The Biden administration’s announcement that all its troops and those of its allies will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks marks the end of a brutal and bloody war that has laid waste to the country for twenty years.
The US government spent more than US$1 trillion on an invasion that has killed at least 175,000 Afghans since the first air strikes were launched on 7 October 2001. In addition, 3,500 soldiers from the invading coalition were killed, and many thousands more committed suicide once they returned home.
Those whose lives have not been obliterated by Western bombs and assault rifles have lost in other ways. Generations of Afghan citizens have grown up in conditions of endless warfare, with lost loved ones and crumbling infrastructure. Before 2001, the country was mired in a decade of civil wars, which were preceded by another ten years of Soviet invasion and occupation.
This has been the longest war ever waged by the United States—and Australia—and the departing militaries are leaving behind little more than a shocking death toll and an unstable puppet government in control of little more than Kabul. Most of the country outside the capital is run by the Taliban or local warlords, or is contested by different forces. The Taliban is considered stronger today than at any other time in the last twenty years.
Western atrocities in Afghanistan are now well documented. The Brereton report revealed systematic war crimes committed by Australian special forces, including the murder of 39 civilians and prisoners, the desecration of corpses and planting of evidence, all hidden beneath an internal culture of cover-ups. In 2019, the US government blocked efforts by the International Criminal Court to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by US soldiers.
This barbarism exposes the ugly truth behind the lies world leaders told to justify the invasion. The war was never about fighting for freedom and democracy. Specific cases of bloodlust aside, the entire invasion of Afghanistan was itself a crime.
Twenty years ago, US President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the other world leaders who backed the invasion couched the adventure in the rhetoric of democracy and liberation. The war was dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom” by Bush, which his successor, Barack Obama, later rebranded as “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel”.
Bush, when announcing the war in September 2001, said: “Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us”. The war was pitched as part defending the Western world from evil, part retribution for 9/11 and part humanitarian intervention. First lady Laura Bush described the war as “a fight for the rights and dignity of women” one month after the NATO-led coalition rained its first bombs on Kabul.
How bombs, bullets and, later, drone strikes were meant to free the people of Afghanistan from the oppressive grip of the Taliban was never made clear. The details never mattered to the political establishment, NGO community and mainstream media that enthusiastically backed the war.
Today, many of these figures and organisations are now opposed to the ongoing occupation and are celebrating Biden’s withdrawal, largely because the war has failed. Too many resources were sunk over too many years. But Western success would have been even worse; the entire objective was to strengthen US imperialism.
From the beginning, socialists argued that the war in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, was about shoring up American empire at the dawn of a new century. This would be the opening shot in an effort to assert dominance over the Middle East, a strategically important region for global capital. The “war on terror” was simply the ideological justification for a cynical imperialist invasion. Osama Bin Laden—the ostensible target of the invasion—was himself funded and supported by the CIA in the 1980s.
Initial victories made it seem like the war might be won with relative ease. In May 2003, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to major combat in Afghanistan. But the situation had reversed by 2005, the Taliban gaining the ascendancy. From then on, the coalition was trapped in a quagmire labelled the “forever war”: unable to establish a stable regime to secure victory, yet unwilling to exit and admit defeat. As the war dragged on with no end in sight, popular opposition to it grew.
By 2008, a majority of people in Australia said they were against the ongoing deployment of troops in Afghanistan. A majority in the US said similar the following year. Under rising popular pressure, heads of state and the top military brass started making farcical statements predicting imminent success. Year after year they were “turning a corner”, yet on the ground the government they backed grew weaker, and opposition forces stronger.
Obama in the US and the Rudd government in Australia were widely expected to end the war, yet both deployed more troops in 2009. Most of the SAS crimes discussed in the Brereton report occurred in 2012 and 2013. For years, leaders promised they would withdraw troops, but it is only happening now, twenty years since the war began and six months later than the date set by the Trump administration.
The US military is not retreating because its stated objectives have been met. The war has been a failure from start to end. US imperialism leaves behind a country that will likely descend into a new phase of civil war. But the West never cared about the plight of Afghan citizens, and the endless wars in the Middle East have become a hindrance to prepping the US military machine for its next conflict.
Biden has not been coy about this. In his exit speech he said, “We have to shore up American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing from an increasingly assertive China ... we’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next twenty years, not the last twenty”.
The war in Afghanistan has caused untold suffering. In walking away, the US, the UK and Australia are not ending the suffering of war; they’re just preparing for a new theatre.