If historians of the future wish to understand the ignorance and hubris that accompanied the decline of the west’s power, this week’s emergency parliamentary debate on Afghanistan will provide an insightful case study. The delusions that have long characterised British foreign policy remained intact when Iraq was destroyed for the sake of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; when British soldiers were forced into a humiliating retreat from Iraq’s southern city of Basra at the hands of Iranian-backed Shia militias; and when Libya was left as a failed state. It seemed unlikely that the Taliban casually waltzing into Kabul would finally break the spell.
Take the much celebrated contribution from Theresa May, who asked, “Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” and rued the repercussions of Britain depending “on a unilateral decision taken by the United States”. The former prime minister is a fantasist: Britain has not had a foreign policy independent of the United States since the 1950s, and indefinite occupation of Afghanistan, which has been proposed as an alternative to withdrawal, effectively means transforming the country into a colony.
Perhaps May is unacquainted with the Afghan province of Helmand, where – at a cost of £40bn – the government sent troops in the hope of salvaging Britain’s military reputation from the humiliation of Basra. Commanders had no understanding of local divisions or the historic resentments that date back to Britain’s invasion of the Afghan province in the 19th century. British forces remorselessly destroyed opium farming – the linchpin of Helmand’s economy – and generally alienated the local population, to the benefit of the Taliban. Hundreds of soldiers were killed and maimed before US marines eventually bailed out British troops. Our own country’s humiliation, defeat and eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan predates that of our US counterparts by many years.
Likewise there has been no reckoning over the west’s support for mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in the 1980s, when aid was often funnelled to the most extreme groups via Pakistan’s secret services. That might, after all, lead to a reassessment of the west’s ongoing alliance with Saudi Arabia, whose regime has long allowed its wealthy citizens to fund the Taliban while it subjugates its own women and violently represses dissidents as our government looks the other way.
As MPs lamented the unfolding disaster in parliament, they showed no sign of learning from it
While Taliban atrocities are widely understood, those committed by western forces and their allies have been wilfully ignored. As the author and Afghanistan expert Anand Gopal told me, the Taliban all but evaporated in 2001. But Afghan politicians in the new government exploited a US desire to eliminate “bad guys” by falsely claiming their opponents were Taliban supporters. Massacres, mass arrests, house raids and torture followed. Pro-government forces recruited children as soldiers, while the Afghan Local Police – a 30,000-strong pro-government militia mobilised by the US – murdered civilians, committed fraud and engaged in theft, rape, kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion.
The CIA-backed Khost Protection force oversaw similar human rights abuses: their victims ranged from 14-year-old boys to 60-year-old tribal elders. As Human Rights Watch puts it, a central myth was that the Afghan strongmen, warlords and commanders the US chose as allies to oust the Taliban “could help to provide security and stability, despite their records of abuses”. The opposite proved to be the case. From the very beginning, anti-Taliban forces attacked villages, raped women, summarily executed civilians and stole livestock and land.
Afghan detention centres were packed with prisoners who were beaten, suffocated and subject to electric shocks. According to the international criminal court, the US armed forces and CIA may have committed war crimes by torturing detainees. Gopal tells me there were “dozens of Abu Ghraibs” in Afghanistan that went unreported. Airstrikes killed thousands of civilians and were followed by what Human Rights Watch describes as “poor investigations and infrequent condolence payments”. According to UN data, over the past five years 40% of all civilian casualties from airstrikes were children. Between 2017 and 2020, the civilian death toll from western bombs surged by more than 300%.
These victims are ignored because their deaths undermine the self-serving narrative that allowed the west and its allies to present themselves as the “good guys” to their domestic audiences. As far as western foreign policy is concerned, the lives of brown-skinned civilians are only relevant when they can be used to mobilise public opinion in support of unleashing more bombs and bullets. Yet atrocities committed by the west and its allies were instrumental in reviving the fortunes of the Taliban. So was the mass corruption of government officials and warlords in Afghanistan, which the west not only studiously ignored but fuelled in order to “purchase loyalty and information”, according to an investigation by the Washington Post.
For years, the US military establishment pressured presidents into adding “endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery”, as Joe Biden puts it. After two decades of war that killed quarter of a million people, the Taliban are now more dominant than they were before 9/11. Even so, like their equally delusional counterparts after the fall of Saigon, politicians are being applauded as they fantasise that victory could have been assured if only there was more determination, ruthlessness and might.
In a rational world, those politicians and commentators who stoked this war would be brought to account. Instead, they are praised as statesmen, sages and patriots. And so, once again, like Iraq, like Libya and like the “war on terror” in general, any hope of learning from the latest calamity is extinguished, dissenting voices are ostracised, and we are condemned to a future every bit as bloodstained as our past.
By Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist