Afghanistan: Common Myths of the Anti-War Left

As a liberal myself, nothing drives me crazier right now than the anti-Afghanistan War arguments I see bandied about on the left. The vast majority I come across–whether it be from pundits like Keith Olbermann or Michael Moore, or politicians like Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Russ Feingold and the ever hyperbolic Rep. Alan Grayson–are not only ill-informed but often condescendingly racist and ethnocentric in many ways as well.

Following are the top “myths” I’ve heard from the anti-Afghanistan War left, and my responses to them. Before I proceed, however, let me clarify–I am not a warmongering neoconservative in any sense. I am, on the other hand, someone who feels that those with the power to do good, should do good–those who are responsible for chaos and misery should atone for it if possible. And in the case of Afghanistan, the United States has the means and the responsibility (to the Afghan people) to work as a partner towards a more stabilized and secure country.

So on with the “myths”…

MYTH NUMBER ONE: “There are only about 100 Al Qaeda left in the country. There is no need for us to be there anymore.”

I find this argument the most curious coming from a liberal perspective, since in its essence it is a conservative and/or realist argument. There is no concern for the fate of the Afghan people. Even if there were no Al Qaeda left in the country, would we still not have a responsibility (especially because of our past actions in the country) to prevent the resurgence of either civil war and/or a Taliban return to power in most of the country? Apparently many “liberals” say no. Sorry Afghan people…

However, tackling this from a realist perspective, there does still remain Al Qaeda members within the country and, therefore, there is still a realpolitik argument for staying. The argument that there are “only” 100 Al Qaeda left in Afghanistan is ludicrous on a number of levels. First of all, Al Qaeda is an organization and moment that is minimal in numbers–hence many of their asymmetrical warfare tactics. It only took 19 individuals to carry out the plans on 9/11. For Al Qaeda, numbers are not as big an issue as they would be for a standing, national army. Also, the major Al Qaeda presence in that region is, yes, in Pakistan, right across the Durand Line border. This is a porous border where individuals and insurgents alike easily swap from side-to-side, so pinpointing an “exact” number of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as compared to Pakistan is a difficult analysis as the number is not stagnant. If the U.S. were to draw down and effectively ignore Afghanistan, it would not take a great leap of imagination to see Al Qaeda’s presence swarm into Afghanistan from across the border. They wouldn’t have to book a flight. They’d just have to hop in a jeep or a take a walk. Which takes us to…

MYTH NUMBER TWO: “The Taliban, the primary insurgent group, is not a threat to the U.S.; it is a nationalist movement, and foreign presence is its biggest recruiter. Also, the likelihood of the group providing safe haven to Al Qaeda again is minimal.”

This, again, is another realist argument (for the most part) with scant regard to the well-being of the Afghan people. Now let’s deal with the second part first. Are there ideological differences between the Taliban and Al Qaeda? Yes. Have certain members of the Taliban insurgency indicated that they would be reluctant to harbor Al Qaeda again? Yes. This is all true. HOWEVER, this ignores a number of other realities. First of all the Taliban insurgency is relatively decentralized, so simply because Mullah Omar declares a cut-off of ties from Al Qaeda does not necessarily mean it would happen. Secondly, there does still remain strong ties between the Taliban insurgency and Al Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network (another member of the insurgent group, similar to the Taliban but not exactly the same) and Al Qaeda. And finally, this argument presupposes the Taliban’s ability to deny Al Qaeda safe haven following a U.S. withdrawal. The most likely outcome of NATO leaving the country would be a return to civil war, an environment that we see Al Qaeda thriving in all across the world (whether in Somalia, the KRG-Baghdad border in Iraq, Southern Yemen, or Pashtun- and Baluch-dominated areas of Pakistan). In the event of civil war, the Taliban’s main focus would be on defeating their internal enemies, not on routing out Al Qaeda.

As to the first part of this myth, the idea that the Taliban is a “nationalist” movement is debatable. Nationalist to whom? The movement itself is dominated by two primary, and often clashing, ideologies–a transnational (but regional) religious movement seeking to implement its brutal version of the Islamic state in Afghanistan (and perhaps parts of Pakistan), and a Pashtun-first movement seeking Pashtun dominance in the region, even over non-Pashtun areas.

The US and NATO have made progress in separating the Taliban from its claim to nationalism by enacting a similar approach to what was taken in Iraq, aligning with local elders and tribes (  The Shinwari tribe (approximately 600,000 people) of eastern Afghanistan, a Pashtun tribe whose homeland traditionally crosses the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the newest member of a growing anti-Taliban movement.  In a January agreement made between 170 Shinwari elders and US forces, the elders agreed to banish the Taliban from their territory.  If the threat of groups providing safe havens to the Taliban is minimal why would the US be so concerned with this agreement?  Gaining support from one of the largest tribes in eastern Afghanistan is a testament to the progress NATO, The US and the Kabul government have made recently.  Granted this agreement took a $1 million investment in developing the region by the US and the punishment for harboring the Taliban is having your house burnt down, it should substantially decrease the safety of the Taliban in the violent borderlands of AfPak.

And to the idea that this insurgency and Taliban movement is “fueled” by foreign occupation, I can only say to read up on the Taliban movement itself and current interviews with Afghans themselves. Most of the Taliban’s resurgence can be attributed to the lack of security in the country and/or the incompetence and corruption of the Karzai government. The one promotes fear and subjugation under the Taliban, and the other creates mistrust and anger towards the weak central government. If foreign occupation always fuels insurgency, then why aren’t Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazarras, and urbanized Pashtuns rising up in large numbers to drive the invaders out, as they did in the 1980s against the Soviet Union?

