Syria And Afghanistan: The Limits Of Bombing
By Justin Podur
21 October, 2015
Just a few days before the 14th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, U.S. planes bombed a hospital run by the extremely credible, competent international organization, Medicins Sans Frontieres, in the country’s north, in the city of Kunduz. The bombing was, apparently, requested by the Afghan government, who had lost the city to the Taliban and whose initial counterattack had failed.
Fourteen years before, the U.S. invasion of 2001 had the explicit goal of regime change, of getting rid of the Taliban. Fourteen years and thousands of lives later, the Taliban are still here, and are still able to take a city well outside of their traditional zone of influence in the south. There are many causes for this failure. Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book “Descent into Chaos” about “Operation Evil Airlift,” in which the Taliban’s Pakistani patrons were allowed to escape to Pakistan in 2001. The people running the Taliban went back to Pakistan, while thousands of civilians perished under the bombs.
But more important than the fact that the Taliban dispersed to Pakistan to return and fight another day was the fact that when NATO ousted the Taliban, they installed their opponents: warlords who were as misogynist and violent as the Taliban were. That reality has only slowly and partially changed despite several elections since 2001: senior posts and elected offices are still populated by the warlords, and the occupation-created Afghan army apparently shares many of the problems of corruption with the Iraqi army created by the U.S. around the same time and in approximately the same way. It is an army more efficient at enriching commanders than defending the country’s sovereignty.
2001, the year the U.S. invaded, is a key year for Afghanistan, but it was not the beginning of the horrors Afghanistan had been living. The wars of the 1980s, as the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan coalition poured ever more investment into groups of fighters who were fighting against a Russian-backed regime, were decisive. Once those fighters succeeded in regime change in 1992, they spent the next decade fighting one another and completing the destruction of the country. The Taliban had established a shaky control over most of the country when the U.S. invaded in 2001.
Today, the U.S., Israel, the Saudi Kingdom, Turkey, and a few other countries are similarly pouring ever more investment into groups of fighters (some of the same groups as fought in Afghanistan, including al-Qaida) trying to change a regime in Syria. There is every reason to believe that if regime change succeeds, the winners will be al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Whether they then fight among themselves as the Afghan mujahadeen did, or consolidate an Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond, they, too, will complete the destruction of their country. In a few decades, we will be looking at pictures of Syria in the 1990s and early 2000s that will be completely unrecognizable as Syria, like the 1960s and 1970s photos of Afghanistan are unrecognizable today.
Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the New York Times famously called global public opinion the “second superpower”. But the anti-war movement failed and has not recovered. Anti-war principle has weakened among progressives, replaced by limited support for limited Western intervention in specific cases, where bombs might be able to do some good. Numerous progressive voices that might have been expected to take an anti-war stance supported bombing and regime change in Libya in 2011 and continue to support regime change in Syria today. Some even cite Libya as a success story.
I have seen writers who I respect arguing or retweeting that because Syria has had many more deaths and refugees than Libya since 2011, overthrowing Assad (the “how” of this overthrow remains unspecified) would have prevented the refugee crisis. The counterfactual is also presented: that without regime change in Libya in 2011, Libya would have produced a refugee crisis of the same magnitude as Syria had.
I have read other progressive writers arguing that the “world’s powers” should have set a “red line” for Assad much sooner than they did, and if they had done so, again, the Syria crisis would have been averted.
The trouble with this analysis is the assumption that Syria’s regime existed at the whim of the “world’s powers” – that these “world’s powers” could, once the “red line” was set, press a button and exchange Assad for a democratic regime that respects human rights. It is this flawed assumption that leads to magical thinking about what the West can do in countries that it bombs.
Vijay Prashad has argued that the Libyan regime was already collapsing when NATO’s bombs arrived to finish it off. The Libyan armed groups, for which NATO provided the air force, committed massacres after their victories in Sirte and elsewhere. These armed groups are still an ongoing concern, as the U.S. knows. And there were many local and international consequences of what happened in Libya in 2011. One of these was that powers outside of the West, especially Russia, saw how seamlessly Western support for “moderate rebels” led to regime change.
Syria’s regime was not collapsing when the West started backing the rebellions there. Syria is, evidently, not Libya. But not for lack of trying by the West, and its Saudi, Israeli, and Turkish allies. Regime change has been the goal, but only chaos has been the result. There is a lesson to be learned from these decades of regime change. Twelve years since the invasion of Iraq, 25 since the first U.S. war on Iraq. Fourteen years since the invasion of Afghanistan, 35 since the Western backing of the Afghan mujahadeen. The outcomes: the Islamic State group and the Taliban ruling over de-developed, devastated areas, corrupt governments extracting wealth from the rest of the country, with the U.S. occasionally flying over and bombing something – a wedding here, a hospital there. If Libya looks different from this in a decade or two – and that is far from certain – it will be in spite of NATO’s bombs, not because of them.
People who don’t like these outcomes should not put faith in these means. The West’s bombs are instruments of chaos.
Justin Podur is the author of Haiti's New Dictatorship (Pluto Press 2012). He has contributed chapters to Empire's Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan (University of Toronto Press 2013) and Real Utopia (AK Press 2008). He is an Associate Professor at York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies.