As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan continues, Kieran Allen argues that media coverage is attempting to lay a protective propaganda blanket over the twenty-year history of the occupation.
In 1975, US helicopters scrambled to leave Saigon. In 2021, the US has made a hurried exit from Kabul, leaving behind stockpiles of weapons and security documents.
Yet the mood music of the mainstream media is entirely different. In the seventies, the US defeat demoralised the Right as they tried to grapple with the ‘Vietnam syndrome’.
Today, the mainstream media has gone into overdrive criticising Biden’s ‘over hasty withdrawal’ and his retreat before ‘barbaric groups’ such as the Taliban.
The main reason for the shift has been the political orientation many ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’ who call for ‘humanitarian’ interventions, backed up with US muscle. In Britain, Keir Stammer called for an ‘urgent meeting on NATO’ while Blair called for a postponement of the withdrawal. In Ireland, the media commentator Stephen Collins wants Ireland to increase its military capacity.
The wall-to-wall coverage of the evacuation of Kabul is laying a protective propaganda blanket over the twenty-year history of the US occupation. The misdeeds of the Taliban – and there are many – appear to vastly outweigh those of the US. It is even suggested that the US has ‘betrayed’ its mission by handing over power to the Taliban.
Instead of understanding what has occurred, we are given a coverage of immediate events.
The lack of perspective creates a distorting effect and hides an elementary truth: the US has suffered a huge defeat. Whatever one thinks of the Taliban – and they are a conservative misogynistic movement – the defeat of an imperial army makes the world safer for everyone who opposes the domination for corporations and money.
US involvement in Afghanistan brought untold suffering, misery and contributed to the growth of the Taliban.
The Cost of War project estimates that 240,000 people were killed in the war zone of the Pakistan-Afghanistan. Like any colonial army US troops committed appalling atrocities, – bombing wedding parties, beating up innocent civilians, and routine torture.
It spent an estimated $2.26 trillion but much of that money was funneled into a corrupt government and its warlord allies. $20 billion, for example, was spent on air conditioning for tents – this in a country where the population lives on average on less than $1.60 a day.
A survey from Integrity Watch Afghanistan showed that half the population think that corruption was lower in the Taliban controlled areas than in government areas.
The brutality of the US, their support for local warlords, and the overwhelming stink of corruption helps to explain the revival of the Taliban. In 2011, commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General David Petraeus, estimated that the Taliban had 25,000 members but by the end of the war this has risen to 70,000.
They could not have defeated the US if they had not gained a level of popular support – no matter how passive – by virtue of opposing a foreign invader.
This basic reality is glossed over by a mainstream media who seek to portray them as modern-day barbarians. Yet the Taliban are not a product of a medieval era but of an impoverished, underdeveloped country that has suffered invasions by two superpowers. One of which discredited the name of socialism and other a form of feminism that became enmeshed with empire.
But did not the US protect women’s rights and should we not mourn their departure?
One of the most familiar tropes of empires is to cover their greed by claiming to champion women. The West becomes the archetypal male who rescues the colonized woman and makes her a protected but inferior ally.
The classic example was Lord Cromer, British Consul General in Egypt from 1883 to 1907. He promised to challenge Islam’s degradation of women. Yet when he returned to Britain, he set up the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.
When Britain was robbing India, they covered their tracks by stating that their goal was to outlaw of suttee – widows burning themselves on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. The practice was much exaggerated, but it served as good propaganda for Britain’s colonial mission.
In more recent times Laura Bush called for support for the US occupation of Afghanistan to free women from the burka – while her husband George was cutting funding to family planning clinics in the US.
A classified CIA document released by Wikileaks in 2011 noted that:
‘Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF.’
Western intervention brought some changes in the position of women in Afghani society – but it was a by-product of a wider imperial strategy and far more limited than the story line made out. Thus in 2000 under the rule of the Taliban rule, women made up 15% of the labour force. But after twenty years of US occupation this only rose to 20%.
In 2018, Time Magazine ran an accurate headline: ‘Why Afghanistan Is Still the Worst Place in the World to Be a Woman’. After a decade of US effort at ’nation building’, two thirds of Afghani girls did not attend school; 87% of women were illiterate and 80 % of suicides were women.
Far from the US promoting women’s rights, the US has supported allies like the Northern Alliance which has a history of sexual violence and human rights abuses.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported in 2009, “The current reality is that the lives of Afghan women were seriously compromised by violence and women were denied their most fundamental human rights”.
In the same year the Afghan government passed a law requiring Afghan women to obey their husbands in sexual matters, violating the country’s constitution.
The main victim of US airstrikes has been women and children. It is estimated that they account for 70 percent of the victims.
And even while claiming to protect women, the US was arming and supporting Saudi Arabia which insisted that every adult woman had a male guardian.
Liberation cannot be handed to women by the muscle of a colonial army. Rather it will be fought for by Afghani women themselves – and that will involve them in major conflicts with the Taliban.
Here in Ireland, we can do two things to help.
We should open our borders and welcome Afghan refugees to Ireland, regardless of whether they supported or opposed the US occupation.
We should oppose the suggestion that we need to increase military capacity.
Instead, we should talk about how over 200 Irish soldiers were needlessly put in danger as symbolic support for a US-led war in that country. Or how Shannon was used to facilitate torture of those who opposed the occupation.
The evacuation of Kabul shows the cynicism by which imperial powers jettison those who supported it. But a longer-term view of that occupation shows why we should not give the slightest support for a spurious ‘war on terror’.