This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.
2001 is often considered a major historical turning point, marking a shift from a ‘before’ to an ‘after’ in modern history. Following the attacks of 9/11, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan through the military Operation Enduring Freedom, global phenomena such as terrorism, war, counterinsurgency, securitization, aid and border control have changed drastically . In Afghanistan, the attacks triggered a series of military operations by foreign forces and thus the creation of one of the largest humanitarian theatres in the world. Expressions of a transnational geopolitical force, notions such as reconstruction, rule of law, and democratization became humanitarian imperatives, not only for the sake of Afghanistan, but also for the world at large. In this context, two key figures emerged: the Taliban and the humanitarian soldier. These figures condense two crucial features of modernity: first, the capacity to concretely mobilize universal narratives; second, the intention to transform the world through using force. But while the Taliban are generally seen as the pre-modern expression of a local doctrinaire form of Islamism, the humanitarian soldier appears as a global moral agent who embodies both the ‘humanitarian spirit’ and the military ethos expressed in contemporary humanitarian interventions. Rooted in the political and cultural universe of Pashtun’s territory, the Taliban movement is, instead, a specific product of modernity, a political actor capable of enhancing a distinct global message. The humanitarian soldier, on the other hand, is an embodiment of international coalition and its moral and political corollary. The perspectives offered by these two figures serve as an entry point to explore the relationship between the different configurations of freedom and humanity that became prevalent in post-2001 Afghanistan, with effects reverberating globally.
In the arena of humanitarian military interventions, the idea that humanity corresponds to a certain kind of collective effort, a common destiny that is about to convert results into accelerated processes of production of humanity characterized by certain degrees of tension and similarity amongst them. The Taliban and the humanitarian soldier – as paradigmatic figures of contemporaneity – do not simply speak and act in the name of humanity. They actively participate in configuring humanity in specific – often contrasting, sometimes overlapping – ways, in producing it as part of a radical intervention into the history of the present.
All forms of political violence in post-2001 Afghanistan (by coalition forces and the Taliban, among other armed actors), have destroyed both the physical world and the ‘abstracted humanity’ (F. Devji, 2009, “The terrorist as humanitarian”) they targeted. However, destroying is never the final goal of political violence, which aims, rather, to forge categories of people and life and new visions of the world. That is to say, to forge another abstracted humanity. As key agents of this attitude of producing humanity through war, the Taliban and the humanitarian soldier embody the complex, ambivalent and anguishing dynamics such a process involves. The forms of humanity that these figures of contemporaneity manifest constantly move toward and away from each other, eventually appearing as two roads of the same path.