The Repeat Cycle of US Militarism and Western Imperialism in Afghanistan

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, whilst deeply humiliating for the US, is in and of itself not enough to dent US interfering or ambitions in the region argues Faisal Bodi.  Understanding the longer history of the US and its allies meddling in the country is essential if the country and those trying to counter US hegemony in the region want to find a way forward.

The graveyard of empires, Afghanistan, has claimed another victim. As the mighty US military licks its wounds following the lightning Taliban takeover, the world is once again reminded of the fragility of western imperial power. It’s all a stark contrast to the braggadocio and bellicosity that pervaded the White House and Pentagon in the immediate aftermath of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the United States when the neo-liberal dominated administration promised the world a misleadingly framed war on terror that would “drain the swamp” that fed so-called Muslim extremism. Amidst the cacophony of battle cries from seasoned warmongers, egged on by an emotionally charged but cynically exploited public, the voices of reason and restraint warning of dire consequences stood little chance. No one likes a “told-you-so”. Yet here we stand, 20 years later, counting the cost and repeating the same refrains that we did after the debacle of Vietnam. And while we recount the double standards, subterfuges, false pretexts, demonisations and outright lies which informed the military intervention, we remain painfully aware that despite the humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, elsewhere US gunboat diplomacy rumbles on as usual, unimpeded by the lessons of that misadventure.

History of American Intervention

On August 16 2021, in an address to the American people President Biden reiterated the US mission in Afghanistan as an anti-terrorism endeavour necessitated by the attacks of 9/11. Such has the American invasion been framed that the public has been conditioned into believing that US political and military involvement in Afghanistan only started with that provocation. What Biden conveniently failed to mention was that the history of US meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs goes back much further and has contributed to the rise of the forces confronting Washington today, not just in Afghanistan but all over the world.

At the dawn of the 1980’s, Afghanistan found itself the site of a new battleground between the Soviet Union and the West. Soviet forces invaded the country giving rise to a mass insurgency led by an ethnically and politically diverse array of Islamically inspired freedom fighters. In line with the Cold War logic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the US poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan to train and arm the mujahideen. Washington’s efforts would bear fruit eight years later when the mujahideen succeeded in forcing the Soviet Union to withdraw. But it came at a cost. The alliance with the mujahideen was always a marriage of convenience. While they shared a common aim in ousting the USSR, the US was motivated by an imperialist/capitalist desire to achieve and maintain global hegemony while the mujahideen were inspired by religious ideals, particularly Islamic governance, something that would naturally place the two in conflict where Washington was backing secular autocratic, oppressive regimes in the Muslim world.

Unlike the Taliban whose focus was purely domestic and which from the outset was funded (and in some cases it is argued created) by the British, Saudis, the Americans and the Pakistani military (Washington wanted a peaceful country that could house oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and a counterweight to Iran), the ideologues of Al-Qaida had a global outlook.

Under the protection of Pakistani intelligence and under the influence of Arab ideologues like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man accused of planning the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden, spearheaded the transition from a local to a globally focussed jihad that increasingly targeted US interests, such as the destruction of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998, a kamikaze bomb attack against the U.S. warship Cole in Aden, Yemen in 2000 and most spectacularly the aircraft attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001.

It seems unlikely that in supporting the mujahideen, US planners genuinely failed to foresee that they would also be helping to develop the capabilities of their own future enemies. After all, less than a decade earlier they had watched in utter astonishment as ally turned antagonist Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait. Up to that point the despotic military ruler had also been a staunch partner, even fronting a devastating but ultimately unsuccessful proxy war against Iran that aimed to reverse the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Saddam went rogue after he failed to secure western support in a border oil dispute with Kuwait. The subsequent charge to war led by the West to remove his forces from Kuwait followed by 12 years of crippling sanctions designed to punish and weaken Saddam Hussein’s rule exposed the moral bankruptcy of western foreign policy. The bitterness and animosity engendered by those sanctions, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, primarily children, provided a fertile climate for the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, US forces would face increasing hostility from their erstwhile anti-Saddam allies leading to a decision in July 2021 to withdraw combat troops from the country by the end of the year. And in both countries, US military action has failed to achieve its stated objective of preventing them from being used as centres for planning or launching of attacks against the US and its interests. To the contrary, the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq spawned countless reprisals all over the world including the US itself.

US response to 9/11

If the 9/11 attacks were intended to make Washington pause and reflect on its widely detested activities in the Muslim world, they failed abysmally. Rather than see 9/11 as an act of protest, Washington viewed it as a challenge to its global supremacy. Thus, the US response was to stick to its guns and shore up the cracks that had appeared in its global hegemony; in other words, double down on a failed policy. “Regime change”, the act of removing the rulers in Afghanistan and Iraq and replacing them with ones willing to do the US’ bidding, was a big buzzword at the time. Indeed, just hours after the first plane had been crashed into the World Trade Centre, neo-liberal hawks in the US administration including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Defence Policy Board chairman Richard Perle were all clamouring for military action against Iraq, even though it had absolutely no involvement in the attacks. What the warmongers spied was actually a favourable climate that presented an opportunity to widen US militarism unencumbered by judicial checks. On September 14, 2001, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) bill authorizing the president to use military force against those responsible in any way for the attacks of 9/11. The Authorization has served as a carte blanche for the US to use military force.

