Afghanistan: A review of a misbegotten war and the options

Afghanistan: A review of a misbegotten war

and the options

September 8, 2021

Years of public amnesia about the Afghanistan War

U.S. interests in Afghanistan predate 9/11, though general public awareness of or a focus on the country did not widely emerge until after the 9/11 attacks on September 11, 2001, in NYC, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. But then it wasn’t long before much of the public again lost interest. Here’s some of what Tom Nichols has to say on the public and the Afghanistan War. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and author of the book Our Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/afghanistan-your-fault/619769).

“This was a war [in Afghanistan] that was immensely popular at the outset [for a period after 9/11] and mostly conducted in full view of the American public. The problem was that, once the initial euphoria wore off, the public wasn’t much interested in it. Coverage in print media remained solid, but cable-news coverage of Afghanistan dropped off quickly,” especially once a new unnecessary war based on lies was launched in Iraq.

“In post-2001 America, it became fashionable to speak of ‘war weariness,’ but citizens who were not in the military or members of a military family or community did not have to endure even minor inconveniences, much less shoulder major burdens such as a draft, a war tax, or resource shortages. The soldiers who served overseas in those first years of major operations soon felt forgotten. ‘America’s not at war’ was a common refrain among the troops. ‘We’re at war. America’s at the mall.’”

Additionally, there was little public interest in Afghanistan before 9/11. The assumption made by many citizens is that, in foreign policy, we trust the policymakers and experts to formulate the policies and determine what is necessary to advance and protect America’s interests. To rouse the public’s attention, it appears to require an attack on the US, the threat of such an attack, rising war casualties, or government officials claiming that a nation or “terrorist” group poses some immediate and/or even future dire threat.

The roots of the Afghanistan War go back more than 20 years

 Most Americans have little or no knowledge that U.S. active involvement in Afghanistan goes back at least to the Carter Administration, over 40 years ago, amid the Cold War, when the U.S. was bent on containing and, if the opportunity arose reversing, Soviet influence in the Middle East and elsewhere. The implication of this fact is that the US government was involved in Afghanistan before 9/11 and helped to create the conditions that spurred the 9/11 attacks. And the attacks, and how they were mis-represented by three American presidents and their administrations to the public, led to the invasion of Afghanistan by US military forces and some allies and the costly and unnecessary decades-long US war. 

Geopolitics of the Cold War

Gavin O’Reilly reports that in “1979, at the height of the Cold War, both East and West were locked in a battle to prevent their opposing ideologies of Communism and Free Market Capitalism from taking hold in their respective spheres of influence; with Afghanistan, a previously Western-friendly nation, having come under the control of the Moscow-aligned PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) following the 1978 Saur revolution” [described below]. A plan was hatched by the US administration of Jimmy Carter, alongside Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government in Britain, to enact regime change in the newly established Socialist state” (https://popularresistance.org/afghanistan-operation-cyclone-comes-full-circle).

Soviet influence in Afghanistan, 1970s

Wikipedia provides as follows background information on the Saur revolution (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saur_Revolution).

“The Saur Revolution was the process by which the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew General Mohammed Daoud Khan on 27–28 April 1978, who had himself taken power in the 1973 Afghan coup d’état and established an autocratic one-party system in the country. Daoud Khan and most of his family were killed at the presidential palace by military officers in support of the PDPA.[3] The revolution resulted in the creation of a Soviet-aligned government with Nur Muhammad Taraki as President (General Secretary of the Revolutionary Council). Saur or Sowr is the Dari (Persian) name of the second month of the Solar Hijri calendar, the month in which the uprising took place.[4]

“The revolution was ordered by PDPA member Hafizullah Amin, who would become a significant figure in the revolutionary government; at a press conference in New York in June 1978, Amin claimed that the event was not a coup but a revolution by the ‘will of the people’.[5] The coup involved heavy fighting and resulted in many deaths.[6] The Saur Revolution was a significant event in Afghanistan’s history, marking the onset of 43 years of conflict in the country.[7]

The Shaw of Iran, a close US ally, is overthrown

In the same year, 1979, the Carter administration was jolted when the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by various leftist and Islamist organizations and student movements and some Americans were taken hostage. The new government came under the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a leader of one of the factions in the revolt. Wikipedia provides a useful account of the Iranian Revolution (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Revolution).

The region’s power alignment was thus dramatically reshaped, as Iran was now and to this day defined as a threat to US interests in the Middle East rather than as an ally. This development heightened US concerns about the Middle East and contributed to increased US military interests in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, ostensibly to shore up a “communist” or “socialist” government in Kabul and to keep Afghanistan in the Soviet orbit of control. This was another development that spurred US officials to pay attention and to channel resources to rebel forces in the country.

