As the U.S. withdraws, a re-examination of the ‘good war’
A few days ago, American troops withdrew from Bagram air base north of Kabul, in a hush-hush operation. Local Afghan allies were not informed. The Americans reportedly left hundreds of energy drinks, ready-to-eat meals, and literally tons of garbage, causing outrage among Afghans on social media.
As America’s “longest war” comes to an end, many international news outlets reported about Bagram without mentioning the base’s dark past. It’s part of a revisionist history that overlooks the massive torture apparatus, civilian casualties, and violent corruption caused by the United States’ two decades in Afghanistan.
Since the Bush administration, Bagram served as the nexus and central hub in America’s war in Afghanistan. In the early 2000s, it morphed into a small Americanized town. After conducting brutal operations in Afghan villages, troops enjoyed KFC and Burger King. Prisoners, many of whom were innocent or held indefinitely without charge, were tortured and murdered mere doors away from the fast-food outposts. The Bagram complex included several notorious prisons, so-called “black sites,” brutal settings that typify the American-led war. It was in places like this that young Afghan men were brutally murdered by American interrogators. Dilawar Yaqoubi, a 22-year-old cab driver from southeastern Khost province, was abducted and beaten to death in December 2002.
Victims of the American air war in Afghanistan remain unheard.
Overall, ongoing Afghanistan coverage appears to be a déjà vu of the simplistic coverage of the early 2000s. Many Western journalists find themselves rushing to the country to quickly produce as much content as possible. Lacking knowledge of local languages, woefully ignorant of regional custom and culture, and inept at grasping the geopolitics of the country and the area it lies within, these journalists often lazily breathe new life into old, racist, and Orientalist tropes. These tropes should not, after 20 years of a war in which the U.S.-led coalition abjectly failed, dominate coverage of the country.
Bagram is not the sole example of this ignorance. Consider a recent opinion piece from CBC News that focused on the plight of Canadian soldiers. Journalist Murray Brewster described Panjwayi district in southern Kandahar province as “wild” and “angry,” wording straight out of British colonial reports from the 19th century. Brewster did not even mention that the region is not solely some kind of “Taliban breeding place.” It was also the site of some of the most chilling Western war crimes of the last 20 years. Most prominent among these was the massacre of Kandahar, in which American soldier Robert Bales killed at least 17 civilians in March 2012, including women and children. He acknowledged the brutal killing in 2013 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole (Trump considered his pardon in the final days of his presidency). But many details of the massacre remain unknown. Initially, many Afghan witnesses claimed that Bales was not the only killer and several soldiers, including a helicopter, attacked the two villages far apart from each other. An Afghan commission assigned by then-President Hamid Karzai came to a similar conclusion. However, Bales was portrayed as a lone wolf and traumatized psychopath, and he was the only one who was held accountable.
Through the selective lens of Brewster and others, these atrocities are no big deal. Too many Western journalists and analysts are contemptuous of and insensitive to the people of the country that the U.S. had invaded. Their eyes focus only on the violence of the “other”—the Taliban or ISIS or the broad catchall term “terrorists”— while simultaneously ignoring the bloodshed and violence wrought by a Western occupation. How can the U.S. claim to be morally superior to the terrorists it claims to fight, supposedly accountable to international laws regulating violence?
This is perhaps how the media can portray American airstrikes as something “positive” and “necessary” against increasing Taliban gains. Yet in fact, American aircraft, including the celebrated and “precise” predator drones, killed thousands of innocent Afghans during the last two decades. America’s real targets remained elusive. Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar died of natural causes in 2013. Jalaluddin Haqqani, another Taliban leading figure, died in 2018. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by a Navy SEAL team in May 2011 in the heart of Pakistan. His deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, may still be alive. These men did not hide themselves in remote Afghan villages, which the Americans had bombed. According to reports, Omar lived close to an American air base in Zabul province, while bin Laden was not in Afghanistan at all and spent his last years in Abbottabad, a highly secured garrison town in Pakistan.
Throughout, the victims of the American air war in Afghanistan remain unheard. They are faceless, nameless, and barely visible beyond the supposedly accurate “estimates” of casualties, whose degree of accuracy is summed up by the fact that said estimates are those published by Washington. A few months ago, I visited a young man whose father, a cab driver, was murdered together with four of his passengers in 2014. The perpetrator was an American drone, located in Khost province. The son is still traumatized by the attack and was happy that American troops are finally leaving his country. For good reason. “They killed a lot of people,” he told me. “Their place is not here.”
America did not build a single democratic institution in Afghanistan.
What started as a counterterrorism operation led to wholesale cooperation with and empowerment of rapacious warlords, corrupt politicians, and drug barons. Many of them still dominate Afghan politics. In 2009, it was revealed that Ahmad Wali Karzai, one of the most notorious drug lords in Afghanistan’s south and half-brother of then-President Hamid Karzai, was on the CIA’s payroll for years. Ahmad Karzai was killed in July 2011 by his own head of security. Gen. Abdul Raziq Achakzai, a well-known police chief and another important American-built ally in the same region, was accused of torture, kidnapping, and mass murder while he was also involved in the lucrative drug trade, which has increased constantly since the American invasion. Achakzai was killed in 2018.
Other questionable strongmen are still alive and intimately mingle with politics. Assadullah Khaled, Afghanistan’s current defense minister, is accused of similar crimes by Human Rights Watch and other watchdogs. Khaled used to have private torture dungeons in his own home while serving as governor and chief of the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS. He was also accused of the murder of three United Nations employees and the abductions and sexual abuse of minors in 2019. Vice President Amrullah Salehonce ran the NDS too, and was responsible for countless human rights violations during the early phase of the “war on terror.” Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, was promoted to marshall last year by President Ashraf Ghani personally. In the first days of the war on terror, Dostum and his militia conducted some of the most brutal crimes of modern Afghan history, like the massacre of Dasht-e Laili, executing thousands of Taliban prisoners of war and civilians in containers in a desert north of Kabul.
These are some of the men Western countries worked with. All of them also enabled massive corruption. They stole billions of dollars of aid money and reinvested it in mansions in Kabul and luxury real estate in the United Arab Emirates. They built private armies to conduct more human rights violations. The Americans and their allies are complicit in all of these crimes. They actively supported them and believed that it was something necessary to maintain the war on terror.
America did not build a single democratic institution in Afghanistan. Instead, warlordism and corruption became part of the country’s political culture like never before. The last democratic elections, like all of the elections held by a supposedly democratic republic, were a total charade. The political leaders of the country were not elected by Afghan voters but actually selected by Washington.
And after 20 years of failure, many Western observers still prefer to live in a bubble.