Cable Anchors on the Afghan Withdrawel

All the cable anchors join in depicting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan (which is to say, the defeat of the U.S. in the war) as a tragedy. Is it not heartbreaking that the U.S. spent $800 billion in military expenditures in Afghanistan during the war, and another $200,000 billion in Pakistan? And that it spent $ 5 billion a year on economic aid? And that it created a force (on paper) of 300,000 troops, and provided them with the most up-to-date weapons and training for 20 years, only to see them buckle under the advance of a rag-tap bunch of militants with Kalashinovs? And that it built schools for girls (like the Soviets did) only to see them burned down?

And that in achieving all this it lost 2372 soldiers, and its allies lost 1147 soldiers? Is it not a waste?

Experts like former DHS secretary Juliette Kayyem appear on CNN and try to explain. Asked why the Afghan “national” forces have performed so poorly, she asks whether “corruption” was responsible, or “lack of pay.” Secretary of State Tony Blinken keeps reiterating that the Afghans have been well trained for 20 years and they have to want their freedom enough to fight for it. One feels that in the end Afghans will be blamed for their inability to take directions, unwillingness to accept U.S. tutelage, intrinsic religious conservatism and xenophobia. Blinken’s spin is: we won the war when we achieved “our one overriding purpose” in crushing al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. That was always the motive—not the remaking of Afghanistan. But the war continued long after this goal was obtained in mid-December 2001; the U.N. estimates over 5000 civilian casualties in that war just in the first five months of this year. But according to Blinken, these last two decades of war have been mere spin-offs of that purpose realized early on.

That surge to 100,000 troops under Obama? Absolutely nothing to do with al-Qaeda. The point was to prevent the Taliban from regaining power. The Afghan forces after a decade of training weren’t up to the task to fighting their ill-armed countrymen. If Blinken insists that transforming Afghanistan was not the “overriding purpose” of the imperialist invasion of 2001, why did the U.S. stay so long?

The news anchors cry crocodile tears about the possible fate of translators left behind. They don’t ask why anyone would want to punish them. All they did, after all, was facilitate the U.S. occupation of their country. But no Afghans had invited the U.S. to invade their country and teach them about democracy, women’s rights or anything else. The interpreters were working with people that a substantial portion of the population viewed with hostility and fear. They made a wager about the future and lost, although I suspect most will wind up abroad living in relative comfort.

And the talking heads grieve for the women and girls. Women’s education was a priority of the Soviet-backed government of the 1980s, and a key target of the Mujahadeen whose Afghan component fragmented into warlords’ private armies and the Taliban, and whose foreign component spawned al-Qaeda and ISIL. The U.S. willingly encouraged a jihad by such people against the modern, secular regime. It was part of its amoral Cold War strategy to combat “communism” everywhere. The communists’ education of girls was seen not as a good thing but as a tool of the enemy to control girls’ minds. In other words, the U.S. has a mixed record on promoting women’s rights and education in Afghanistan.

Defense One editor Kevin Barron, asking in a “question and answer” session on CNN, responds to a viewer’s questions: “Why did we get in?” Barron acting as spokesperson for the entire system responds that al-Qaeda had attacked us, and “because al-Qaeda had trained in Afghanistan” it was necessary to attack them in Afghanistan.

No! This is a paid “expert”? Only 3 of the 19 9-11 attackers had been in Afghanistan and there were no Afghans in the team.

These same anchors who are now instructed to allude routinely to “systemic racism” in this country cannot bring themselves, or are not yet woke enough to, mention “imperialism” in connection with this failed war and effort to remold a country to suit Washington’s preferences. Or to mention “cultural imperialism” in relation to the very policies most dear to the “experts”: imposing new rules about paternalistic, tribal and religious authority; transforming the status of women through western-style education; establishing a (dysfunctional) parliamentary system; establishing a 300,000-strong national military.

They can ask, “Was it a mistake?” That is permitted now, as it was after Vietnam. But they cannot ask, “Was it a crime?” They can’t ask, “Wasn’t this an imperialist war, designed to lead into the Iraq War and more imperialist interventions in Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria?” “Wasn’t it an illegal regime-change effort from the beginning, one that failed due to lack of popular support?” “Was it not an integrally RACIST war, based on assumptions of American Exceptionalism, Afghan backwardness, and the moral authority of foreigners to transform Afghan views on gender and patriarchy?”

That would mean seriously recognizing how thoroughly evil capitalism is. You cannot do that yet on cable TV. You can talk about structural racism. That’s progress. But you cannot talk about imperialism. That is, you can watch a massive imperialist venture collapse in abject failure—three or four really, in this century so far—and not understand what you’re seeing, seeing the big picture.

The U.S. is attempting to snatch some moral victory from crushing defeat. At least, they argue, we tried to liberate women. This was all about women, don’t you see? And about making friends! Thousands of interpreters, wonderful people, who did nothing wrong but help American imperialism achieve its aims in their country. And now the Taliban will treat them like the French treated their collaborators after the war. How dare they!

Wailing about these putative victims of the victors, the U.S. accepts defeat ungraciously, berating the Afghan state forces at the end for their timidity, incompetence and corruption. (What an embarrassment!) The developing narrative boils down to: We went in to help the Afghans. God knows we tried. Human rights attorney Kimberely Motley on CNN right now, speaking of women: “We sold them a dream of democracy.” But in the end they—or enough of them—didn’t want our help. They lost their chance at democracy and women’s liberation because they were too backward to attempt these things.

I’m waiting to hear a CNN anchor tell the truth and explain that the Afghan War and occupation were part of a broader plan by the Bush-Cheney administration as of 2001 to induce “regime change” throughout the Middle East, centering on Iraq. Afghanistan was convenient “low-hanging fruit” to be plucked before the big war on Iraq and preparatory to wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya (all based on lies). It is part and parcel of the legacy of imperialist U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, and the first war in the Persian Gulf (1991).

It needs to be called out as such. The CNN anchor should note that imperialism is a stage of capitalism, with historical origins and a presumed termination. We do not need to live in an imperialist country. Capitalist-toppling regime change at home could end the problem, for well under $ 800 billion.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: