By Members of team Juliet Forward (exact member unknown. either CIA or US military) - USSOCOM 20th Anniversary History http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dod/socom/2007history.pdf, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10279805

Tora Bora | By Members of team Juliet Forward (exact member unknown. either CIA or US military) – USSOCOM 20th Anniversary History http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dod/socom/2007history.pdf, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10279805

This is Part One of four installments examining American human rights violations in the Middle East, and the steps the U.S. is taking to prevent further harm. Read parts two, three, and four.

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The United States has killed between an estimated 22,679 and 48,308 civilians in at least 91,340 airstrikes since the September 11 terror attacks, according to the civilian casualty monitoring group Airwars. The U.S. has been able to disregard the rules of war and kill innocent civilians under the guise of a self-defensive strike because it cannot be held responsible by organizations such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Starting with the war in Afghanistan, former American President George W. Bush launched the so-called “War on Terror” in order to fight “every terrorist group of global reach [until all have] been found, stopped, and defeated.” Mr. Bush used the trauma of 9/11 to expand American influence in the Middle East, first in Afghanistan to oust the ruling Taliban, which provided support for al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, then in Iraq, to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein, whom the U.S. tried to defeat in the First Gulf War.

The invasion of Afghanistan was a somewhat easier pill to swallow given that the Taliban offered sanctuary for al-Qaeda. Pakistan was quietly supporting the Taliban to prevent stronger Indian influence in the region, a fact that Mr. Bush lamented, saying in his September 20, 2001 speech to Congress that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In order to overthrow the Taliban, the U.S. worked with the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, a group of mujahideen who sought a similar outcome.

The invasion of Iraq could not be similarly justified. The United Nations rejected the U.S.-led escalation of tensions with Iraq, saying that while “Iraq is certainly responsible for widespread and systematic human rights violations [. . .] this reprehensible human rights record does not by itself provide a legal basis for resort to war.” It advocated for ICC intervention, something the United States in particular rejected.

Without the proper self-defense justification for an invasion, Mr. Bush and then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair manufactured the idea that Saddam Hussein still possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This was an outright lie, but it gave the U.S. and allies a reason to invade Iraq.

American megalomania generated an incessant desire to construct a Middle East that fit its narrative, even if many viewed the American arrival as a foreign invasion with the intent to create an unwelcome mini-America. When the U.S. realized that it could build a mirage of democracy in the Middle East, it did not hesitate to continue its push to destroy an ideology with force.

What the U.S. failed to understand was that its invasions likely fomented stronger anti-American sentiments. But as the country became accustomed to distant wars, crimes against humanity were swept under the rug. From the beginnings of the War on Terror to wishy-washy responses to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the U.S. has donned the mask of liberty while turning a blind eye to the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians.

After The New York Times revealed systematic failures to protect non-combatants, the Pentagon was forced to reckon with its carelessness. Finally, the U.S. is taking steps to leave war on the battlefield and out of neighborhoods with a 36-page action plan that seeks to lessen civilian casualties in war.

Afghanistan was the first country on America’s path to rid the world of terrorism through military means, and it continues America’s legacy of violating human rights with impunity.

9/11 and the War on Terror

Twin Towers Lights Photo by Jesse Mills on Unsplash | By Derivative work: PoxnarAll four pictures in the montage are taken by the US Army/Navy. – September 17 2001.jpgSnow won’t stop operations 121228-F-LR266-849.jpgCar bomb in Iraq.jpgUS soldiers in Zabul province.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10662639

9/11 is a defining moment in American history for many reasons. It is the deadliest terrorist attack in world history, killing 2,977 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. It spurred the War on Terror and forced the remodeling of counterterrorism and surveillance infrastructures.

9/11 brought the United States back into Middle Eastern conflict for the first time since the First Gulf War, which ended in 1991. The U.S. first invaded Afghanistan to try to root out terrorism with the help of the mujahideen in northern Afghanistan. It then intervened in Yemen, invaded Iraq, intervened in Pakistani, Somali, and Libyan civil uprisings, and fought the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Mr. Bush vowed to use every method available to eliminate every terrorist threat to America, which included killing civilians as a necessary side effect. If some civilians had to die on the U.S.’s ceaseless path to peace, then their deaths were justified. Notwithstanding the fact that the rules of war criminalize disproportionate harm to civilians during conflict.

The War on Terror started with 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, and while its definition has shifted and its official purpose has ended, the terror of the war continues.

