Updated: Aug 29, 2021
By Mariam. H
In conversations about Afghanistan, happening now and for the last 20 years, Afghan lives and needs have been all but ignored in favour of perpetuating false narratives about the invasion. The current propaganda around the ‘Forever War’ and withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan is infuriating in its attribution of heroism to the real instigators and perpetrators of Afghanistan’s situation today. The damage to the image of Afghanistan is such that the current situation is viewed by many in the West as “just another day in a country that is perpetually at war”.
A lot of what we know about Afghanistan has been completely constructed by imperial forces to distract the conversation away from Afghans and what’s actually happening. Many of us don’t know that the Taliban was actually defeated and ousted from power 20 years ago, three months after the US initially invaded, or that our tax dollars have directly funded the oppression of Afghan civilians. We too easily first bought the narrative that we were there to get the terrorists, and then there to help their army, and then there (somehow) to give women rights. Now it has become all too apparent that we can no longer swallow these lies anymore.
So why did the US stay in Afghanistan for 20 years? The Taliban have once again established themselves as the dominant power in Afghanistan, this time with even more of the country in their grasp. So here’s the truth about how we got here. The events of the last week have been reported as incredulous, unexpected and an overnight overthrow of one government into the unruly hands of the Taliban. However, it was not a taking of power, but a transfer of one. The plan for the US was to fully withdraw troops from Afghanistan by this year; that was not the surprise. As reiterated by NATO General Jens Stoltenberg it was the speed at which the Taliban took control that surprised them, not that they did take control.
Was the US and its allies nation building? The short answer is: no, they were not. US President Biden confirmed as in his August 16th press conference stating: “the war in Afghanistan was never about nation-building”. Essentially backtracking on 20 years worth of lies, to rearrange the narrative to one only about protecting US national interest through the prevention of terrorist attacks on their homeland. But here’s why that doesn’t make sense.
So what actually happened? How you create a war.
What most people don’t know is that when the US invaded Afghanistan, they actually defeated the Taliban within three months and al-Qaeda not long after. A key reason this was so easy for them was because sentiment in Afghanistan at the time, even in its most rural areas, was very much against the Taliban. So the Taliban surrendered very early on, and fled.
“In the aftermath of the 2001 ousting of the Taliban ... you had American special forces on the ground, with a mandate to fight a war against terror, but they had no enemies to fight.”
- Anand Gopal, Pulitzer prize finalist and well-renowned journalist states in ‘No Good Men Among The Living’
So what do you do when you have to fight an enemy, but there isn't an enemy to fight? You create one. This is when US troops started incentivising Afghans to turn against each other. The US troops allied with warlords, who were known to have committed crimes against Afghans, and had been expelled from the country as a result. The US then paid these people to bring them Afghan civilians. They went on a rampage in which they arrested thousands of people, and committed crimes that are considered torture under both domestic and international law. Similarly, the US arrested and detained prisoners (many of whom were arrested on false grounds) in Guantanamo Bay Prison, which is infamous worldwide as one of the cruelest prisons on earth. . Kenneth G. Eade, a leading US Attorney and activist, described Guantanamo Bay as “the equivalent of any concentration camp in Nazi Germany, the most shameful example of the cruel and complete abolition of all human rights by the Government, all in the name of the war on terrorism.”
Therefore what resulted for a few years was essentially a one-sided war as the US and its allies fought against innocent Afghan civilians and made their lives a living hell. Something imperative to understand is that 75% of Afghanistan is rural and this is where the majority of the war has been waged for 20 years. We are hearing primarily of what’s happening in metropolitan cities, specifically Kabul, but for most of the war you could visit the capital city and be unaware of the reality of the violence being waged in it’s countryside. Much of the carnage of this time, and the sheer number of deaths went unrecorded as they happened within an active warzone, where it’s near impossible to get a clear idea of the sheer size of these numbers. “It’s going to take us generations to truly understand what the real toll of this conflict was”, says Anand. The magnitude of this period of aggression lives in the memory and lived realities of Afghans who endured it.
Why we need to care about war crimes
The Human Rights Watch, an international body that tracks crimes committed during war, found that the coalition forces (made up primarily of the US, the UK and Australia) were committing war crimes from 2002. Even in the last few years, between late 2017 and mid 2019 there were 14 documented cases of CIA-backed Afghan strikes which committed serious injuries and deaths to civilians. I just want to reiterate that these are the 14 documented cases, they are not the actual number of human rights abuses committed. Historically, we know the US and their allies will go to extraordinary lengths to cover these incidents up and protect their public image. A well-documented example of this is the atrocities committed by US soldiers at Abu-Ghraib during the Iraqi war, in which obscene photos of the torture drew international outrage before the US government gave (laughably minimal) punishment to only the head soldiers involved.
