Tell Me Lies About Afghanistan: The Longest War’s Uncomfortable Truth

Here, Adam Johannes, a leading activist in the Stop the War Coalition in Wales who organised against the invasion in 2001, studied its affects and spoke to those whose lives it ruined, assesses the war’s true cost.


This article originally appeared on the website and can be found here.

On 7th October 2001, the Afghanistan war officially began. Now, almost 20 years later, it is coming to its disastrous end. Dubbed ‘the longest war,’ it has claimed the lives of some 241,000 people, the overwhelming majority of which were Afghans. It has cost over $2trillion, created 2.5million refugees and left Afghanistan as one of the poorest countries on earth. And despite two decades of western-led conflict, where the UK played a pivotal role behind the United States, the country was retaken by the Taliban within a matter of weeks.

The Longest War

It began with American and British war-planes mowing down innocent civilians and ended with people falling to their deaths from the wings of American planes they hoped would fly them to safety. The 20-year-long imperial crusade in Afghanistan is now over.

‘The forever war’ would last longer than the First and Second World War combined. It was America’s longest war. For over a decade, everyone knew the end game would be a Taliban return to power. Western politicians sacrificed the lives of hundreds of soldiers simply to save face.

The defeat of a superpower will now register across the global south that even the most powerful war machines can lose. This is a lesson that the oppressed will take to heart in Syria, Yemen, across the Middle East, Asia and beyond. The reactionary character of the new rulers of Afghanistan cannot obscure the world-historic significance of the fall of Kabul and decline of US-power.

War Is Not A Video Game

The first casualty of war is the truth. Already the great forgetting has begun. In the last week we have heard little of the almost quarter-of-a-million people who died directly as a consequence of the cycle of violence unleashed by the US-led occupation, or the other million indirectly killed by hunger, disease and injuries. Three million refugees were not mentioned.

Liberals have simply erased the horror of the massacres, the drone strikes on weddings and funerals, the carpet bombing of Kunduz hospital to dust burning patients in their beds, the bombing of Al-Jazeera TV studio for reporting critically on the US-led war, the torture, rapes and sexual assaults.

A small sample of stories the powerful would like wiped from the record must suffice. These are just the tip of an iceberg of Western cruelty:

2001 – 2009

In 2005, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith was taking down the testimony of Hussain Youssouf Mustafa at Bagram Air Force Base that would become notorious for torture, when his client began telling the same story that many other detainees would tell of when he was sodomised, “an American soldier took me blindfolded. My hands were tightly cuffed, with my ears plugged so I could not hear properly, and my mouth covered so I could only make a muffled scream,” Mustafa recounted. “Two soldiers, one on each side, forced me to bend down, and a third pressed my face down over a table. A fourth soldier then pulled down my trousers. They rammed a stick up my rectum.”

A favourite Western method of torture was hanging people in cages from a rope for days. The Guardian the same year would report American soldiers in Afghanistan taking “trophy photographs” of detainees and carrying out torture, rape and sexual humiliation. One detainee reported three US interrogators dislocating his arms, placing an unloaded gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger, choking him with a rope until he lost consciousness, beating him with a baseball bat, before breaking his nose.

In 2009, over 140 Afghan civilians, the majority of them children, would be wiped out in minutes by a US Air Force B-1 Bomber that shattered to pieces the village of Granai in Farah province. An eyewitness said of the carnage, “It would scare a man if he saw it in a dream.”

2010 – 2021

In 2010, a US platoon stationed near Kandahar would hunt unarmed Afghan civilians for sport, mutilating their corpses, and keeping skulls and chopped-off fingers as trophies. The “kill team” took dozens of photos celebrating their kills and chronicling their tour of Afghanistan. “Most people within the unit disliked the Afghan people,” one of the soldiers said. “Everyone would say they’re savages.”’

The Pentagon would go to extraordinary lengths to hunt down every file and pull them from circulation, fearing a major scandal. But a few months later, Rolling Stone, obtained over 150 images portraying ‘a front-line culture among U.S. troops in which killing innocent civilians is seen as a cause for celebration’. The photos included many explicit images of violence,

‘Among the soldiers, the collection was treated like a war memento. It was passed from man to man on thumb drives and hard drives, the gruesome images of corpses and war atrocities filed alongside clips of TV shows, UFC fights and films such as Iron Man 2. One soldier kept a complete set, which he made available to anyone who asked’.

