Around fifty years ago the American singer Lovelace Watkins, who hadn’t made the expected impact in his own country, became a big star in the UK. A big, powerful black man with a booming voice who sang popular romantic songs, his earthy appeal made him very popular with the ladies, and he performed a number of sold out cabaret shows and released several records. He also had a reputation as a womaniser, which worked in his favour, though few wanted to admit it.
Unfortunately his British star waned as soon as it had risen. At the end of one of his concerts he introduced the audience to his new wife – white, blonde and thin. Some didn’t like the idea of him marrying a white woman, though he already had done once, but most couldn’t accept that he was a simple family man instead of the loud, threatening, glamorous gorilla his audience wanted him to be. His career was never the same, and he again failed to reach the heights once predicted and possible.
Watkins is an example of someone whose career was destroyed by incipient racism – in a supreme and shameful irony; he then went to South Africa and was treated better there under the Apartheid regime than he had come to be in the UK. But it could also be said that his success was made by racism – he had made hay by confirming prejudices about what a big black ex-boxer was, until those assumptions came back to bite him.
As General Mark Milley stated in a Congressional hearing, the US military academy is a university. Milley himself attended Princeton and Columbia, and was explaining that the more widely read his officers are, the more they can understand the views and motivations of the US and its enemies. Therefore they are not the sort of people who are racist because they don’t know any better, or don’t realise they are racist, as is usually alleged of people described in such terms – if such a designation is accurate or appropriate for those simply doing their duty.
So why has the US been making the same mistakes in Afghanistan again and again since the heyday of Lovelace Watkins? If anyone in Washington was making military decisions, based on military calculations, they would never have touched the place with a bargepole.
The US doesn’t care about Afghanistan or Afghans. It doesn’t even care about the narcotics which allegedly come from there. We all saw how effective the War on Drugs was, and how productions increased under its watch. As long as the US can control this trade through proxies it is happy to ruin its own citizens, profit coming before people at all times.
The US has always been involved in Afghanistan because it is inherently racist. Afghans are good guys because they are believed to fit a racial stereotype, then bad guys because they then fit the same stereotype. Whichever view is taken then has to be proved right, as another extension of manifest destiny – just like Native Americans (red Indians) were portrayed as criminal, uncultured savages by the same white settlers who gloried in being exactly that in all their films about the Wild West, the Old South and organised crime.
Now it is all turning sour on them, yet again. The bad guys in the Taliban (banned in Russia) are back, and the US is wondering why. Could it be because racism doesn’t reflect reality, so real life military actions taken to support it don’t work? Could it also be the US has always known that, and that failure to believe in what you are fighting for is the main reason anyone loses in conflict?
Black and White and Always Right
The US left Afghanistan alone for many years, even when it could have intervened. It could have helped King Amanullah in 1929, when he was deposed in the Afghan Civil War. After all, he was trying to make Afghanistan a modernised Western country, and supported the West against the Soviet Union in exchange for the full independence he had himself obtained.
The US has fought for others, with far fewer credentials, for far less reason. But it suited US racism to condemn Afghanistan as a backward country full of rival and rural warlords who played buzkashi. They were left to pursue their own traditional ways, whatever they were, provided they remained non-threatening. If something was wrong there, it could be dismissed as, “they are silly, backward Afghans who don’t understand Western methods, what do you expect?”
Few knew or cared when further political turmoil saw the establishment of a republic instead of an outdated monarchy supposedly reflective of the country’s backwardness. Afghanistan only came to Western attention again when that republic was overthrown by a communist revolution, and then the Soviets moved in to overtake those local communists.
The initial move to communism was considered sad, but acceptable given the general picture in the region. These were independent communists, like those in the former Yugoslavia; therefore they had to be better than Soviets, a sort of progressive tribe. Those who lived in Yugoslavia then didn’t think it was a better place to live than the Soviet Union, but Afghans couldn’t understand the West, so their communism must be something different from how the West saw the Soviet version, more like that of Vietnam, now considered tolerable because it had beaten the US.
The Soviet action then resulted in the major US protest known as the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. This protest was a violation of the Olympic Charter, signed by all nations, and some US allies refused to go along with it, in some cases because the national Olympic associations defied their own governments to do so.
No one knew or (really cared) whether the pro-Soviet Afghans were any worse than the previous government, or any of the others before it. But Afghanistan had to be given token support because these were these happy little people in the hills who were always innocent victims, their cheerful backwardness being unsuited to the greater sophistication of the world around, the countries whose views are respected, love them or loathe them.