They found that across the board from Afghan officials, activists, health workers, journalists to community elders all stated that indiscriminate airstrikes were a reality of their daily lives. Many of the houses that were targeted for night raids were chosen based on inaccurate intelligence advice that was related to local rivalries and false accusations. In August 2020 evidence was brought forward that proved how the British Military Unit in Afghanistan exercised a “deliberate policy” where they would “kill Afghans even if they did not pose a threat.” The UK responded to these allegations by making it harder to prosecute war crimes perpetrated by its troops overseas. How have we bought for so long that they were there to help people?
Furthermore, the Afghan forces backed by the CIA and US special forces on the ground and with air support from the US military conducted continual clandestine operations, described as paramilitary resistance against Al-Qaeda and ISIS. These US-backed (physically and tactically) and ordered troops were responsible for “extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, indiscriminate airstrikes, attacks on medical facilities, and other violations of international humanitarian law or the laws of war.”
The coalition forces are known to use the law as a shield to protect their military from being prosecuted for crimes they commit overseas. Thus, only a few of these war crimes and human rights abuses were ever investigated. An example of this was in March 2020 when Australia’s defence department suspended an Australian Special Air service regiment soldier (SAS) “Soldier C” from service, due to an enormous amount of evidence that proved that they were responsible for killing Afghan civilians in 2001.
Essentially, the US and their allies went on a rampage of human rights abuses which ultimately turned Afghan sentiment (specifically in rural and remote areas) in favour of the Taliban to protect them from external forces. Anand Gopal reiterates, “It was in the context of that that many people who had rejected the Taliban began to accept them back into their communities as a form of protection against what many Afghans have described to me as a form of terrorism. Breaking into people’s homes in the middle of the night, taking their loved ones away, sometimes never to be seen again.”
This fostered the right environment for the Taliban to reform and reignite in a more powerful way, because this time, they were popular. This is the Taliban that we know and are in power now, a much stronger Taliban than what existed pre-US intervention.
In the end, a twenty-year chapter of a country’s history was punctuated by President Biden "American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”
Who are the “new” Taliban?
We’ve established that the Taliban did not come into power again by sheer force and happenstance. The Taliban originally emerged in the mid-90s, as a conservative group of student-warriors from the remaining Afghan mujahideen fighters and religious seminaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their original promises of order and security (similar to the propaganda they are putting out now) quickly devolved into a violent regime that resulted in the brutalisation and persecution of much of the Afghan population. Most notably Afghan women, religious and ethnic minorities (primarily Hazara Shiites), LGBTQI+, and people with disabilities. Understandably in time their support wavered and dropped because of their viciousness and fanatic zealotry.
They are able to sustain their efforts through ongoing economic and diplomatic support from Pakistan; with the Human Rights Watch declaring that “of all the foreign powers involved in efforts to sustain and manipulate the ongoing fighting, Pakistan is distinguished both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts.” In these past 20 years, the Taliban have been consistently supported, funded, housed and trained by the Pakistani government. Pakistan’s role in furthering the Taliban’s objectives goes far beyond this, but is too convoluted to go into detail in this piece. If you want to learn specifically about that, Human Rights Watch is a good place to start.
Anyway, the Taliban insist that, this time around, they have changed, with spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid asserting to national and international audiences, “Nobody will be harmed in Afghanistan. Of course, there is a huge difference between us now and 20 years ago”. This is not the first time the Taliban have pulled this move, they attempted to present a similarly reassuring face during the 1996 accession to power and their violent actions in the years and months before the takeover do not back this sentiment.
What we can be certain of is the Taliban should not be underestimated. Contrary to popular belief, and among the most dangerous myths perpetuated about the Taliban is that they are cavemen who got lucky. The Taliban, as of March 2020, was an almost 2 billion dollar organisation. The reason this is important to note, is to understand why they’re essential business partners, and exactly how much of Afghanistan’s precious natural resources they control.
