As Americans grapple with former President Donald Trump’s divisive politics, Republican voter suppression, the coronavirus pandemic and President Joe Biden’s very costly proposals to transform the nation, there is likely little time to ponder on external matters. Afghanistan is an exception. President George W. Bush ordered the bombing and occupation of the Muslim Central Asian nation on Oct. 7, 2001, in alliance with other nations, after the attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11 that year. Afghanistan was not involved in that terrorism but the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, and his Al Qaeda lieutenants found refuge there and the Taliban government ignored Bush’s demands to surrender them.
Most of the objectives were achieved but the occupation has lingered for almost 20 years and will end by Sept. 11 on Biden’s orders. What has happened in the intervening years was a replay of sorts of Vietnam. The U.S. bombed and invaded that Asian nation starting in 1965 to prevent a Communist takeover but, by 1975, American forces were retreating in disarray.
The Communists took over – and the U.S. established diplomatic relations on July 11, 1995.
The U.S. is not fleeing Afghanistan by any means but just as failure in Vietnam was documented in the “Pentagon Papers” which The Washington Post published, so too were mistakes in Afghanistan recounted in the “Afghanistan Papers” which The Post also published in 2019.
“In the beginning, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear: to destroy al-Qaeda, topple the Taliban and prevent a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Within six months, the United States had largely accomplished what it set out to do. The leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were dead, captured or in hiding,” The Post reported.
But the U.S. wanted also to create a stable government in a country free of the draconian conditions which the Taliban had imposed. As happened with the Viet Cong’s takeover of Vietnam, it is very likely that the Taliban will regain power after the final 3,500 or so American troops leave – from a high of 770,000. It is also very likely that the Taliban will re-impose their version of Islam’s Sharia laws after it does, undoing the little progress made in life expectancy, maternal deaths, education, literacy and quality of life that the World Bank and the United Nations have noted.
And “the failure of America’s ambitions to build a stable, democratic Afghanistan has left the country mired in uncertainty as U.S. forces leave. The nation’s history tells of civil war that follows foreign invasions and withdrawals.”
That history dates back at least 2,500 years, PBS noted, when Darius 1 of Babylonia invaded what later became Afghanistan. Other invaders included Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Arabs and the British. The then Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to prop up a puppet regime but fierce guerrilla activity forced it to withdraw its 100,000 troops in 1989. The irony in the Soviet adventurism is well known: The key Mujahadeen resistance, created in 1978, was led by bin Laden and the U.S. provided substantial aid.
The U.S. was stymied also, some analysts say, by the Bush administration’s abruptly switching attention to Iraq, which had nothing to do with Al Qaeda and the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks. The occupation of Iraq started in 2003 after the swift defeat of the Iraqi army. The occupying forces dismantled Iraq’s government, destabilizing the country with consequences that are still felt. The U.S. pulled its forces out on March 20, 2020, after thousands of American troops were killed, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and a war bill of $2.4 trillion.
Notably, bin Laden was in neither country. He was tracked to Pakistan and killed on May 2, 2011.
To complicate matters, the U.S. decided to win friends through largescale bribery and allowed Hamid Karzai to claim presidential electoral victory “after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes,” The Post reported. Karzai “later admitted the CIA delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it ‘nothing unusual’.”
“To purchase loyalty and information, the CIA gave cash to warlords, governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders, according to … interviews,” The Post said. “The U.S. military and other agencies also abetted corruption by doling out payments or contracts to unsavory Afghan power brokers in a misguided quest for stability.” Forensic accountant Gert Berthold said out of $106 billion worth of contracts “about 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials,” The Post said.
The U.S. is also leaving during a resurgence of poppy cultivation and production of opium, from which heroin is made. Overall, the U.S. spent about $9 billion “in a failed bid to suppress opium production,” The Post said. By contrast, poppy cultivation plunged 90 percent under the Taliban after then leader Mohammad Omar said opium was un-Islamic and banned poppy growing.
The U.S. is ending a war that killed about 241,000 people. Including more than 71,000 civilians, 2,300 U.S. troops, 1,145 NATO and coalition forces, 3,814 U.S. “contractors,” 424 humanitarian aid workers and 67 media workers. Three million Afghans fled abroad and another four million were displaced internally.
And not all American troops will come home from overseas. As a legacy of Bush’s “war on terror,” the U.S. will still have forces in about 80 countries and, overall, 165,000 troops in more than 150 countries.
The Taliban has been negotiating peace with the Afghan government but its current leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, said, “Every opportunity for the establishment of an Islamic system, peace and security that presents itself will be made use of by the Islamic Emirate.” So, despite protracted U.S. support, the 30 million people of Afghanistan will very likely enter into another nightmare.
Unlike in Syria, where Russian forces are helping the murderous Bashir Al-Assad stay in power, the U.S. at least tried to help Afghans chart a peaceful course ahead. It is unfortunate that the result does not match the ambition.