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Kabul – a catastrophe 20 years in the making

Stop the War Coalition convener LINDSEY GERMAN assesses the humiliating end to 20 years of the US-led war on Afghanistan

THIS was a defeat 20 years in the making. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was never going to succeed in its stated aims of eradicating the threat of terrorism and building a peaceful and prosperous society. 

Instead, as the nascent Stop the War movement argued at the time, the war would make the threat of terrorism worse. It would not improve the lives of millions of Afghans. It would be seen as an imperialist adventure and would be opposed by large numbers of the population. 

The validity of all these points have been demonstrated in the past weeks, as the Taliban has routed its opponents time and again and is now set to form a government. 

Former president Ashraf Ghani has fled the country and the scenes at Kabul airport show a society in collapse. 

The question that few in the media or government seem prepared to ask or answer is how come, 20 years after the Taliban was defeated, after the US alone has spent over $1 trillion on the war and after two decades of lip service towards democracy and human rights. 

The answer goes back to the nature of the war itself. The initial war was declared a great success: an alliance of Western forces behind the US invaded the country in response to the attacks of 9/11. The Taliban government was quickly overrun and fled. 

BBC correspondent John Simpson entered Kabul on a British tank declaring victory for the allies. We heard stories of women throwing off their burkas in celebration. 

The reality was very different. The US and Britain intervened on one side of an ongoing civil war, backing the Taliban’s opponents, the Northern Alliance. It was easy to overthrow the government and establish a pro-Western one. 

However successive governments were corrupt, money supposed to go for social and economic development was siphoned off for personal profit of the politicians and those close to them. Spending on infrastructure was negligible compared to the vast amounts spent on the military. Most Afghan women continued to wear the burka. 

Resentment towards the occupation, the very high levels of civilian deaths, and the failings of government, all grew and the Taliban regrouped within a few years. Its support was at least in part because it was identified with fighting the occupiers for national sovereignty. 

It was obvious more than a decade ago that the war was lost. Casualties of occupying soldiers were quite high. Afghanistan remained one of the poorest countries in the world, desperately needing development in areas such as agriculture, and is now the biggest source of the opium poppy worldwide. 

The money allocated to improving education for girls was welcome but only a drop in the ocean compared to what was needed to make real progress. 

The speed of the Taliban victory took the US and its allies by surprise. It should not have done. 

Once Biden announced the full withdrawal of US troops then the government’s days were numbered because it simply could not exist without US political and financial support. The same is true of the Afghan army which depended on the US for logistical support and air cover. 

The defeat for the US and Western imperialism more generally is both military and political. 

It may not be on the historic scale of the fall of Saigon in 1975 but it marks the end of US influence in the country. Despite some wishful thinking which will no doubt be in evidence in Parliament’s debate on Wednesday there is zero chance of serious military intervention there again. 

We have heard nothing from Tony Blair, one of the main architects of this war, and usually so quick to give his opinions. 

This is also a defeat for him and for his policy of military intervention dressed up as humanitarianism. 

The real losers however are not the rich Afghans now on planes to exile, nor their friends from the US and other Western states who were happy to promote the deceit that this was some kind of functioning democracy. They are the ordinary Afghans who have now endured the best part of half a century of war and whose troubles are by no means over. 

What a tragedy that the US has spent $1 trillion on the war alone but there is so little to show in terms of development, civil society, education. If the money spent on war had gone towards some of these goals we would almost certainly be in a better place now. 

The Western powers should commit to paying compensation to Afghanistan. They should also be prepared to take in the many Afghan refugees already wanting to come to the West, and who will be joined by many on the losing side in coming months. 

One of the great shames of countries such as Britain in the 21st century is its barbaric attitude to refugees, the majority of whom are fleeing war, and most of whom only make it to neighbouring, often very poor, countries. Again, a fraction of the money spent on war would house, feed and educate these refugees. 

There will be many who feel bitterly resentful of the false promises of Britain and the US – not just in Afghanistan but here too. 

Those who fought in this bloody war, or those who lost loved ones, will feel especially aggrieved. They are right to do so. They were lied to over Afghanistan as well as over Iraq, Libya and Syria. 

The events of August 2021 have made that abundantly clear. Those of us who argued against this war have been proved right again but the politicians and media ignore or forget these lessons. 

So our strongest message this week should be: no more foreign wars. Peace and democracy can only be achieved by political struggle within a society, not by bombing and invasion.

Lindsey German is convener of the Stop the War Coalition.

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