As the US-led war in Afghanistan at last comes to a putative end, it is worth drawing a balance sheet on the arguments that were made to support the war at its outset.
Just over a week after the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, US President George W. Bush made his infamous declaration, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. Seventeen days later, military strikes on Afghanistan began.
In the name of stopping terrorism and murder, Bush, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard mobilised the most powerful killing machine the world has ever known, and proceeded to destroy the small, landlocked, but geographically strategic nation of Afghanistan. When Bush promised to “hunt down and punish” those responsible, he was matched by Howard and Labor leader Kim Beazley, pledging immediate support to any US war.
The mainstream media rallied behind the war, along with an array of liberals influenced by the appeal to liberate women from the Taliban. As an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald was still uncritically claiming in 2015, “The raison d’etre for the international military intervention in Afghanistan was always the global fight against terrorism following the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, but the restoration of women’s rights and safety which was comprehensively and brutally denied under the Taliban, lent that mission an undeniable moral authority”.
For the right-wing commentariat, no such authority was necessary. Things for them were very simple. Piers Ackerman, writing in the Sunday Telegraph shortly after the invasion began, explained it: “Some people are running around the country saying they don’t know why Australians are going to war, so let me make a few things clear. Australian military forces are joining a long-overdue fight against evil. Is that too difficult to understand?”
Paul Kelly, international editor of the Australian at the time, wrote on 13 October 2001: “Our troops will soon be in Afghanistan because of an attack on America’s way of life, a bipartisan deployment backed by the Australian people”.
Michael Duffy in the Daily Telegraph on 29 December 2001 launched an attack on those journalists, like Peter Fitzsimons and Mike Carlton, who failed to show sufficient enthusiasm for the prospect of unending war and the massive loss of civilian lives in Afghanistan: “The time has come to commiserate with those pundits who forecast doom and disaster for American and Australian forces in Afghanistan”. They, not Duffy, were subsequently proved correct, as were “the Jeremiah ‘experts’ who said we would be mired in the Afghanistan war for years” who were denounced by Andrew Bolt on 15 November 2001.
Despite their “good versus evil” claims proving unfounded and contradicted by reality, not one of these pundits ever acknowledged the falsity of them. Instead, previous arguments were forgotten, even reversed, with no consequences or accountability.
At most, for some there was a shift in rhetoric as it became apparent that reality was failing to match the original claims that evil would be vanquished (the imperialist troops and their Afghan allies too clearly were evil), or that the war would be over quickly.
Instead, the slogan “Let us stay the course”, the heading of a Melbourne Herald Sun editorial in July 2005, became the ongoing justification for the slaughter.
The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, has “stayed the course” more than most of the commentariat; as Jeff Sparrow put it in Crikey in 2009, he’s been “prepared to label all the Bush disasters triumphs [because] he enthusiastically backed every one of them”.
On 26 February 2006, in support of Howard’s decision to send 200 more troops to Afghanistan, Sheridan claimed: “The Australian soldiers will face real danger, but they are being deployed in a good cause—to wean a country away from terror and illegal drugs, and put it on the path to development and human rights”.
In October 2010 he gave the same stale (and untrue) justifications for the war: “After the 9/11 attacks the US tried to negotiate with the Taliban regime to give up al-Qaeda, which they had sheltered. The US intervention was to smash al-Qaeda’s network, destroy the Taliban government and give Afghanistan a chance at something better”.
But even Sheridan changed his tune in 2011: “No matter what we do, we cannot win in Afghanistan while Pakistan helps the Pashtun-based Taliban in the south. We have known that for a long time”.
Even as some of the more prescient ruling class figures began to say the war was unwinnable, such as former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer in 2011, there was no admission of guilt or proper accountability. Downer simply argued that Australia’s original objective, of destroying al-Qaeda after the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, had largely been achieved.
Other establishment figures broke ranks to point out that the Afghanistan war was a total and utter failure. In 2013, retired Major General Alan Stretton argued Australian troops should have been brought home long ago, that the war had been in vain and that nothing had been achieved.
