Journalist Bette Dam: “We haven’t really grasped how destructive the United States can be. Where is the self-correction?”

Check out Bette Dam’s TED Talk “Why Western media promotes war”.

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?”

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?”

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?”

”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?”

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?”

“So why is that? Why can’t Goliath bring the right eyes to the world? Please explain to us.”

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.”

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