Decades of disastrous and bloody interventions

Review: Bitter Lake

Decades of disastrous and bloody interventions

Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International

Why do the mass media and politicians tell “stories” about Western foreign policy which are “increasingly unconvincing and hollow”? To answer this, film-maker Adam Curtis examines the western “narrative” through the “prism of Afghanistan”.

While somewhat reductionist, and lacking a clear class analysis of imperialism and capitalism, Bitter Lake is a harrowing, powerful documentary. It forcefully condemns decades of disastrous and bloody military interventions. A lingering scene of a resting American soldier entranced by a small wild bird that perches on his shoulder – while all around him, we assume, war continues – is illustrative of the film’s artful poignancy.


The film intersperses scenes representing mainstream media interpretations of events with something approaching the real situation, to the accompaniment of eerie background music. Ukrainian men, apparently drunk, are shown dancing in the woods in 1989 – as the Stalinist USSR crumbled. Next we see Ukraine through a camera lens smeared with human blood in the immediate aftermath of armed carnage from the current conflict in the east.

Home movies recorded by Americans working on building huge dams in Helmand, Afghanistan in the 1950s are spliced with scenes of soldiers carrying out house-to-house searches during the recent occupation. Grainy night-time footage captures US soldiers boasting on camera about carrying out “unapproved killings” of Afghans. In a very different vein, excerpts from Carry On Up the Khyber parody colonial rule.


As part of the ‘oil for modernisation’ deal made between US President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi rulers in the late 1940s, the Americans promised to ‘leave faith alone’. This referred to Wahhabism, an extreme fundamentalist form of Islam, the guiding ideology of the tribes which brought the Saudi royal family to power.

Wahhabism and related Salafism grew as “a reaction to modern imperialism”. Adherents called for a return to an idealised ‘caliphate’, or Islamic theocracy. They proved dangerously destabilising to the new ruling elite.


In the 1960s, King Faisal responded to dangers from both domestic Wahhabism and “Communism spreading throughout the Middle East” by exporting Islamic fundamentalists outside Saudi Arabia’s borders. He set up Wahhabi madrasas – religious schools – across the region, eventually reaching Afghanistan. Due to its Cold War imperative to counter the Soviet Union at any cost, the US gave tacit support to this policy.

In the mid-1950s, giant dams were built in Helmand with American engineering know-how, during the intensifying Cold War struggle. The Afghan regime under Daud Khan played off the US, China and Soviet Union against one another. But the dam projects were used, at the expense of other ethnic groups, to boost the position of Daud’s Pashtun support base – “creating bitter divisions over power and influence in Helmand”.


The long-term consequences of these divisions are alluded to by the film’s most dramatic scenes. At close quarter, we see former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, apparently being greeted by supporters as his car winds through streets. Suddenly they come under fierce gun attack, leaving two civilians and at least one bodyguard dead.

Oil price

Curtis regards the oil-price shocks of the 1970s as pivotal events that “changed the balance of forces”. Egypt launched an attack against Israel – which then relied on US assistance to militarily beat the Arab states. In retaliation against Israel and the US, Saudi rulers cut oil production, causing a spike in prices. Increased oil revenues saw the rise of the ‘petro-dollar’, which in vast amounts was funnelled to western banks, helping create today’s powerful multinational financial institutions.

The oil shocks compounded social strife in the west, radicalising youth and students. Many young Afghans sent to study in the US in the 1960s were influenced by left-wing ideas on campuses. One of them, Nur Muhammad Taraki, overthrew Daud and became president of Afghanistan. He espoused land redistribution – but did so from on high, rather than with through the democratic decisions of local populations. According to Curtis, “land reforms made the situation worse [with] hatreds and rivalries [between] village and village, tribe and tribe”.

Soviet Union

After Taraki was killed by a rival, the Soviet Union sent in troops, fearing the consequences of the break-up of Afghanistan on its border. Social gains and advances in women’s rights were achieved, as indicated in the documentary – albeit based on the bureaucratic, top-down, Stalinist model of the Soviet Union.

Curtis argues that the escalating conflict between Afghan mujahedeen – guerrilla jihadi fighters – and Soviet forces was cast as “good versus evil” by US President Ronald Regan and a compliant media. America and its allies massively increased arms supply and funding to the mujahedeen.

After Soviet forces left Afghanistan, mujahedeen groups fought bitterly among themselves for power, destroying the capital, Kabul. No longer receiving US funds, the brutal warlords turned to the opium trade.


Amid this chaos, the Taliban – originating among Afghans educated in Pakistan’s madrasas, run by Saudi money – offered stability and an end to corruption, eventually taking control.

In 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. The US sent half a million troops to Saudi Arabia to safeguard it. But Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi and veteran Afghanistan jihadist, “saw the US as the real enemy” – and the Saudi ruling family as part of the problem for letting them in. Mirroring the language of Reagan and Thatcher – and later Bush and Blair – al-Qaida spoke about “good versus evil”.

Following the 9/11 attacks – mainly carried out by Saudis who could easily obtain American visas – the US-led coalition invaded and occupied Afghanistan. They removed the Taliban from power and initiated a doomed policy to “modernise” and “democratise” the country.


British soldiers were sent to Helmand, where tribal warriors crushed British forces in the 19th century, to deal with a “Taliban uprising”. Bitter Lake shows local elders telling British commanders that the real problem was the brutal and corrupt local police, who were seen as “a violent militia for warlords”. British military support for the police, like “mass bombings”, only alienated the local population and allowed the Taliban to return. In a telling interview, one officer concludes the British presence exclusively made things worse.

Curtis draws the sweeping conclusion that the 2009 bank bailouts marked western leaders’ acknowledgement that “democracy” in the west had failed. However, there is some truth in his idea that pouring more funds into Afghanistan was part of a desperate ploy to claim a success. But only ‘crony capitalism’ was created in Afghanistan, with $10 million a day of ‘aid’ smuggled out. So unpopular was the occupation that when British forces left at the end of 2014, even war memorials were taken with them.

Islamic State

Also departing was a former Bin Laden associate, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He brought jihad to Iraq and established the so-called Islamic State, which has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria with barbaric brutality.

Curtis ends by saying that the “simple stories of the west do not make sense anymore”. We need stories “we can believe in”.

For socialists, this is not simply a question of media narratives. It means revealing the underlying class motives of the ruling elites, be they in Washington or Kabul. Moreover, it means supporting all efforts to develop the unity of working people and the poor to be rid of imperial-ist wars and occupations, warlordism and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism.

  • Bitter Lake is available on BBC iPlayer until 25 January 2016
  • Further reading: “Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left” (