The heartbreaking and infuriating situation presently unfolding in Afghanistan is the predictable result of more than 40 years of American imperialism in action. We at Brand New Congress believe we must embrace this moment to confront hard truths about our conduct as a nation, and atone for the harm we have caused, by opening our doors to asylum seekers. We must forge a new path with a bedrock commitment to human rights and self-determination for all peoples.
In his speech yesterday, President Biden pointedly — and wrongly — blamed the events of the last two weeks on the Afghan Army and corrupt political leaders installed and propped up by U.S. interests.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.” – President Biden, August 16, 2021
This is a deflection from four decades of imperialism and occupation during which America has been the principal author of Afghanistan’s fate.
Let us be clear: Leaving Afghanistan is the right decision. We firmly reject calls coming from lawmakers like Congressman Steve Chabot to maintain a permanent troop presence in Afghanistan.¹
It is time instead to come to terms with our nation’s role in creating this crisis, our responsibility to ALL the people we have harmed, and to commit to a new course.
To lay blame for our failures and our crimes on the shoulders of those we have oppressed is nothing short of whitewashing history as it’s still being written. And when we examine the legacy of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, there is plenty of blame to go around.
While much of the reporting in the last few days has focused on the last 20 years of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, this story begins in 1979 with a covert CIA proxy war.
Eight American presidents have presided over our constant interventions in Afghanistan. Four Republicans and four Democrats. The violence and chaos we have fomented has been funded by both Democratic and Republican members of Congress.
And what has this war cost us? Not just America, but Afghanistan, and the world? The true cost is incalculable.
Estimates on the total price tag range from $1 trillion to upwards of $2.3 trillion,²but even that does not capture the full price we have collectively paid for America’s longest war.
For how can you calculate the cost of a life cut short? What kind of price tag do you put on the deferred dreams of a generation? And two? How about five generations?
Nearly 6,300 Americans have died in Afghanistan — 2,448 U.S. troops and 3,846 U.S. civilian contractors.³ Tens of thousands more were wounded, many with life-altering injuries.
But the Afghan people have, by far, paid the heaviest price. The lowest figures estimate upwards of 200,000 Afghans were killed, including Afghan National Army and Police, civilians, and at least 51,191 identified as “opposition fighters.”
However, we’ve known since 2012 that, in conducting drone strikes around the world, the U.S. government “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”⁴ Meaning we can never truly know the number of civilians killed by U.S. strikes.
Beyond this incalculable loss of life, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been injured. Millions more have been displaced — ripped from their homes, forced to wander their war-torn country or pushed into foreign lands where they struggle with homelessness and hunger.
This displacement leads to an erasure of cultural identity, a loss of community, and increased disease brought on by exposure, unsafe housing, and malnutrition. A cost to all of humanity that can never be measured.
The Debt We Owe
In the final insult, we have constructed a process for asylum seekers that is nearly impossible to navigate, meaning precious few will even have the opportunity to escape the horrors we have visited on their homeland with a new life in America.
In the last 48 hours there has been a nearly universal chorus of lawmakers and pundits insisting that we must evacuate “our Afghan allies and women and children” to protect them from Taliban rule and retaliatory violence.
Indeed, we made an explicit promise to those employed by the U.S. military as interpreters that they could apply for — and should receive — Special Immigrant Visas for themselves and their families as thanks for their service.
Unfortunately those SIVs have been severely limited, and the U.S. government has been slow-walking applications from the beginning, leaving tens of thousands stranded as targets for the Taliban.⁵
To date, only a few thousand former interpreters — out of some 50,000 — have successfully navigated the SIV process and been granted asylum in the U.S. alongside their families. Even with the current push to urgently evacuate interpreters specifically, the U.S. has only committed to bringing in another 3,500. While Canada has pledged to accept up to 20,000 Afghan refugees, the U.S. government is pressuring allies to accept these asylum seekers rather than expanding our own commitment.⁸
Even those fortunate enough to make it to America often find themselves stranded and unwelcome. The BBC recently reported the story of Zia Ghafoori, a former Afghan interpreter who worked for 14 years with U.S. special forces, and waited 6 years for his Special Immigrant Visa — a process that is supposed to take no more than 9 months.