Foreign occupation is helping to dissolve the Taliban and its influence over the politics and social life of Afghans.  A recent poll released by BBC concludes that 90% of Afghans want the current government and only 6% support Taliban rule.  Afghans understand that the current government has been propped up and aided by Western regimes and “occupiers,” yet it is proving to gain support rather than support increasing behind the Taliban.  Respondents to this poll have also credited the Taliban as the most destructive force in Afghanistan, not the presence of US troops.

MYTH NUMBER THREE: “A majority of Afghans are against the ‘occupation’ and want the U.S. to leave.”

First of all, the idea that this is still an “occupation” is debatable since, as of 2004, the elected government asked NATO forces to stay. And, yes, I admit the recent elections have put that legitimacy into question.

Yet, to the gist of this argument, I have found NO (ZERO, ZILCH, NADA) polls indicating that the Afghan people want NATO to immediately end its presence there. It astounds me when individuals like Keith Olbermann or Michael Moore speaking of the “overwhelming evidence” to the contrary. This “overwhelming evidence” doesn’t exist. The only polls I have ever seen cited by this side of the argument are disingenuous and have nothing to do with questions of NATO presence. The two most popular I’ve come across are ones that show Afghans believing that their country is headed in the wrong direction (“wrong direction,” what a vague, vague concept) and that America’s favorability ratings have dropped in the past 8 years from roughly 80 percent to slightly under 50 percent. There is no nuanced look at these numbers by the anti-war left, just an ideological assumption that these numbers automatically support their “anti-imperialist” aims. This numbers can, and do, mean many things, supporting no one ideological position.

A recent poll ( has demonstrated that a majority of Afghans do want the US to remain in the country.  Historically this number has been as low, but as of December 2009, 68% of Afghans support the presence of US troops.  That’s a higher percentage than Obama’s victory or Bush’s re-election.  How many things happen in the US with a 68% of the population support it?  Not only do Afghans support the presence of troops, but now 71% are optimistic about the direction Afghanistan is heading in.

MYTH NUMBER FOUR: “Afghans, especially women, are worse off now than under the Taliban.”

For proponents of this argument, here’s a quick question: who’s responsible, directly, for the majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan? No, Mr. Chomsky, it’s no the U.S. It’s the Taliban insurgency. Yet, proponents of this argument seem to attribute everything bad in Afghanistan to the United States and the ominous “West.” For instance, a recent article by Phyllis Bennis argues that NATO presence is detrimental to Afghan women, citing maternal mortatlity rates and the vast poverty that remains in the country ( Now is this because of and fueled by the U.S. presence? Of course not. Take maternal mortality for instance. A great deal of this problem has to do with Taliban legacy. The Taliban did a thorough job of excluding women almost completely from the health-sector—women had extreme travel restrictions, they were denied jobs in the health-sector, and in-home visits from the resulting male-dominated doctor population were virtually taboo for women to gain access to. This is quite a legacy to overcome. And it is being overcome, slowly, despite Bush administration mismanagements (

A large part of the problem for Afghans (and women in particular) is that currently security is horrible and the Taliban’s “shadow government” exerts control over a substantial part of the country. Once these issues are addressed, individual rights are sure to begin to make an encouraging (and admittedly slow and sloppy) progression.

MYTH NUMBER FIVE: “This is a civil war between Tajiks/Uzbeks/Hazarra and the Pashtun. The Pashtuns hate the presence of the overwhelmingly Tajik national army that operates in their land.”

God I hate this argument. It boils Afghans down to The Other, a primitive group of ethnic automatons ready to do battle, naturally, at any time over tribal or ethnic reasons. Quite an oversimplification to say the least. Yes, I would say there is a civil war in Afghanistan, but it’s not a predominately ethnic one. It’s an ideological one, between those who seek a relatively modern, progressive Afghanistan and those who seek to suffocate the country under a backwards, tyrannical (and in some ways fascistic) ideology. Yes, it is true that the Taliban is a Pashtun-dominated movement; however, it’s began an attempt to expand its appeal to disaffected Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazarras as well, with some small instances of sucess. On the other side, the Karzai government does have a majority of non-Pashtun in it. However, it also includes a number of Pashtuns, including Karzai himself. Part of the problem with the Pashtun community and its lack of strong, solidified anti-Taliban leaders, is that many of these leaders were either killed, exiled, intimidated or co-opted by the Taliban years ago during its inception in Pashtun lands.

Now this national army argument, one I’ve heard used by the likes of Ralph Nader, is a gravely disingenuous one. It implies that Tajiks and non-Pashtun soldiers are roaming Pashtun lands, infuriating the ethnically proud populace. This is not the case. Although the national army as a whole is not truly ethnically representative of the total Afghan population with a higher Tajik to Pashtun ratio in the army than in the country as whole, the Pashtun lands themselves are patrolled by and large by Pashtun soldiers. Thus, in reality, there is no non-Pashtun Afghan national army for the Pashtuns to rail against, as some uninformed dissidents may claim.

So, these are the top myths that I come across. I’m sure there are more. I didn’t do any citing because, frankly, I didn’t want to do the extra work and I’m not writing a journal article here. However, if anyone would want me to back up any factual statements here: ask and you shall recieve.


One response to “Afghanistan: Common Myths of the Anti-War Left

  1. Read this today, maybe this is why the Taliban keeps fighting

    I think I’d continue a fight if it got me free trips to tropical island resorts.

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