What We Talk About When We Talk About Afghanistan

August 27, 2021 by Tom Sandborn

Where is Raymond Carver when we really need him? The brilliant American short story writer, poet laureate of moral ambiguity, white trash squalor and  feral violence, ( and author of  What We Talk About When We Talk About Love)  is the only talent equal to the challenge presented by the news from Afghanistan in  late August.

Mainly, what we talk about when we talk about Afghanistan comes down to everyone who comments arguing that the current debacle in Kabul  illustrates just how right our own  earlier views on Afghanistan were, and how truly evil our political opponents are. (Some readers, of course, may see this essay as yet another example of just such self-justification.) Current Afghan news is a kind of political Rorschach test onto which we project our anxieties, regrets,  claims to virtue , guilts and delusions. And it is, on all sides, just as unpersuasive and annoying as virtue signalling so often is.

When not signalling past virtue, most commentators have focused on the easy sentiment to be wrung out of the crowds of Afghans who worked for the Western forces over the past two decades, now outside the airport gates at Kabul clamoring for the rescue they were promised. And it is a compelling story- men ( mainly) who bonded in battle keeping faith with each other, desperate escapes, and chases.  The Netflix action movie almost writes itself, especially in the wake of the August 26 suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport.  And to be clear, I hope that everyone who wants to get out of Afghanistan succeeds. And the western invaders do owe some help to the Afghans who collaborated with them-in the spirit of honor amongst thieves, if nothing else.

But here are a few other things we should say when we speak of Afghanistan.  While no sane observer can pretend that the Taliban and their apparent competition on the Islamic militant side ISIS K are anything but murderous, misogynist thugs, the western countries that have been making Afghanistan into a free fire zone for decades also have much to answer for. By April of this year, according to a think tank based at Brown University  the long war had cost more than 71,000 civilian lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the majority killed by western invaders. Since 2016, almost 1,600 of the civilian deaths were children.

And Canadians bemused by this season’s bad news out of Afghanistan ought to remember that while “holding the bully’s coat,” ( to use Linda McQuaig’s resonant phrase about Canada/US imperial cooperation) Canadian forces handed over Afghan prisoners to American and Afghan forces, setting the stage for horrific torture. We should say that the cost in Canadian lives (165) and dollars ( an estimated $18 billion) was real, but fades almost into insignificance when compared to what the war cost Afghans.

Many commentators have focused, in thinking about the botched Afghan departure, on what the long war cost the west, and those costs have been considerable. Maybe, they suggest, the problems all started with an ill-advised attempt to nation build, or maybe the problem lies in the idea of humanitarian intervention itself. Both critiques have some power, but if we really want to think through the lessons of the West’s failed intervention, we need to go further and recognize the brutal realities of US imperialism and the presence of US troops in more than 100 countries. Until that horrific reality changes, the US and its allies like Canada will be drawn into further blood-stained reiterations of the Afghan nightmare. That’s what we should talk about when we talk about Afghanistan.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes on unceded Indigenous territory in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at

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