Less than two weeks after the horrific terrorist attack on New York in 2001, over two thousand people packed out Friends Meeting House in London for a meeting under the slogan ‘Stop the war before it starts’. It was called in response to George Bush’s declaration of the ‘War on Terror’ and the impending invasion of Afghanistan, and it became the start of the Stop the War Coalition.
Nearly 20 years later, President Biden has announced that the US will finally be ending the war in Afghanistan. By 11 September 2021, the 2,500 or so US troops, 750 British troops, and other NATO forces are supposed to have been withdrawn from the country.
Anyone who attended that meeting, or the many marches across the world since, could have told Biden and his predecessors long before now that this was how the war would end – in defeat. It’s the latest milestone in a trend of US imperial decline, and one which characterises the overreach of the War on Terror.
The ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ Lie
The US war in Afghanistan was at its outset a revenge war. A small terrorist organisation in the Afghan mountains headed by the son of a Saudi billionaire with close ties to the US establishment had orchestrated a deadly attack on US soil. The US had to be seen to respond – what would its global military might be worth if it didn’t?
But that wasn’t the only motivation. The war fit in with the neoconservative Washington consensus on foreign policy – one of unilateral and pre-emptive military action to maintain US supremacy. The war on ‘terror’—a war against a method, rather than any tangible or specific enemy—gave licence to begin in Afghanistan and carry on wherever was needed for strategic interests, as we’ve since seen in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere.
In Britain, Tony Blair was keen to deepen the ‘special relationship’ with the US. He regularly invoked the memory of empire when he talked about foreign policy, but conceded, ‘we are not a superpower, but we can act as a pivotal partner,’ going on to say, ‘I believe we have found a modern foreign policy role for Britain.’ Blair saw the world order defined by free-market interests as a new empire – one led by the US, with Britain as its closest partner.
Part of his dogma was establishing this new imperialism as a liberal endeavour. In his 1999 Chicago speech, while NATO was bombing Yugoslavia, he talked about ‘the principles of international community’ and the ‘moral purpose of defending the values we cherish’ in the context of taking military action against other countries. This was the basis for so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’, and for ensuring long-term Western military presence in those countries.
With Afghanistan, it wasn’t just about stopping Al-Qaida and making the Taliban pay; it was supposedly about the human rights of the Afghan people. In his Labour Conference speech just a few days before the war began, Blair polemicised, ‘women are treated in a way almost too revolting to be credible. First driven out of university; girls not allowed to go to school; no legal rights; unable to go out of doors without a man. Those that disobey are stoned.’
Yet, shortly after the attack began, when asked by Time magazine why he didn’t criticise Saudi Arabia—where women were treated similarly—Blair responded, ‘Yes, but we’re in conflict with the Taliban regime. […] At the present time I don’t think it’s very helpful for us to tell the Saudis how they should live.’
Even today, neocon Republicans are lining up to oppose withdrawal from Afghanistan under the pretext of protecting women’s rights. What’s deliberately ignored is that the Taliban have already regained control of half the country. Outside Kabul, two thirds of girls still don’t have access to primary school education. The idea that keeping the country in a state of war and raining bombs down on them is the way to protect women’s lives or human rights is absurd – but that’s the idea that underpins humanitarian intervention.
The Consequences of War
The prolonged war has directly killed at least 70,000 civilians, 43 percent of whom have been women and children – and that’s not including deaths caused by disease, or loss of access to food, water, and infrastructure. At least 2,400 US troops have been killed, and a further 70,000 Afghan military and police allied with the US have been killed.
When President Obama came into office, he led a massive troop surge to Afghanistan, jumping from 30,000 US troops in 2008 to over 110,000 at its peak in 2011. Alongside this, Obama ramped up drone warfare and carried out a minimum of 13,000 strikes in Afghanistan. As part of his drone program, Obama secretly changed the rules of engagement and enabled the US military to consider any male that looked between 18-65 in a strike zone an enemy combatant, allowing them to drastically downplay civilian casualties.