From 1979 until the defeat and departure of Soviet troops in 1989, Soviet forces engaged in a savage war against a growing multifaceted Afghan rebellion, particularly the Mujahideen, that was funded mostly by the US and Saudi Arabia, with the support of Pakistan.

Wikipedia cites research that documents extensive Soviet “war crimes,” including massacres, rape, wanton destruction, torture, and looting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet-Afghan_War#War_crimes).

Research by the BBC identifies some of the “short-term consequences of the war” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/ztb8y4j/revision/6). According to the BBC report, “[t]he nine-year conflict left an estimated one million civilians, 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, and 18,000 Afghan troops killed. The country was in ruins.” Moreover: “Several million Afghans had either fled to Pakistan for refuge or had become internal refugees.”

In the end, though, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan failed, just as in August 2021 the US occupation would fail. Stefan Vedder identifies some of the context and reasons for the Soviet defeat (https://www.grin.com/document/155836).

During the 10 years of the war, the USSR lost 15,000 troops, left behind most of their materials, and, overall, spent billions on the futile war.

Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, the highest-ranking position in the government. He quickly realized “that the USSR could not afford to continue with the war while trying to transform the Soviet economy and competing with the USA in the arms race.” So, in 1988, he signed a deal to end the war.” The last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in February 1989.

America supports the Mujahideen

The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan drew the US into the fighting indirectly. US involvement helped greatly in the defeat of the Soviet invaders, but it also, ironically and tragically, led to the creation of the Taliban. Gavin O’Reilly delves into this aspect of the ill-conceived Afghanistan saga (https://popularresistance.org/afghanistan-operation-cyclone-comes-full-circle)).

“From 1979 until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the CIA would provide annual funding in upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars to their Mujahideen proxies – a steady increase since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, who would infamously invite Mujahideen leaders to the Oval Office in 1985, in a similar move to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Hearts of the free world’ speech to the group on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border in 1981.”

The funding was funneled from the CIA (and Britain’s intelligence service, MI6) through the Pakistan’s intelligence service for a program titled Operation Cyclone. O’Reilly explains.

“Operation Cyclone would see both the CIA and MI6 arming, funding and training Islamist militants, including those adhering to the ultraconservative Saudi Arabia-backed Wahhabi ideology, known as the Mujahideen, in neighboring Pakistan, with the intention of sending them on to wage a ‘holy war’ on the ‘Godless Communists’ of Afghanistan as well as their Soviet allies who had intervened at the request of Kabul in a bid to shore up their client state’s Left-wing government. https://popularresistance.org/afghanistan-operation-cyclone-comes-full-circle

After ten years of war and with considerable support from the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, along with a stream of Islamic extremists from countries around the world who joined the Mujahideen, the Mujahideen were successful in forcing the Soviet army to withdraw from Afghanistan, though a Soviet-friendly “socialist” government remained in power in Kabul for another three years until 1992, three years after the Soviet departure.

The emergence of al Qaeda

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica give a concise summary of the emergence and growth of al Qaeda (https://www.britannica.com/topic/al-Qaeda). The name al Qaeda in English means “the base.” It was “founded by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s.”

The organization “began as a logistical network to support Muslims fighting against the Soviet Union during the Afghan War; members were recruited throughout the Islamic world. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the organization dispersed but continued to oppose what its leaders considered corrupt Islamic regimes and foreign (i.e., U.S.) presence in Islamic lands. Based in Sudan for a period in the early 1990s, the group eventually reestablished its headquarters in Afghanistan (c. 1996) under the patronage of the Taliban militia.”

Along the way, “Al-Qaeda merged with a number of other militant Islamist organizations, including Egypt’s Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group, and on several occasions its leaders declared holy war against the United States.” It created “camps for Muslim militants from throughout the world, training tens of thousands in paramilitary skills, and its agents engaged in numerous terrorist attacks, including the destruction of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1998), and a suicide bomb attack against the U.S. warship Cole in AdenYemen (2000; see USS Cole attack).”

Then, on September 11, 2001, “19 militants associated with al-Qaeda [but none from Afghanistan] staged the September 11 attacks against the United States. Fifteen hijackers were Saudis. Two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Egypt and one was from Lebanon.

The Civil War

During the years 1992-1996, there were failed attempts by factions of the Mujahideen to establish a unified Islamic government in Afghanistan. Civil war was the outcome.  

An entry in Wikipedia describes the situation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_Afghan_War#War_crimes).

