Please Help ZNet
CNN and other liberal media focus on deciphering the humanitarian chaos surrounding the airport at Kabul encourages a mindless preoccupation with the tactical considerations relating to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, diverting attention from its core significance whether by design or selective perception. It seems affirmatively preoccupied with the political necessity for Biden to complete the withdrawal of American citizens, especially members of the armed forces and government officials without the loss of a single American life. Perhaps, this priority is accepted as natural given the continuing privileging of ultra-nationalist values. It has the unspoken implication that the loss of Afghan lives, no matter how great and at what scale, are regrettable especially if the victims were associated with the American presence, but is nevertheless treated as not nearly as vital in the same sense as the loss of a single American life.
Such an implicit hierarchy of human worth has many unsavory implications, including the stark fact of Washington’s refusal to take any responsibility for having endangered Afghan lives by compromising their loyalty to their own country. This issue is never even addressed by the Biden presidency or the media beyond facilitating evacuation of those Afghans compromised by their relations with the American occupation of their country, which has failed to accept any responsibility for the permanent settlement of Afghans presumed to be refugees. If Afghans are killed during or immediately after the bungled withdrawal process it is likely to be presented as one more facet of a humanitarian crisis, the magnitude of which will be explained away as at worst a further display of imperial ineptitude in the manner the withdrawal was carried out evoking memories of Vietnam over forty years ago, or more likely, presented as a confirmation of the alleged continuing barbarity of the Taliban.
It is with this foregrounding of the scenes at the Kabul Airport that I turn to three aspects of these events that has been insufficiently commented upon:
(1) A state-building regime-changing intervention by the West in a non-Western country should be understood in the 21st century as a species of ‘geopolitical crime’ under post-colonial conditions. One element of this crime is the recruitment of a large number oof ‘natives’ as facilitators and collaborators, who live well as long as the intervention lasts, but are alienated from the resistance movements going on in their own country, and are merged in the minds of national anti-interventionists as integral to the imperial project and, hence, widely regarded as corrupt sellouts and treasonous enemies of self-determination of their nation, who must escape their own country to avoid retribution.
As a result this cohort of Afghans who worked with and for the Americans, including their families, become fearful for their lives and wellbeing when such an imposed state-building project ends in abject failure. This leaves such individuals and their families with no good choices. They can remain in Afghanistan and face the pentup fury or vengeful impulse of the victors or they can head for the exits. Imperial propaganda to the effect that Afghan anti-interventionists are bloodthirsty, may be true although likely exaggerated, but functions to shift blame and responsibility away from Washington, and prevents learning the lesson that this kind of geopolitical crime when it fails, destroys the lives of those in the society that were earlier proclaimed the greatest beneficiaries of such a regime-change and state-building undertaking. The irresponsibility of the intervenors is underscored by their refusal to accept the burden of providing a permanent safe haven for Afghans who chose the losing and wrong side in a just war of national resistance. Among the justifications for using such pejorative language is the evident lack of deep support for this coercive American state-building project as evidenced by the failure to mount any sort of defense against the poorly armed Taliban after the US signaled its intention to withdraw from the internal Afghan war. Such a moment of illuminating truth recalls Washington surprise that the supposedly secure and formidable Shah’s modernizing regime in Iran fell without much of a fight to an unarmed popular resistance movement in 1978-79.
(2) Drawing an Afghan analogy to the fall of Saigon in 1975 is suggestive of the absence of self-criticism in America’s political class, producing repetition, and gratuitous suffering for those aligned with the occupation and a gross state-building failure. As well those innocent segments of the Afghan population that opposed the popular movement for ideological or human rights reasons are left to suffer the consequences of the political outcome without being offered a safe exit or safe haven.
But there are important differences between what happened in Saigon and what is happening these days in Kabul that are taken into account in a perceptive article by Paul Street, “Eight Key Points on America’s Defeat in Afghanistan,” CounterPunch, Aug. 24, 2021. Street’s main observation is that the failures of anticipation were far more inexcusable in Kabul than in Saigon because the victorious National Liberation Front was in mainstream of national resistance movements, while the Taliban did have a bloody past with an unrepudiated jihadist code of behavior that was especially threatening for women and girls. This alone should have at least alerted those in the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washinton to the necessity of devising withdrawal and resettlement plans that took better account of the wellbeing of Afghans, and not worry only about those Afghans who had staffed the NATO state-building undertaking for the past twenty years. There was no reason to rely on Taliban pledges of amnesty and protection of human rights, given their past but there was also every reason to encourage its leader to live up to thes pledges of a more benign approach given that the Taliban had achieved a second chance to implement a kinder version of Islamic governance.
