Neoliberal Order Breakdown and the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Photograph Source: Sgt. Isaiah Campbell – Public Domain

Politicians across the North Atlantic are losing their minds over Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and the subsequent disintegration of the US-backed government in Kabul. This is happening despite there being bipartisan support among the US public to withdraw troops from the region, and over two-thirds of the public believing the “the United States mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.” This leads us to a curious question: Why are neoliberal capitalists having a meltdown over something liberal and conservative citizens actually support—not to mention Afghan citizens, who likely want an end to a 20-year occupation?

I believe we will gain insights on this conundrum by thinking through the concept of neoliberal order breakdown syndrome. Neoliberal order breakdown syndrome—NOBS, for short—is a term coined by Alex Hochuli, George Hoare, and Philip Cunliffe in their recently released book, The End of the End of History. NOBS describes the fundamental inability for large sectors of the ruling class to do 3 interrelated things: (1) accept, (2) explain, or (3) respond to political change.

Using Hochuli, Hoare, and Cunliffe’s concepts, we can understand the pillars of NOBS in the following way. The inability to accept political change is seen when the ruling class refuses to accept any responsibility for creating the conditions that afflict society. The inability to explain political change is seen when the ruling class swaps out a coherent analysis with either conspiracy theories or refusal to grant agency to aggrieved citizens. Inability to respond to political change can be seen in a variety of ways, including nostalgia for the recent past, catastrophism, moralizing, and the need for repetition.

Now, let’s apply the NOBS theory to the current hysteria over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The inability to accept and explain political change is seen when political leaders refuse to critically reflect on why the US-backed Afghan military and State apparatus crumbled upon the immediate US withdrawal from Kabul. When trying to answer this question, Biden—the one actually responsible for ending the US occupation—boldly proclaimed “So what’s happened? Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight.” This assertion deflects all attention away from US actions, placing blame on people in Afghanistan for their plight.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike cannot accept the ending of this 20-year occupation, lashing out at Bide for a variety of reasons, generally couched in alleged ‘concerns for strategizing’ the withdrawal, or neoliberal (pseudo)feminist discourse. None of these fronts include any self-reflection on other reasons why the US-backed Afghan government might have dissolved, including the support that the Taliban held among many in the region, or the catastrophic toll the US invasion wrought on the region for two decades.

The inability to respond to this sudden change in Afghanistan further illustrates NOBS theory. Catastrophizing, moralizing, and pining for recent past US policies in the region plague the American landscape. US Democratic Congressman Jim Langevin proclaimed “this is a catastrophe,” while Republican Senator Mitch McConnell called it an “ill-advised, catastrophic decision to withdraw.”

Blusterous moralizing has also covered the political spread, with politicians and pundits alike suddenly rediscovering the rights of women and children in the region, just as troops withdraw. As one commentator observed, there is “a displacement underway whereby this nation’s shame is transformed into a distorted sense of pride—pride in the high-value Americans place on women’s rights.”

Lastly, there is a sudden resurgence of nostalgia for Obama and Bush-era foreign policy and related war ‘advisors.’ Disgraced Bush and Obama-era Army General David Petraeus is now saying his “high hopes” for the region have been dashed, leaving him “dishearten[ed] and sad.” Similarly, some are nostalgic for the recent past’s troop presence in the region, with Mitch McConnell demanding that Biden “commit to providing more support to Afghan forces…without it, al Qaeda and the Taliban may celebrate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning down our Embassy in Kabul.”

Taken together, we can diagnose this as a severe case of American NOBS. A glut of American politicians are incapable of and unable to understand why the US public wanted troops out of Afghanistan, or why citizens of Afghanistan themselves simply didn’t bend to the dictates of American empire. The solution to this is not to demand another 20 years in Afghanistan, nor is it to turn Afghanistan into another terrain of the US’ shadow war on terrorism—as the US has done with Somalia for the past two decades. Patrick Cockburn appropriately deemed this “Washington’s doomed new way of waging war,” and it must be resisted.

If Hochuli, Hoare, and Cunliffe are correct, and we are at “the end of the end of history,” then there’s no better time for elaborating a new Left-universalist strategy for freedom. This involve the acceptance of all refugees fleeing (the US-generated) conflict in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It also requires a reimagined US foreign policy, which rejects the faux-feminism of neoliberal capitalism and its endless lust for war. Instead, transnationally oriented feminism for the 99% is needed, which champions freedom and self-determination for women in Afghanistan, and links this to ongoing struggles for environmental, racial, and Indigenous justice worldwide.

Jason C. Mueller is a Social Science Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at University of California, Irvine.