An economic policy analyst for the Centre for Afghanistan Studies, Hanif Sufizada, broke down the Taliban’s revenue: The biggest contributor to their coffers is illicit drug revenue. Afghanistan is responsible for 84% of global opium production, with many Afghan farmers not being allowed to farm anything else to ensure this money continues to be funneled into the Taliban’s pockets. The irony of music and women working being “too sinful” but having no qualms with global drug trafficking appears to be lost only on the Taliban themselves. The next big money maker is mining, with the Taliban taking a portion of the selling off of Afghanistan’s bountiful natural resources like iron ore, marble, and copper by mining companies. They do this by demanding payment under threat of death. Other funds are rounded up through extortion, imposition of taxes, among which in characteristic sick fashion they’ve included a “Zakat” tax on Afghans. They are also sent charitable donations from unnamed terrorist sympathisers around the world. They also earn around $80 million from real estate investments. In summary, while the US has been “nation-building” through illicit airstrikes the Taliban have been diversifying their investment portfolio.
The US profited so much off this war and what is important to understand is that this was absolutely not a failed war for them. Fourteen years ago the United States Geological Service discovered nearly $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. At the time an internal Pentagon memo stated that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Since then, US, British and Chinese-based mining and exploration companies have signed million dollar, and at times, billion dollar agreements to explore these untapped reserves. Northropp Gumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon Acres and Virginia are just a few companies that made millions, and close to billions. Centar Limited is a US-based mining and exploration company which signed contracts with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to develop two sites in Balkhab and Badakhshan with potentially significant copper and gold deposits. Together, these contracts represent the largest mining exploration effort in the history of Afghanistan. Similarly, National Petroleum Corporation, a China based mining and investment company, has a significant share in the extraction of iron ore and copper.
How come this information is so difficult to find? It should not take hours to pull together a list of the military and mining companies that are profiting off Afghanistan, every second of every day. As perfectly described by journalist Anand Gopal, “Most of our money went into the coffers of warlords or defence contractors in America. There’s barely a paved road in the Afghan countryside. The invasion actually made life worse for Afghan women.”
Why does this matter?
Afghanistan's fate is often dismissed by stuffy political commentators as “the graveyard of empires”, making it seem like never-ending conflict is the country’s birthright. This kind of passive language and lack of attribution to the instigators and perpetrators of conflict allow us all to wash our hands clean of the injustice we allow to thrive there.
The Taliban propagandise that they aim to foster a return to normal life after decades of war. The United States and allies (Australia among them) insist they still have leverage to utilise if need be. American military officials remain worried that Afghanistan may become a base for other extremist groups, and as we’ve established it’s never good for civilians anywhere when the US expresses their worry. In the northeastern part of the country, the last anti-Taliban outpost continues to stand in the Panjshir valley as of writing this article, headed by Ahmad Massoud, son of notable anti-Soviet resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud. It remains to be seen if active fighting will break out in the region.
The fact remains that many Afghans are rightfully distrustful and there is a strong fear that the Taliban’s regime will be oppressive and violent. There are also fears of security and potential revenge killings by the Taliban. Afghan women fear a severe rollback of the strides in women’s advancement that Afghan women have made in recent years. Past events and actions by the Taliban cannot be discounted no matter how many times they parrot their best intentions. They have a long and sordid history of targeting marginalised and minority groups within Afghanistan, and it is the people now that stand at significant risk.
Afghan activists and voices who have been doing the work for decades need to be prioritised now moving forward. Though not an easy endeavour, we have to become more critical of the narratives we internalise surrounding intervention and more aware of what we are co-signing by remaining silent on where our tax dollars go, and what our elected governments do. Moving forward now it is important to understand that the Afghans who are trying to leave are doing so because of the failures of our policies. We cannot encourage sanctions on the new government that emerges, as it will only further disenfranchise Afghanistan’s people while their “leaders” remain unaffected. We cannot allow our leaders to allow the country’s limited infrastructure to completely collapse, as a final betrayal of the Afghan people.
In conclusion, the events of the last few weeks are one more betrayal of the Afghan people, just like the events of the past 20 years have been an ongoing betrayal. We cannot shy away from the fact that we all directly benefit from the same western capitalist systems that have plunged Afghanistan into its current state. Though the conversation of whether or not refugees should be accepted is unbelievable in it’s ignorance of how we continue to create refugees, this is where our effort needs to be channeled now. The biggest thing we can do now to help, is to shift our attention to the protection of Afghan asylum seekers who need refuge now and many years ahead. This is where our concentrated, collective effort needs to go, as the cause of their displacement is something that we have directly benefited from. This should be a cause we are all committed to
Editor: Palwasha.A, Irisa. R, Lamisa.H
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