The same year Julian Assange and WikiLeaks would expose a massive cover-up of war crimes, including regular extra-judicial assassinations, French soldiers strafing – the practice of attacking targets from the air with automatic firepower- a bus full of children, American troops machine gunning a bus, both wounding, maiming and killing passengers, and Polish soldiers mortaring a village, shooting up a wedding party and slaying a pregnant woman in a revenge attack.

But even after these horrors were exposed, the West’s killing did not stop.

In 2011, ten young boys between the ages of nine and 15 were collecting firewood near their home in the northeastern province of Kunar when a NATO helicopter gunship mowed them down. Hemad, a 11-year-old boy and the only survivor said, “The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second-round they hovered over us and started shooting.” The boy went on to say the helicopter gunships “ shot the boys one after another.”’

The following year, In 2012, children and teenagers were staying overnight with a 20-year-old in the guest house when British special forces burst in and shot them all dead.

“When I entered the room I saw bones and teeth all over the place. The four of them were lying there, blood everywhere,” A relative said. One of the children’s mother’s stayed in the guest house with the four bodies until dawn. She remembers how cups of tea were still sitting on the floor in the room. She said: “The cups were full of blood. They had shot the boys in the head.”

Between 2017-2020, when airstrikes were escalated, over 1000 Afghan civilians would be killed a year by the US/UK, Afghan Government and their allies. These massacres were barely reported in the West where Afghan lives are cheap.

Last year the Australian military released a 500-page report following being forced to hold a public inquiry into some of the war crimes committed by its special forces. The report admitted unlawful killings, that victims were non-combatants, including farmers and other unarmed civilians, and the deaths didn’t happen in “the heat of the battle.” They were part of Australian soldiers’ initiation rituals and covered up. In some cases, weapons were planted on victims. The head of the Australian armed forces would issue a public apology to the Afghan people.

To date, there has been no similar public inquiry, report, or apology into similar war crimes committed by the US and UK military. 

Instead, on the tenth anniversary of the start of the war, The Guardian editorial, the newspaper of the liberal class who had supported the invasion, in solemn 19th-century tones bemoaned that the West’s civilising mission had been let down by the natives,

“Some Afghans were indeed “like us”, recognisably middle class or western in their beliefs and aspirations, and the effect of our intervention may well have been to increase that number. In some of Afghanistan’s possible futures, they may have a more important role to play, and we can hope we have planted seed that will bear fruit later. But the majority were not like us, and we could not make them so by wish or fiat.”

The Dark Side of the US-Led Occupation

In Afghanistan, there is a word ‘bacha bazi’, ‘boy-play’ a slang word for abuse of boys. The practice consists of poor families being paid to give over their sons, some as young as 11, to new “masters”. The men dress the boys in women’s clothes and train them to sing and dance for entertainment at their parties, which often involves them being sexually abused.

In 1994 Mullah Omar founded the Taliban. Their opposition to ‘bacha bazi’ was one of the drivers for early support for the group, and under the last Taliban government ‘bacha-bazi’ was made a crime with the death penalty the punishment.

But during the US-led occupation, the practice returned with a vengeance. In 2015, a chilling New York Times expose revealed that rank and file American soldiers were being punished by officers for trying to stop child abuse by their Afghan allies which often took place on American military bases.

“At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it,” the Marine’s father, Gregory Buckley Sr., recalled his son telling him before he was shot to death at the base in 2012. He urged his son to tell his superiors. “My son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”

The paper reported that, “soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out paedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages — and doing little when they began abusing children”.

In 2010, WikiLeaks exposed DynCorp, an American private military security firm had paid for boys to be found for Afghan clients.

During the occupation the late Paul Flynn MP would publicise a story told to him by a serving British soldier about avoiding staying overnight in Afghan Army compounds on Thursdays. This was the day the Afghan army would round up young boys to take them to their camps to abuse them. The local Afghan elders said they would join the Taliban to defend their children if the Afghan Government’s police or soldiers returned. Flynn commented, ‘The defence is that this is an essential part of the culture of Free Afghanistan’.