By 2016, according to the Congressional Research Service, it had been used to justify 37 distinct military operations in 14 different countries and at sea. In short, it was a green light for the US to strike anyone, anywhere.

“The vast majority of the people killed, maimed, or displaced in these operations had nothing to do with the crimes of September 11. Successive administrations have repeatedly ignored the actual wording of the authorization, which only authorized the use of force against those involved in some way in the 9/11 attacks.”

Figures released by civilian harm monitoring group Airwars ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 show that US drone and air strikes alone have killed at least 22,000 civilians and perhaps as many as 48,000 since 2001 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya Pakistan and Somalia. Shockingly, the US itself has never sought to calculate a total of civilian deaths ascribed to actions under its aegis according to Airwars. In 2019, research published by the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs found that more than 801,000 people had died as a direct result of fighting in the US-led war on terror. Of those, more than 335,000 were civilians. Another 21 million people had been displaced due to violence. 9/11 has also been an excuse for the US to extend its military power overseas. Neta Crawford, who authored the study wrote that the post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria have expanded to more than 80 countries and cost the US taxpayer $6.4 trillion. The irony that in prosecuting an open-ended war against Muslim adversaries the world’s most powerful army was killing civilians while claiming to be saving and liberating them (especially women) was lost on few.

Global consequences of the war on terror

The so-called war on terror also degraded and undermined international law to a degree perhaps not seen since the Second World War. The joint US/British attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 was carried out unilaterally without even the cover of a UN resolution authorising force. They dismissed efforts by Afghanistan’s rulers, the Taliban, to avoid conflict rejecting an offer to supply evidence so that the suspects could be arrested and tried in an Afghan court. They also rejected an offer by the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden to a third country if the bombings stopped. In December 2001, the Taliban’s spokesman even offered an unconditional surrender, which was rejected by the United States which continued pounding fighters and civilians alike, despite a Pakistan brokered agreement to allow the Taliban to retreat to their villages and the US to install a leader of its choice in Kabul.  Washington threatened to bomb Afghanistan’s neighbour, Pakistan, back to the Stone Age if it didn’t comply with demands such as turning over border posts and bases to US forces, forcing Islamabad to abandon its support for the Taliban government in Kabul and allow US overflights of Pakistan. The Bagram airfield which served as the largest US military base in Afghanistan became a byword for torture where those caught in the US dragnet would be routinely subjected to violence and abused under so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” authorised by the US Department of Justice.

It mirrored Guantanamo Bay, the detention facility in Cuba, where suspects were transported and held without charge or trial. Those captured were classified as enemy combatants and thereby immediately flung into a legal no man’s land where fundamental protections did not apply. Over 700 people have passed through Guantanamo Bay with the majority eventually released without charge. Some 39 inmates remain, dubbed “forever prisoners”. Then there was Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where reports of torture first surfaced to alert the world to the real face of the war on terror. According to the Red Cross, between 70-90% of those passing through its walls in the first year after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq were mistakenly detained with many subjected to physical and sexual abuse, torture, rape and sodomy. Those who managed to avoid these facilities became victims of “extraordinary rendition”, whereby they would be taken by the US friendly countries to be incarcerated and tortured. Some 54 countries cooperated in what was effectively an organised kidnapping campaign.

The unilateralism displayed by the US and the abuses it has carried out has given other oppressive regimes a green light to wage their own internal wars against dissent. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defined Uighur resistance as part of the worldwide “terrorism” emergency and not as a local issue of “separatism” as it used to in the past. Israel redefined the occupation of Palestine as its own war against terror. In Myanmar the de-facto ruling generals used the ‘war on terror’ to sanitise violence against the Rohingya. Egypt’s military leader has similarly invoked the war on terror to justify imprisoning and silencing the opposition. In the same vein, India’s hard-line nationalist leaders framed the Kashmir freedom struggle as a terrorist scourge. These are just a few examples and by no means an exhaustive list.

