On August 30, 2021, the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, signalling the end of a twenty-year occupation. Since this withdrawal, the Canadian media has relentlessly pursued justification for the war. Criticism has been entirely restricted to critiques of the withdrawal and of the “failure” of the mission. This is a continuation of the Canadian media’s inability to effectively critique the military machine.
The American-led invasion of Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of nearly six million people. Rather than criticizing the consequences of withdrawal, the war itself should be the subject of criticism. It was an imperialist endeavor ever-marked by atrocity and bloodshed.
On November 11, amidst a wave of propaganda pieces, CBC published an article titled ‘We Did Our Best’: Canadian veterans of Afghanistan reflect on a year of loss. This article opens by stating that: “The rapid and shocking fall of Afghanistan to Taliban forces this summer has forced Canadian soldiers who served and sacrificed there during Canada’s 13-year involvement in the conflict to re-confront the meaning of their role in the country.” One soldier quoted states that “We did our best to provide the space for a possible future to emerge, and that just didn’t pan out.”
Such an approach is grounded in the notion that the war in Afghanistan was noble. This has been the framework for all coverage. For instance, a CBC article post-withdrawal stated that “For those closest to international efforts to build a civil society in Afghanistan, the events of the past month have been a bitter pill to swallow.” Another CBC article quoted a soldier who stated that “Over there, you can’t be anything other than what they say you are. You can’t be a man who is openly gay or you die. They don’t even believe that women are humans.” And, “You look at history, not one civilization has been able to come in there and tame the Afghan people and it’s not about that. It’s about helping them help themselves.”
Purely colonial logic allows the myth of benevolent conquest to prevail. When Canada joined the invasion of Afghanistan, on October 7, 2001, politicians supported this across the board on the grounds that it was necessary to defend “freedom and democracy” and fight the war on terror. This narrative framed coverage of the war throughout and persists to this day. Now, the idea being forwarded is that military conquest allowed Afghanistan to “civilize.” Criticism of the withdrawal process suggests that continued military occupation would enable the civilizing process to continue. This is colonial logic and follows a tradition stemming back hundreds of years.
It should go without saying that the war in Afghanistan was in no way fought for the sake of women’s rights. It is not even possible to meaningfully critique gender-based oppression while glorifying imperialism and neo-colonialism. The media has also consistently suggested that withdrawal has driven “a mounting humanitarian catastrophe.” The fact that the invasion itself was a major humanitarian catastrophe is ignored.
The war in Afghanistan was not about freedom, democracy, or the Afghan people. It was part of a campaign of imperialist aggression spearheaded by the United States and supported by the pan-European sphere of accumulation. Conquering and occupying non-European territories has allowed for intensive extraction and wealth accumulation. This campaign has been status-quo since the end of the Second World War, when the United States by-passed former powers to secure a position of global dominance. It is a process which continues to accelerate.
Since the 9/11 attacks, America has launched at least 91,340 airstrikes, which alone have killed between 22,679 and 48,308 civilians. The vast majority of these deaths occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite attempts to sanitize it, this kind of drone warfare is particularly horrific. Stephen Graham writes that psychologists in Palestine, for instance, have noticed “a whole generation of Gazan children suffering deep psychological trauma because of the continual exposure to the buzzing sounds of drones high above, machines that can spit lethal violence upon them and their families at any time.” This is terrorism.
The war on terror has been marked by Western powers using terror to control and subjugate. Paranoia instilled in populations has allowed states to effortlessly breach human rights, enforce authoritarian measures, and undertake massive military campaigns across the globe. When desirable, these anti-terror measures are applied to Indigenous peoples and others who threaten the state’s colonial regime at home. The media has contributed immensely to this by continuously bolstering and justifying state ideology.
On October 7, 2021, exactly twenty years after Canada joined the invasion, the Immigration and Refugee Board held a tribunal regarding Canada’s attempts to permanently ban Chelsea Manning from entering the country. Manning’s supposed crime is leaking secret documents detailing war crimes, such as unlawful killings, torture, and human rights abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decision will be made sometime this year. It is undeniable that Canada is guilty of such war crimes. Among other things, it wilfully turned prisoners over to allies knowing that they would be tortured. The Canadian state’s attempts to ban Manning are an attempt to maintain control of the war narrative and mitigate critique.
The Canadian media, particularly CBC, serves as state propaganda. This does not necessarily mean that it receives direct instruction from state bodies. Instead, the overall structure ensures that state perspectives dominate coverage and commentary. Given the evidence of systemic war crimes that emerged when Australia’s role in Afghanistan was examined, it is no surprise that Canada has no interest in examining the mission critically. Controlling the narrative also enables the state to continue to exert colonial dominance internally and externally.
Ignoring the nature of such coverage contributes to ongoing colonialist and imperialist efforts at home and abroad. It is the duty of independent media to undertake rigorous analysis of the claims made by corporate and state outlets. Demonstrating that there is more credence to less-circulated perspectives can help unsettle the foundations of state dominance, conceptually and materially. This allows for stronger resistance to future wars and ongoing colonial practices.
This article was originally published in CounterPunch on Jan. 21, 2022.
Luke Beirne was born in Ireland and lives in Canada. His debut novel, Foxhunt, will be released by Baraka Books in April 2022.