In 2011, Captain Quinn, a US Special Forces officer, was relieved of duties after he started questioning sexual abuse, and then started trying to take action to stop it. One day he was told of an Afghan militia commander who had raped a 14-year-old girl, he reported the crime to the local police chief who levied a punishment on the rapist, “He got one day in jail, and then she was forced to marry him”.

This would not be the last case, the New York Times reported,

“In September 2011, an Afghan woman, visibly bruised, showed up at an American base with her son, who was limping. One of the Afghan police commanders in the area, Abdul Rahman, had abducted the boy and forced him to become a sex slave, chained to his bed, the woman explained. When she sought her son’s return, she herself was beaten. So Captain Quinn summoned Abdul Rahman and confronted him about what he had done. The police commander acknowledged that it was true, but brushed it off… the commander began to laugh”.

Under the US-led occupation warlords from rival groups to the Taliban were brought into power by the West. Many of these warlords were fundamentalists guilty of war crimes, including mass rapes of Afghan women during the civil war, only a few years before the US invaded.

The Afghan Government, whose fall has provoked mourning and agonising soul-searching from western liberals has had one of the most appalling human rights records in the world. Apart from its police force’s brutal practice of sexually assaulting young boys, the misogynistic government attracted controversy when gang rapists were rewarded with a presidential pardon, rape victims were made to marry their rapists, and a law was passed to legalise marital rape and prevent women leaving the house without their husbands permission.

A recent profile of Abdul Rashid Dostum, warlord and Vice-President of Afghanistan 2014-20, gives a flavour of the recently deposed Afghan Government

“Dostum…is notorious for his extreme brutality…having been repeatedly accused of personally assaulting, killing, and raping with impunity. According to his former driver, when he declined to marry Dostum’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend so the warlord could keep seeing her despite the disapproval of his wives, Dostum abducted, tortured, and repeatedly raped him over the course of days, before chaining him inside a truck container by his lip. Dostum, the driver says, had his first wife killed, and was known to rape underage children, as well as many of his political opponents, a charge repeated by others”.

Return Of The Taliban

“At first, there was no support for the Taliban,” a Taliban military commander would tell a journalist in a recent edition of Harper’s Magazine . “It was when the Americans started killing civilians that people started supporting us, giving us food, bullets, and offering men.”

In 2001 few Afghans would fight for the Taliban in a war-weary country, there was next to no armed resistance against the US early on. The US-led occupation was given a chance with hopes of more stability, security, democracy, human rights, aid and reconstruction.

Instead, there was brutality from the occupiers and rampant corruption from an Afghan government installed full of gangsters, drug-lords and fundamentalist warlords guilty of war crimes including mass rapes during the civil war. It is no surprise this government and its army have now collapsed like a house of cards.

The US would spend over $2 trillion waging war on Afghanistan. Meanwhile after twenty years of Western occupation, half of Afghans, including 10 million children, now need humanitarian assistance, and a third do not have access to clean water. Despite some improvements in education most Afghan girls would still never see the inside of a classroom and in general literacy rates are low. Western politicians rolling back public spending at home and opening up public services to the market were never going to deliver a welfare state in Afghanistan.

The Taliban resurgence from 2004 on is a direct product of the brutal US-led occupation and the corrupt Afghan government. In the end many Afghan people hated the occupation and the Taliban were willing to fight it. Despite the Taliban forces being quarter of the size of the Afghan army, in recent months few were prepared to fight and die for an Afghan Government created by foreign occupiers. Twenty years of the occupation made the Taliban more powerful than in 2001.

Distrust, Violence & Vengeance

Anand Gopal is one of the few Western journalists to have embedded with the Taliban. He argues that immediately after the US-led invasion almost twenty years ago, the Taliban quickly melted away, and believing it was ‘game over’, disappeared with no intentions to stage a comeback. Al-Qaeda also fled the country.

But thousands of US troops were in Afghanistan to conduct a ‘war on terror’. If there was no enemy to fight, they could only justify being there and lay the foundation for the invasion of Iraq and other wars, by inventing enemies.

