Throughout the so-called War on Terror, the United States positioned itself as the savior of countries like Afghanistan with claims that invading would bring democracy to the Middle East. For 20 years, the U.S. painted its war as benevolent, the only way to bring an otherwise unknown freedom to oppressed communities. The over 800,000 people killed — including 335,000 civilians — and 37 million displaced in its wake? Sacrifices that had to be made.
As the Taliban catapults into power once again, it's imperative to not allow the U.S. propaganda machine to roll forward unchecked. Unfortunately, many in power, journalists and media companies included, are more than happy to once again latch onto the War on Terror's talking points — namely, through faux concern of what will happen to Afghan women and girls under Taliban rule.
To be clear, I don't have words to capture the extent of the Taliban's violence. Despite their current attempts to positively rebrand their image by talking to the press, and with some even positioning the Taliban as somehow decolonializing Afghanistan, there's nothing about them that I'll celebrate. Still, that doesn't mean I'm not side-eyeing outlets as they run article after article about Afghan women that seem eerily reminiscent of the early 2000s.
After visiting Afghanistan in 2005, then-first lady Laura Bush delivered a president's weekly radio address, a first for a First Lady. In it, Bush lamented the treatment of women and children in Afghanistan, stating, "Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror, not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan but also because, in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us."
She continued: "Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment."
In her celebration of military gains, Bush, who co-chairs the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council founded in 2002, glossed over the cost of war to Afghan's women and children. For example, sexual violence has been rampant in the War on Terror, used at times as a weapon by the U.S. military the same way it uses guns, drones, and other machines. Bush's narrative, however, wasn't new at the time; it was just another iteration of the old Western saviorism.
"The Western savior narrative vis-a-vis Afghanistan is a framing of Afghanistan as in need of Western help, as dependent on Western help — rather than as a Western-exploited and Western-ravaged people and land," Shabana Mir, an associate professor at American Islamic College, told Mic by email. "It's a false framing."
Through the Western saviorism framing, Afghanistan and its people, Mir wrote, were depicted as "a primitive, savage, violent, misogynistic culture, and nothing else." Rather than there being a historical context for the Taliban (which Ali Olomi, an assistant professor at Penn State Abington, described as "the ugly offspring of the Cold War" in a Twitter thread), it was instead framed as a bogeyman that emerged out of nowhere.
"[The Taliban's] violence is a 'normal' manifestation of exceptionally abnormal global machinations and treachery on the part of a willing bunch of actors — listing only the most significant: the U.S., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Israel, the former Soviet Union, the U.K., Europe, and Afghan puppet leaders and commanders," Sahar Ghumkhor and Anila Daulatzai wrote in Al Jazeera. "By unhinging the global from the origins of terror, it became possible to provincialize it, localizing culpability for terror into discrete bombable sites/zones, as was the case for Afghanistan."
Although this week's events in Afghanistan have shocked plenty worldwide, many Afghans saw it coming. Afghans For a Better Tomorrow, an organization composed of three leftist organizers who oppose military intervention in the country, came together after President Biden's withdrawal announcement this spring.
"We asked the world to pay attention to what would come next and what would be in the vital interest of the Afghan people," the organization told Mic by email. "Back in April, we called on the Biden administration to move towards a peaceful settlement and open their door to refugees in anticipation of the withdrawal and the disastrous 20-year occupation."
They continued, "It is our feeling that this withdrawal shows how harmful and deadly U.S. policy has been in Afghanistan."
Of course, Afghanistan is far from the only country where U.S. policy has resulted in death and other harm. It's important to put the War on Terror in conversations with other wars that the U.S. has enacted to see these themes play out: Like Afghanistan, Vietnam and the U.S. are linked through Cold War politics, where efforts to squash communism's global emergence led to the Vietnam War. In addition, the U.S. has weaponized humanitarianism in Somalia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and more.
Beyond being frustrating to witness again, regurgitating the U.S. government's claims of humanitarianism has "real life-and-death implications for Afghans," Mir wrote to Mic. "Just look at how aid has been used to put Afghans in a relationship of dependency that never ends, a flow of money that fills the pockets of corrupt warlords and is used to buy favors but not to build institutions — so after 20 years, it's like nothing was built to last. "
Ignoring broader contexts has allowed Islamophobia to run rampant, too. The crisis in Afghanistan has been simplified by some to a case of women vs. big, bad Islam, which is what gives random white women the confidence to tweet, "Just sitting here thinking about the women of Afghanistan," followed by, "I'm in a great mood to have a Twitter fight with anyone who wants to defend the concept of religion today."
Yet reports from Afghanistan show that people with this viewpoint would have to fight the same people they're claiming to defend. In Kabul, women protested the Taliban with demands that the rights that Islam has given them be returned. And on Monday, Mejgan Massoumi, a doctoral graduate from Stanford University, told The Washington Times that people began chanting Allahu Akbar (God is great) in protest, too.
"They started chanting this because they are reclaiming these powerful and sacred and beautiful words from the religion of Islam, that the Taliban have bastardized," Massoumi told the outlet. "They're saying it as a reminder that God is watching all of this. And we are, we are believers [in] greater power than you and you have no right to co-opt the religion of more than a billion people on this Earth ... and claim it as something disgusting, disgraceful that you're doing inside of this country."
Make no mistake: The Taliban is violent. The group should not be in power and its takeover of Afghanistan signals danger not only for women, but also for ethnic groups it has slaughtered before, LGBTQ+ people, and more. Still, this moment cannot be used to repeat the talking points of war. It must instead be focused on what Afghans themselves demand — like, actually opening up U.S. borders for refugees.
"Even at this late stage, it’s possible to mitigate the all but certain humanitarian disaster by enacting a bold plan that grants humanitarian parole to all Afghans in danger — especially the women and girls that the United States spent the last 20 years saying it cared about," Afghan American activist Bilal Askaryar wrote in Slate.
On its social media accounts, Afghans For a Better Tomorrow has called for people to push the Biden administration to remove any barriers for Afghan refugees. This means that in addition to opening borders and increasing refugee quotas, the Biden administration should expedite processes for Special Immigrant Visas, offer any Afghan in the U.S. already Temporary Protected Status, and generally remove bureaucratic red tape blocking the path to safety in the U.S.
"After pursuing 20 years of failed policies that have done incredible harm to Afghans, the United States and its Nato Allies have a responsibility to accept every Afghan seeking refuge," the organization wrote on Twitter.
Mir, too, believes the U.S. has a clear responsibility to Afghanistan and its people. "The U.S. owes shitloads of reparations to Afghanistan," she wrote to Mic. "I have hopes that Afghans can build, if military contractors and the U.S. would get the hell out of the way."