On last week’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver made a veiled reference to the fact that that week’s show was taping its main story while there was something else going on he was pretty sure was going to be a bigger topic next week. Well, next week is this week, and Sunday saw Oliver attempting to tackle Afghanistan. Playing a clip from a stolidly nodding Sylvester Stallone attempting to understand just how complex and bloodily fraught is the history of that oft-invaded and exploited country, Oliver went on to show that America’s involvement in the region has been Rambo III-level wrongheaded and unnecessary, right up to and including this week’s disastrous and chaotic cessation of our two-decade war there.
As ever, Oliver tackled a wrenchingly complicated issue with a signature, three-pronged strategy of providing context, mocking the hell out of the bad actors responsible, and seeking solutions, all with the exasperated comic acidity of a guy unafraid to piss everybody off. Partway through his piece, Oliver acknowledged that there aren’t a lot of solutions to the “clusterfuck that we helped fuck into existence.” That in the face of the shockingly sudden collapse of the U.S.-buttressed Afghan government and the deeply unsettling sight of religious extremists with access to billions of dollars worth of America-supplied weaponry taking charge. He gave it a shot, though, urging viewers to, at the very least, call their representatives in order to counter the all-too-predictable rush to slam the door against the Afghan refugees now attempting flee the mess we made of their country from conservative blowhards like Fox News’ “tag-team racial panic-goblins” Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Oliver also gave out the government-supplied suicide-prevention phone number (1-800-273-8255) to stress to service members in crisis that the now-obvious pointlessness of their years of sacrifice isn’t their fault.
Still, there’s decades’-worth of blame to be shared all across the political spectrum, and Oliver spared exactly nobody. Naturally, bombs-away warmongers like George W. Bush (and his post-9/11 “crusade”) had unfortunate quotes thrown back at them, but every president since, including Barack Obama and Donald Trump (who negotiated a withdrawal deal with the Taliban, but not the legitimate Afghan government) got theirs, too. So did literally every member of Congress but one (the still-serving Democratic Representative Barbara Lee of California), who lockstep-leapt on the post-9/11 invasion bandwagon, with Oliver singling out the also still-employed, New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney, who made her impassioned pitch for war while infamously wearing what Oliver termed a “fuck-you burqa” on the House floor.
As Oliver noted, Maloney’s stunt was intended, theoretically, to highlight the undeniably appalling treatment of women by the Taliban, although the host questioned the theatrics of a white woman aping another culture for the publicity. Plus, as Oliver noted in his exhaustively educational trip through America’s long history of opportunistic interventionism abroad, the U.S. only seems to get really worked up about civil rights issues in other countries when there are perceived political gains to dress up in humanitarian garb. And if you thought that noted not-conservative Oliver was going to go easy on the current president in deference to similarly opportunistic partisanship, you really haven’t been watching Last Week Tonight throughout its eight, scorched-earth seasons of award-winning finger-pointing.
From now-President Joe Biden’s support of the war, to Biden’s narrow focus on protecting only Americans fleeing Afghanistan, to Biden’s 2010 citing of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger “getting away with” the equally disastrous and inept Fall of Saigon, Oliver stated that Biden’s scornful on-camera claim of having “zero responsibility” for a then-hypothetical Taliban takeover was some seriously revisionist bullshit. As Oliver put it of 2010 Biden’s choice of foreign policy role models in the face of an incompetently managed retreat from an unnecessary and costly war, “When you’re rolling with Dick and the Kiss, you know you’re on the right side of history.”
So what’s to be done? Oliver doesn’t know. The United States’ track record in learning from its violently self-interested, often blatantly racist foreign interventionism isn’t great. And propping up hand-picked kleptocratic foreign governments in the name of mumble-mumble-something-freedom has once again left 20 years’ worth of military contractor-enriching technology and weaponry in the hands of some very bad men. Oliver showed the looming nightmare for the women and civil rights campaigners of the now-abandoned Afghanistan, while wryly applauding the Taliban for adopting some America-style improved public relations techniques. (There’s apparently a WhatsApp Taliban complaints department, which, don’t call that.)
But, ultimately, what Oliver stressed was the right—and only—thing to do now is to welcome and materially assist as many Afghan refugees as possible. You know, since we blundered away their country and left them at the mercy of some now U.S.-armed, right-wing, woman-hating religious sociopaths. Plucking an unintentionally telling, typically xenophobic quote from “professional pearl-clutcher” Ingraham, Oliver suggested that the Fox News-fretting flood of terrified refugees that happens “every time we turn a country upside-down” can be avoided by not doing that quite so much. In the meantime, Oliver said, the very fucking least we can do is to launch an apologetic and helpful fleet of lifeboats to those people fleeing the horror we helped bring about.