On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Chris Nineham assesses the war on Afghanistan and 20 years of military interventions it was used to justify
Twenty years on from the tragedy of 9/11, the images of the chaotic cut and run from Afghanistan have exposed a deep crisis in Western foreign policy.
The media has concentrated on the shambolic nature of the withdrawal. This revealed a failure of intelligence and the complete inability of the occupying powers to understand the situation on the ground. Just a few weeks before the Taliban victory, experts were insisting that the Afghan National Army would be able to hold the Taliban back for months, maybe longer.
But despite endless coverage and commentary, the commentators, the military and politicians have not been able to face the obvious more general conclusions from the whole debacle.
First, they cannot admit the fact that the occupation has been a complete failure. Whatever Joe Biden or Boris Johnson say, the US-led coalition invaded twenty years ago to 'liberate' Afghanistan from the Taliban. The reality is that the Taliban have now chased them out of the country.
Supporters of the invasion claim that there were 'advances' in the country under occupation. The facts suggest otherwise. Not only have at least 240,000 people died as a direct result of the intervention but the Western onslaught degraded the infrastructure and decimated an economy already ravaged by war. A UN report published this year describes "a shocking picture of escalating suffering, hunger and danger". It found that 18.4 million people are in humanitarian need, which is around half the population and that Afghanistan now has the second highest number of people in emergency food insecurity in the world. Claims have been made about improvements in healthcare, but Afghanistan currently spends just 0.6 percent of its GDP on health against a South Asian average of 5 percent.
A small minority of women saw some improvements in their lives. Overall, however, the occupation has been a disaster for women as it has for the vast majority of the population. Afghan women today have the lowest literacy rate in the world, and the worst comparison with that of men. Among Afghans aged 15-24, 50 percent of men are literate compared to just 18 percent of women. Afghan women have one of the highest rates of mortality in childbirth anywhere in the world. and their life expectancy is just 44.
Second, they can’t face the fact that this failure was not the result of strategic blunders but the inevitable outcome of the whole project and of the idea of humanitarian intervention in general.
The 'victory' of 2001 involved a massive bombing operation to back northern warlords against the Taliban. A secret deal was brokered by the Pakistani Security Services which brought the fighting to an end and allowed the Taliban safe haven. The occupation that followed drew the Western forces into a mopping up operation of supposed Taliban supporters. The resulting snatch squads, interrogations and drone and bomb attacks led to civilian casualties and growing anger against the occupiers.
The Karzai government was widely and correctly seen as the creature of the West and developed little support beyond its warlord base. His undemocratic, western financed regime was quickly mired in corruption.
The Taliban was the one organisation that consistently opposed the foreign occupiers. From 2006 anti-occupation feeling was such that they were able to rebuild their networks and step up resistance. It was clear that the occupiers were losing. But at the end of 2009 Obama escalated with a massive troop surge effectively accepting that the occupation was based on force. How could this possibly have ended well?
The Afghan disaster was of course just the longest in a series of catastrophic recent Western military interventions. The invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Syria and Libya were each presented as attempts to liberate a population from tyranny. In reality, each has deepened the crisis and the carnage in the countries targeted. The attacks have helped generate a series of failed states across the regions affected. One of the results has been an unprecedented displacement of people in the region and beyond that the media call a ‘refugee crisis’.
Another unremarked result has been a dramatic spread in terrorist organisation. In 2001 jihadi terrorism had little presence beyond Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the country of origin of fifteen of those involved in the 9/11 attacks. Since the launch of the war terrorist organisation has spread across an arc stretching from Central Asia through the Middle East and deep into Sub Saharan Africa.
Rarely can a military strategy have failed so completely.
All of this was predicted by the anti-war movement which held its first demonstration in November 2001- at the time the biggest British anti-war demonstration since Vietnam – in protest at the invasion of Afghanistan. From that point onwards the movement regularly mobilised hundreds of thousands against the wars. On 15 February 2003 an estimated two million marched against the invasion of Iraq. Unlike the majority of politicians, ‘experts’ and commentators, most people understood that the wars would create immense suffering and misery, increase anger against the West and would be bound to make the world a much more dangerous place.
What lessons will be learned in the corridors of power? There is much talk of a recalibration of Western military policy. Joe Biden has already announced the end of what he laughingly called ‘nation building’. Unfortunately this is unlikely to mean a turn away from foreign military action.
The wars were never fundamentally about bringing progress, liberation or democracy or even dealing with terrorists. Their neoconservative boosters may have had fantasies about implanting western values by force of arms but the underlying driver was the concern to extend and secure US control and influence in the most strategically important regions of the world. This imperative remains, especially for a president fond of the tagline ‘America is back’.
There are other reasons to worry. In the short term, all sides in the US foreign policy debate are going to be concerned that the debacle in Afghanistan makes the US look weak. The pressure to act tough over Iran or Ukraine for example will grow. In the longer term the instability created by the wars themselves will continue to create events that demand action in the eyes of the US foreign policy establishment.
Most importantly, the global power of the US is under threat for the first time since the Cold War by an ascendant China. China is set to overtake the US in global production and it is already the main trader with more countries around the world than the US. Although it still lags way behind the US militarily, it is arming at speed, and already has more battleships than the US.
China’s challenge puts a premium on US military power projection around the world. The British establishment remains desperate to be junior partner in this enterprise. While the Tories continue to bang the drum for their fantasy ‘Global Britain’, Tony Blair insists that humanitarian interventionism is crucial in a more and more unstable world and the Labour front bench appears to agree. Such is the British eagerness for confrontation that US officials had to order the UK flotilla sailing to the South China seas to dial down on its provocations.
In this dangerous situation anti-war opinion and mobilisation remains crucial. The anti-war argument may have been excluded from the mainstream debate over Afghanistan, but it has helped to win the case against foreign wars over the last two decades.
The movement too has already limited the options available to the warmongers. Even the most extreme hawks in Whitehall and Washington are well aware that attempting another boots-on-the-ground operation like Afghanistan or Iraq would be political . They would face opposition on a scale even greater than that over Iraq. But the bombing, the drone attacks, the proxy wars and the provocations continue. New propaganda angles are constantly developed to justify interventions. The anti-war movement must stay strong, clear and organised. Our future depends on it.
Come and see:
No! 20 Years of Stop the War: A Visual Retrospective
Bow Arts Nunnery Gallery, London
8th-19th September, 10am - 4pm
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Saturday 18th September, 2pm - 5pm
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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