John McCain's insane delusions: The big Afghanistan lie he will not let go of

"Successful for fourteen years": McCain rewrites history of U.S. war that tortured Afghanistan, calls for more

Published October 6, 2015 8:12PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to ensure it "would never again be a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other radical Islamist terrorists to attack us again," John McCain said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday morning. And "that mission has been successful for 14 years."

To say al-Qaeda has not again attacked Americans on U.S. soil is technically correct, but to call such a mission "successful" is mindbogglingly myopic. No rational person can look at the situation throughout South Asia and the Middle East today and say U.S. military intervention has been a success. This would take either extreme blindness or sheer delusion.

McCain insisted "American troops and civilians have made steady progress in supporting our Afghan partners to secure their country and dealt severe blows to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups." Yet these claims blatantly defy the facts on the ground.

It was the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that in fact led to the growth of al-Qaeda throughout the world. Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq before the U.S. invasion; the U.S. war, which pulverized the government, destroyed enormous amounts of infrastructure, and escalated sectarian tensions, is what brought al-Qaeda into the country. This eventually led to the rise of ISIS - whose predecessor was ISI (the Islamic State of Iraq) - which broke ties with al-Qaeda for not being extreme enough.

McCain failed to mention in the hearing that al-Qaeda has grown exponentially since the U.S. war in Afghanistan began. Now al-Qaeda is present in almost every country in the region. And ISIS, even more violent than al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has entered Afghanistan, while taking more and more territory in war-stricken Libya - where U.S. bombing once again destroyed the government and left the country in shambles - along with Yemen - where Washington is backing the Saudi-led coalition that is responsible for approximately two-thirds of the thousands of civilian casualties and has used banned U.S.-made cluster munitions to bomb civilian areas - and more.

Never mentioned by McCain, moreover, is that over 220,000 Afghans were killed in the U.S. war, according to a report conducted by Physicians for Social Responsibility. (At least another 1 million people were killed in the U.S. war in Iraq, the study indicates, noting that "this is only a conservative estimate.")

All the facts indicate that U.S. military intervention has only made matters worse. Yet, almost 15 years later, war hawks like McCain are still calling for more.

In order to justify continued U.S. war in Afghanistan, nevertheless, McCain brought up women's rights several times - recalling the blunt tropes dissected by scholar Lila Abu-Lughod in her article "Do Muslim Women Need Saving?" This is an interesting choice, coming from a right-wing senator who insisted the War on Women is "imaginary," and was "conjured" by Democrats. This is fascinating, coming from a Republican lawmaker who mocked women's health in his own country, and who recently co-sponsored a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. This is rich, coming from a male politician who has opposed legislation that seeks equal pay for women.

As for the claim that the U.S. war in Afghanistan has helped Afghan women, Afghan women like former parliamentarian and human rights activist Malalai Joya disagree. Joya lamented in a 2013 interview that, in her country, "imperialism and fundamentalism has joined hands."

The "consequences of the 12 years of occupation of U.S. and NATO, unfortunately, was more bloodshed, crimes, women rights, human rights violations, looting of our resource, and changing of our country into mafia state," she said. "During these 12 bloody years, tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed by occupation forces and terrorist groups," Joya added.

Joya was banned from the parliament for accusing other members of being involved in terrorist groups and drug trafficking. "Since I've started my struggle for human rights in Afghanistan, for women's rights, these criminals, these drug smugglers, they've stood against me from the first time I raised my voice," she remarked. Human Rights Watch excoriated the Afghan parliament for suspending Joya, demanding her reinstatement and calling it a setback for democracy.

McCain also claimed "we have seen a remarkable progress in Afghan society... Life expectancy in Afghanistan has increased by 22 years in less than a generation." This talking point has been raised many times before. The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy noted the dubious factoid is "bandied about, usually to support the case for an extended military effort in Afghanistan." He was unable to find solid documentation of the 22-year figure, which may be exaggerated, and pointed out that life expectancy rose under the Taliban too - which would hardly be a justification for its regime of repression and brutality. "The claim that Western intervention in Afghanistan has dramatically improved life expectancy is a surprisingly durable myth," Murphy explained.

There was no dearth of hypocrisy in McCain's statement too. In the hearing, he declared it "is precisely because we are fighting for progress and fighting for our values that it has been so disturbing to read reports alleging that some of our coalition partners may be engaged in sexual abuse and other activities that contradict our values." In reality, however, an investigation by the New York Times found the U.S. military explicitly told soldiers not to intervene when Afghan allies were abusing children. American soldiers were told to remain about the rampant abuse, lest they face castigation.

Instead "of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages — and doing little when they began abusing children," the Times revealed.

The goal of McCain's speech before the Senate Armed Services Committee was clear: He was calling for a greater American military presence in Afghanistan. U.S. Army General John Campbell, who also spoke, did the same.

Nowhere in his 20-page statement did Gen. Campbell discuss the impact of the U.S. war on Afghan civilians, nevertheless. The at least 220,000 people killed are not on his radar.

Gen. Campbell also failed to tell the committee that, mere days before the hearing, his own forces had bombed a hospital run by international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, killing 12 staff and 10 patients, including three children, in what the U.N. says may be a war crime.

At the hearing, McCain brought up the specter of Iraq as an example of why, according to him, withdrawing American troops would not work. Encouraging the tail to wag the dog, McCain blamed the U.S. withdrawal for the rise of ISIS, not the U.S. invasion. He warned that "the White House remains committed to its politically-driven withdrawal of nearly all U.S. forces from Afghanistan," which he called a "dangerous course."

What would truly be the most dangerous course of all is escalating American military involvement in the region, which has again and again proven to be nothing short of disastrous. The Obama administration, after pledging it would end the Afghanistan War by the end of 2014, has already delayed the withdrawal of troops one time. If it were to do so again, violent military conflict would only further torture Afghanistan - and Afghan civilians would inevitably pay the largest toll, as in any war. The continued U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is a key recruitment point throughout the region for militant movements; continued U.S. occupation virtually guarantees further conflict.

Unmentioned by McCain was, too, any of the history surrounding the conflict in Afghanistan. In his desperate call for more war, McCain glossed over the fact that it was U.S. military intervention that was responsible for the rise of the Taliban in the first place. During the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the U.S. government supported the militant Islamist movement the Mujahideen - the Taliban's predecessor - as part of its larger Cold War strategy. President Reagan even met with the Mujahideen, whom he dubbed "freedom fighters," in the Oval Office.

McCain speaks of the "sacrifices" of the "thousands upon thousands of American troops and their families who have served and are serving in Afghanistan," but says nothing of the horrors suffered by Afghans themselves throughout three decades of U.S. military intervention.

Even if your goal is just to protect American civilians, with little regard for the people of the Middle East or South Asia - which McCain's statements seem to suggest - the U.S. war in Afghanistan and elsewhere has been utterly disastrous. Prolonging, yet alone escalating, it is simply a recipe for further disaster.

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By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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