 “In March 1992, President Mohammad Najibullah, having lost the Russian support that upheld his government, agreed to resign and make way for a neutral, interim government. Several mujahideen parties started negotiations to form a national coalition government. But one group, the Hezb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, presumably supported and directed by Pakistan‘s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), did not join the negotiations and announced its intent to conquer Kabul alone. Hekmatyar moved his troops to Kabul, and was allowed into the town soon after 17 April. This left the other mujahideen groups no choice but to enter Kabul, on 24 April, to prevent Hekmatyar from taking over the national government.[3][5]

“This ignited a civil war between five or six rival armies, (nearly) all backed by foreign states. Several mujahideen groups proclaimed an ‘interim government’ on 26 April 1992 but this never attained real authority over Afghanistan.”

Wikipedia continues. “In June of 1992, Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e Islami (“Islamic Association”) faction, was made interim-president of the new Islamic State of Afghanistan, and on 30 December 1992 he was elected head of the 7-member Government Council for a two-year term.[6] However, Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami rebel faction (which had split from Jamiat-e Islami in 1976) demanded a share in power as well, and started clashing with Rabbani’s troops. After months of fighting, they signed an agreement in March 1993 making Hekmatyar the Prime Minister of Afghanistan in June, and shortening Rabbani’s presidency from 2 years to 1.5 year.[6] Fighting between different rebel factions continued, however, and, in the process, Kabul was  destroyed.”

The ascendance of the Taliban

Wikipedia: “In late 1994, a new Pashtun-dominated Islamic fundamentalist militia called the Taliban (lit. '”Religious students”‘) managed to conquer large parts of southern Afghanistan with the support of Pakistan.[6] Making steady gains throughout 1995 and 1996, the Taliban were able to seize control of the capital city of Kabul in September 1996, driving the Rabbani government and other factions northward, and by the end of the year occupying two-thirds of Afghanistan. Former president Najibullah was arrested and executed in public by hanging on 27 September 1996.

“The Taliban renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and imposed an even more strict version of Sharia and purdah on the population they controlled. This especially negatively impacted women, who were forced to wear a burqa, stay indoors and banned from working outside the house with rare exceptions. Almost all girls lost access to education, increasing illiteracy rates. Movie theaters, soccer stadiums, and television stations were now closed as well.[6]

The failed “peace agreement”

Wikipedia: “The ousted Rabbani government formed a political coalition with Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud and the Shia Hizb-i-Wahdat faction (dominated by Hazaras) of Karim Khalili.[6] Its formal name was United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, known in the Western Hemisphere as the Northern Alliance, and its goal was to take back the country from the Taliban.”

The two sides tried to negotiate a “peace settlement,” but in the first part of 1998 the Northern Alliance fell apart leaving the Taliban in control By this time, after the war with the Soviets and the civil war, the country was left in a dire state, which, according to a 1997 United Nations report, “found that the infant mortality rate was 25%, numerous civil casualties due to landmines, economic blockades imposed by the militias causing hunger, and international humanitarian organizations being unable to carry out their work. A February 1998 earthquake in northeastern Afghanistan killed 4,500 people.[6]

Osama bin Laden, the Mujahideen, and al Qaeda

Osama Bin Landen helped to finance the Mujahideen and participated in the fighting against the Soviet troops, while also creating his own organization, al Qaeda.

Dominic Tierney provides a summary of bin Landen’s role and how he turned against the continuing presence of the US in the region and in countries with large Muslim populations around the world (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/08/twenty-years-war/496736). Here’s some of Tierney’s analysis from the 2016 article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine.

“Exactly two decades ago, on August 23, 1996, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. At the time, few people paid much attention.” But it was the start of what’s now the Twenty Years’ [plus] War between the United States, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. [al Qaeda has a “global” agenda, while the Taliban are focused on Afghanistan and the nearby region.]

“During the 1980s, bin Laden fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviets withdrew, he went home to Saudi Arabia, then moved to Sudan before being expelled and returning to Afghanistan in 1996 to live under Taliban protection. Within a few months of his arrival, he issued a 30-page fatwa, ‘Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,’ which was published in a London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, and faxed to supporters around the world. It was bin Laden’s first public call for a global jihad against the United States. In a rambling text, bin Laden opined on Islamic history, celebrated recent attacks against U.S. forces in Lebanon and Somalia, and recounted a multitude of grievances against the United States, Israel, and their allies. ‘The people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Jewish-Christian alliance and their collaborators,’ he wrote.