“They did this by paying huge sums of money to Afghan warlords and strongmen to catch “terrorists.”” Gopal writes, “These strongmen simply turned over their enemies and rivals – who were almost always innocent. Yet US forces repeatedly arrested, tortured, or killed such individuals. In fact, in this way the majority of Afghans sent to Guantánamo had never been members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda, many were actually enemies of the Taliban”.

For Afghan collaborators, turning in fellow Afghans became a lucrative market for money and business contracts. Winning American military backing also became a way to gain political power for many political factions.

Gopal tells of one instance where two sets of rival Afghan politicians who supported the foreign occupation each, without knowledge of the other, reported to the Americans that their political rivals were Taliban. US troops simultaneously killed, tortured and jailed both.

“The incentive mechanism was perverse, and had unintentional and self-defeating consequences. Eventually, so many communities were affected by this, so many people were on the wrong end of night raids and torture and abuse, that the Taliban – previously reviled by most of the Afghan population – began to be seen as a credible alternative to the venal and rapacious Afghan government and deadly US forces”.

Gopal argues this fuelled a never-ending insurgency, “The Afghan state, such as it is, relies on foreign aid for its existence. That aid will only come if there is a war, which means there is every incentive to keep producing enemies and keep fighting”. He calls it one of the most spectacular failures in the history of American foreign policy history, rooted in an Afghan state being designed to meet American interests, not the needs of the Afghan people.

“While the state survives on foreign aid, it collects almost no direct taxes and provides almost no social services – all of which are provided by aid organizations and charities. Large parts of the Afghan state’s security sector are privatized, in the form of militias that effectively operate as private security companies. Under US intervention Afghanistan is, in fact, one of the world’s most fully realized neoliberal states”.

Under the occupiers, Afghanistan became a gangster’s paradise, with one of the most corrupt governments on earth. The corruption of the Western NGO and charity sector in 2006 would see a wave of angry and violent protests targeting their offices in Kabul. Meanwhile money poured into the country to fund ‘ghost’ schools, ghost hospitals, and even ghost soldiers that did not actually exist as an elite got very rich. One estimate is that 40% of US aid to Afghanistan since 2001 has been pocketed by officials, gangsters, and warlords, drug lords and insurgents.

Helmand Province

“My 22-year-old son lost his life in 2012. Murdered in Afghanistan while he thought he was acting for the greater good of the Afghan people. Naive, yes, and how many more sons and daughters will sign their own death warrant by joining the Army? The occupation of Afghanistan has achieved nothing. All that has been gained is the pain and grief of countless families on both sides of the World. I will be there at the demo opposing NATO as a voice for every life destroyed at the hands of our ‘leaders’.”

In the summer of 2014, I opened my inbox to find this message sent from the mother of a Welsh soldier who had fallen in Helmand province, Afghanistan. From 2006 onwards the British Army would face its fiercest fighting since the Korean War in the province. Most British soldiers who died in Afghanistan would fall in Helmand.

The day I opened the message was five days before Obama and sixty world leaders would fly into Cardiff Castle for a lavish banquet during the NATO Summit. As secretary of Cardiff Stop the War Coalition, I was one of the organisers of an anti-war protest outside the security fence.

This was one of many times military families would get in touch. A few years earlier I recall a pensioner from the valleys whose grandson was sent to Helmand. He got in touch with us frightened and upset as the only people he thought could understand and help. 

At the start of ‘the war on terror’ the anti-war movement would often face hostility on the streets from military families, but later, following the huge anti-war marches that shifted public opinion, and as the death toll mounted on coalition troops, the wars would become increasingly unpopular. Two parents whose sons would die fighting ‘the war on terror’ in Iraq Rose Gentle in Scotland and Reg Keys in Wales would head up the Military Families Against War campaign, an unprecedented development in British politics.

Tony Blair would consistently refuse to meet the families whose children had paid the blood price for his wars. Perhaps the closest he came was sharing a stage on the night of the 2005 general election with Reg Keys who stood against him. Keys’ quiet and dignified speech indicting the Prime Minister made me cry when I watched it live.

We now began finding people would come up to our stalls and say ‘I am signing your petition because my husband/son/ brother is fighting over there’. ‘Bring the troops home’ became our central slogan.

