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Sadness, Deceit and Failure in Afghanistan

August 17, 2021

By Stuart Rees

Viewed through television screens, a desperate sadness hangs over Afghanistan. Scenes of fear and panic in Kabul and at the main airport display a real-life horror movie, while Afghan residents of Australia plead for government response to their powerlessness.

Accusations of political and military failure accompany the sadness. Every media statement is peppered with incredulity: how did twenty years of US, NATO and Australian investment in training a 300,000 strong Afghan army result in immediate surrender when faced by Taliban forces. The failure is apparent in a humiliating and hurried retreat from previous promises to protect the human rights of women and children. 

Afghani soldiers at weapon training in Mazar e Sharif Afghanistan
Afghani soldiers at weapon training in Maza e Sharif, Afghanistan 2020. Photo credit: Trent Inness/

Always the vulnerable suffer. Always the lives of women at risk. Chaos, refugees displaced, hungry people in need, in fear, not knowing whether help is possible, unsure if people who come to help can ever be trusted again. 

Deceit is also part of the Afghan story. US politicians claim that one of their main goals, to kill Osama bin Laden, was achieved, therefore US security has been protected. The false claims industry is in overdrive, as frenzied as the helicopters landing in Kabul determined to imitate the retreat from Saigon. 

Prime Minister Morrison weighs in with his characteristic deceits. The Afghan people have had a taste of freedoms, he says, so no Australian or US soldier has died in vain. Outraged parents of Australian soldiers who died, respond “what freedoms, what gains from the deaths of our sons?” 

Children are used to abandoned tanks in the landscape of Afghanistan
The grim reality of war, in Afghanistan children are used to seeing military tanks and soldiers during their daily activities, Jalalabad Road, eastern Afghanistan, 2004. Photo credit:

The claims that Australia has been doing everything possible to give refuge to Afghan citizens who aided the Australian mission appears as another deceit. Brave Afghans in fear of their lives, who hope for refuge in Australia, have been met with a mostly arthritic response, each government statement marinated in lame excuses that paperwork can be complex and takes time to process. Political and bureaucratic procrastination at the disastrous end of the Afghan operation matches blurred, uncertain goals at the beginning.

To explain sadness, deceit and failure requires an answer to the question ‘who are the Taliban?’ Journalists covering the wars have ducked the question by simply repeating ‘Taliban insurgency’, ‘Taliban militants.’ At this point I’ll be unapologetically facetious. The Taliban are just tens of thousands of bearded, turbaned young men on motorcycles who recite the strictest parts of the Koran. Were they born that way, with beards and motorcycles? Were there no sisters? And how did their suppressed, presumably masochistic mothers teach them to continue to abuse women and girls?  What is the Taliban mothers’ story?

Taliban fighters in Kabul on their first day of rule in Afghanistan
Taliban fighters in Kabul on their first full day of rule in Afghanistan, August 2021.
Photo credit: Xinhua/Rex/

The lessons learned from this tragedy should be immediate. Militarism is seldom a permanent cure for injustice. Abuses of power by men in uniform on tanks, or in long robes on motorcycles are a cancer that explains conflicts in Afghanistan and around the globe. Advocacy of non-abusive uses of power should be prominent in every context and country. Greater literacy about universal human rights and the means of attaining such goals must become a key feature of domestic and foreign policies. 

No more invasions. No more sending in the troops. How to act instead? Only examples of nonviolence, beginning tomorrow with generous aid to address an immediate humanitarian crisis. That’s a first step gesture to address the sadness, deceit and failure towards beautiful but fearful people in Afghanistan.

Stuart Rees

Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

Feature image: About 640 Afghani people crammed into US cargo plane fleeing the country after the fall of Kabul, 15 August 2021. Photo credit: Ian Bremmer/Twitter

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    2 comments on “Sadness, Deceit and Failure in Afghanistan”

    1. ... "Were they born that way, ... What is the Taliban mothers’ story?" ... What is their story? Were they sent to certain schools or madrassas or taken and at what age? Separated from their girls, sisters and mothers. If they were children would it be considered child abuse? Were they overtly indoctrinated and kept from the outside world, discouraged to question, made to feel right, special, entitled, a faithful follower? Nature or nurture. I'm not trying to excuse, I'm trying to understand how such atrocities can happen still, how we continue not to learn from history or intervene earlier. I feel a stand alone story could be written.

    2. There doesn't seem to be a discussion in the media about how this war really ended.
      Unlike Syria and Iraq it ended WITHOUT cities and villages being destroyed with the associated loss of civilian life.
      Is this just an accident or are those people wiser than we give them credit for?

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