Journalist Bette Dam: “We haven’t really grasped how destructive the United States can be. Where is the self-correction?”
President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of the US in Afghanistan with a deadline on the twenty-year anniversary of 9/11 this year. “It’s time to end America’s longest forever war and it’s time for American troops to come home”, as he put it.
Dutch investigative journalist Bette Dam has lived in Afghanistan for four years and covers the country already for fifteen years. She wrote two books about Afghanistan, publishes in various Dutch and international media and is a lecturer about the country at Sciences Po in Paris. In the last week, she’s done several interviews about the American pull-out and gives an insightful analysis on how we should look at the Afghan War.
She was interviewed by a renowned Dutch public broadcasting radio program OVT and I’ve translated the conversation which I think is useful for international journalists to learn from as well.
The first question she gets is: “Is the decision of Biden a tipping point?”
Bette: “Well, I think that the American press secretary of The Pentagon, the State Department and the White House wants us to see this as a tipping point. So that we in The West can create a moment and say with a certain tone that we’ve won, which is not the case.
If you look at this from the Afghanistan perspective it isn’t a turning point because there isn’t so much to tilt, the situation in the country is not good. There isn’t a solution and there isn’t a winner either. I’ve lived there myself for a long time and it’s a powerless situation. If you look at it from a viewpoint of the ordinary Afghan, decisions have been taken over the heads of the population.
Initially, after 2001, The West was welcomed with so much hope. Because we’re seen as rich, we’re seen as we can do anything, we’re seen as very powerful. And now it shows that the US, who wants to be an ally and a leading country for the world so badly, doesn’t succeed in that. They failed and it’s up to the Afghan people to see what tomorrow brings. The violence will increase, America didn’t negotiate a ceasefire, the United States leave with their tail between their legs.”
“So you’re saying this is an irresponsibly conceived action?”
Bette: “Yes, but it’s always been careless. I’ve done a lot of interviews last few weeks and I’ve noticed that journalists often want to hear what has been achieved, from a democratic perspective. We feel as if we’re the Mother Theresa of the world, so we want to talk about some of the accomplishments. But it gives a distorted picture. Because the situation we’re in — we had the Vietnam war, which was already the longest American war, we had the Gulf war, Iraq, Syria and now Afghanistan — shows that we haven’t really grasped how destructive the United States can be in these kinds of countries. And that’s I think the most important lesson for the future.”
The host of the program plays short audio with a quote by Biden:
“The war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking. We were attacked, we went to war with clear goals, we achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is degraded in Iran, uh Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war.”
And asks the next question:
“Did America start the war with clear goals?”
Bette: “The first goal was to quickly eliminate Bin Laden and the Taliban. Those two goals worked out differently. Bin Laden has lived for ten more years and he didn’t really have that much influence in Afghanistan anyways, something that America still doesn’t want to hear. And secondly, we saw a different twist with the Taliban: after 9/11 the US brought down the Taliban regime, which people applauded, even the taliban saw that the situation wasn’t sustainable for the long term. Mullah Omar realized he didn’t have enough support to continue. And the war started with the American special forces and a few Afghan strong men with a very bad reputation who were going after the Taliban. What has disappeared from the news and from history though, is — and this is essential to understand — that many of these Taliban people surrendered and were looking for contact with Hamid Karzai, the interim-president at the time. Karzai had a close relationship with the Americans and was visited by the Taliban and the Hakani (from East Afghanistan) who would ask him if they could go home. Initially Karzai agreed with their wishes but US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at the time, the creator of the Afghanistan war and also the Iraq war and all the other conflicts that came after, stopped it. The US acted from an emotion after 9/11 but they usually act on emotion with regard to The Other. And what then happens is that the most powerful country makes short work with a fantastically interesting local approximation, where peace really was given on a silver platter.”
”Are you saying that the US stayed there to eliminate the Taliban and there were possibilities to pacify the Afghans themselves and that the US declined that option?”
Bette: “Yes and this shouldn’t be new information anymore for you as a journalist. This has already been made clear by experts. It’s interesting to witness that such a local rapprochement to peace can disappear in the narrative in The West. And that’s exactly the problem.
We’ve got an ideological government in the US, and the Netherlands, the European Union and the Nato all uncritically follow its narrative that everyone in Afghanistan is the enemy. And Rumsfeld made it even bigger when he — right after 9/11 — said that terrorism is present in at least 90 countries, which created a totally fantasized frontline. He connected all different freelance groups with each other and by doing that kept the image alive, whereas there was nuance in Afghanistan and it would have been much better to send diplomats and mediators, people who knew the Afghan society and could have brought the different parts together, instead of sending soldiers.”
“So we could have left a long time ago? And what do you think of the 9/11 deadline that’s been given by the US?”
Bette: “What is interesting now is the fact your next question is again about the agenda of the US. As soon as the US acts in some way regarding this situation, if it’s a deadline they’re giving or signing a peace contract or whatever, we as journalists find it very important to follow and discuss those actions. Whereas, it’s much more about the systems behind a war like this, how could this have happened? How can the US as the Goliath of the world again fail in its attempts?”
“So why is that? Why can’t Goliath bring the right eyes to the world? Please explain to us.”
Bette: “Well, you got to look at how the information flows from a country like Afghanistan to the leaders in Washington DC. There’s a lot going on. The military started after 9/11 with their emotional response and Rumsfeld and his team asked me before how I could think that they would accept the surrender of the Taliban? Smoke was still blowing over from the Twin Towers, they couldn’t do that, they had to fight, that was the projected image of the enemy.
It would have been a loss of face. And facts often don’t matter anymore. It’s more about “Am I not going to be the last president who lost this war?”. It’s about PR on this side of the world. And it’s about the image of war and how to get support for the cause from a lot of people. The US did that by making the enemy really big and it’s not the first time that America does this. They did that in Vietnam, in the Gulf War and it happens again now.
The essence of democracy, also in The Netherlands, is that there should be self-critical reasoning and an ability to correct yourself, which should have emerged after a few years where a theory about the Afghanistan case turns out to be different than what we knew earlier. How can we strategically pause for a moment to adjust our future approach in these kinds of situations?
That’s also the reason why I’m working on this topic for a long time already because I don’t see that happening yet. There are very good think-tanks who speak the local language, they all say the same thing, there are books written, and still, this message doesn’t reach Washington DC. That’s the lesson of today, how can that be possible? Where is the self-correction?
Even though Biden now also says he doesn’t believe in this kind of approach anymore, it’s too early to conclude if this is going to lead to a different foreign attitude by the US in the future. Washington is very securitized, very focused on safety and the military. Generals are very powerful, more powerful than any other Minister and that has an influence on their policy in respect of other countries. Maybe there are exceptions, which will be interesting to follow in the coming years.”