John Oliver: Afghanistan withdrawal is ‘a stain on Biden’s legacy’

The Last Week Tonight host addresses the disastrous withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and what we owe the Afghan people after 20 years of war

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver addressed the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan just days after the US began withdrawing military forces. “America’s war there is drawing to a close after almost 20 years of fighting,” said Oliver on Sunday evening. “We all knew the end was likely to be ugly, the only question was, how ugly? Well, this week, we got our answer.”

The host played scenes of panic and chaos in Afghanistan after the Biden administration began pulling out US troops: rushes at the Kabul airport, a US cargo plane overstuffed with 800 people. There was footage, which Oliver declined to show, of people falling to their deaths from planes as they took off.

“While Biden insisted that ‘we planned for every contingency’,” said Oliver, “that is pretty hard to believe given that just 10 days ago, the US was desperately trying to negotiate with the Taliban asking to spare our embassy in Kabul; a day later, that embassy was told to destroy sensitive files, and by this time last week, we were evacuating it altogether.

“The fact is, America has now joined a long line of countries who came to Afghanistan to serve their own interests, only to leave defeated.”

The HBO host explained, briefly, the reasons why the US first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, starting with a pat origin story offered by Biden on Monday: “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and make sure al-Qaida could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again … our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building.

“Oh, OK then! If our mission was never nation-building, then I guess not-mission not accomplished!” Oliver quipped. “That’s a little true, but also a lot not. Because, yes, the primary reason for initially invading Afghanistan was 9/11, and the fact that the Taliban had been giving safe haven to Bin Laden. But very quickly, that mission became dressed up in the language of nation-building and human rights.”

To quote George W Bush in a speech from October 2002: “Routing out the Taliban was important, but building a school is equally important.” Or Biden himself in February 2003: “The alternative to nation-building is chaos.”

“The truth is, between a post-9/11 desire for vengeance and the Bush administration framing intervention as a crusade for human rights, they built a near-universal political consensus,” Oliver explained. “Only one member of Congress, Representative Barbara Lee, voted against the authorization of military force.”

Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat of New York, even praised the Bush administration for “dropping food as well as bombs” while wearing a burqa on the House floor. “It doesn’t get more ‘the month after 9/11’ than a white Democrat in a fuck-you burqa saluting the Bush administration’s commitment to human rights,” Oliver said.

Crucially, the food did not cancel out the bombs – more than 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians are estimated to have died as a result of America’s war, and the US drone strike program “traumatized an entire generation”, said Oliver. Rather than learn and adapt to the country’s complex political landscape, US forces co-opted and paid off local drug traffickers and warlords. By 2006, an army colonel who advised three US generals in charge of the war said that the Afghan government had “self-organized into a kleptocracy”, according to the Afghanistan Papers revealed by the Washington Post in 2019.

And while there were meaningful gains for women’s rights, because US efforts were often haphazard and overly dependent on foreign aid, “odds are, much of that progress is now set to be obliterated”, said Oliver.

“So, here we are: 20 years of war and destruction, tens of thousands of Afghans killed, many more traumatized, and the overall sense that you have at this point is of deep betrayal – betrayal of the promises that were made to the Afghan people, and betrayal of the US service members asked to execute those self-serving promises and are now left to ask themselves: what did I just do? What was this all for?

“I am not advocating for staying, at all,” he added. “What I am saying is: we’re in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis, and we have a clear obligation to take in Afghans who are now vulnerable,” not just those who worked with US troops, but women and children now at risk.

“Biden’s failure to plan here is astonishing,” said Oliver, calling his “continued indifference to the lives of anyone who’s not American” unsurprising, as the president told CBS News in February that he held “zero” responsibility for the outcome in Afghanistan if the US withdrew. “The responsibility I have is to protect America’s national self interest and not put our women and men in harm’s way to try to solve every single problem in the world by use of force,” Biden said.

“If Biden wants to argue for isolationism going forward he is welcome to do that,” Oliver retorted, “but what he can’t do is use that as a justification to dismiss the fates of people in whose country we have already disastrously intervened, because we have a non-zero duty at this point to do everything we can to help them, and that means getting as many people out as we can.

“The chaos this week is already a stain on Biden’s legacy” Oliver added. “The only question is: how big does he want that stain to be?”

Afghanistan will likely be destabilized for years to come, he concluded, but “the very least we could do is help alleviate the humanitarian crisis ahead, because no matter what happens in Afghanistan from here on out, there is absolutely no universe where America bears zero responsibility”.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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