“His central lament was the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, or ‘the occupation of the land of the two holiest sites.’ Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden had offered to defend Saudi Arabia with his Arab legion. But the Saudi royals decided that the U.S. military would be a better bet. Six years later, American soldiers were still in Saudi Arabia in a bid to contain Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden saw the United States as the power behind the throne: the ‘far enemy’ that propped up apostate regimes in the Middle East. Muslims, he wrote, should abandon their petty local fights and unite to drive the Americans out of Saudi Arabia: ‘destroying, fighting and killing the enemy until, by the Grace of Allah, it is completely defeated.’”

Tierney continues.

“It took al-Qaeda two years to organize its first major attack against the United States: the August 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people in total, 12 of them American. The United States responded with a quasi-war against al-Qaeda and its state sponsors, which combined a legal indictment of bin Laden with limited military action, including cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 that killed at least six al-Qaeda personnel. In 2000, al-Qaeda suicide bombers hit the USS Cole at a port in Yemen, killing 17. The following year, the terrorist group [or those linked to it] brought the war to the American homeland with the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.”

The origins of the plot to launch attacks in the US

Wikipedia has an entry on “the origins of the September 11 attacks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planning_of_the_September_11_attacks).

 “A series of meetings occurred in the spring of 1999, involving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Osama bin Laden, and his deputy Mohammed Atef.[16] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed wanted to hit the World Trade Center, while bin Laden prioritized the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the Pentagon because he believed that it would lead to the political collapse of the U.S. federal government.[5][9] Bin Laden recommended four individuals for the plot, including Nawaf al-HazmiKhalid al-MihdharWalid Muhammad Salih Bin ‘Attash (Khallad), and Abu Bara al-Taizi. Al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were both Saudi citizens, which made it straightforward for them to obtain U.S. visas, unlike Khallad and al-Taizi who both were Yemeni citizens, and as such unable to get visas to the U.S easily. The two Yemenis were assigned for the Asia component of the plot. When Mohamed Atta and other members of the Hamburg cell arrived in Afghanistan, bin Laden was involved in selecting them for the plot and assigned Atta to be its leader.[17]

At the time, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “provided operational support, such as selecting targets, and helped to arrange travel for the hijackers.[16]” 

How the plot unfolded

Wikipedia: “Mohammed AttaRamzi bin al-ShibhMarwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah came into the picture in 1999, when they arrived in Kandahar from Germany. The Hamburg cell was formed in 1998 shortly after Atta received Al-Qaeda leadership approval for his plot. Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-ShehhiZiad JarrahRamzi bin al-ShibhSaid BahajiZakariyah Essabar, and fifteen others were all members.”

“In late 1999, bin al-Shibh traveled to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he trained at Al-Qaeda training camps, and met others involved in planning the 9/11 attacks.[23] Initial plans for the 9/11 attacks called for bin al-Shibh to be a hijacker pilot, along with Mohammed AttaMarwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah. From Hamburg, Germany, bin al-Shibh applied for flight training in the U.S. Concurrently, he applied to Aviation Language Services, which provided language training for student pilots.[24] Bin al-Shibh applied four times for an entry visa to the U.S., but was refused each time….After his failure to enter the U.S., bin al-Shibh assumed more of a ‘coordinator’ role in the plot and as a link between Atta in the U.S. and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Afghanistan.[18][26]” Other members of the core group arrived in Germany in the last 1990s. Participants in the plot managed to get visas to enter the US. After being settled, they engaged in further preparations for the attacks. For example, “Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 2000.[31] On January 18, Marwan al-Shehhi applied for a visa into the U.S. while he was in the United Arab Emirates. He was the first member of the Hamburg cell to apply for a visa and ultimately failed to get one.

Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 2000.[31] On January 18, Marwan al-Shehhi applied for a visa into the U.S. while he was in the United Arab Emirates. He was the first member of the Hamburg cell to apply for a visa. Some of the funds were wired to them from an account in Saudi Arabia, some from Pakistan. CNN later confirmed that it was “Ahmed Umar Syed Sheikh, whom [sic] authorities say used a pseudonym to wire $100,000 [from Pakistan] to suspected hijacker Mohammad Atta, who then distributed the money in the United States.”[40]

However, the sources for most of the funds were not identified. “The 9/11 Commission stated in its final report that the ‘9/11 plotters eventually spent somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to plan and conduct their attack’ but the ‘origin of the funds remains unknown.’

Overtime, other members of the plotting group arrived in the US. While in the country, some took flying lessons. Here’s how these arrangements were made.

