Writing by Jamie McDonald. Photograph by Andre Klimke.
“I want to say that the hearts of the free world are with you. We will never rest until Afghanistan is free again”.
- Margaret Thatcher, speaking to the Afghani Mujahideen, 1981 (1).
A shock renaissance: earlier this year, the Taliban swept back into power in beleaguered Afghanistan. The group’s white and black standard - at least the eighteenth new Afghan flag in just a century – was raised in Kabul. A hint of a more regressive government came when Afghan women were barred from playing all forms of sport, and revenge killings began for those suspected of working with the occupying forces.
The endless war in Afghanistan was supposed to be different from other catastrophic interventions. By 1999, a series of brutal sanctions on Iraq had killed around half a million children, and Serbia’s infrastructure lay in ruins after 78 days of continuous bombing. In 2001, though, the US guaranteed a program of ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan, and over two decades pumped a trillion dollars into the country.
The whole concept of ‘nation building’ was a deeply patronising and destructive return to the colonial idea of the white saviour – savages, unable to govern themselves, would thank white European invaders for their civilising project. Afghanistan, used to being relegated to a square on Europe’s never-ending game of Risk, settled in for another round of colonial rule.
“Just as Nazism vanished into the ether as Hitler’s body burned outside his bunker, so the Taliban brand of insane fundamentalism may now ebb away… the Taliban myth is dead”
- Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian, November 2001.
Imperialism is an ideology so fundamentally centred around revenge – you topple our towers; we overthrow your nation – so it is curious that the US struggles to understand that 9/11 was itself an act of retribution. The Soviet Union plunged Afghanistan into an unwinnable war in the 1980s and 90s, and the US funded and armed the dangerous and extremist Mujahideen to resist their advances (7). As the state of Afghanistan descended into ruin and the collapsing Soviet Union, red-faced, withdrew, many rightly identified the United States as the destabilising force.
The Taliban exists as a dictionary definition of ‘blowback’ – the name for the often unintended negative consequences of US foreign operations. It is unlikely the US considered the effect on the people of Afghanistan of unleashing thousands of radicalised, well-armed militants into a war-torn nation – it is even more unlikely they considered that the very groups they funded were planning to conduct the deadliest terrorist attack in history.
“[O]ur taxi-drivers from Pakistan to Afghanistan were both former Taliban and former mujahideen… both foot soldiers, middle managers, like these drivers, and the leadership, are still everywhere.”
- Journalist Anne Brodsky, after visiting post-invasion Afghanistan, July 2002.
Within a month of the attacks on September 11, the US invaded Afghanistan to behead a monster of their own creation. The Taliban administration fell quickly, but the war – and its consequences - will last far longer. The poverty rate still hovers at around 70%, and after the return of the Taliban and the resulting instability, it is expected to soar to 97% by next year.
Under occupation, child mortality didn’t fall any quicker than it had been falling, and neither did life expectancy rise any quicker than it had done during the Soviet war (10) – the existing trends simply continued as if nothing had happened. So much for nation building, and for $1 trillion spent. As for the security forces, the speed at which the Taliban returned should answer any questions as to the effectiveness of training a new home-grown Afghan army. They were always there, ready to take control once more.
“Every civilian dead means five new Taliban.”
- British officer, 2007
NATO spiralled into panic after the recapture of Kabul, dreading the city and country would regress into a ‘breeding ground’ for terrorist groups . The Taliban resurgence certainly provides cover for extremist ideologies – in that it allows the US and UK to shift the blame for the rise of dangerous groups away from their own remorseless, inhumane war. If Afghanistan is a ‘breeding ground’ for terrorism, then it is a ground made fertile from a thousand feet by bomb after bomb after bomb.
People don’t just join the Taliban, or Al Qaeda, or the Islamic State, and risk their lives for the sheer hell of it. These groups thrive on destructive and callous actions perpetrated by Western liberal democracies in the name of humanitarianism. It is not difficult to understand why an ordinary Afghan – with family, nation and future ripped from them – would seek revenge. The world’s policemen cannot grasp that what they are fighting is unbeatable. The people who join the Taliban – and, for that matter, most extremist groups – are not fanatics, lunatics, and despots. They are regular people, tired of watching their country ripped to shreds by distant administrations of men who profit from their blood.
Advocates of humanitarian intervention will lament the lives lost to the Taliban’s campaign of revenge. But interventions from the West have done far more to destabilise and destroy nations like Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq than they have done to bring peace and prosperity. We never acted in the interests of ordinary civilians who we have blown to pieces from afar.
“[W]e had to some extent anticipated in the run up to these final days in Kabul that something really difficult would be happening. So, already, a year back, we had started repatriating personnel”.
- French diplomat Xavier Chatel, speaking on Radio 4’s Today, October 2021 (13).
What should we do? There are only two responses left with any merit. The first is to swallow our pride, quash our childish racist tendencies and accept as many Afghan refugees as necessary to come to the West to escape the brutality of the Taliban monster we created. There are certainly countries who saw this crisis coming and prepared appropriately – to our eternal shame, we did not. The second solution? Stop. Stop the eternal interference. Stop bombing, stop funding extremists, stop pontificating from the world stage.
We planted the Taliban seed; fertilised, watered and fed it, watched it grow into a monstrosity. Then we were surprised by its speed and brutality.
“I want to talk about happy things, man… it’s the holiday weekend. I’m going to celebrate it”.
- Joe Biden’s response to a question about US Afghan withdrawal, February 2021.
References and Further Reading
(1): Max Blumenthal, 2019. The Management of Savagery. Verso Books. p18. I highly recommend this book as one of the best accounts of the rise of the Taliban.
(2): Al Jazeera, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/19/infographic-what-afghanistans-new-flag-looks-like-interactive
(3): The Guardian, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/08/afghan-women-to-be-banned-from-playing-sport-taliban-say
(5): BBC, 2021: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-47391821
(6): The Guardian, 2001. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/nov/14/afghanistan.britainand911
(7): Tariq Ali, 2021. The Forty Year War in Afghanistan. Verso Books. p36. All of Ali’s work is magnificent. For more on the idea of ‘Blowback’, check out his collection Rough Music, also published by Verso Books
(8): Anne Brodsky, 2002. ‘Inside Pakistan and Afghanistan with Rawa’. First published on Counterpunch (can be read at: http://www.rawa.org/anne-2.htm), this quote from the version printed in Alexander Cockburn and Jeffery St. Clair’s Imperial Crusades. Verso, 2004.
(11). The Guardian, 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jul/01/afghanistan.afghanistantimeline
(12): Reuters, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-must-not-let-afghanistan-become-safe-haven-terrorists-again-nato-says-2021-08-17/
(13): BBC Radio 4: Today. 07/10/2021. Question to Chatel comes at 1:46:14. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00108gz
(14): Politico, 07/02/2021. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/07/02/biden-july-4-jobs-report-afghanistan-497834