Any honest appraisal of the Afghan War will acknowledge that the US and Britain were deeply involved in Afghanistan long before the terrorist attacks of September 2001. In the late 1970s there was a socialist government in Afghanistan, which had good relations with Russia. The US and UK would not accept this state of affairs and decided to do all they could to bring down this government. Their means of doing so involved stoking up attacks on the Afghan government by the extreme Islamist fanatics opposed to it, including pouring in supplies of advanced weaponry. This started at least six months before Soviet troops first entered the country in 1979. From this arose the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Obviously, the US and UK would never have done this if they had foreseen 9/11. But they did know it would likely bring great suffering to the people of Afghanistan and they did not seem to care.
Reflections on war
With the fall of Kabul (Leader & passim, 20 August), the US has lost not one war but two. The headline defeat is the so-called war on terror, with the enemy now having regained a secure base to regroup. But behind that lies the long since lost “war on drugs”, and the two are intimately connected.
The battle for hearts and minds in a province such as Helmand was lost before it had begun. Afghanistan produces up to 90 per cent of the world’s opium, and it is estimated 44 per cent of that is grown in Helmand. In the absence, through prohibition, of any legal route to market, the proceeds fund the Taliban. Similarly, 80 per cent of the world’s opioid supply is consumed in the US, which spends $3.3bn annually incarcerating people charged with drug-related offences.
The argument for legalisation of drugs is usually couched in terms of public health and/or lost taxable income, but these costs are insignificant compared with those of driving the market into ungoverned spaces, underground and offshore.
Legalisation would have offered a route for the local tribal warlords, the real power brokers in Afghanistan, to join the modern world economy – a transitional stage from feudalism to modernity of which Marx would have approved.
Tom Tugendhat makes some excellent, if chilling, points (Observations, 20 August) and shows a better understanding of the catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan than those in the most senior roles of his party.
But his call for less reliance on the US and deepened alliances elsewhere is undermined by his House of Commons voting record on EU membership. According to theyworkforyou.com, he has consistently voted against our EU membership. If not the US or the Commonwealth (which he sees as being undermined by China’s expansionary aims), where but the EU does he see scope for such alliances?
Interestingly, he has also consistently voted against measures to prevent climate change – something that will in time cause more suffering in the world than the West’s recklessness in Afghanistan.
Twenty years is a long time, and memories are clearly fading. “Biden’s great betrayal” (Leader, 20 August) – really? Betrayal of what?
The mission in Afghanistan was about retribution for 9/11. Ironically, people in Afghanistan were among the last to know about the attacks as radio and television were banned under the Taliban. Osama Bin Laden befriended the group by giving it badly needed money, but did his own thing. The Taliban was surprised to hear about the collapse of New York skyscrapers. It offered to hand over Bin Laden as long as the US provided evidence of his involvement.
George W Bush decided to invade Afghanistan instead, even though Donald Rumsfeld warned there were no good targets there. It was no humanitarian mercy mission, just good old-fashioned Blitzkrieg. The US opened Guantánamo Bay and numerous “black sites”, where victims were brutally beaten. Most were let go for lack of evidence. I continue to demonstrate at the American embassy for the remaining prisoners, 39 of them, to either be released or charged.
In the 20 years since the US attacked Afghanistan there may have been some well-meaning people who tried to help create a Western democracy in a country long riven with conflict. There were undoubted improvements for some, but there wasn’t a stable situation and the Afghans didn’t own the changes. Western governments had no cohesive strategy but limped along from one episode to another until Donald Trump struck an exit deal for his own electoral advantage. Joe Biden inherited the agreement and there was no good case for reneging on it. The Taliban quickly defeated the unstable Afghan government and its forces – the best that 20 years of Western involvement could achieve. Poor Biden, now blamed for a retributive military mission that began with Bush. I share the sadness of all the contributors to the New Statesman about those Afghans who may suffer, but “Biden’s great betrayal”? Think again.
