The Good War Lost

Chris Strafford

For twenty years the war in Afghanistan has rumbled on. The United States, Britain and allies launched a devastating invasion to oust Mullah Omar’s Taliban from power and root out Al-Qaeda who had orchestrated the most audacious attack on US soil since Yamamoto bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. For the people of Afghanistan the promise of liberation never came and from day one the United States followed the old British Empire playbook and sought to play one tribal and ethnic group against another, installing puppet governments with little legitimacy, sham elections and generally allowing tribal and religious leaders to control daily life. On almost any indicator the lives of Afghans are getting worse and the return of the Taliban to the big cities will put an end to any of the limited freedoms women and girls have carved out for themselves in the chaos. With the United States and NATO withdrawal the Taliban have seized the vast majority of the country surrounding the big cities. 

Twenty Years of Death

The war itself has left a staggering death toll. If we start from 11 September 2001 then 2,977 people died on the day of the attacks whilst emergency services and survivors continue to suffer ailments and life shortening illnesses. The numbers for Afghan deaths is contested as the United States and NATO do not count how many are killed but the numbers range between a hundred thousand and a quarter of a million. Who were combatants and who were civilians is hard to decipher as often any male of fighting age is labelled as a combatant. Who is to blame for the recent spikes in death and destruction is also contested with NATO and the United Nations at loggerheads, the former blaming 90% of deaths on the Taliban and insurgent groups whilst the UN puts the figure around 62%. Should the Taliban enter the major cities and subdue the militias who have re-organised themselves as the Afghan army collapses, including women who have suffered the brunt of the war and will be the primary victims in a Taliban take-over, the bloodshed will be on par with the Islamic State’s butchery in Sinjar.

From NATO, particularly the United States and Britain, the invasion, the occupation and the sudden retreat has only resulted in waves of violence and death for the Afghan people. As the ground war became completely unwinnable it was replaced with a drone campaign, the “whack-a-mole” strategy, that has only served to harden rural districts against occupation forces and the central government. For over a decade wedding parties, farmers taking produce to market and rural families have been the main victims of the drone campaign. NATO commanders and politicians in Washington and London will never face any consequences for these murders and the catastrophe they have overseen.

The soldiery of Britain and the United States suffered 454 and 2,312 deaths respectively throughout the campaigns in Afghanistan with many thousands injured and mentally scarred. For all the solemn faces at the Cenotaph in London and at Arlington in Virginia, those who fought in Afghanistan and across the Middle East in Britain and the United States are over-represented both in our prisons and on our streets.

Over the years people I have grown up with or become friends with later in life that fought in Afghanistan have all felt let down by successive governments. Whether by poor equipment, lack of manpower or just the universal feeling of fighting for nothing, not one has a good word to say for the British mission. As the last occupation forces hurriedly abandon their positions in Afghanistan working class and poor families in Britain and the United States are undoubtedly justified in wondering why their sons have come back in pieces in a box or mutilated only for the Taliban to take back the country with little alarm in Western capitals. Is it any wonder Donald Trump’s promise to end “forever wars” struck a chord with working class America.

It was not just Afghanistan that bore the brunt of the United States “War on Terror”, Pakistan was left with the option to wage a war against their own people in the north where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda had strongholds or be “bombed back to the stone age” by the United States. In the end parts of Pakistan have been open season for US drone and airstrikes with wedding parties, schools and agricultural villages attacked with impunity. For backing the United States Pakistan has seen over 65,000 deaths, endless bouts of crises, terror attacks and a downward spiral in living conditions.

It is hard to fathom what was achieved throughout the invasion and occupation. If we consider the classic understanding of imperialism as the exploitation of resources and a national population by a foreign power then what we have seen in Afghanistan doesn’t fit that bill. It is clear that Afghanistan is a naturally rich region of earth with around $1 trillion worth of minerals, including much sought after rare earth materials used in high tech commodities, currently under mined or not mined at all. After twenty years of occupation by Western powers there has been little wealth extraction and accumulation. Instead the United States has spent over $2 trillion throughout the occupation and with the war funded on credit the amount the United States will owe for this by 2050 is $6.5 trillion. No amount of post-war contracts either with the Taliban or whichever warring party is going to recoup that cost. So we are left with a different imperial strategy. The war in Afghanistan was about destruction and sowing chaos to make it clear to existing international and regional opponents and any who may dare rise in years to come what they can expect should they challenge the current world order with the United States firmly on top.

The calculation in Washington is that cutting their losses and leaving a hostile power on Iran’s eastern border is better than dragging out the slow collapse of the Afghan government and its forces. Biden has his eyes on Beijing and Tehran and as the US faces another ignominious defeat we can expect some lamentations but the sabre rattling against Iran will drown out any genuine reflection or explanation to the soldiers who fought and the families of the dead. Less still will be any thought on what the defeat of the global hegemon, materially the greatest fighting force ever assembled, to forces without heavy weapons or airpower means for the global status-quo and the future of the United States. Political and military leaders have also gone much quieter on women’s rights and in the rush to retreat from Afghanistan the United States have accepted that the Taliban and their view of women’s rights under Islam will hold sway once again. The fake tears from Western leaders and NGO managers twenty years ago for the girls and women of Afghanistan seem all but dried up now they can no longer be used to whitewash a brutal occupation and air campaign.