“Zia, his pregnant wife and their three small children landed in the United States from their home in Kabul in September 2014. Upon arrival, Zia found himself homeless – sent to a shelter by a well-meaning volunteer who told him it would be a place for him and his family to start a new life.”⁹
But these interpreters are far from the only people to whom we owe a debt.
Few Americans know there were also hundreds of thousands of Afghans employed by the U.S. government in other roles. They worked as cooks and dishwashers, carpenters and electricians, laborers and cleaners. They dug ditches and drove trucks and did all the menial tasks that made American military bases function smoothly. They were paid as little as $5 a day. Many were illiterate, yet they worked faithfully for the Americans for 10 or 15+ years.
They and their families were constant targets of violence — and they are still in danger. But even if the SIV were open to them (it isn’t), these laborers don’t have the resources needed to navigate the onerous process Congress established for the program.⁶
Then there are the millions of refugees our intervention has created. Amnesty International estimated in 2019 that upwards of 3 million Afghans had been displaced and were living as refugees in other host nations.⁷ In light of the current crisis, we can be sure that number is higher now.
Our compassion cannot be limited to those who have directly served the occupying army. We have an obligation to ALL who have been harmed or placed at risk under the instability created by four decades of American intervention in Afghanistan — including the many ethnic and religious minorities that comprise the rich, Afghan cultural heritage.
Certainly there have been other players in this vicious game of proxy wars. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, and Iran have all preyed upon the Afghan people for their own interests. But for the last 40 years there has been a single through-line — the United States of America.
Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug.16. 2021. (Verified UGC via AP)
The list of those responsible for the crisis in Afghanistan today is long, but we believe the majority of the blame lies with Congress.
It is Congress that passed the expansive, open-ended Authorization for Use of Military Force in 2001 (with Rep. Barbara Lee as the sole dissenting vote¹⁰) which has been used to justify this 20-year occupation and an ever-expanding list of invisible forever wars.
It is Congress that authorizes the Pentagon budget which grows by tens of billions of dollars year over year.
It is Congress that holds the power to declare war — and to revoke it. A power they have increasingly ceded to the Executive branch.
It is Congress that passes the laws that govern our immigration and asylum processes, constructing impossible barriers that leave refugees hanging in the balance for years.
And finally it is Congress that holds the constitutional mandate to provide oversight for all of these functions, and to intervene when processes are being abused.
But, save for a few members, Congress has largely abdicated these responsibilities in service to the military industrial complex — the multinational corporations who fill their campaign coffers with the profits of war and devastation.
Leaving Afghanistan is the right decision, and it was always going to be a painful one. Our government, as revealed in Washington Post’s 2019 reporting, “The Afghanistan Papers,” has known for years that this is exactly the outcome we could expect.¹¹ Every veteran and contractor who has served in Afghanistan could tell you that this was the outcome we could expect. Indeed, many have.
The only surprise here, as President Biden admitted in a moment of bleak candor yesterday, was that “this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”
Everyone responsible for this mess thought they would have more time — time which may have shielded them from blame.
But there’s no hiding from it now.
One thing is clear. The solution to 40 years of American imperialism in Afghanistan is not more imperialism.
We must repeal the AUMF, permanently. We must move quickly to evacuate asylum seekers to the U.S. and help them settle into their new lives. We must suspend ongoing military engagements authorized under the AUMF in dozens of countries around the world (including ongoing drone strikes) and implement robust Congressional oversight.
Those are the short-term solutions. But to build a new American foreign policy paradigm, we must divest from the war machine. We must elect representatives who won’t sell out to the military industrial complex or any other industry.
Let the final death of this long conflict be the very concept of American imperialism. Let us, at last, mobilize for peace and end forever wars.