By John Newsinger
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The Afghan disaster—made by Western imperialism

Historian of British empire, John Newsinger, has no time for politicians' crocodile tears over Afghanistan

US soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan (Pic: The US Army on Flickr)

Britain, according to Tory prime minister Boris Johnson, can be “extremely proud” of its role in Afghanistan since the Western invasion in 2001. He made this claim as a resurgent Taliban overran the country and US and British authorities scrambled to evacuate their remaining forces from the capital Kabul. 

At the very same time, defence secretary Ben Wallace was making it clear that the fiasco was all the US’s fault. He claimed that Britain had actually tried to put together a coalition to continue the fight without the US, only to be let down by its allies. 

Wallace has previously argued that Britain has to be ready to fight wars on its own without the US, presumably as part of its new “global presence” after Brexit. Given the sorry state of the British military, this is of course absolutely laughable. 

But what has been the response of the Labour Party? Keir Starmer has also made clear how “proud” he is of Britain’s role in the country and regrets the US decision to pull its remaining troops out. The Labour leader declared that Britain “can’t walk away” and called for the government “to step up and lead”. He has stopped short—at least at the time of writing—of calling for a renewed military commitment. 

Their main concern is not the safety and security of the Afghan people. What we are seeing from the politicians, retired generals and much of the media are just crocodile tears. Their overriding concern is to avoid any responsibility for what has been a protracted, 20 year-long disaster. 

If you believe what the politicians are saying today, British troops invaded Afghanistan to protect women’s rights and the safety of the Afghan people, bringing prosperity, democracy and good governance. This is just so much propaganda. As one senior British intelligence officer put it, it is “always helpful for governments who want to get the Guardian readers of the world on board to have a humanitarian logic”. 

Let us be absolutely clear though—concern for women’s rights, democracy and good governance has never ever guided British foreign and defence policy. 

The concerns have always been strategic and economic. And these concerns have, of course, often involved supporting and allying with regimes that brutally oppress women, that are cruel murderous tyrannies and wholly corrupt. Saudi Arabia immediately springs to mind. And neither the British nor US governments have ever had any problem with supporting Islamist insurgencies when it has been in their interests. Afghanistan, when it was under Russian occupation in the 1980s, is a good example.  

Why then were British troops sent into Afghanistan? This was, it is worth remembering, Britain’s fourth invasion of that country. 

The initial US intervention in Afghanistan was supposedly a response to the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. In fact, the “War on Terror” was always an ideological construct, a propaganda ploy to disguise the real US motives at this time. As far as then US president George Bush’s administration was concerned, 9/11 provided a golden opportunity to establish US dominance over the Middle East.

While the US remained the world’s only military superpower after the Cold War, it faced growing economic competition from rising powers, such as China. US planners hoped to overcome this relative economic decline through brute military force. By asserting its authority over Iraq and the Middle East—an area with vast oil reserves—it wanted to outdo its competitors and make clear its global hegemony. Bush wanted to start in Iraq, then move on to Syria and Iran. 

But Iraq had played no part in the 9/11 attack and the claims that it possessed weapons of mass destruction were—as we all knew at the time—lies. The invasion in 2003 was an unprovoked Imperialist aggression, based on lies and justified as part of the “War on Terror”. The country where most of the 9/11 attackers and al-Qaeda’s leadership originated, Saudi Arabia, was the US’s ally and cheered on the invasion. 

While the priority was invading and occupying Iraq, clearly something had to be done about al-Qaeda leader Bin Laden, who was holed up in Afghanistan. For the Bush administration, however, this was very much a side issue of no real concern.

The Labour government of Tony Blair was, at this time, determined to establish itself as US imperialism’s closest and most reliable ally. The maintenance and strengthening of the “special relationship” was the government’s overriding foreign policy concern. Although Blair did also enthusiastically support Bush’s commitment to taking over and reshaping the Middle East. 

Indeed, in his memoirs, published as late as 2010, he still regretted that the US had not gone on to overthrow the regimes in Syria and Iran. Blair was also clear that the special relationship had a “blood price”. As he put it, the US had to know that you would “be there when the shooting starts”. And, of course, the “blood price” would be paid by other people, while he and his New Labour cronies got rich—some of them, including himself, incredibly rich.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was overthrown comparatively effortlessly in a matter of weeks towards the end of 2001. The CIA spooks, together with a small contingent of US special forces, joined up with a 15,000-strong army put together by the drug traffickers and warlords of the Northern Alliance. Massive bribery played a vital part in this operation. And they were supported by overwhelming US air power. 

Taliban fighters were harried by helicopter gunships and literally obliterated by giant 15,000 pound bombs. They were driven into hiding or across the border into Pakistan. Bin Laden escaped with them. The Afghan distraction had been dealt with so that the Bush administration could get on with establishing US domination over the Middle East. 

In fact, what the US had done, was establish in power a wholly corrupt regime dominated by drug traffickers. It was as if the US had invaded Columbia to instal the drug cartels in power. Under the Taliban, opium production had been drastically curbed. By 2001 only some 185 tons was produced, mainly in the areas controlled by the Northern Alliance. By 2007, opium production had soared under the newly installed “narco-stat”’ to 8,200 tons. Even today perhaps 90 percent of the world’s heroin originates in Afghanistan.

The puppet regime of Hamid Karzai was totally corrupt. It ruthlessly pillaged the Afghan people, international aid agencies and its allies, producing an inevitable surge in support for the Taliban. The result was that within a few years much of the country was falling to the rebels and the survival of the regime was under threat. The Blair government offered to send more British troops in to help defeat the resurgent Taliban.

