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The Colonial Trap

US President Joe Biden knew what British Prime Minister Clement Attlee knew in 1947: Once you make local elites dependent on the power and money of a foreign occupier, it becomes almost impossible to leave without causing mayhem. And the longer the foreign power stays, the worse the mayhem often becomes.

NEW YORK – On February 20, 1947, Clement Attlee, the socialist British prime minister, informed parliament that India would become independent no later than June 1948. Attlee could not wait for the British to withdraw from a country whose leaders, Muslim and Hindu, had long been clamoring for independence. But India was seething with violent unrest. Muslim leaders were afraid of Hindu dominance. Worried that a civil war might land the British in an uncontrollable situation, Attlee decided to end the British Raj even earlier.

Indian independence began on August 14, 1947. Pakistan broke away. Horrendous violence between Hindus and Muslims claimed a half-million lives. Many more lost their homes. The wounds of partition are yet to heal.

Attlee was widely blamed for getting out too soon and leaving the former colony in chaos. If only a better police force had been organized. If only the army could have kept order. If only the British could have left once the country was stable.

US President Joe Biden now finds himself in the same situation. American troops have left Afghanistan in a bloody mess. Critics of Biden’s decision to withdraw claim that the United States should have stayed longer. In the opinion of Robert Kagan, a well-known American promotor of robust military policies, the US should have promised to stay at least 20 years, instead of being non-committal. After all, the US military presence was minimal and could easily be afforded. But in that case, why just 20 years? Why not 40? Why not forever?

The question is whether Attlee, or Biden, could ever have left India or Afghanistan in a stable condition. At least Attlee knew that India, and even Pakistan, would be governed by responsible, mostly moderate men. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah were nothing like the Taliban. Both were widely regarded as legitimate leaders – and still there was a civil war. Biden didn’t even have the luxury of leaving Afghanistan in capable hands.

It is easy to blame Attlee and Biden for the violence that followed their decisions. Perhaps they made mistakes. In hindsight, it may be possible to see how they could have mitigated some of the damage. But both leaders were caught in the same colonial trap that ensnared so many other imperial powers. Once you make local elites dependent on the power and money of a foreign occupier, it becomes almost impossible to leave without causing mayhem. And the longer the foreign power stays, the worse the mayhem often becomes.

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Harold Macmillan, the Conservative prime minister who, sensing “the wind of change” blowing through colonial Africa in 1960, managed the withdrawal of British rule, was once asked by the very conservative American journalist William F. Buckley Jr. whether Africans were ready to rule themselves. Macmillan didn’t think so. But he added that this was all the more reason why they should be free to try. These were their countries. They had to learn how to govern by governing. For the British to hang on and throw the best and brightest anti-colonial activists in prison would only make that harder.

Empires are rarely established by design. Most European empires started as trading posts. Local rulers were cultivated, bribed, and set against one another. For a long time, great chunks of India were ruled by a British trading company. Colonial governments then took over to protect the commercial interests of the home countries. Imperial rule was often justified by Christian missionary zeal, or, very late in the game, around the very end of the nineteenth century, by high-minded ideals of educating native elites to mimic the West.

The US has been more half-hearted about its colonial enterprises. After all, Americans are supposed to be against imperialism. Their stated justification for fighting communism in Vietnam, or dictatorships in Iraq or Afghanistan, has been to enlighten the benighted populations through free-market capitalism and democratic government, often with disastrous consequences.

Whatever the justification for foreign intervention, the results are the same. Local elites, such as the Afghans who governed Kabul and other cities, might do well. But dependency – not just on another state, but on NGOs and other well-meaning institutions that do what governments should be doing – fuels corruption. Money flows too easily into ever deeper pockets. And the very presence of foreign military force and political tutors, who may have little understanding of how things work in the countries they occupy, makes it ever harder for the local people to rule themselves.

The colonial elites, bloated with free money, have no legitimacy in the eyes of their compatriots. Rebels and revolutionaries may have more, but only know how to rule by force. The imperial power is trapped. Leaving is almost always bad. Staying is worse.

Attlee and Biden understood this. That is why they wanted to get out. Biden is accused of naivety and seen as a hapless old man who had no idea what he was unleashing. This is unlikely. I think he decided it was time to leave without delay precisely because he knew it would be a big mess; better to get it over with than become further ensnared by the colonial trap.

This might seem callous. But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn.

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