The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan has beamed startling and awful scenes into our consciousness: government workers and journalists hiding as Taliban fighters search houses; women being forced off the streets to cover up at gunpoint; a desperate crowd of thousands camping in the Kabul airport, desperate to get out; crowds chasing and clinging to a plane as it takes off, some of them later falling to their deaths. With the Taliban swiftly overrunning the country and fears of an impending wave of human rights violations rife, the once-majority support for US withdrawal has plunged to a plurality of 49 percent.
American war hawks have wasted no time in pointing to these and other scenes to argue for a renewed US invasion. “The status quo of two weeks ago was far better than what is coming,” wrote Eli Lake, arguing that “America should keep a few thousand forces in a country that have prevented the atrocities that are now unfolding.” Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass likewise pointed to the plight of Afghan women and girls and those under threat from Taliban reprisals, arguing that what came before was “far preferable to the alternative that is now taking power,” and that “what matters in foreign policy is not what you can accomplish but what you can avoid.” Explaining why he’d opposed withdrawal, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) argued that US troops had “fought for human rights, stymied the Taliban’s repressive ideology . . . and prevented a humanitarian catastrophe,” while “the consequences of our decision to abandon Afghanistan are now on full display.”
But if human rights are going to be used as a reason for re-regime-changing Afghanistan — barely days after the first go-round ended in embarrassing failure after twenty long years — a modicum of intellectual honesty means acknowledging that human rights violations were rampant long before US and coalition troops got out, and that they were the ones who were carrying them out.
Death From Above and Below
It’s worth remembering the United States is currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court, where prosecutors say they have evidence US troops and the CIA “committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence” against Afghan detainees. A lot of this is along the lines of the typical kinds of stories we’ve heard come out of Guantanamo Bay, but it also went further, including beating men on their testicles, and forced “rectal feeding” of alleged hunger strikers that was so harsh, it gave one detainee “chronic hemorrhoids, an anal fissure, and symptomatic rectal prolapse.”
These kinds of atrocities have been carried out by US forces and their Afghan allies from the very start of the invasion, as compiled by Human Rights Watch, the premier liberal human rights organization that, within the human rights world, has mainly been criticized for being too friendly to Washington.
In 2004, the organization detailed how coalition troops would heavy-handedly arrest entirely innocent villagers and their children, in the process endangering and sometimes beating, insulting, and killing them — even robbing and destroying their property — before sending them to enjoy Guantanamo-like treatment for the days and weeks their families had no clue where they were. In a society where the inviolability of a man’s home has traditionally been a matter of personal honor, such raids — particularly when carried out with dogs or when women are present — were experienced as especially grave abuses.
The scale of civilian deaths, deliberately undercounted, were further laid bare by WikiLeaks’ 2010 release of the Afghanistan war logs, which detailed coalition forces killing and wounding hundreds of Afghan civilians from 2004 to 2009. The logs highlighted instances of shocking recklessness, as when a “smart bomb” malfunctioned and landed on a village, causing nineteen casualties; or when Polish troops violated protocol and rained mortar onto a villager near where a military vehicle had been attacked, killing six civilians, including a pregnant woman and three kids. (“If you see a fucking dude holding a weapon, you fucking hose him down!” one Pole recalled a US platoon sergeant briefing his men, about a largely rural populace where villagers regularly carry rifles).
Episodes like these were depressingly regular throughout the rest of the war: forty-five dead in an airstrike here, thirty dead in an air strike there; another forty-five killed in a strike on Taliban drug labs; forty-seven more when a wedding party was bombed. Each were justified as measures targeting the Taliban; each killed an appalling number of kids, besides innocent men and women.
Though they didn’t kill as many as all various anti-government forces (including the Taliban and ISIS) combined, the US military, its allies, and the Afghan government killed an average of 582 civilians a year from 2007 to 2016, before rising to more than 1,100 between 2017 and 2019. Since 2016, 40 percent of airstrike casualties have been kids.
In one infamous incident, US and Afghan forces attacked a Doctors Without Borders hospital, destroying its main building and killing forty-two patients and staff, even though they’d been given its GPS coordinates beforehand and hospital personnel had alerted the US military while they were being attacked. It was as unambiguous a war crime as you can find, which is presumably why Washington put the kibosh on any independent investigation, no matter the contradictory and evolving explanations offered. Eventually, both Afghan forces and the US military publicly agreed they had committed the atrocity on purpose, supposedly because the Taliban had used the hospital as a perch from which to attack them.
Another part of the cost of keeping the Taliban at bay was that Afghanistan became the most drone-bombed country in the world. The civilian population came to be riddled with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological issues, and children even came to fear playing outside, thanks to the very real prospect that death could rain down from the sky at any moment on themselves and their loved ones.
Over and again, hapless drone operators would accidentally kill innocent Afghans in strikes that were anything but surgical, or misidentify them as militants, errors concealed by the government’s practice of effectively counting all military-age males in a post-strike radius as enemies. “We are like ants for them,” complained one man who had lost various family members to drone strikes.
As Daniel Hale explained this year to the judge who put him in prison, it was seeing firsthand the US military’s indiscriminate murder-by-drone of innocent Afghans that led him to become a whistleblower: a group of armed farmers sipping tea, blown to bits for the crime of being in the company of a Taliban member; a suspect’s very young daughter, torn apart by the shrapnel from a strike intended to stop his getaway; military contractors bonding by watching footage of old drone strikes, mocking the deaths of men they’d never know.
“Using the analogy of taking out a sniper, with his sights set out on an unassuming crowd of people, the president likened the use of drones to prevent a would-be terrorist from carrying out his evil plot,” wrote Hale. “But as I understood it to be, the unassuming crowd had been those who lived in fear and terror of drones in their skies and the sniper in the scenario had been me.”
