The Afghan War Was an Imperial Endeavour

The bloody occupation of Afghanistan highlighted the grand delusions of Britain's rulers – delusions that even after two decades of catastrophe, they're still not prepared to give up on.

Credit: MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images

Following the collapse of the Afghan government last month, a Twitter thread by journalist Lewis Goodall traced the debates. Commenting on the contribution from socialist MP Zarah Sultana, he tweeted that

You might not agree with Sultana but she’s been one of the only MPs today to interrogate the question about the merits of intervention and its failures. Which given the outcome in Afghanistan is, well, somewhat curious.

Sultana’s statement was blunt. Calling the US-UK twenty-year war in Afghanistan a ‘mistake of catastrophic proportions’, she described the ‘untold human tragedy’ it had caused, with the occupation having led to the deaths of 240,000 Afghan people and 457 British service personnel.

Yet she was one of only a handful of MPs to raise the fundamental failures of the Afghan adventure – where other MPs had less ‘systemic’ concerns. Understandable concerns about safe passage for Afghan refugees were raised strongly and passionately, but equally as ferocious were repeated calls (led by Theresa May) for an answer as to why Britain had no plans for continuing military operations without America – a frankly ludicrous demand that led Goodall to dryly note that ‘not for the first time’, politicians were ‘engaging with the geopolitical position they’d like Britain to have, not the one which it occupies.’

A lack of scrutiny over the concept of the intervention has characterised British press discourse on the Afghan withdrawal. In a now-deleted tweet, Observer columnist Carole Cadwalladr attracted widespread criticism after she proclaimed the death of ‘The West’, saying that

‘The West’ was an idea. It wasn’t just democracy & rule of law. It was morality, decency, human rights.

And now, it’s over. We have left the scene. There’s no morality. No high idea. What’s happening is not just obscene & unconscionable. It’s the end of an entire historic era

Cadwalladr was far from alone in conflating Western intervention in Afghanistan with democracy. Deborah Haynes, Foreign Correspondent for Sky News, quoted a ‘senior former UK intelligence officer’ claiming that the withdrawal ‘marks the end of an era for Western liberalism and democracy’, was ‘a defeat of Western ideology’, and was Britain’s biggest defeat since the 1956 Suez crisis.

This sentiment, which was also repeated by Tory MP Owen Paterson in Parliament, is an interesting analogy to draw from, being a humiliation scorched deeply into the consciousness of old Etonians and imperial enthusiasts. The thwarted attempt of France, Israel, and Britain to invade and seize the recently nationalised Suez Canal from Nasser’s government marked the end of the colonial era, where European imperial powers could enforce their economic interests with impunity and in defiance of the sanctity of sovereign nations.

The reality is that Britain and America’s occupation of Afghanistan can claim no more virtuosity in pursuing democratic values or human rights than the British could during Suez. The West’s occupation of Afghanistan has been of abject cultural ignorance, total disdain for human life, torture, corruption, and state-sanctioned murder. From the very beginning, America and Britain allied themselves with warlords embroiled in historic tribal and ethnic warfare, often guilty of enacting the very worst crimes ever laid at the feet of the Taliban themselves.

Many retrospective justifications for the Afghan conflict have been presented by mainstream politicians and commentators to provide a thin veneer of legitimacy, in what anti-war columnist Simon Jenkins has labelled ‘a reformulation of Alfred Milner’s Victorian concept of moral imperialism’. But with the death toll in Afghanistan near quarter of a million—the vast majority of whom had nothing whatsoever to do with the Taliban—such responses are thin gruel.

In a frank and revealing New Yorker article, Anand Gopal comprehensively demolishes the idea that Western occupation was concerned with rights for Afghan women – or indeed any of the country’s people. In a series of interviews conducted throughout the country towards the latter days of occupation, Gopal reveals the shocking brutality of occupation and the personal toll it has ravaged on the majority of Afghanistan’s people.

One of his interviewees, ‘Shakira’, spoke of her childhood memories of the toppling of Afghanistan’s communist government in 1991 by US-backed Mujahideen fighters who quickly imposed their conservative Pashtun values on women’s dress and social roles, declaring in Kabul that ‘women are not to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely’.

Shakira’s family were personally afflicted by the chaotic regime which replaced the communists, with both her uncle and his wife arrested and sentenced to execution at a religious court governed by Mujahideen warlord Amir Dado, following the discovery that his wife had escaped from an arranged child-marriage before settling with him. Both were released following the Taliban’s victory—an event Shakira celebrated—in the removal of the feared warlord Dado who had terrorised her family.

Shakira next saw Dado in 2003, barking orders at a team of US soldiers as they requisitioned her home at gunpoint. He had been recruited by the Americans as intelligence chief for Helmand Province, alongside his brother who became governor of Sangin district, and another brother who became Sangin’s Chief of Police. Numerous other groups were revived and provided roles by the Americans, including the infamous 93rd Division—notorious for corruption, rape, and murder—who began setting up roadblocks to rob their fellow citizens attempting to cross Gershek Bridge.

The US were not blind to the crimes of Dado and his men, they simply saw their cooperation as expedient. When lobbied by the UN who agitated for his removal, American marines protected him and stated that although Dado was ‘far from being a Jeffersonian Democrat’, his actions were ‘the time-tested solution for controlling rebellious Pashtuns.’

Shakira’s familial death toll due to the occupation had been immense. One uncle had been killed attending Friday prayers at a mosque targeted by drone strike. As mourners gathered by the ruins of the mosque the next day, another strike killed twelve more.