Unlike Iraq the war in Afghanistan was sold as the good war where not only were Western forces rooting out terrorists but also were there to liberate the people from the Taliban, particularly women. The war was also a knee jerk reaction that spiralled further and further into a full blown occupation following 9/11. Whilst nobody will shed tears for Osama bin Laden and his followers the war, which like the other forever war, the war on drugs, has no end game. For the military industrial complex, the intelligence services and the police the good times arrived. The war was to never end and with it the state of exception that swept across the West has endured into a state of normality. Writing in 2005 Giorgio Agamben wrote that the war on terror will “produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible.” Sixteen years later we have to unfortunately say that has come to pass.

The Defeat at Home

The military defeat is plain for all to see but there is a second defeat closer to home where the terror attacks, war and occupation have rebounded in the West with assaults on all of our freedoms. In the United States and in Britain, you can be imprisoned for having the wrong thoughts in your head and unacceptable words in your mouth. This does not just apply to those who share the same conception of Islam as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and their co-thinkers in Riyadh and Idlib. Everyone, from those protesting against poverty with NGOs, the revolutionary Left and through to tree huggers dancing in Leicester Square can be considered enemies of the state and subject to state interference, police action and designation as domestic extremists. The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is the latest attack on personal and political freedoms in Britain. Simply shouting slogans or being part of an enthusiastic samba band can find you on the wrong side of the law.

We have witnessed a widespread assault on critical media and journalists where those not towing the line are pushed off air or in the case of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks imprisoned and subjected to isolation and torture for the crime of showing the world war crimes. On a wider level social media, a lynchpin of our daily lives, is policed not just by the people on it or platform operators but by AI where posts and content can be flagged as extremist, deleted or silently hidden, hollowing out any critical space that has been won. In Britain, liking a Facebook post of a Jihadi nasheed, studying the urban guerrillas of the 1970s or reading the manifestos of neo-nazi terrorists can constitute a criminal offense. This applies in academia too where critical research on Jihadist groups, their ideas and the way they work is tightly policed with academics, particularly Muslim academics, under ever greater scrutiny. This goes alongside the policing action teachers and academics are expected to carry out against their students through the Prevent strategy, which for the most part criminalises critical thinking, alienates students from their peers and teachers and gives the state widespread powers to punish people who have committed no violent act, no real crime but may believe things the British state currently finds unacceptable.

Those fleeing the war in Afghanistan and the conflicts ignited by the war on terror and the barbarism of dictators in the Middle East and North Africa have also paid a heavy price. First by losing their homes, maybe their loved ones, some will have been tortured or injured by the warring parties. Secondly their escape to Europe has been criminalised. There is almost no legal way for those fleeing war in Afghanistan or the Taliban take-over to seek shelter in Britain. Thousands of interpreters, support workers, cooks, cleaners and workers of all professions who served occupation forces or NGOs have largely been left to the mercy of the Taliban with some last minute evacuations now taking place. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996 their opponents were strung up on lampposts and publicly executed. Nothing suggests that a victorious Taliban would act differently this time. The recent killing of comedian Nazar Mohammad underlines that not even those who make jokes at the Taliban’s expense are safe.

The migration crisis partly caused by the war on terror has been used to stir up anti-migrant hatred across Europe, Australasia and North America. Attacks on migrants are common and not simply the preserve of the far-right but are the common fayre of all mainstream parties in the West. The privatised detention centres of Tony Blair’s government, Priti Patel’s proposed offshore detention camps, enforced poverty and the destruction of education services for migrants is constantly creating a hostile other within our communities. Cuts in services, poor education provision or the inability to book a GP appointment have all been blamed on migrants. Those escaping British bombs in Afghanistan are criminalised and impoverished for seeking safety in Britain.

To deal with the migration routes out of the Middle East and North Africa, Britain and the European powers have gone hard on criminalisation within their own borders but also started paying the Turkish and Libyan governments to stem the flow closer to the source/away from their domestic borders. For this service, in particular Turkey, these mercenary border guards are given carte blanche when it comes to attacks on political opponents, support for Al-Qaeda in Syria and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Yazidis. Fortress Europe now stretches from the shores of the Mediterranean down into Syria and across to Africa with deadly consequences for tens of thousands.

The anti-democratic terror laws, the renditions, the torture, attacks on media and critical thinking coupled with the never ending search for the enemy within whilst keeping migrants out has eroded the political authority of and political life within the West. Save the welcome killing of Osama Bin Laden the war in Afghanistan and the wars that followed have brought nothing but misery at home and abroad. The loss in prestige following the retreat from Afghanistan and the attacks on political life at home will have long term consequences for the United States position as the world hegemon and by extension all allied states. In the absence of a genuinely democratic communist alternative it will be the party dictatorship in Beijing and the nationalist hardliners in capitals across the world who look likely to benefit.

The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has left it in further ruin, all of us less safe and less free and bookmarked another episode in the decline of the United States and the current global order with it. Two decades ago the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) warned the world in 2001 before the invasion that the “continuation of US attacks and the increase in the number of innocent civilian victims not only gives an excuse to the Taliban, but also will cause the empowering of the fundamentalist forces in the region and even in the world.

Nobody in power wanted to listen to those revolutionary Afghan women twenty years ago yet they have been proved so right. Now that NATO troops are finally leaving and Joe Biden just wants to talk about happy things man it is incumbent on communists and democrats to ensure that as the Taliban close in the people of Afghanistan are not forgotten, that arms are given to women and democratic organisations to resist the Taliban and that their struggles and voices are not lost as the United States lurches towards its next war.