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What Afghanistan’s Saigon moment teaches us about America’s ‘humanitarian wars’

They cite women’s rights, regional stability and anti-terrorism as reasons the US should have remained in Afghanistan. But those were the very reasons cited for starting the war in the first place, back in 2001. How many more decades do they expect the world to be held hostage to the narratives of ‘the humanitarian war’? It’s now, at the end of the US’s longest war, that we must reflect on the past 20 years, and consider how it was that those false “humanitarian” narratives led us to this point.

Some of the most grave human rights violations occurred at the very onset of the war.

In the first months, the US dropped thousands of yellow cluster bombs around Afghan villages. They resembled aid packages – also yellow. Children would rush to collect what they believed to be food, only to end up dead after picking up and setting off an explosive device. 

In an incident now known as ‘the convoy of death’, Taliban fighters who surrendered to the Afghan Northern Alliance were stuffed into sealed shipping containers and allowed to asphyxiate as they were driven across the desert – allegedly under the watchful eye of the CIA. 

The list of US war crimes grew as the years went by. Reports emerged that US soldiers were killing civilians and allegedly keeping their body parts as souvenirs. Thanks to the bravery of former British Army major turned Australian army lawyer David McBride, who leaked secret documents, we learnt that Australian special forces had a similar kill team operating in Afghanistan.

One of the strongest narratives that sold the war on Afghanistan to the public was what removing the Taliban could do for women’s rights. But the notion that the US had any real interest in women’s rights is ludicrous, since, in the first place, it was the US that helped the Taliban take control of Afghanistan away from the Soviet-backed secular government.

In 2001, when the former Islamist commanders from the days of the anti-Soviet insurgency came to power, ‘bacha bazi’ – a practice linked with the oppression of women’s rights and child sex abuse that had been outlawed by the Taliban – became common again. American soldiers were reportedly instructed not to intervene, not even when their Afghan allies abused boys on US military bases. In fact, in 2010, a WikiLeaks cable revealed that American mercenaries in the employ of DynCorp paid to bring bacha bazi boys onto a military base to dance for Afghan commanders. 

Afghan women deserve rights, but not through US occupation.

And, while we’re talking about rights abuses, what about the rights of American soldiers? How many young men were buried in pursuit of this ill-fated war? Many who survived face a lifetime of pain or mental illness. Veterans are twice as likely as the average American to die from an overdose using opioids – which, ironically, likely originated in Afghanistan. 

According to the US military, 90% of the world’s heroin is made from Afghan opium. In 2000, the Taliban outlawed its cultivation, but after the US invasion, there was record-high production year after year. The US effectively turned Afghanistan into a narco-state. Even the longest-running US-backed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, had a brother who was a drug lord and allegedly on the CIA’s payroll. It is perhaps no coincidence that the US is now facing one of the deadliest opioid epidemics in a century.

In order to buy into the notion that the US pull-out will be a threat to peace and stability in the region, we would first have to believe the occupation of Afghanistan was a source of peace and stability. The reality is, in the past 20 years, not a day went by without violence, and it has left Afghanistan in ruins. The invasion was sold as a way to defeat Al-Qaeda in the War on Terror, but instead, we saw the rise of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) across the Middle East and an increase in terrorist activity across the globe. Again, if the US were serious about defeating terrorism, it wouldn’t be backing Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria.

There is no reason to believe that America’s goals in Afghanistan had anything to do with maintaining stability. Although the US military has pulled out, that may, in fact, be part of Washington’s calculus to cause instability from afar – a cheaper alternative to the occupation. After all, as it pivots towards a confrontation with China, the US needs to retain its resources. China’s volatile Xinjiang province shares a border with Afghanistan. It would want to avoid any instability that could mean militants flowing over that border. Perhaps the US hopes to draw China into the graveyard of empires.

No one has a higher stake in maintaining Afghanistan’s stability than its neighbours – in particular, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Russia. After 40 years of conflict, the Taliban is now decidedly more pragmatic in its dealings with all of them. Russia, in spite of its own history of war in Afghanistan, has decided to normalise relations with the Taliban in the interests of stability. Iran, which had its share of animosity towards the formerly anti-Shi’ite Taliban, hosted peace talks with the militants and the US-backed Afghan government. China, too, has had its issues with the Taliban, as members of its Uighur minority have previously crossed the border to join Al-Qaeda and fight alongside them. The Taliban has promised not to intervene in China’s Uighur issue and, in return, China has offered to build Afghanistan’s infrastructure and bring it out of an era of ruin into an era of economic prosperity. That’s something else the decades of US control failed to accomplish.

Whatever may come next, as the last Chinook takes off from the US Embassy, Afghans finally have the ability to decide their own destiny. May we all stop to think twice when next the neocons spin a humanitarian narrative to breach the sovereignty of a nation.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2021, paradox. All rights reserved.

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