When the 100th British soldier died we held a ‘Naming of the Dead’ ceremony in Cardiff city centre where we publicly read out the names of all the departed soldiers. We did this after the 200th, 300th and 400th death. The late Paul Flynn MP, a Welsh MP, would read out many of the names of soldiers killed in Afghanistan in parliament determined that Government ministers be held to account for the consequence of their decisions. In 2001, Flynn had not been among the tiny ranks of the dozen or so MPs who opposed the war, but was to become one of its most trenchant and articulate parliamentary critics.

A few years later, a soldier got in touch fresh out of military prison for going AWOL and walking out of a war he no longer believed in. Meeting up he struggled to control his anger saying Iraq and Afghanistan were illegal wars, they were wrong and Britain shouldn’t be out there. He accused the military and government of conning working-class young people to take leave of their communities, then chewing them up and spitting them out. The military had ruined his and other lives, he said.

Asked why he joined up he told a familiar story of living in a de-industrialised South Wales community, “I joined the army because there is nothing here, no jobs and no future. It seemed like a very tempting offer. I went down to the careers office and they sold me the world. But it was a load of bollocks.”

His biggest fear was that others would follow the same path. “I see working class lads. They leave school with no qualifications, struggle to find a job and feel nobody respects me, but I join the army I will be called a ‘hero’ and people will respect me and look up to me”. He suggested we start getting anti-war leaflets into job centres to outmanoeuvre military recruiters.

This month, Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province fell to the Taliban. 457 British soldiers died for nothing.

The Afghan Tragedy

A 43-year-old Afghan will never have known a homeland at peace. There is an old proverb: when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. Over the last four decades great powers and regional powers have made Afghanistan hell on earth. From the Soviet to the American invasion to civil war too many people have died. Afghanistan has been called ‘the graveyard of empires’, but above all it has been the graveyard of Afghans. Now with the victory of the Taliban there is another twist of the knife. The reactionary ideas and brutal practice of the new rulers of Afghanistan are well enough known to need no commentary here. 

The peace movement now has three tasks

1. Stop Britain waging a similar war again.

This means ending ‘the war on terror’, slashing military spending, ending arms exports, and breaking the ‘special relationship’ between the British and American ruling class. We must oppose any ‘New Cold War’ with China. The US wants to maintain its dominance of the global economy, but its economic power is in decline and China’s is growing. Hence growing global tension. This tension fuels anti-Chinese racism in the West with communities paying the price here.

2. Campaign for international reparations to be paid the Afghan people for the war and occupation.

This means resist any Western attempts to punish Afghans for defeating the occupation by imposing economic sanctions or aid cuts that will harm ordinary Afghans. Humiliated in Vietnam in the 1970s, the United States in revenge punished a country devastated by war by withholding aid and seeking to undermine its economy. This must not be allowed to happen to Afghanistan.

3. Build the biggest and broadest possible Afghan Refugees Welcome movement across the UK.

We need safe, legal routes into Britain. We must push for an immediate end to deportations back to Afghanistan and an amnesty for all Afghan asylum seekers already here. 15,000 Afghans were deported back to Afghanistan from the UK in the last dozen years on the imperial spin that a warzone was a safe country.

Afghans are now the second largest refugee population in the world. The countries who bombed Afghanistan the most have a moral obligation to take in the most – no arbitrary limit on numbers.

An additional task is building solidarity with social forces within Afghanistan and the region, among youth, women, workers and human rights activists who support a democratic, progressive and socially-just society free from foreign domination.

Malalai Joya, an Afghan socialist feminist, has called for ‘aid not war machines’. Under the last Taliban government, she risked her life teaching at an underground girl’s school. Under the US-led occupation she became Afghanistan’s youngest MP, but was expelled from parliament and forced to live in hiding, facing four assassination attempts, at the hands of American-backed fundamentalist warlords.

She calls the current situation a nightmare, but argues that ‘no nation can gift liberation to another’, and that there can be no peace in Afghanistan occupied by Western armies, “Get rid from my country. They are a cancer in the body of my society, in the body of my beloved country. They are like Covid-19”.

Vietnam veteran and US Senator John Kerry asked towards the end of the Vietnam war in 1971: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The war may now be over for politicians, but for the hundreds of thousands of people who died in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the families of 457 dead British soldiers, it may never be over. 

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