A fifteen-year-old cousin was killed by a drone while riding his bike, while an adult cousin was killed by coalition forces going to collect clean water. A seven-year-old cousin was killed with his family when coalition soldiers gunned down their car after they swerved to avoid a crash. A twelve-year-old cousin was killed without explanation by the Afghan national police.

Another adult cousin was murdered by coalition soldiers after they confused a plate he was carrying with a bomb, and this particular cousin’s brother was killed by a drone. Shakira’s uncle-in-law was found dead in a field after an encounter with coalition soldiers, who left his body to rot ‘like an animal’.

Such atrocities were well documented throughout the war. As early as 2001, US-backed Northern Alliance forces went on a killing spree in Pashtun villages, summarily executing civilians and raping women. Abdul Rashid Dostum was another warlord promoted to great heights by the CIA – a man who went on to become Vice President, whose forces carried out similar atrocities as late as 2016, murdering 2,000 people and burying them in a mass grave.

Assadullah Khalid, who went on to become Defence Minister, oversaw secret torture cells as governor of Kandahar. The famed torture centres of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay shamed America internationally as images of sadistic humiliation rituals hit the press, as thousands of individuals were trafficked out of Afghanistan and Iraq by coalition forces under flimsy pretexts and without due process.

Atrocities committed by coalition forces against Afghan civilians continued up until the last few days of the occupation; following the ISIL-K terror attack at Kabul Airport during the process of evacuation, eyewitness accounts state that ‘significant numbers’ of the 175 mortalities were killed by US soldiers firing on civilians ‘in panic’ following the blast.

Destroyers of Worlds

Afghanistan is merely the latest in a series of failed imperial misadventures which have blown up spectacularly in the faces of NATO powers.

In Iraq, American occupation has led to the complete destabilisation of the entire region, the empowerment of Iran, the creation of Daesh, endless civil war, the unnecessary deaths of an estimated 1,200,000 people, and the creation of 4,000,000 refugees. In Libya, it was brought the balkanisation of the country, which is now governed by a patchwork quilt of warlords, numerous competing ‘official’ governments – and human rights groups register reports of black slave markets now operating in the country, which has become an international hub of human trafficking.

Interventions in Syria, including the imposition of no-fly zones and the arming of rebel groups, prolonged the Syrian Civil War for almost a decade, with an estimated 606,000 dead and 6,800,000 refugees. And there is radio silence from our media and political class over the United Arab Emirates—our ally—causing the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world with their war on Yemen, where over 130,000 have been killed and 16,000,000 people (fifty percent of the country’s population) are enduring famine.

In the context of the suffering and bloodshed caused by US and UK-led military interventions in central Asia and the Middle East, it is plain to see that Western military interventions are not inspired by any desire to spread values of ‘democracy’ or women’s rights. Such notions are little more than window dressing for the more ‘pragmatic’ concerns of American warmongers. As noted in a recent article by Max Hastings in Bloomberg:

Henry Kissinger justified his own support for the Iraq invasion by saying: “because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.” America’s enemies had aspired to its humiliation, “and we need to humiliate them.” Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written recently: “rather than pose a threat, Iraq offered a stage. On its territory, the United States would exhibit overwhelming power.”

Tracing back the origins of America’s incursions into the Middle East and Central Asia, it would be remiss to fail to note the influence of think tanks such as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) which were hugely influential among Washington hawks in the early days of George Bush Junior’s presidency.

The think tank, whose directors include notorious Pentagon hawk John Bolton and leading Bush administration figures Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, openly plotted to maintain American political and military hegemony over the world through a Reaganite policy of ‘military strength and moral clarity’ to shape a new century favourable to American imperialism.

As early as 1998, PNAC identified regime change in Iraq as a primary goal, at least five years before the retrospective justifications of Weapons of Mass Destruction were fabricated to legitimise the 2003 invasion. Shortly after the attack on 11 September 2001, PNAC penned a letter to George Bush specifically advocating ‘a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq’ as part of the War on Terror, despite there being no connection between the 9/11 hijackers and the Hussein regime. PNAC fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht stated,

We have no choice but to re-instil in our foes and friends the fear that attaches to any great power… only a war against Saddam Hussein will decisively restore the awe that protects American interests abroad and citizens at home.

The truth is that the human cost of maintaining Western supremacy has been just as great in the latter half of the twentieth century as it was under the colonial era, and that cost will only continue to grow as America desperately attempts to cling on to power in the face of the emerging might of China.

If there is a silver lining to the failure of occupation in Afghanistan, it is hopefully that the grand deceit is now clear – written teen feet high in blood on the wall. For all the convoluted soul-searching and anguish about Western values and liberalism, the ultimate origin of our foreign policy crisis lies in Western chauvinism and amoral geopolitical manoeuvring. For Britain, it is one of humiliating crisis and confirmation of loss of status – a global and public reminder of our country’s lack of influence in the modern world.

For those attracted to such murderous vanity projects, this lesson is harsh. The absurdity of Britain’s status-fixation while presiding over a crumbling domestic economy, rising inequality, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure is one of the greatest distractions which afflicts this nation’s ruling class – acting out their post-imperial neuroses at the expense not only of citizens here, but across the globe.

As Western societies increasingly struggle and fail, it seems that the ever-diminishing number of higher-ups at the helm of our security, military, political and media apparatus have lost no appetite for their obsession with the grand game of geopolitical power being played out across the world – a game in which people are little more than pawns, and one that there is no longer any taste for among the vast majority of ordinary people.