This is especially true given the earlier American-led effort to give the Soviets in Byzezinski’s muscular geopolitics as providing Washington an opportunity to give Moscow its own ‘Vietnam War’ in the Afghanistan of the 1980s. Such an objective led the U.S. Government to arm, support, and subsidize jihadist resistance, including forces under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden that formed the nucleus of Al Qaeda that was to attack the United States twenty years later. Many informed commentators believe that without the American counter-intervention to defeat the Soviet mission in Afghanistan the Taliban would never have been able to take over control over the whole country in 1996, and maybe never. The largely unacknowledged boomerang or blowback effects of instrumentalizing Islamic extremism for Cold War geopolitics has played out in Afghanistan in particularly tragic ways for the people of the country. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan’s neighbors are able and willing, especially Pakistan, to make massive contributions to undo some of the massive damage done by the anguishing decades of combat, corruption, and occupation, which includes manipulating the international drug trade for nefarious political purposes. Even so, the primary responsibility for mitigating the collateral humanitarian damage for this severe geopolitical crime belongs to the United States and its NATO partners, G-7 allies.
(3) I had the opportunity to listen on August 23rd to retired General David Petraeus answer some questions put to him by a fawning and craven moderator during an on the record event sponsored by the Atlantic Council. I was shocked to hear this eminent, articulate, and highly intelligent former military commander lament what he called the lack of ‘strategic patience’ by the United States as constituting his primary worry about the course of events generated by what he regarded as an abrupt, ill-considered, and imprudent withdrawal by American forces. Twenty years, the longest war in American history, was evidently not enough. Petraeus went on to argue that the drawdown of American forces to between 2,500 and 3,000 was a sustainable presence, making it highly affordable and a good security investment, which could also be counted on keeping the Kabul government afloat a bit longer. Its main strategic benefit would be allow Americans to have military bases that would be regionally useful in relation to anticipated renewed counterterrorism operations and, above all, to engage China competitively in the region.
What I found startling at the height of the panic observed the world over on TV, was the unabashed agreement of Petraeus and the fawning moderator, that the US would again need to be intervening and state-building in the future, and must not be led by its Afghan failure to interpret the experience as a signal to the political class to repudiate imperial post-colonial militarized geopolitics in Asia and elsewhere. No mention was made of China’s rise with its minimal dependence on military capabilities, which was characterized mainly by win/win economistic internationalism and a hands off approach to military intervention in foreign societies.
I was struck by the utter unwillingness of Petraeus to confront either the realities of imperial decline or its reliance on obsolete geopolitics in a global setting that was making it clear that the future security for the West, and even human survival, depended on leading states making strong commitments to on behalf of imperative global public goods, which would entail an abandonment of global militarism as anachronistic and unaffordable.
The tone of the discussion was one of how to do better ‘going forward’ rather than to waste energy by crying over the ‘spilt milk’ of past mistakes including investing trillion to construct a ghost state that could hardly extend its writ beyond the city limits of Kabul. What depressed me most about the Petraeus performance, and a related Atlantic Council discussion the next day of the humanitarian crisis generated by the chaotic withdrawal was the steadfast refusal of the political class to engage in strategic self-criticism as distinct from bemoaning existing tactical errors of judgment prompted by domestic partisan politics. As evidenced by the choice of homogenous participants in these staged events channeled to elites in the United States is that the definitive voices of national policy are retired generals and diplomats as cheered on by journalist from the Wall Street Journal, CNN, NY Times, and Washington Post, pillars of the political class ruling the electorate in 2021. It was a depressing display of how the political class in the United States continues to seem incapable of thinking strategically outside of a militarist box, a sure sign of imperial morbidity.
What the prolonged intervention leaves behind is an impoverished country of nearly 40 million, with virtually no capacity to sustain itself without massive outside economic assistance. Given this reality after twenty years of occupation and supposed guardianship the most fundamental failure of the American post-9/11 operation was its utter inability to improve living standards and help Afghanistan gain some measure of self-sufficiency and self-governing capability. The feeling at this stage is that the American-led Western agenda in the country was nothing more than a convenient platform for an extended counterterrorism operation with scant concern for the people of the country. This overlooks the many heroic efforts of Western NGOs to improve the life experience of the Afghan people, especially that of women, but without the protective capabilities of an Afghan government with authentic indigenous roots this has again become a mission impossible. The bottom line as of the end of August 2021 is that the Afghan refugees and the Afghan nation need and deserve massive international assistance led by the United States, and if this is not forthcoming tragedy will be added to tragedy.