Afghanistan

By Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=111140382

The Taliban violated human rights prior to, during, and after their rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. They harbored al-Qaeda and came to power during the 1992–1996 Afghan Civil War after the Soviet-backed government fell in 1992. The Taliban fought and defeated several other insurgencies to overcome Kabul in 1996 and tortured and killed General Secretary Mohammad Najibullah.

Once in power, the Taliban massacred Shi’a Hazaras and raided peoples’ homes and killed the inhabitants. After losing power to a U.S.-backed government, the Taliban committed numerous acts of sexual violence that could amount to war crimes. The Taliban were not admirable or just rulers of Afghanistan by any means, but American intervention merely replaced one murderous group with another.

George W. Bush wanted to root out al-Qaeda — and Osama bin Laden in particular — by focusing on the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan that offered refuge to al-Qaeda. He claimed that America was in Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda, but that claim was disingenuous. The Taliban offered to hand bin Laden and any of his cohorts over to the United States; that offer was rejected. The Taliban wanted more evidence of Mr. bin Laden’s direct involvement in the 9/11 attacks, after which it would hand Mr. bin Laden over to a third country. The U.S. had already invaded Afghanistan by that point, leaving the U.S. with little leverage to cooperate with the Taliban.

Mr. Bush wanted to overthrow the Taliban regime and install a friendly government in Kabul. The desire to seek retribution against an enemy that harbored an organization that attacked the U.S. is understandable, but that does not make the decision to invade a country an intelligent one.

Defeating terrorism is an incredibly broad goal that would never be resolved with force. If anything, military force would inflame tensions and expand the idea that American influence is to blame for domestic issues. Mr. Bush already decided that the U.S. would go to war with Afghanistan and refuse to negotiate with the Taliban. He wanted to show that the 9/11 attacks did not weaken American power, and he believed that an outright invasion was the best course of action.

The vast majority of Congress agreed with Mr. Bush’s interpretation. However, one member of Congress votes against the authorization of force in Afghanistan: Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA). Rep. Lee argued that violence would beget violence, and “[a] rush to launch precipitous military counterattacks runs too great a risk that more innocent men, women, children will be killed.”

Afghan and American war crimes

Ms. Lee’s fear was realized with 25 percent of the approximately 5,183 civilian deaths being caused by the U.S.-backed Afghan government, led by Ashraf Ghani. The ICC was pressured to ignore human rights abuses by the U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Afghanistan and only focus on the Taliban, discounting the trauma faced by the thousands impacted by terror inflicted by every side of the conflict.

Mr. Ghani’s government is not the only entity at fault for killing innocent civilians. The United States’ own human rights record is stained by hasty decision-making that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians throughout its intervention in Afghanistan.

Between 2001 and 2014, an estimated 26,270 Afghan civilians were killed. To be fair, not all of these civilians were killed by the invading forces, and anti-government forces (e.g. Taliban or al-Qaeda) have killed more civilians than international forces. However, several thousands of civilians were killed by forces led by the U.S., and not every one of their deaths can be justified as a necessary side effect of war.

Even when service members were disciplined for killing civilians, such as after an October 2015 airstrike on a Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz that killed 42 people, they did not face criminal charges for murder. The U.S. consistently puts up a façade of justice to shy away from responsibility for its crimes.

The U.S. did not leave Afghanistan with the ceremonial end of the war in 2014. Insurgency continued because the government was forced into existence, instead of being born naturally. When President Joseph R. Biden committed to the full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan planned by former President Donald J. Trump, the Taliban began a swift takeover of the country, toppling each regional capital in a few weeks.

When Kabul fell on August 15, 2021, the U.S. committed to keep terrorist threats at bay. So on August 29, the U.S. carried out a “righteous strike” with a drone to eliminate what it said was an ISIS operative. As it turned out, the U.S. murdered an aid worker, not an ISIS militant, and nine others, including seven children. In true U.S. fashion, not a single person was disciplined for extinguishing the lives of ten innocent civilians.

Afghanistan was the first front of the War on Terror, and it is a front on which the U.S. continues to fight even after the war ended. In the process, it killed civilians with both internal and international impunity. But Afghanistan was not the only country to be tormented by careless American zeal. Iraq was next on the path to force America’s will on the Middle East.

By Vincent M

Vincent M writes about global political developments and is based in the U.S. He focuses on the enduring impact of history and analyzes the complexities of the modern political landscape.