UPDATE: The bombings at the Kabul airport have now sadly killed more than 100 people.
For about a week, mainstream outlets in the English speaking world ran stories about former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s opposition to the admittedly chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States and its NATO allies, including Britain. Tragically, 13 civilians and at least a dozen U.S. soldiers were killed in two suicide bombings claimed by the country’s ISIS affiliate (which opposes the Taliban) close the Kabul airport on Thursday.
Most of the stories about Blair’s criticism of the end of the occupation were based around an essay published by the ridiculously named Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, one of numerous well funded ‘philanthropic’ efforts that have in some cases enriched and in others attempted to maintain the former PM’s reputation as a statesmen of consequence despite his involvement in almost every foreign policy disaster during the early part of this century.
The essay itself contains what seem to be several factual errors and numerous leaps of logic about the value of the war and occupation of the Central Asian nation, which cost taxpayers in the U.S. and allied countries trillions.
Very early on in his lengthy essay, Blair insists that after the horrific events of September 11th 2001, “The Taliban were given an ultimatum: yield up the al-Qaeda leadership or be removed from power so that Afghanistan could not be used for further attacks. They refused. We felt there was no safer alternative for our security than keeping our word.”
In fact, as reported by the Guardian on October 14th, 2001, the Taliban did offer to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden to a 3rd country if the American government provided evidence of his guilt in the attacks and ended the bombing of the country, but the offer was rejected by George W. Bush.
Although it’s not verifiable one way or the other, Blair goes on to talk about how he feels the West failed in confronting the Syrian government during that country’s ongoing civil war, repeating the charge that President Assad had used chemical weapons on “his own people”. This should not be stated as fact as there are many who dispute that there were chemical attacks at all, including the late Robert Fisk, a legendary journalist who traveled to the site of one alleged attack, in Douma, shortly after it happened and spoke to locals, including a doctor at the scene who claimed that he treated patients overcome not by sarin gas but by a dust storm provoked by a mixture of wind and conventional weapons.
Blair and others who insist that a government that negotiated a deal where they handed over their stockpile of these weapons should be clear that they are stating an opinion about what happened in Douma or provide concrete proof themselves.
Like many Western commentators over almost two decades, Blair goes on to push a larger narrative about ‘Radical Islam’, conflating political factions like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. While the Muslim Brothers and related parties are far right reactionaries and thus enemies of the progressive left, their political ideology draws from different sources than the Salafis. Grouping these different movemets together serves a strategic purpose for cynical politicians like Blair though: creating a larger, scarier seeming enemy for Western countries and pleasing despotic governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who resent the competition offered by political Islam to their continued rule.
While Blair insists that progress has been made on a whole host of issues in Afghanistan under the occupation, it’s important to look at the kinds of people who were often allied with NATO and played sometimes powerful roles in the country’s government. Many of these warlords, unless they switch sides as they so often seem to do, will make up the resistance to the eventual Taliban government regardless of what form it takes.
Jacobin writer Branko Marcetic looked at some of these men in a recent article, a piece that should make us question whether ordinary Afghans will really see the era of occupation as one of ‘progress’ as Blair insists. The warlords lining up for what they must hope will be more western aid dollars are a rogues gallery of alleged rapists and murderers, many of whom will be familiar to the former prime minister.
Just one of the examples offered by Marcetic is Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was the country’s vice president from 2014 to 2020, and whose former driver claimed, “…[He] 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.”
At the same time, we should be under no illusions about what renewed rule by the Taliban will mean for Afghans, especially women in some urban areas who did see some improvement in their lives and the Shia Hazara minority but, like most Islamist groups, even one this radical, the leadership are committed to the capitalist economic model and will have more moderate elements open to negotiation in order to accommodate international business interests.
In working with whatever government emerges in Afghanistan, America and its allies will have to compete with the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China’s professional cadres of trained diplomats to try and influence the country’s leaders in a progressive direction. It says a lot about the amateur quality of American diplomacy at present that the disgraced former mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel, is being put forward as ambassador to Japan, hopefully, Western countries will put more qualified personnel in Afghanistan.
Back to Blair, beyond his involvement in Afghanistan and the role he played in the ongoing destruction of Iraq while in government, the former British PM has advised despotisms like the United Arab Emirates and a variety of dictatorial leaders since leaving office in 2007. He helped deal with the ‘bad PR’ for Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the wake of the killing of 15 peaceful protesters and wounding of dozens of others in 2012, reportedly earning a little less than $7 million dollars a year over at least half a decade for his efforts.
I sometimes think of Blair as somewhat like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth without the implicit sexism in that character’s portrayal, as he can continue to wash his hands with the most expensive soaps available but will never be able to remove the permanent stain of the blood of millions that are on them.
It’s also possible that the former Prime Minister has no conscience at all and feels no guilt for all those maimed and lost in his wars of choice, including British soldiers, in which case he is an irredeemable monster. That he still has an international platform to opine about war and peace should make the mainstream press recoil in shame.