Even that feminist booster of the virtues of the invasion, Age journalist Pamela Bone, had to admit in 2004 that “Two years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a bombed-out shell of a country. The warlords have taken back power, violence is rife, girls’ schools have been burned down, women still live in fear, the country is riddled with landmines, and opium production is booming”.
Far from the people of Afghanistan being helped, the Afghans who benefited from the war were primarily the warlords and opium dealers whom the US and Australia supported or made deals with. The claim to be spreading freedom and democracy in Afghanistan was one that the pro-war camp largely had to ditch: the cognitive dissonance was simply too great.
The situation for women remained abysmal. In 2015 the Sydney Morning Herald was still running opinion pieces touting “the key role Australia has played in encouraging Afghan women to campaign for their rights”. Yet figures in the same article about rates of domestic violence, life expectancy and the increasing threat of violence against women politicians and activists gave the lie to this claim.
The courageous Malalai Joya, Afghan women’s rights and anti-war activist who herself was expelled from the parliament and has survived numerous assassination attempts, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper:
“Here there is no democracy, no security, no women’s rights. When I speak in parliament they threaten me ...These men who are in power, [committed] crimes in the wars, and now, with the support of the US, they continue with their crimes in a different way. That is why there is no fundamental change in the situation of women.”
Imperialist interference has been the basis for the destruction of the country. A communiqué from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in 2008 pointed out that the occupying forces were part of the problem, not the solution:
“[The US] are killing thousands of our innocent people under the name of ‘fighting terrorists’ while on the other hand they are busy in dealing with the ...Taliban trying to gloss some of them as ‘moderates’ in order to share power with them. These treacherous acts of demagogy have revealed it once again ... that the US government and its allies were just pursuing their strategic, economic and political gains in Afghanistan and pushing our people to increasing destitution and disasters.”
RAWA thereby answered the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece mentioned earlier when it raised the question “whether all that fine rhetoric about the future of Afghan women and children was sincere, or merely window dressing for a largely self-interested military mission”.
It was a question also answered by Clive Williams, adjunct professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, who wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2019: “The real reason [for the war] ... is of course to show we are a willing ANZUS and Western alliance partner in order to be well regarded by the US and receive the defence and intelligence benefits that go with active membership of the Five-Eyes relationship. Afghanistan per se is of little strategic importance to Australia”
The war aim in Afghanistan was to establish that the US remains the world superpower, which can assert its will anywhere anytime. As George W. Bush promised a century of war, he had his eyes on the major European powers, on Japan and on China, rather than on whichever impoverished country the US military machine would be unleashed on.
In the days after 9/11, no major media outlet would hear a word against the US. Those who said that it was not terrorism but US imperialism that posed the greatest threat to the world were vilified, marginalised and condemned as terrorist sympathisers.
Socialist Alternative is proud of the fact that we took an unequivocal anti-imperialist stance, even in those early days when to do so was deeply unpopular. The articles we have published opposing the war in Afghanistan from its beginning, unlike so much that was written then and since, stand the test of time. In particular, we argued that it was not enough to oppose this particular war (though that would have been a good start for many erstwhile progressives) but that it was also necessary to oppose imperialism itself. This approach, rather than one that starts with the process or involvement or otherwise of the United Nations, is crucial to developing a consistent opposition to war and to understanding its causes and how war can be ended for good.
Despite their initial enthusiasm for the conflict, the mainstream media are quietly accepting the end of the war. But that’s largely in order to ensure there will be plenty of future wars. As the Age’s editorial of 15 April 2021 argues:
“The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw the last 2500 US troops from Afghanistan is a blow to the prestige of the United States and its allies, but this is a case where it is better to admit failure and move on ... It has taken us too long to admit that the war was unwinnable and drop the pretence that we could remake the country in our own image. Withdrawal will allow Australia and the US to redeploy resources to other foreign policy and security challenges such as China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.”
Whatever the pointless death and destruction left in their wake, major capitalist powers will continue to lurch from one horrific conflict to another. If we don’t fight this system in its entirety, we will never escape these endless wars.
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