How Progressives Got Afghanistan Wrong

The "decent left" was wrong: a blood-soaked occupation did not lead to a promising post-Taliban future.

UK Ministry of Defence / Flickr

Against the sunny predictions of the cruise missile left, Afghanistan is in ruins. Western bombings in Herat, Farah, and Kunduz have led to mass civilian death, while nighttime house raids murder more intimately in Ghazi Khan and Khatabeh.

The casualty figures should shame the war’s supporters. Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse of the Nation calculate that even by conservative counts, the deaths of 6,481 civilians were directly attributable to ISAF and the Afghan government with which it is allied. Thousands more have been killed by insurgents, fighting a war of the West’s making.

Nor has this blood soaked path led to a promising post-Taliban future. Afghanistan has the worst rate of infant mortality in the world. Half of Afghan children suffer irreversible harm from malnutrition. The UN’s 2013 Human Development Index ranks Afghanistan 175 out of 186 countries. Thomas Ruttig of Afghanistan Analysis Network writes that “economic activity in general [is] falling,” unemployment and crime are rising, and that 60 percent of children are malnourished. Just 27 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water.

The record of Hamid Karzai’s government is blighted by torture, corruption, warlords, and a fraudulent 2009 election. Nor has freedom and safety for Afghanistan’s ever-instrumentalized women come about.

In March of 2013, the ISAF-backed Karzai endorsed a statement that refers to women as “secondary,” bars violence against women only for “un-Islamic” reasons, and advocates gender segregation in schools, workplaces, and public spaces. In 2012 the burn unit of an Afghan hospital admitted a record number of women who tried to set themselves on fire. And Suraya Pakzad, who runs women’s shelters in the country, has described cases of women being publicly stoned while ISAF-trained Afghan troops looked on.

Moreover, the war’s hideous violence has benefited the ultra-misogynistic Taliban. A November 2013 study conducted by a team of scholars from Yale and Princeton finds that among Afghans “Harm inflicted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is met with reduced support for ISAF and increased support for the Taliban, but Taliban-inflicted harm does not translate into greater ISAF support.”

All of these outcomes are perfectly predictable and were in fact anticipated by many. As the United States prepares to withdraw most of its forces from Afghanistan, it is worth looking back at the debates many had during the lead-up to and early phases of that war.

While it is easy to say in hindsight that such writers as Tariq Ali and Marjorie Cohn were correct to oppose the intervention and that others like Michael Bérubé, Michael Kazin, Todd Gitlin and Michael Walzer were wrong to endorse it, an examination of how the latter group got it wrong is necessary. Clarifying the analytic errors made by the imperialist “left” at the time are important because some have since taken similar approaches to Iraq and more recently to Libya and Syria.

“Progressive” boosterism for the Afghan war had several calling cards. Chief among them was how authors touted their credentials in opposing past cases of US aggression, in some cases professed concern for the Palestinians, and bragged of a left-of-center track record on social and economic issues.

However, the left-imperialists believed that differences in the tactics and ideological orientation of the US’ enemies in Afghanistan were major reasons that the Afghan war was legitimate whereas the ventures in Vietnam and Nicaragua were not. Cruise missile leftists ignored that while the context of US military action had changed, no moment of rupture had taken place within the American state that directs that military.

By contrast, leftists who opposed the war in Afghanistan did so because they understood that the character of US power and its allied states is such that wars against the smaller and poorer nations are exercises in accumulation and imperialism by their very nature.

The cruise-missile leftists also made sure to attack those who were not so eager to drop cluster bombs on Afghan villagers. For example, Chomsky accurately pointed to a September 16, 2001, report that the US government “demanded” that Pakistan end “truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population.” Chomsky used Burns’ report to decisively show that the US was taking actions that it knew would harm Afghan civilians, and that it was therefore unreasonable to believe the war was going to liberate Afghans or even attempt to do so.

In response to this, Bérubé raged that Chomsky was exhibiting “a repellent mix of hysteria and hauteur,” without even attempting to refute the argument.

Progressive warmongers frequently accused anti-imperialists of claiming in a simplistic way that the US is incapable of helping the world’s oppressed. Yet in the same breath such cruise missile leftists would demand simplistic, unequivocal declarations of the US’ moral superiority.

Gitlin wrote that the anti-imperialists were “Like jingoists who consider any effort to understand terrorists immoral, on the grounds that to understand is to endorse, [because these leftist] hard-liners disdain complexity.” For Gitlin, the problem is that anti-imperialism is a “cartoon view of the world [where] there is nothing worse than American power — not the woman-enslaving Taliban, not an unrepentant Al Qaeda committed to killing civilians as they please.”

According to Gitlin’s one-dimensional view, there was no room for considerations such as the degree to which bombing and occupying Afghanistan and propping up a warlord regime with its own rather patriarchal tendencies might have adverse effects on the people of that country, particularly Afghan women. To Gitlin, it was necessary to overlook complications such as the fact that ISAF’s (ultimately failed) “rescue” of Afghan women would inevitably mean killing, detaining or horribly wounding thousands of their fathers, grandfathers, brothers, community members, and friends—and quite a few Afghan women themselves.

