Kabul is not Saigon. It is much more. And it is different. Although there are similarities, such as the excesses in the use of military munitions, or the collateral damage, or the abandoning of local allies by the imperial power, or even the justifications of the type described by George Orwell in his Politics and the English Language, these are only superficial.

While both define a watershed in contemporary history, what they signify could not be more different. If Saigon heralded the beginning of an exhilarating public discourse – make love not war, we shall overcome, imagine, above us only sky – a new humanism that crossed national borders, Kabul marks its closure.

If Saigon brought optimism about resistance to tyranny, even against one’s own state, Kabul has brought despair about freedom’s frailties. If Saigon, because of an over-active civil society, challenged the state’s rhetoric – Cassius Clay became Mohammad Ali – Kabul restored its primacy in international affairs.

A practical mindset

But I do not wish here to offer a list of similarities and differences between Saigon and Kabul. I wish, instead, to argue that Kabul represents a great betrayal. If we, just for a moment, cut through the commentariat’s clutter about the increased threat of terrorism, or the unjustified imperialist war, or the vulnerabilities of the Afghan people left to the vengefulness of a victorious Taliban, we will realise that something much more ominous has indeed happened.

The West and its allies, in fact the whole global community that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has surrendered its responsibility to give no quarter to evil. It has abdicated its promise to fight evil, in the Hannah Arendt sense, even if that meant accepting body bags and military reverses. This was the solemn covenant of the post-Nazi world. Kabul is its betrayal.

A practical mindset seems to have replaced the ethical mindset that grew after 1945 with “ending the forever wars” substituting the sacred oath of “resisting evil at any cost”. In these 20 years in Afghanistan there has indeed been military disingenuity and excesses – these must be acknowledged – but equally so there has been one clear achievement. Afghan women, like Prometheus, were unbound from the chains of the Taliban. No amount of anti-imperialist rhetoric can obscure this achievement. No amount of fair criticism, of an illegitimate occupation or a corrupt regime, can ignore these gains to women of 20 years of a foreign presence.

Almost every interview with the women who have fled Afghanistan today speaks of this loss and betrayal. For 20 years they say they believed in what was promised. It was this belief, and this hope, that made them judges, doctors, policewomen, teachers, artists, musicians, robotics experts, scientists, lawyers, sportspersons, models, fashion designers, and even politicians. They became like everyone else. They were on the path to equality.

To now, therefore, be abandoned by those who offered them this idea of modernity is a huge betrayal. The clock has been turned back 20 years. This is their common refrain. Vichy has been re-enacted. How can we not grieve when we see photographs of Kabul today, of women airbrushed from all public spaces, of the girl’s robotics team heading into exile, of women air stewards hiding in fear in safe houses?

Going AWOL

This is not just a lapse. It is a great moral betrayal. Three moral communities that have been active in our public sphere pushing the boundaries of what is normal since 1945 seem to have gone AWOL. While individuals may still be at the barricades, these moral communities, as collectives, are missing. Yet they are most needed by the women of Afghanistan.

The first betrayal is of the liberal academy, not just those in universities who teach Political Philosophy 101, or International Law and Human Rights 101, but those who write about inalienable and imprescriptible rights and about the responsibility of the international order, to defend them.

Although states, since 1945, may have failed to live up to this Universal Declaration of Human Rights promise, the global discourse did not waiver. It worked, collectively, through multiple instruments, to rectify the failings.

In contrast, in Kabul today, a Faustian bargain, the Doha deal, has replaced the promise of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Perhaps when I talk about the betrayal of the liberal academy, I have in mind the 1936 International Brigade where volunteers fought on the side of the Republicans against the Fascists forces of Franco, or the French resistance against Nazism where writers such as Andre Malraux and historians such as Marc Bloch fought in the trenches.

Today, other than individual comments by respectable scholars, there seems to be no movements of intellectuals, no coordinated campaign demanding from their governments, that every tool be used, including sanctioning the friends of the Taliban, to stop the Taliban oppression of women. This is not the time for multicultural hesitancy or inverse orientalism. The Taliban’s oppression is unambiguous evil seen from any perspective. Yet, by their silence, the liberal academy has thrown the Afghan women under the bus.

The second betrayal is by the progressive Muslim intellectuals who have not mounted a concerted textual and scholarly challenge to the Taliban interpretation of Islamic law and teachings. We read instead stories of single women terrified that they would be made brides of Taliban soldiers, (recall ISIS and sex slaves), of sequestered classrooms because women and men cannot be taught together according to the scriptures, of women being excluded from high public office because that space belongs exclusively to men, of music being banned, of pictures being painted over, of sports being proscribed for the girls of the country. All in the name of Sharia and the law and traditions of Islam.

The legitimate rage against Islamophobia that these progressive Muslim intellectuals are engaged in, does not justify their strategic silence against the Taliban.

The third silence is of the feminist movement. For a movement that has won many historic battles, and deservedly so, against the pervasive exclusions of patriarchy, from Presidents of Ivy League universities to Air Force generals, from chairpersonships of Fortune 500 companies to editors of important journals, from equality of prize money at the US Open to leading scientists making Covid-19 vaccines, one sees none of that collective fervour that marks the pages of Western newspapers. There is no concerted attempt, as a movement, to challenge what is happening and to compel their home states to mount material resistance against the enveloping oppression of the women of Afghanistan.

The occasional commentary piece or blog post or Zoom seminar will not do. We need the movement to design a Marshall plan for the women of Afghanistan.

So, I ask, why has the low-hanging fruit become the moral placebo for the three moral communities mentioned? Why is it a return to business as usual as darkness descends on the women of Afghanistan? Is this the price of a post-modern world unable to endorse moral universals? Or is it because the darkness is in the East?

Peter Ronald deSouza is the former director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. He is currently the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University, India. He has recently co-edited Keywords for India, published by Bloomsbury, New York. Views are personal.