“In March 2000, Mohamed Atta contacted the Academy of Lakeland in Florida by e-mail to inquire about flight training, ‘Dear sir, we are a small group of young men from different Arab countries. Now we are living in Germany since a while for study purposes. We would like to start training for the career of airline professional pilots. In this field we haven’t yet any knowledge but we are ready to undergo an intensive training program (up to ATP and eventually higher). He sent 50–60 similar e-mails to other flight training schools in the U.S.[24]

On May 18, 2000, Atta applied for and received a U.S. visa.[24] After obtaining his visa, Atta traveled to Prague before going to the U.S. Atta, along with Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah arrived in Venice, Florida, and visited Huffman Aviation to “check out the facility.” They explained that “they came from a flight school in the area, they were not happy and they were looking for another flight school”.[34] By December, Atta and al-Shehhi left Huffman Aviation, and on December 21, Atta received a pilot license.[35] Jarrah had left Huffman Aviation on January 15, 2001, a month after Atta.”

September 11, 2001

Wikipedia provides a summary of the attacks (https://en.widipedia.org/wiki/September_11_attacks).

“Four California-bound commercial airliners, which took off in the northeastern United States, were hijacked mid-flight by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists. The hijackers were organized into three groups of five hijackers and one group of four. The first plane to hit its target was American Airlines Flight 11. It was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan at 8:46 am. Seventeen minutes later at 9:03 am, the World Trade Center’s South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175. Both 110-story towers collapsed within an hour and forty-two minutes, leading to the collapse of the other World Trade Center structures including 7 World Trade Center, and significantly damaging surrounding buildings.

“A third flight, American Airlines Flight 77, flown from Dulles International Airport, was hijacked over Ohio. At 9:37 am, it crashed into the west side of the Pentagon (the headquarters of the American military) in Arlington County, Virginia, causing a partial collapse of the building’s side. The fourth, and final flight, United Airlines Flight 93, was flown in the direction of Washington, D.C. This flight was the only plane not to hit its intended target instead crashing in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 am. The plane’s passengers attempted to regain control of the aircraft away from the hijackers and ultimately diverted the flight from its intended target. Investigators determined that Flight 93’s target was either the White House or the Capitol Building.

“In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, suspicion quickly fell onto al-Qaeda. The United States formally responded by launching the War on Terror and invading Afghanistan to depose of the Taliban, which had not complied with U.S. demands to expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden….Although bin Laden initially denied any involvement, in 2004 he formally claimed responsibility for the attacks.[2] Al-Qaeda and bin Laden cited U.S. support of Israel, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, and sanctions against Iraq as motives. After evading capture for almost a decade, bin Laden was located in a hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan,” and subsequently killed there by Navy Seals on May 2, 2011.

As noted, the attacks resulted in almost 3,000 American deaths and the subsequent decision by the Bush administration to invade Afghanistan. There were other American casualties as well. The firefighters and others who entered the bombed area were affected by toxins the were emitted by the collapsed buildings in New York. Democracy Now has devoted programs to this issue. Here is part of the introduction to one of the programs (https://www.democracynow.org/2021/9/7/9_11s_unsettled_dust_documentary).

“…we begin our coverage looking at the impact of the toxic, cancer-causing smoke and dust that hung over ground zero in Manhattan as the fire burned for 100 more days. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency told people who worked at the site and lived and went to school near it that the air was safe to breathe. In the years that followed, more than 13,200 first responders and survivors have been diagnosed with a variety of cancers and chronic respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. At least — well, close to 1,900 first responders, survivors and workers who recovered bodies and cleaned up the wreckage have since died from illnesses, many of them linked to their time at ground zero.”

Within weeks the U.S. government responded by attacking Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. Thousands of militants were killed or captured, among them several key members (including [some of] the militant who allegedly planned and organized the September 11 attacks), and the remainder and their leaders were driven into hiding.”

Who was responsible?

US blamed Osama bin Laden, who was involved from his headquarters in Afghanistan in the planning of the attacks that occurred on 9/11. The US demanded his extradition to the US. Gavin O’Reilly notes: “…there being little to no evidence produced in the past 20 years to link the Taliban, or indeed any Afghans, to the attacks” (https://popularresistance.org/afghanistan-operation-cyclone-comes-full-circle). However, the Bush administration blamed the Taliban for providing a safe haven for bin Laden and al Qaeda. The Taliban leadership demanded in response that the US provide evidence that bin Laden was involved in the planning of the 9/11 attacks. The issue might have simply been resolved if the Taliban had submitted to the US demand, or if the US had provided evidence of bin Laden’s connection to the bombing, or if the issue had been taken to the UN Security Council for a decision.

A “War on Terrorism” and endless wars

While the US military action focused on Afghanistan in the first six months, the initial targets of this war were not limited to the Al-Qaeda networks and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which was said to “harbor” these networks, but also to “an international terrorist network” (including but not limited to Al-Qaeda).