New Malden, Greater London
I wish Jeremy Cliffe would be more specific when he writes: “Afghans rushing across the airport tarmac amid gunfire” (World View, 20 August). Bruno Maçães also, who writes: “This is the same airport that just two days later will become a scene for indiscriminate shooting” (Kabul Notebook, 20 August). They could explain that it was US troops shooting into the air to deter the panicking crowds from preventing planes taking off. According to news reports the Taliban had not yet arrived in Kabul.
Emily Tamkin’s column states “Joe Biden’s callous withdrawal from Afghanistan should be a stain on his presidency,” then asks, “but will it be?” (Inside America, 20 August.) Her conclusion that “the episode may be lost in the long history of American betrayal and error” is painfully logical. The pertinent query must be: what of Britain’s involvement in these interventionist wars, especially vis-à-vis Tony Blair’s infamous “shoulder to shoulder” declaration in 2001?
Kids are all right
As a liberal leftist and proud parent, I am baffled by the trend of “anti-natalism” among some fellow progressives, as outlined by Louise Perry (Out of the Ordinary, 20 August).
In my experience, the values necessary for bringing up a young family are the same as those advocated by progressives. These include solidarity, empathy, sharing resources and nurturing a sense of community. (I should point out that my children are mixed race, so I cannot be accused of “white extinction anxiety”, as the Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig ridiculously was.) Having my own children has made me more rather than less politically active, as I have a very real incentive to fight for issues that affect their future. Besides, ageing populations tend to be more reactionary – a fact made abundantly evident by recent voting patterns in the UK. So come on, you young radicals: be more positive about rearing the next generation, and don’t leave it all to the conservatives!
There are so many reasons why young people are not having children in advanced economies. Political awareness may be a better indicator than political persuasion. Barely mentioned in the piece is the climate crisis. Other factors include the mental health epidemic and the ever-rising cost of living. For some, having children is a fact of life, but for others it is a choice and a decision that requires faith in the future and faith in oneself. To anyone with their head above sand, the future doesn’t look like a good place to raise children, particularly if you are struggling for faith. Conservatives lambasting childlessness as if it were a weakness will only lower faith further.
Nicholas Massey (age 30)
Katrina Forrester (“The rise and fall of digital Corbynism”, 20 August) provides an interesting insight into how digital initiatives contributed to the Corbyn project. That a significant increase in mass activism and member engagement never materialised was something many of us foresaw. As ever, too many on the left forget that most people have little to no appetite or time for “organising” or forging social “movements”. There is an important place for activism, but the idea that the left will be swept to power on the back of a mass progressive movement, digitally inspired or otherwise, is fanciful and deluded. While too much of the left daydreams and believes its own hype, the right wins and wins and wins.
What terror means
Rachel Cunliffe in First Thoughts (20 August) drew attention not to some new terrorism but to terrorism as it was once understood. She considered the young “incel” gunman, who committed a mass murder that the police said was not “terror-related” but “domestic”. Her doubts were well founded, but unfortunately she considered his motivation rather than his communication. There was a time when “terrorism” referred to rhetorical political violence, reducing a person to a message directed at an audience. When, for example, the Provisional IRA sent a message to the “Brits”, their victims mattered little and there was a word for that. But then – by way of tolerating the word’s use in name-calling, all the way to the US using it to label states – “terrorism” became meaningless, or just a synonym for “really, really bad”.
It looks as if the incel activist was a classic terrorist and the police didn’t consider him bad enough to apply their empty understanding of the term.
Words for rambling
I write to suggest some alternative words to “countryside” for Nicholas Lezard (Down and Out, 30 July). Whereas “rural landscape” may suffice, “terrain” seems a little vague, and “green belt” too restricting. “Undeveloped land” is rather too patronising. I suggest that “sylvan” and “georgic” have a rustic charm and could easily flow from the pen of Lezard.
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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat