their lives in a chemical blankness. This is what Afghanistan sells; this is its specialized role within the global economy. It has become the universal purveyor of the void. 

The Taliban banned opium production in July 2000. This was, briefly, the most successful drug eradication effort in human history: ninety-nine percent of the poppy fields were turned over to wheat and vegetables. Sixteen months later, Kabul fell to the Americans and their allies, and opium production started up again. When people in the West talk about the twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan, they tend to assume that it must have been a total break from the general current of Afghan history. This is a kind of imperial narcissism: our mere presence must have utterly reshaped this society, but now the Taliban have returned and everything’s reverted to the mean. This is, I think, precisely the opposite of what’s really happened. Because the history of Afghanistan is one in which the great center is slowly hollowed out, pushed to the margins of the world and forgotten. And the American empire is an amnesiac empire, and hollow to the core. 

There was never a viable Afghan government: American occupation meant rule by warlords. Gopal tells the story of “Shakira,” a woman from the Helmand valley who grew up during the civil wars of the early Nineties. “Our terror had a name,” she told him, “and it was Amir Dado.” Dado was a local strongman, armed and funded by the United States to fight communism; his men broke into family homes to collect “taxes” and conscripts; they kidnapped and executed locals on a whim. In 1994, the Taliban chased Dado out of the valley. The system they brought in to replace him wasn’t pleasant, exactly, but it wasn’t arbitrary either. Then, in 2003, Shakira’s home was invaded once again:

The men were larger than she’d ever seen, and they were in uniform. These are the Americans, she realized, in awe. Some Afghans were with them, scrawny men with Kalashnikovs and checkered scarves. A man with an enormous beard was barking orders: Amir Dado.

The United States had made him the province’s chief of intelligence. One of his brothers ran the local police. 

Reportage on these figures tends to describe them as “warlords” and “strongmen,” as if that tells the entire story; in fact, what many of these people are is landlords. Dado belonged to the Alikozais, a clan that “had held vast feudal plantations for centuries.” Landowning classes have been America’s proxies in every anti-communist struggle; when they came back to Afghanistan they simply picked up the old alliance where it had left off. (This is why anyone who tries to tell you that America lost simply because “Afghanistan is a deeply tribal society” is an utter hack. Empires love to govern through tribal units; just ask the British.) But in the same way that the opium trade is a vestige of the old Silk Road, these landholding families are a kind of faint parody of the Afghan empires that once ranged over the great center of the world. Ahmad Shah Durrani was the son of an Alakozai; in the eighteenth century he founded an empire that spread from Iran to Delhi and committed terrible massacres. In the twenty-first century, his nephews were reduced to a much pettier evil. “Dado’s forces went from house to house, executing people suspected of being Taliban; an elderly scholar who’d never belonged to the movement was shot dead.” Is it any wonder that as soon as the Americans left, the Taliban were able to chase the Dados out of their little fiefdoms again?

According to the Tucker Carlson school of analysis, America lost in Afghanistan because it tried to overturn the traditional values of the Pashtun people, and the Taliban are willing to uphold them. And yes, there is a set of values associated with the rural aristocracy of Afghanistan. Hospitality to the stranger, loyalty to your friends, revenge against your enemies, the veiling and confinement of women, and the sexual abuse of young boys. None of this is particularly unique to the Pashtuns; it would have been deeply familiar to an aristocratic Athenian of the fourth century B.C. The values of the Taliban, meanwhile, mostly consist of spending long hours inside, exhaustively studying the Fiqh al-Akbar, the Mukhtasar al-Quduri, and the other classic texts of the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. 

These are not the goat-herders of the imperial imagination; like the Americans, they are urban, multi-ethnic, and literate. The movement’s roots lie in the Dar al-Ulum in India and the madrassas of Pakistan, well outside Afghanistan itself. They are, in the words of a study funded by the Carnegie Endowment, “deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system”: the units of Taliban governance are the believer, and the starkness of God. In their Wahhabist interpretation of Sunni Islam, there is no place for the slow accretion and moldering of the centuries, just the immediacy of an eternal prophetic present. These are people who have dedicated themselves to getting rid of the traditional arts and music of the Pashtuns—along with the pederasty and the low-level civil war. These are people who can announce, like Joyce’s Daedalus, that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And unlike the Americans, they offered an alternative. It’s not one I would ever want to live under, but for millions of Afghans ground down by forty years of war, it’s a good enough deal.

As the Taliban were sweeping over Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, something else was changing. At the beginning of the year, it cost two thousand dollars to ship a single container from East Asia to Europe; by August, the price had risen to nearly fourteen thousand dollars. The value of international trade has been stagnant since 2010—as a percentage of global GDP, it’s never fully recovered from the crash in 2008—but in the last few years it’s started to plummet. Peruvian anchovies are no longer being exported to Europe. European olive oil is no longer going to the United States. Suddenly, geography has returned. But at the same time, China is building railways across the great center of the world.

The town of Khorgos on the Chinese-Kazakh border sits close to the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility: the point in the world furthest from any ocean. A small oasis in the desert, near the shores of the bitter, salty Lake Alakol. Genghis Khan is supposed to have sent his wounded soldiers to recuperate in its therapeutic waters; Soviet cosmonauts would spend a few weeks there after returning from orbit. It’s now the site of the largest dry port in the world: a vast, ghostly, silent network of computer-controlled cranes that lift thousands of containers from Chinese trains and send them on to Europe. This is part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road project, a grand program to integrate the entire Afro-Eurasian landmass with China at its head. Direct trains now run from Zhejiang Province, through Kazakhstan and Russia, to my home in London. But the northern route is difficult: every so often, the Russian government blocks Europe-bound goods from moving through its territory. As it did in the age of Timur, continental trade might move southwards: through Afghanistan.

As the United States evacuated its embassy in Kabul, China’s kept its doors open; Taliban spokesmen have suggested that China could replace the United States as a source of foreign currency. America’s defeat in the great center of the world is already half-forgotten, but it still might mark the beginning of something: the day America becomes an island off the shores of the world, its presence in history marked only by the ruined bases, the craters, and the graves:

In a place where words are unknown,
And eyes shine like candles at night,
And the face of God is a presence
Behind the mask of the sky—
At the tall black rock in the desert,
In the time of the final days.

Sam Kriss is a British writer and dilettante.

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