A war on terrorism

The US launched “a war on terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.” Over time, it become increasingly clear that there are no identifiable boundaries to this war. The U.S. government pledged to use its military forces, and other diplomatic, financial, and intelligence capabilities, to subdue, and, with the support of its allies, destroy “terrorists” and their support structures wherever they existed. The Al-Qaeda network is said [at the time, in 2001] to extend into 60 or so countries, although, according to U.S. government officials, there are terrorists or terrorist networks that operate independently of the Al-Qaeda in some unspecified number of other countries. Bush warned the world’s nations that they would have to make a simple choice, either to join the U.S. in this war or be considered a supporter of international terrorism, even though, as in the case of Switzerland, some nations insisted on remaining “neutral.” If they fall into the non-support category, then they risk being labeled a “rogue” state and stand the chance of suffering some sort of U.S. reprisals. Most nations ‘signed on,’ at least nominally, to support this war, and may have at a minimum shared information about terrorists in their own nations. It is still not clear what the nature of this coalition was.

What is clear is that the U.S. took unilateral action in Afghanistan and determined the conduct of this multifaceted “war” before there was a “coalition.” The die was cast, with or without allied support. In addition to Afghanistan, the war-planners in Washington and at the Pentagon, had already identified a number of “rogue” states, or states that are identified as providing support for terrorist groups abroad, including, for example, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Cuba. U.S. planners have also begun to shore up support for “allied” states in the Philippines, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and in Columbia to support their efforts to squelch indigenous “terrorists.”

Overwhelming initial support for the US attack on Afghanistan

Robert Kagan maintains that support for the US-led war against the Taliban was driven initially – and in part – by fear (and also by a desire for revenge and by geopolitical interests), though it soon was justified by the George W. Bush administration as a nation-building effort to bring a US-like “democracy” and free-market capitalism to Afghanistan (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/26/robert-kagan-afghanistan-americans-forget). Kagan writes:

“For better or for worse it was fear that drove the United States into Afghanistan — fear of another attack by al-Qaeda, which was then firmly ensconced in the Taliban-controlled country; fear of possible attacks by other groups using chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons; fear of other sleeper cells already hiding in the United States. Experts warned that it was just a matter of time before the next big attack. And these fears persisted.”

Indeed, a Pew Research Center poll done a year after 9/11 “found that the attacks had ‘left a lasting, perhaps indelible, imprint on life in America as well as on attitudes toward public policy.’ More than 6 in 10 Americans worried about a new attack; 4 in 10 expected the terrorists to use chemical or biological weapons; and more than half of Americans believed the perpetrators of the next attack were already living in the United States…. By a margin of 48 percent to 29 percent, Americans agreed that increasing the U.S. military presence abroad was a more effective means of combating terrorism than decreasing it. A month before Bush went to Congress for authorization to use force in Iraq, 64 percent of Americans polled favored using military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”

Fear, anger, and ambivalence

Kagan continues: “The decision to go to war in Afghanistan in October 2001 enjoyed almost universal support — authorizations were approved in September 98 to 0 in the Senate and 420 to 1 in the House. But there was no gleeful optimism about the likely outcome. A month into the war, 88 percent of Americans polled approved of the intervention, but only 40 percent thought it very likely that the United States would be able to drive the Taliban from power, and only 28 percent thought it very likely that the United States would capture or kill Osama bin Laden. This pessimism persisted, thanks in part to the continual warnings by experts and many in government that terrorist networks were growing, along with the chances of another attack.”

President Bush and his advisors reacted initially to the attacks out of “panic, confusion, fear and guilt.” They were “mortified that they had allowed this uniquely horrific attack on American soil, and their focus was on punishing those who had perpetrated it, as well as those who sheltered them.” Bush personally “wanted to do so for strategic reasons, as a deterrent to others. He wanted to do so partly to buoy the crushed spirits of Americans unaccustomed to being attacked. But he also wanted to avenge the lives that had been lost on his watch.”

Once having driven the Taliban out of power in 2001, “the Bush administration would have been content with any stable government capable of fending for itself and preventing the return of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

Initially, “Bush was hardly inclined toward ‘nation-building.’ On the contrary, according to Kagan, “he and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other advisers had criticized the Clinton administration for precisely that — ‘international social work,’ as one critic put it — and had come into office intending to pursue a far more restrained foreign policy.” But when faced with the problem of Afghanistan, “Bush officials found themselves with only unpalatable choices. On the one hand, historian Fredrik Logevall writes, ‘they feared that Afghanistan could descend into chaos,’ but on the other hand, they ‘didn’t want to be saddled with the tasks of nation-building.’