Labour had committed 46,000 troops to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Saddam Hussein regime was easily defeated, crushed by overwhelming US technological superiority. More than 40,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed, while the Allied fatalities were 197. The British suffered 33 fatalities and many of these were the result of US friendly fire. This was more of a technological massacre than a war. 

Once the country was occupied, however, a guerrilla war broke out. It would eventually see the British humiliatingly driven out of Basra and the US forced to concede control of the country to people it regarded as hostile. The invasion had not just been a catastrophe for the people of Iraq—it had also been a strategic disaster for US Imperialism and a defeat for the British Army.

Blair’s offer to send troops to Afghanistan was made at a time when the situation in Iraq was already seriously deteriorating. The British were increasingly unable to cope with the insurgency. There seems to have been a number of motives behind this decision. The main concern was, as always, to maintain the “special Relationship”. But there was also the hope that having failed in Iraq, Britain might redeem itself in US eyes in Afghanistan. 

Moreover, the war in Iraq had always been unpopular. But the Afghan intervention could be much more easily dressed up as a humanitarian exercise, with women’s rights to the fore. To be fair to the government, it is clear that they were also misled by the army high command. The generals were desperate to have troops in the field and deliberately understated both the numbers required to be effective and the cost. They needed troops shooting people somewhere in their continual battle for funding with the Royal Navy and the RAF.

The result was another humiliating disaster for the British Army. The Labour government was not prepared to put in the necessary resources to make good its commitment to pacify Helmand province. It left the troops exposed and vulnerable. They were eventually rescued by the US. Britain suffered military humiliation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, something successfully concealed from the bulk of the British people by an alliance of politicians, generals and the media. 

But why did the US, with all its resources, fail so disastrously? There are a number of factors involved. But crucial was the nature of the Afghan regime. Even when US troops and resources were poured in and the Taliban were forced into retreat, the corrupt and oppressive government inevitably provoked a Taliban resurgence. 

Sarah Chayes worked for the International Security and Assistance Force, to give the Occupation its official title. She bluntly described the Afghan government as “a vertically integrated criminal organisation…whose core activity was not in fact exercising the functions of a state but rather extracting resources for personal gain”. 

General David Petraeus, who commanded US forces in the country in 2010-2011, actually described the government he was keeping in power as a ‘criminal syndicate’. Another Nato employee labelled it a “thuggish mafia state”. 

Why was nothing done about this even though they recognised it was strengthening the Taliban, acting as a “force multiplier”? According to Chayes, the CIA effectively blocked any attempts by the US to curb corruption. And that’s because they believed corruption enabled them to keep control of the regime with Karzai himself supposedly being paid millions of dollars in bribes by the agency. Hilariously, when Karzi was finally forced for public relations reasons to appoint someone to root out corruption, it was Izzatullah Wasifi. He had once been arrested in Las Vegas, trying to sell heroin worth $2 million. 

The scale and extent of the corruption is truly breathtaking. The aid budget was pillaged to the tune of billions of dollars, shipped out of the country for investment abroad. In 2011 alone, some $4.6 billion left the country for the Emirates, New York and London.  In Afghanistan every government post was up for sale from ministers and senior officials down to rank and file police officers. The expectation was that their investment would be repaid many times over by means of bribery, intimidation and theft. The most expensive posts were inevitably in the field of counter-narcotics with senior posts costing as much as $200,000 a year. Obviously, because this was where the biggest bribes were being paid. 

The Afghan Army was similarly riddled with corruption with officers buying their positions and recouping the expense by a variety of frauds. Logistics was the most lucrative field with senior officers routinely becoming millionaires. Throughout the army, troops went unpaid, even unfed, as their officers stole the money. The number of troops in a unit was routinely exaggerated with the officers collecting the pay of non-existent soldiers. And equipment, including vehicles, weapons and ammunition, was sold off. One notorious scandal involved wounded Afghan soldiers being left to starve in hospital because the money to pay for their food had been siphoned off. 

The troops themselves often pillaged the local population to make up their pay, even to feed themselves. The  current collapse of the Afghan Army, much of which only existed on paper anyway, in the face of a resurgent Taliban should have surprised no one. Corrupt officers fled, abandoning their troops, who promptly fled or surrendered. Similarly the police routinely pillaged the locals. They demanded bribes and even took hostages, only releasing them after payment. The police were also notorious for the rape of women and boys. On one occasion, British troops had actually suggested that the best way to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people would be to shoot the police. And many Afghan troops and police were opium addicts. This is the regime the British government has been supporting and helped keep in power.

One last point worth making concerns the cost of the occupation. Writing in 2011, Frank Ledwidge, estimated the cost of the war as being over £27 billion and rising. Other estimates price the conflict as getting on for £40 billion. Taking Ledwidge’s conservative figure, this works out at £15 million a day—or as he puts it, the cost of funding 15 primary schools for a year every day. 

On top of that the British suffered 475 fatalities, and some 5,700 wounded—Blair’s “blood price”. There is no accurate or reliable figure for the number of Afghans, men, women and children, killed by British and US forces in the fighting. And as for the loudly trumpeted concern with women’s rights? If this was anything more than an empty propaganda exercise, then the British government would be opening our borders to those trying to flee the resurgent Taliban.

With the Taliban in charge, politicians and pundits are now demanding “something must be done”. But it’s those same people who are responsible for the Afghan disaster, a disaster made by Western imperialism. 

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