The Fall of Kabul – Judgement Day on Western Policies?

17 August 2021

Events in Afghanistan and the speed of the takeover of the country by the Taliban have shocked the world. Moreover, the fact that this comes after a costly 20-year US and allied presence in the country that sought to ensure security and the establishment of democratic processes, represents a landmark defeat for western nations that will give worrying encouragement to extremist groups worldwide. Many are likening the humiliating scenes in Kabul to the last days of the Vietnam war, and many more are asking questions about what is being achieved in the region by decades of military interventions that have helped destroy nations and cause catastrophic humanitarian crises.

In Afghanistan alone, the figures are shocking. Two trillion dollars have been spent in 20 years on the military intervention in Afghanistan; over 150,000 people have been killed; 2.9 million had been internally displaced by the end of 2020 and 2.6 million refugees had fled the country.[1]  Meanwhile, 2,448 American service people have been killed; 457 British service personnel have died; 444 Aid Workers; 72 journalists and 1,144 other Allied service personnel. Promises made in 2002 by Tony Blair that the international community would never again abandon Afghanistan and would continue the commitment “to help Afghanistan back on its feet, stop being a failed state and be a reliable partner in this region” have proved empty.[2]  When one expands the study to Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan, it is estimated that 801,000 have been killed and 37 million people have been displaced. For what? Why?

Many politicians raise the terrorism card and the response to 9/11. There is some merit in this argument. But where do the roots of terrorism lie? And where do the roots of extremism lie? In Afghanistan, it is well known and documented that the roots of the current Afghan conflict lie in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1978-1989, during which time the US and western allies funded and supported the militant Islamist mujahideen groups that later splintered and developed into Al Qa’eda and Taliban (which held different political, but similar religious ideologies). Even Hilary Clinton admitted in April 2009:

But the problems we face now to some extent we have to take responsibility for, having contributed to it. Let’s remember here… the people we are fighting today we funded them twenty years ago… and we did it because we were locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union. They invaded Afghanistan… and we did not want to see them control Central Asia and we went to work… and it was President Reagan in partnership with Congress led by Democrats who said you know what it sounds like a pretty good idea… let’s deal with the ISI and the Pakistan military and let’s go recruit these mujahideen. And great, let them come from Saudi Arabia and other countries, importing their Wahabi brand of Islam so that we can go beat the Soviet Union.[3]

But the roots go back even further to the end of the Ottoman Empire, when, as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement, France and Britain carved up the Near East to serve their own interests with no consideration for the religious, ethnic, economic, social and political dynamics of the region, into units that bore little reflection of the multiplicity of contexts on the ground.

In 1953, the British government played a major part in forcing the overthrow of the democratically-elected secular Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadegh, because he had sought to limit the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s control over Iranian Oil reserves and because of concerns about Iran’s close relationship with the Soviet Union. The resulting coup installed the repressive dictatorship of Shah Pahlavi which ultimately led to the Iranian revolution of 1979. That is but one of many instances of disastrous interventions in the region that have resulted in catastrophic ‘blowback’ events. Much more recently, Britain and her western allies have openly supported and funded Islamist factions seeking to overthrow the secular government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in the process helping both to destroy the country and threaten, not only the cultural and religious plurality of the state, but the very presence (as in Iraq) of the ancient indigenous Christian community.

Questions about accountability and process in international policy are long overdue. The spectre of extremism is real and needs to be confronted in all our societies. But whilst we sell billions of dollars of arms into a region that is so politically unstable, and ally with extremely dubious regimes and dictators since to do so suits our political and economic agendas, the cost economically, in human lives, and on the social and religious fabric of the region, will continue to be astronomically high. Are our current patterns of intervention justifiable – politically, economically, or morally? And why have we for so long, intervened in so many contexts to impose our own political priorities and serve our own economic interests, but then failed completely to meet the needs of the people once the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of our interventions are realised?  And given that we have at the very least contributed to the events and sometimes supported the forces that have initiated humanitarian crises, should we not have a more generous approach to the refugee crisis on our doorstep?

Perhaps it is time to spend trillions on peace-building rather than war; to build bridges rather than walls; to talk rather than fight; to build up rather than destroy; to listen to the people of nations themselves rather than impose our will or tell them what they need. For when people have hope, security, dignity, then the power of extremist ideologies is broken and civil discourse and development can develop and prosper. Across the Middle East, military interventions without dialogue, humanitarian and civil investment have failed catastrophically to meet these goals. Few can argue that for humanity’s sake, a different approach isn’t needed.

At HART, we are proud to work with local partners in some of the most conflicted corners of the planet, who, by listening to and serving the local people, are doing transformative work and bringing light and hope in difficult situations. How good it would be if governments would follow such principles.

[1] Figures from Forbes.14 August 2021.



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