Nation building

As it turned out, “Bush officials decided they had no choice but to stay in Afghanistan for a while and try to establish a “stable” and “democratic” government that would allow American troops eventually to depart without fear of a return to the pre-9/11 circumstances.” And this “led them into efforts that could be described as ‘nation-building.’ That is, “[b]uilding schools and hospitals, trying to reduce corruption and improve local administration — this has been standard operating procedure following nearly all U.S. interventions.”

After one year into the war, “56 percent of Americans favored ‘coming to the aid of Afghanistan to help it recover from the war,’ and fully two-thirds agreed that the United States would have to continue to ‘deploy troops there to maintain civil order’ for the foreseeable future.” At the same time, “Americans remained doubtful and apprehensive” after a year into the war, with only 15 percent regarding it as successful, 12 percent calling it a failure, while 70 percent thought it was too early to tell. Two thirds of the public believed that terrorists were as able to launch a new attack than they had been a year earlier.”

No victory in sight

Bush’s successors in the White House faced the same quandary, all hoping “to reach a point in Afghanistan when the violence would be sufficiently low or the Afghan government strong enough to allow U.S. military forces to withdraw without significantly increasing the risk of a resurgent terrorist threat.” These conditions were never realized. Kagan puts it this way:

“There were periods when the situation looked to be more or less under control. After the rapid rout of the Taliban in the fall of 2001, Afghanistan became deceptively peaceful for roughly four years. Bush was able to keep between 10,000 and 20,000 troops in the country, and U.S. casualties in these years were relatively low. On the political front, there was progress to point to: In January 2004, Afghan leaders approved a new constitution, which led to reasonably fair presidential and parliamentary elections and the election of the moderate Hamid Karzai as president. Afghanistan was still far from a ‘success,’ but the progress was enough that the Bush team kept at it, especially given what the administration regarded as the likely consequences of withdrawal. As one Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan recently put it, ‘At any given point in our 20-year Afghan odyssey, we were always — in our minds, at least — only a year or two out from a drawdown followed by an eventual withdrawal.’”

Obama – following the advice of the military and deceiving the public

The aspirations to create the conditions for a stable and “democratic” Afghanistan government proved illusory, as the Taliban insurgency gained momentum in the last years of the Bush administration. But there was no serious consideration of withdrawing from the country or admitting defeat. In this context, when Barak Obama entered the White House in 2009, the new president accepted the advice of his military advisers, who recommended a “surge” of forces. This led to “another period of relative progress” as “the surge stabilized important parts of the country, breathed new life into the Afghan army and police, and strengthened support for the government.”

There were also rising costs associated with the surge. According to Kagan, “It was during the Obama surge that American casualties were at their highest — 1,500 troops killed and 15,000 wounded between 2009 and 2012, more than in any other period of the 20-year war. [These numbers don’t take into account soldiers suffering from PTSD, brain injuries, and “moral injuries” (e.g., see David Wood’s book, What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest War).

Kagan continues: “The killing of bin Laden in May 2011 led most Americans to believe that the mission had been accomplished, and Obama started speaking about the need to “focus on nation building here at home.” However, “the Taliban recovered, and outside Afghanistan the general terrorist threat expanded with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” It would turn out that the demise of bin Laden would do little to reduce the Taliban resistance or to enhance US success in Afghanistan. He had been inactive for years.

Cautious (but illusory) optimism was reflected in Congress from both parties. Just prior to the killing of bin Laden, General David H. Petraeus gave a qualified assessment of progress in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2011, “Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) reported, on the basis of his own visit to Afghanistan in January 2011, that the Afghan people in former Taliban strongholds were ‘returning to villages’ and had ‘growing confidence in the ability of Afghan and coalition forces to provide security.’ This optimism was also reflected in how members of Congress, and especially Democrats, were enthusiastic about nation-building. Congress thus “repeatedly demanded greater civilian efforts to complement military action, approving billions of dollars in aid and constantly pressing the administration to beef up such efforts.” The public supported it. Kagan surmises that, if the way that nation-building in Afghanistan was carried out was a mistake, it was a mistake that lots of people made.

At the same time, “no one was under any illusions, then or later, that an outright victory was close at hand.” There were ongoing concerns about “whether the Afghan government had the ability to take over responsibility for governing.” Kagan refers to the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who “observed at the time that, despite the surge of U.S. troops, there had been ‘no apparent degradation in’ the Taliban’s ‘capacity to fight’ and that its forces remained ‘resilient’ and would be ‘able to threaten U.S. and international goals in Afghanistan.”