The US and Saudi Arabia eventually sponsored various mujahedeen groups to boot the Soviets out. Then the group which happened to control the part of Kabul where the government buildings were then declared itself the government; and yet another civil war began. This act violated a US-backed UN state formation process. But it was only these Afghans, these backward tribesmen and fanatics, what could you expect?
The Taliban ended that conflict by promising their version of “Make America Great Again” and “Victorian Values”. The US finally intervened with troops to kick it out. As ever, it insisted that the locals knew nothing and the US knew everything, and the country had to be remade as one big Muslim McDonald’s franchise. Now the Taliban is back with a vengeance, after the US was supposed to have defeated it, and the US is asking why
Afghans don’t want the Taliban back, but it makes more sense than being treated as ignorant and incapable by those who claim to be your friends. If everyone is now angry at the US military, just imagine how angry the military must be at being forced to fight this war on the basis of inoperable nonsense which undermined it from the first day.
Back in the day, the Taliban weren’t opposed because they were extremists who imposed a repressive regime on their country, they were opposed because they allegedly sponsored terrorism, and financed it by selling heroin with the intention of getting Westerners addicted to it and destroying their countries in the process.
The difference between the number of Afghans who profited from the heroin trade and the number of Americans who still do is the difference between the number of beaches in the world and the number of grains of sand on them. Similarly the US is the number one beneficiary of terrorism, as it can use it to do as it likes, by manufacturing threats and ignoring or creating real ones at the expense of legal governments and local populations.
The US has supported many regimes no better than the Taliban. Indeed, it is truism of international affairs that the worse you behave, the more the US will cover the lies for you. When the list of atrocities grows long enough, people would rather hear the believable lies than keep listening to the increasingly outrageous facts. When the abuses go on for too long, people get tired of hearing them all the time, and take comfort in official lies which are designed to cater to their tastes and attention spans.
The whole concept of a “war on terrorism” is a lie. Terrorists are identified on the basis of criteria so fluid they can be used against anyone. They are actively supported when it suits the US, or another sponsor, to do so – as Afghanistan knows only too well. The Taliban may be horrible abusers, but the warring factions the US sponsored to get rid of the Soviets without going there themselves were even worse, which is how Taliban gained a hold in the population, including the significant non-Muslim and non-Pastun Afghan minorities, by preaching a code everyone knew and understood, and could give a chance to.
The advance on Kabul has allegedly taken the US by surprise. We are told they saw it coming, but not for several months. They did however know that not only does the current US president not believe in this war, neither do most of the troops on the ground there, whether US or Afghan, most US allies having removed their contributions long ago.
The US is still haunted by the fact this happened in Vietnam in Cold War times. Not only did it fail to defeat communism in that conflict, its own soldiers and public saw no reason to continue trying to do so. Not because they had all turned communist, but because the war was being fought on the basis of lies about Vietnam, its people and its northern government. In more recent times the Iraq War attracted the same criticism when it was exposed as based on a lie about non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and has cost the US far more than it has gained.
Lying doesn’t work in the hard arena of war. But the US entered Afghanistan not to rid the population of an abusive regime but to confirm its own racism, thinking this would give it more voice in the world. We’ve heard that voice, and few want it to ever open its mouth again.
US Out and with Good Riddance
Afghans have seen off every invader, and everything they think is “foreign”, throughout their long history. In various parts of Eurasia governments are sponsoring Silk Road-related projects to restore old international trade routes, in the name of economic and social (i.e. “liberal democratic”) development. Afghanistan is bang in the middle of the Silk Road, so if you don’t want the country to be financed by heroin smuggling, the vast riches the Silk Road will bring will soon enable any Afghan government to isolate drug traffickers and develop much more lucrative lines of legitimate, non-threatening business.
But that is business, just ask the Chinese. The business plan operates according to a set of rigidly neutral laws, when it is allowed to. If the brown Muslim down the road can get you what you want at the price you want he has an advantage over the white Anglo-Saxon trader. This means you have to treat that trader as a person just like you, inhabiting your world because he caters for your wants.
But suspending racism is more difficult than suspending tax payments when so many of your actions are driven by it that it becomes an institutional necessity. Lies don’t change anything, but still the US tries to pretend they can.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.