At the same time as countries were tearing up international law, they were also rewriting their own statute books to extend executive power and criminalise dissent, especially of the Islamist kind. Britain presents a case in point. In the wake of 9/11, the UK government hastily rushed the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA) through parliament (these were in addition to two highly controversial pieces of anti-terror legislation enacted since New Labour’s rise to power in 1997). It confers greater powers on law enforcement authorities to counter terrorism but severely limits civil liberties and human rights. In 2003, Parliament voted in the Extradition Act which gave authorities the power to approve extradition requests from designated states for UK residents without the need for the receiving jurisdiction to provide any prima facie evidence. The Act has been widely employed to remove from the UK Muslim dissidents and activists whose presence the government deems undesirable. After the right to hold suspects without trial, brought into force by the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, was struck down in 2004 by the House of Lords as incompatible with Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, Parliament wasted little time in replacing it with the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. Its defining feature was that it substituted internment with control orders that allowed for restrictions to be imposed on the movements, associations and communications of terrorism suspects (whether British or ‘foreign’ nationals). None of these legislative tools were successful in deterring the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks on London commuters (in fact the heightened sense of grievance they created may even have been a contributing factor to the attacks). In their aftermath Parliament rushed through the Terrorism Act 2006, which widened the definition of terrorism to include expressing support for the use of violence to achieve political objectives. Under its terms it was now illegal to call for the violent overthrow of an oppressive military dictatorship or to support an armed insurgency. The Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 unsuccessfully attempted to extend the pre-charge detention period from 28 to 42 days. However, the Act introduced more prohibitions including on the publication of material that could compromise the security of British security services and armed forces at home or abroad. It was followed in 2010 by the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act which made it possible for the executive to designate as terrorist individuals or entities they “reasonably believe” to have been involved in terrorism. The act does not require that the person or entity be charged, convicted or even arrested for terrorist offences.

Running parallel to the enactment of legislation has been an exercise of ‘soft power’ by successive British governments to engineer a change in the political attitudes of Britain’s Muslims. After the 2005 London attacks, the government set up a Preventing Extremism Taskforce tasked with drawing up a strategy aimed, it was said, at winning the hearts and minds of Muslims by promoting a narrative that would counter extremist violence carried out in the name of Islam. Those discussions culminated in the birth of CONTEST, and within it the PREVENT programme, the so-called community engagement component of this four-pronged counter terrorism strategy. PREVENT was predicated on the idea that British Muslim society lacked an effective counter narrative to ‘extremist’ ideological positions that were proving increasingly appealing to young Muslims affronted and angered by the effect on their co-religionists of western governments’ foreign policies, in particular the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Tapping into widespread British Muslim revulsion to the London attacks it claimed to seek to build a consensus around defeating the extremist narrative. However, over time PREVENT has been exposed as a surveillance tool and has expanded into a detested social engineering exercise seeking to liberalise Muslims and make them compliant to the state.

The US also expanded executive power immensely in the aftermath of 9/11. Just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the “USA/Patriot Act” that vastly expanded the government’s authority to spy on its own citizens, while simultaneously reducing checks and balances on those powers like judicial oversight, public accountability, and the ability to challenge government searches in court. “Most of the changes to surveillance law made by the Patriot Act were part of a longstanding law enforcement wish list that had been previously rejected by Congress, in some cases repeatedly. Congress reversed course because it was bullied into it by the Bush Administration in the frightening weeks after the September 11 attack”, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In the 10 years after the Patriot Act, only 1% of cases using its “sneak and peek provision” were terrorism related. In 2002, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bringing immigration under the umbrella of national security, furnishing the authorities with a legal basis to profile and target minorities, mainly Muslims.

In fact, Islamophobia has been a key driver of policy in western states post 9/11. With Muslims increasingly perceived and labelled as “the enemy within”, 9/11 spawned a huge multi-million-dollar industry led by well-financed think tanks in the US pursuing neocon interests whose goal is to undermine Islam and Muslim political causes. It provided the racist right and far right with a new punchbag and legitimised discrimination against Muslim minorities in many countries. Fanned by an equally Islamophobic mainstream media, European states scrambled to ban women from wearing the hijab in public. Security panics were engineered over Islamic institutions, with governments seeking to control religious teaching and organisation. Governments the world over poured funds into new organisations they created to lead Muslims from their “disloyal conservativism” to compliant liberalism.

Conclusion Just as it was in the early 20th century, the failure of imperial powers to leave Afghanistan to hew its own course in the world has brought it untold suffering and damage. However, the fallout has not been confined to the borders of this landlocked mountain nation. Instead of a eliminating a single identifiable threat, the “war on terror” waged in the name of imperialism spawned dozens of new attacks and militant groups all over the world. It degraded the global human rights architecture creating a free for all where states could ignore international law and launch attacks in sovereign nations at will. It eroded domestic civil liberties under the pretext of national security, extending executive power to dangerous levels. It gave a boost to Islamophobia, legitimising attacks on Muslims on all levels and rendering them second class citizens where they form minorities. It diminished the value of life by killing and maiming many hundreds of thousands of people. Over the past 20 years alone, the US has spent $8 trillion on the “war on terror” according to the Costs of War project at Brown University. But regardless of the cost, it would be wishful thinking to expect the US to change course. The militarism to which the US has nailed its colours since the end of the Second World War will continue regardless of the failure of the “war on terror”. As of July 2021 the US still had around 750 bases in at least 80 countries with about 173,000 troops deployed in 159 countries (the actual number may be even higher as not all data is published by the Pentagon.) Afghanistan may have dented US pride but it is unlikely to change its foreign policy.