Anti-imperialist arguments against war in Afghanistan can be roughly divided into three categories.  The first category of anti-war argument was to point out, as Chomsky and Cohn did, that the invasion of Afghanistan violated international law and was also fundamentally unjust.

The second involved identifying the US state as imperialist, and thus preoccupied with the standard concerns of imperialism: militarized accumulation and geostrategic advantage — goals which tend to harm the peoples of the South.

Arguments of this variety were supported by the third approach, which showed that Western policy in Afghanistan belied the idea that ISAF’s actions would better the lives of Afghans. For example, Chomsky pointed to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, who advised that the bombing of Afghanistan “had disrupted planting that provides 80 percent of the country’s grain supplies.” And Arundhati Roy took the same approach when she noted, just before the war began, that “the UN estimates that there are eight million Afghan citizens who need emergency aid. As supplies run out – food and aid agencies have been asked to leave – the BBC reports that one of the worst humanitarian disasters of recent times has begun to unfold.”

By contrast, much of the “progressive” defense of the war in Afghanistan, and the War on Terror more generally, was based on vacuous excoriations of the Left for its failure to “live up to its core values.”

Similarly, then-Dissent editor Michael Walzer explained that he had “a modest agenda: put decency first.” Bérubé dismissed “morally odious” the idea that “the bombing of Afghanistan was the moral equivalent of the 9/11 attacks.” Gitlin described Roy as “in the grip of a prejudice invulnerable to moral distinctions” because she compared the corruption and brutality of Bush to that of bin Laden. In place of engagement with details and complexities, what the progressive imperialists offered were arbitrary, content-free, ill-defined concepts being put forth by tut-tutting, finger-wagging white guys with tenure.

Little has changed. The pro-war progressives have made the same points amid the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya and leading up to the military campaign that the US nearly undertook in Syria in 2013 and may attempt again in the future.

For example, in the spring of 2012 Bérubé was denouncing anti-imperialists who opposed NATO’s war in Libya. He boasts that the intervention prevented a massacre — even though NATO and the forces whose victory they enabled actually carried out multiple massacres. In so doing, Bérubé resurrects Walzer’s question of whether a “decent left” was possible, though Bérubé thinks the phrasing could be tweaked:

The question, rather, should have been whether there can be a rigorously internationalist left in the US, a left that will promote and support the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear — even on those rare and valuable occasions when doing so puts one in the position of supporting US policies.

Set aside that in Libya NATO did no such thing. Bérubé blithely assumes, as pro-war progressives had in Afghanistan, that NATO states act in pursuit of the freedom of oppressed peoples. It is holding idealist beliefs such as these despite all evidence to the contrary that causes Bérubé to celebrate in Libya, as he had in Afghanistan, an empire shedding of the blood of dark-skinned people.

On Syria, Dissent editor Michael Kazin was upset by the tenor of Dreyfuss’s opposition to Western intervention. Though Kazin is equivocal about the merits of bombing Syria, he thinks it reasonable “to want to punish the Syrian government for violating a ban on [sarin gas] the first weapon which nearly every nation agreed, back in the 1920s, never to use again.”

As with Bérubé’s misdiagnosis of the Libyan war, there’s no need to dwell on Kazin’s easy acceptance of the claim that it was Bashar al-Assad’s government who used sarin gas in August 2013 despite significant evidence to the contrary.

Kazin’s basic error is to principally focus on the nature of Assad’s regime while ignoring the character of the institutions that determine policy within Western states and overlooking how that could undermine the chances that their bombing of Syria will create a just peace in that country.

Furthermore, Kazin took exception to leftists who he felt opposed bombing Syria in overly strident terms, on the grounds that this allegedly “dishonors the vision of a left which, at its best, has always adhered, in essence, to the motto of the late, great New York City daily PM: ‘We are  against people who push other people around, just for the fun of pushing, whether they flourish in this country or abroad.’”

Presumably the civilians who would die in a US-led bombing campaign, and in the likely escalation of the Syrian war, might feel “push[ed] around” by the cruise missiles falling on them but Kazin could not see that.

An opposition to those who “push other people around” is the vaguest of vague abstractions, belied most of all by its inattention to the biggest bully on the block: the American ruling class. Indeed, while it may be a fine principle on which to supervise recess, it completely overlooks the myriad complexities and contingencies that characterize any war and most certainly the one in Syria.

In the debates over the West’s imperialist aggression against Afghanistan, the assessments made by the radical Left proved correct primarily because they derived from observable phenomena.

And among the most significant lessons to draw from progressive support for the war in Afghanistan is one that progressives had to no excuse not to know by 2001: while there is often a shortage of immediate results-yielding ways to support people in the Global South dealing with problems of inequality and human rights, one surefire way to not be of use is to rally support for imperial armies to invade, bomb, militarily occupy, jail en masse, torture, and kill the people in question.