Another “humanitarian intervention” collapses in Afghanistan

Australia’s Afghanistan commitment contributed to “millions of Afghan girls receiving an education, women being able to work, a vibrant and free press, and improved protection for minority groups”, according to an open letter signed by 307 organisations and over 9000 “academics, community leaders, human rights advocates, lawyers, doctors, writers, engineers, artists, students and civil society representatives.”  

The Taliban’s swift takeover of most of Afghanistan has prompted much hand-wringing over the Biden administration’s “betrayal” of its Afghan allies and the failure of yet another US “nation-building” effort.   

Former British PM Tony Blair lamented a lost opportunity to construct a liberal democracy in Central Asia. He urged Western governments to wave the stick of economic sanctions to force the Taliban to preserve “education for girls”.  

The Taliban’s misogyny was often cited to justify the 20-year military occupation. Yet, from the late 1970s, the US funded and armed the Taliban’s fundamentalist predecessor, the mujaheddin, against a leftist government that promoted the rights of women and minorities. Today, Western governments show no desire to uphold women’s rights in Syria’s Idlib province, where the ruling al-Qaeda franchise is openly admitted to be a “US asset”.  

In Australia, it wasn’t only the foreign policy establishment that, intentionally or otherwise, framed the occupation as a humanitarian mission that delivered major social gains.  

Australia’s Afghanistan commitment contributed to “millions of Afghan girls receiving an education, women being able to work, a vibrant and free press, and improved protection for minority groups”, according to an open letter signed by 307 organisations and over 9000 “academics, community leaders, human rights advocates, lawyers, doctors, writers, engineers, artists, students and civil society representatives.”  

The letter – which also mentioned atrocities committed by Australian troops as documented in the Brereton Report last year – called on the Morrison government to take in more Afghan refugees.   

The letter bore many signatories from the refugee lobby, which rarely makes the link between growing numbers of refugees and the US drive to control and remake the world – what former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr called the effort “to entrench American global dominance.”  

Women, minority ethnic groups and non-Sunni Muslims do have reason to fear Taliban rule. While its leadership claims to have embraced a more pluralist, inclusive approach since the days when they harboured Bin Laden, the Taliban are not a monolithic force and may prove to be as reactionary and sectarian as they ever were.   

The Taliban are mostly Pashtun, the biggest ethnic group, but smaller groups such as Hazara, Tajiks and Uzbeks together form a majority of the population. It’s worth noting that none of them acted to oppose the Taliban’s rapid advance. This appears to be a consequence of negotiations between the Taliban, other Afghan groups and Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Iran. The Taliban will find it hard to consolidate control without some degree of power-sharing with other groups. 

The Australian open letter claimed the Taliban takeover had “instilled fear and insecurity impacting all Afghans”. This view aligned with media reports from Kabul which gave voice to urban middle-class Afghans. They are often university educated, globally connected, in tune with the latest Western fads – unlike the fundamentalist “bumpkins” of the Taliban.  

However, the Taliban obviously has deep roots among much of the population. Three quarters of Afghans live in rural villages and almost 60% of the population is illiterate. The countryside has endured 20 years of US bombing, drone strikes, military operations and CIA-run death squads that targeted children. Rural revulsion against US bombing and other military excesses strengthened the Taliban’s support base just as it fuelled the rise of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, a US study found.  

About 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and associated Pakistan war zones since the US invasion in 2001, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. More than 71,000 of the dead were civilians – a highly conservative estimate that excludes deaths caused by “disease, loss of access to food, water, infrastructure, and/or other indirect consequences of the war.” Afghanistan is also contaminated with unexploded ordnance, which kills and injures  tens of thousands of Afghans, especially children, the study adds. 

As President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan with a helicopter stuffed with cash, many Western commentators blamed Afghani corruption for the US failure. In fact, the occupation can be seen as a joint criminal enterprise between the Afghan elite and the US military contract system. 

The United States spent more than US$2 trillion (US$2,261,000,000,000) on the occupation. The US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) examined US$63 billion of this spending and concluded that about US$19 billion or almost 30%  “was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.” At that rate, fraud-related losses to the US taxpayer during the entire occupation would total an astonishing US$600 billion. 

One of the biggest US contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq, Dyncorp, was unable to account for US$1 billion supposedly spent training the Iraqi police force. As Donald Trump said, Defence Department chiefs want to keep waging wars in order to keep defence contractors “happy”. 

The development economist Jeffrey Sachs estimates that “probably far less than 2% (of US spending on Afghanistan) reached the Afghan people in the form of basic infrastructure or poverty-reducing services.”  How likely, then, were Afghans to accept the Western conceit that the war was about lifting them out of poverty and ignorance rather than using them as a geo-strategic pawn?   

Some war advocates such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin have fessed up to what Afghanistan was always about: keeping a military presence in Central Asia to weaken Russia and China. Retired US army colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said the occupation had nothing to do with fighting terrorism or building democracy. Its main goals were to maintain US bases within striking distance of both the Chinese road network through Central Asia and the Pakistani nuclear arsenal – and to facilitate any anti-China operation using Uighurs.  

Afghanistan borders China’s Xinjiang province and an estimated 20,000 Uighurs from Xinjiang are reportedly engaged on the jihadist side in Idlib. China will now seek assurances that the Taliban will stop the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an al-Qaeda affiliate which seeks a Uighur state in Xinjiang, from using Afghanistan as a base to attack China.  

At the time of writing, the US and allies were talking about freezing billions of dollars in Afghan government reserves and imposing economic sanctions on the Taliban. If a new Afghan government achieves effective national reach, it will likely look to its neighbours such as China, Russia and Iran for investment and trade. Iran already sells gas to Afghanistan and China wants to mine the country’s resources including lithium and rare earths, bauxite, copper, and iron ore.  

There will likely be less foreign meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi advised US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a recent  phone call, the US failure in Afghanistan shows it is “difficult to gain a foothold in a country with a completely different history, culture and national conditions by mechanically copying foreign models”.  

As Wang told Blinken, such lessons deserve serious reflection.  The West’s modern-day missionaries claim the right of “humanitarian intervention” to endorse wars that destroy sovereign states and impoverish their populations, as in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. How many will heed the lessons of Afghanistan? 


*Chris Ray is a freelance journalist.

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