“We had to destroy them to make them safe”: Orwell in Afghanistan


The New York Times reported yesterday that NATO troops in Afghanistan have launched a widespread campaign to destroy abandoned homes and farms thought to be “booby-trapped.” As troops advance in newly won districts around the city of Kandahar, they are encountering buildings left heavily rigged with explosives by Taliban insurgents. In the name of safety, NATO has undertaken to systematically destroy almost every unoccupied home or unused farm building in areas where it is operating. Troops are using an impressive – and, some might say, disproportionate – array of tools including “armed bulldozers, high explosives, missiles and even airstrikes.”

According to the Times, the campaign has garnered widespread support from Afghan officials, and even part of the local population. The common wisdom is that there is no other way to get rid of the explosives and protect the population. In a twist that smacks of Newspeak, an Afghan official argues that “we had to destroy them to make them safe.” “Destroying to Save Lives” is the Orwellian title the Times has chosen for the slideshow illustrating the article. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is power, and destruction is protection.

These “house-borne improvised explosive devices,” as the troops have taken to call them, certainly represent a danger to both the US military and Afghan civilians. However, they are being used as an alibi to justify a wider campaign of destruction aimed at depriving the Taliban of hiding places and fighting positions. As the Times underlines, the US military is not only destroying homes, but also “tree lines where insurgents could hide” and “agricultural walls.”

This is eerily reminiscent of the strategy adopted by the US during the Vietnam war, when the military used massive quantities of Agent Orange to destroy forests and deprive the National Liberation Front guerilla of food and cover. The defoliation program was also aimed at driving the rural population away from the countryside to US-controlled cities, thus removing the guerilla’s support base.

The enemy has changed, but the strategy hasn’t. Nor have the justifications for it. Then as now destruction was presented as a necessary step for protection: if the communists take control of Vietnam / if Afghanistan becomes a safe haven for Al Qaeda, it will be the end of the civilized world as we know it. If what happened in Vietnam is any indication, apparently Afghanistan will only be deemed completely safe once it is totally destroyed.

Global Policy Forum
Global Policy in Brief

Leave a comment