When President Trump came into office, he again increased the number of troops, carried on the drone program, and in 2017 dropped the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ (the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal with a 1km blast radius) on Afghanistan. Civilians were evacuated before the bomb was dropped, so there were no reported casualties, but local residents have reported health conditions including respiratory illnesses, and babies being born with deformities, as well as the decimation of agriculture in the area.
Because of the constant violence, Afghanistan is one of the top refugee-producing countries in the world. There are an estimated 2.5 million internally displaced people, and a further 2.7 million refugees that have fled the country. During the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’ going on since 2015, refugees from Afghanistan made the second biggest group of people after Syrians seeking safety in Europe. Despite all this, Theresa May fought in court in 2016 to have Kabul designated as safe to return refugees to, in the middle of the bloodiest month on record at the time – with hundreds deported since.
The consequences of the war were not limited to Afghanistan. Proving that the domestic cannot be separated from foreign policy, and further proving that humanitarianism had nothing to do with the war, the US and UK also passed draconian legislation and dangerous precedents curtailing human rights and civil liberties.
As part of the war effort, the US established Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of suspected terrorists were taken without trial or charge and subject to torture. The CIA created a vast network of Black Sites to which prisoners were illegally taken, often via secret rendition flights, and ‘interrogated’ and detained – with the collusion of all NATO countries, particularly Britain.
On the home front, both the US and UK created an expansive counterterrorism apparatus that gave unprecedented powers to the police and the state. In the UK, police and border officials were given the authority to stop people without ‘reasonable suspicion’ and to detain suspects for up to 14 days (the government attempted to raise it to 90 days, but were defeated in parliament).
The policies are inherently Islamophobic – Pakistani travellers are 50 times more likely to be stopped and 150 times more likely to be detained than a white traveller. In the first five years of the Prevent program, 90 percent of referrals were Muslim, and between 2016 and 2019, over 600 children under the age of six were referred. This institutional Islamophobia, a product of the War on Terror, has been the driving force of Islamophobia and racist hate crimes against Muslims.
It’s also staggering to consider the $2.2 trillion spent by the US and at least £37 billion by the UK for the war. A large part of this spending happened at the same time as both governments were justifying brutal cuts to public spending which in the UK has been linked to the deaths of 130,000 people. Incredibly, some of those arguing against the withdrawal see this colossal waste of money as an ‘investment’ which needs to be protected by… more war.
The Ongoing Threat of War
While US withdrawal from Afghanistan is undoubtedly a good thing, if 20 years late, it’s unfortunately not the end. There is the possibility of conflict between the Taliban and the Ghani government, and the US and other regional and international powers will likely continue to fund and arm the different sides in the country. There are also hundreds of special operations forces as well as private military contractors who are not part of the official tally of troops and may remain.
The US remains committed to the War on Terror, and specifically the war against ISIS – which has gained a foothold in Afghanistan thanks to the destabilisation caused by the US’s war. The drone program remains operational, and the US will likely continue some level of aerial operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Importantly, Biden’s Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has said that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of focusing US resources on China instead. As the US grapples with its declining empire and its military defeats in the Middle East, alongside the rising power of China, it is reorienting itself to a new front of war. Biden recently proposed a $750 billion budget for the Pentagon with plans for a huge increase in defence spending.
In the UK, we have Boris Johnson, who is boosting defence spending by another £16.5 billion, increasing Britain’s nuclear arsenal by 40 percent, and is keen to continue playing the role of the US’s junior partner by ramping up its attention to Russia while the US turns to China.
At that first Stop the War meeting 20 years ago, anti-war campaigners warned of the dangers of the impending war and where it would lead – to more war, more terrorism, and a racist backlash. As the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, the anti-war movement can recognise its efforts in making this possible, but also how necessary it still is in the face of the ongoing threat of war.