Murder in the Night
WikiLeaks’ 2010 release revealed something else for the first time: a crack, special forces team that carried out secret “kill or capture” missions that involved sneaking up on their targets in the dead of night, and often ended with them erroneously murdering civilians, children, and even Afghan police.
Under Gens. Stanley McChrystal and then David Petraeus — both later disgraced, for entirely the wrong reasons — such special forces operations were stepped up by orders of magnitude and came to define the US presence in Afghanistan, with regular disappearances and cases of fatal mistaken identity. Though an exact count of civilians killed is next to impossible, at a time when international forces were doing twenty night raids a night, one analysis estimated more than fifteen hundred civilians killed.
Not that these were all accidents. As Trump’s series of war criminal pardons reminds us, some soldiers deployed to the country were just genuine sadists who liked to torture and kill for the fun of it. One of the biggest ongoing recent stories from the war, with new reporting emerging right up to this chaotic withdrawal, was the revelation of a spate of heinous war crimes by Australian special forces, a product of a “distorted culture” among them, a government report found.
Members of these forces told the Guardian that “whatever we do . . . I can tell you the Brits and the US are far, far worse,” and that coalition special forces had absorbed the sadistic culture of their US counterparts. It’s apparently so bad among elite US soldiers, in fact, that the leader of the US Navy’s special forces has outright stated that “we have a problem,” and the Pentagon’s inspector general has now launched an inquiry into war crimes they committed.
And if it wasn’t occupying troops carrying out atrocities, it was the locals they worked with. The US government backed and empowered abusive (and often ultraconservative) warlords throughout the war. It was a marriage of convenience for stitching the country together and closing the Taliban out, but one which also made a mockery of Washington’s supposed concern for human and, particularly, women’s rights.
Meanwhile, the Afghan police, military, and special forces the US military trained to prop up the government that just collapsed — some of whom were simply armed militias with a badge and a different name — regularly carried out ghastly atrocities against their own people, compiled yearly by the United Nations. That included the prolific sexual abuse of young boys and girls, which US troops were ordered to turn a blind eye to.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” one special forces captain who learned about the sexual abuse told the New York Times. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me.”
Putting Out Fire With Gasoline
The fact that all this well-trodden history has suddenly been forgotten just as the Taliban has retaken the country is especially ironic given that it played a leading role in its resurgence.
Unsurprisingly, many ordinary Afghans weren’t very happy with the corrupt and abusive government that the foreign occupiers had helped set up, nor with the rampant murder and abuse of their friends and families that they carried out. It wasn’t unusual to see angry protests, complete with acts of violence and “Death to America” chants follow the US military’s patented whoopsie-daisy civilian massacres-by-air.
Protests also followed deadly US night raids, which became a particular sticking point between the Kabul and Washington under Obama’s presidency, especially after one of them left the Afghan president’s cousin dead. “These people come in the middle of the night. They break into houses. They bring dogs with them. They drag women out of the house. This is an offense to Islam,” one Afghan man told PBS in 2011. “If the Taliban were hiding in my house, I wouldn’t tell you. They don’t dishonor our women, but your friends do,” said another.
As human rights lawyer Erica Gaston said in 2011, “night raids are probably the single biggest cause of outrage among Afghans. They are usually so inflammatory that, if even one raid causes a civilian casualty, everyone in the area knows about it.”
This was understood in more official circles, too. “[The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] observed that unaddressed abuses by the [Afghanistan Local Police]” — which included extortion, threats, and intimidation — “appeared to have increased support for the Taliban in some districts, with communities reporting that they increasingly viewed the Taliban as a ‘lesser evil,’” stated one UN report.
One former US foreign service official admitted that while murdered Taliban commanders were quickly and easily replaced, “the more raids we do like this, the more we upset and aggrieve the Afghan population, the more support they get.” McChrystal himself came to realize that the night raids “cede credibility to insurgents who can exploit our insensitivities in a persuasion campaign” and belatedly tried to tamp down on them, only for his successor to ramp them back up.
The recklessness and abuses of foreign and Afghan government forces, not to mention the corruption of the government they were working for, created widespread resentment that the Taliban capitalized on, in spite of their own horrendous human rights record. Every time the US military incinerated fourteen members of a family, killed pregnant women then lied about it, or otherwise terrorized and disrespected Afghan villagers in raids on their homes, the Taliban’s case as the lesser evil became stronger.
Complaining about the US withdrawal by pointing to the Taliban’s takeover of the country, in other words, is like saying a fire became out of control because you failed to give it enough gasoline.
A Convenient Forgetting
US politics is right now going through one of its regular bouts of collective amnesia, letting proponents of war implicitly paint the nearly two decades before last week as a time of relative law and order and respect for human rights, particularly those of women. Doing so means ignoring one of the main reasons both Afghans and antiwar activists were calling for the United States to get out of the country to begin with: rampant lawless abuses from the forces fighting the Taliban.
The Taliban are awful, and there is no shortage of sickening stories about their rule. But many Afghans already did that calculus and decided that, notwithstanding the group’s depravity, the horrors regularly experienced under foreign occupation and at the hands of the corrupt government the occupiers were propping up were so unbearably awful, they’d rather give the Taliban a try — which is how we got here. The current surge of media coverage focused entirely on Taliban abuses is meant to make us forget this.
There is, unfortunately, no good option for the Afghan people; just a choice between two varieties of violent misrule. Maybe if US forces had conducted themselves differently, they wouldn’t have led so many Afghans to decide they’d be better off with the version that has now taken power. But if that was ever even on the cards, it’s far too late to change it now.