Corruption

In addition, Kagan points out, there was rampant corruption resulting, in part, from the constant messaging out of Washington that the US forces would leave Afghanistan once there was a government and an army that could stand on their own. Based on this message, Afghans in positions of power (at all levels) opportunistically embraced corruption — “specifically, the siphoning of resources for personal gain — as the one clear and sure means of survival.”

Kagan continues. Corruption became a financial contingency plan, the choice any reasonable Afghan would make to ensure a safe future for their children.” Afghan fighters also had to make choices. “They had barely held on in the fight against the Taliban with American help, including air support; why imagine that they could hold on without it? No one in the U.S. government ever believed the Afghan army was ready to stand on its own. Officials misjudged only the rapidity of its collapse, which proved embarrassing but should not have been surprising.”

As all this was unfolding, there was yet another challenge. Pakistan’s continued its support for the Taliban. Kagan describes it as follows.

“Top Pakistani officials made no secret of the fact that they were hedging their bets. As the head of the Pakistani intelligence service told then-Ambassador Ryan Crocker, one day ‘you’ll be done with us, but we’re still going to be here … and the last thing we want with all of our other problems is to have turned the Taliban into a mortal enemy, so, yes, we’re hedging our bets.’”

More on corruption

Sebastian Junger provides some additional details on the pervasive corruption in Afghanistan (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/08/a-vast-criminal-racket-sebastian-junger-on-how-the-us-corrupted-afghanistan).

“…the Afghan endeavor might have worked had the Bush administration—and then the Obama administration—tackled the one thing that Afghans have always demanded, and that all people deserve: an honest and transparent government. Instead, we essentially stood up a huge criminal cartel that posed as a government. President Hamid Karzai’s brother, for example, was the recipient of $23 million in “loans” from the national bank that everyone knew he would never have to pay back. The son of the former Speaker of the Afghan parliament, Rahman Rahmani, was given millions of dollars in contracts to supply fuel and security to U.S. military bases. And a food chain of corrupt officials continued to impose a vast and humiliating extortion system that squeezed money from ordinary Afghans every time they went through a checkpoint, filed paperwork, or even applied for a job. Military commanders even dunned money from their own soldiers’ paychecks for the “privilege” of wearing the country’s uniform.

“There was no reason for Afghan soldiers to fight and die for such an enterprise, and by 2005—the next time I [Junger] was back in-country—the Taliban had regained control of entire districts and were largely dictating the nature of the war.

Obama decided not to press the issue in 2011. “After that,” Junger writes, “it was game on for a cash mill that saw a total of $2 trillion spent by America in Afghanistan. Civilian officials from agencies like USAID, the State Department, and Congress continued to launch obscenely inflated development projects that could turn Afghan governors into millionaires overnight. Military contractors continued to unwittingly pay Taliban commanders to refrain from attacking supply convoys. And Afghan officials brazenly stole the paychecks, ammunition, and even food of Afghan soldiers fighting on the front line. On paper the U.S. paid for a 300,000-man Afghan army, but the actual number was much smaller—and the difference, of course, was pocketed by Afghan officials. American policies were so contradictory, in fact, that many ordinary Afghans concluded that the U.S. was secretly allied with the Taliban and just ‘pretending’ to be at war.”

Ineffective US reconstruction projects.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction [SIGAR], the agency in charge of Afghanistan reconstruction,” released a report in August, 2021, titled “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction” (https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21=46-LL.pdf). Here are some highlights of why US-funded reconstruction faired so poorly.

The costs

-SIGAR – “The U.S. government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society. The Department of Defense (DOD) has also spent $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured. Afghans, meanwhile, have faced an even greater toll. At least 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed. More than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 have been injured since 2001—both likely significant underestimations.”

Purposes varied over time

-SIGAR – “The extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose—though the definition of that purpose evolved over time. At various points, the U.S. government hoped to eliminate al-Qaeda, decimate the Taliban movement that hosted it, deny all terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan, build Afghan security forces so they could deny terrorists a safe haven in the future, and help the civilian government become legitimate and capable enough to win the trust of Afghans. Each goal, if ever accomplished, was thought to move the U.S. government one step closer to being able to withdraw US troops.

Some improvements

-SIGAR – “While there have been several areas of improvement—most notably in the areas of health care, maternal health, and education—progress has been elusive and the prospects for sustaining this progress are dubious. The U.S. government has been often overwhelmed by the magnitude of rebuilding a country that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, had already seen two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban brutality.”

SIGAR’s role – failed efforts to make reconstruction work

-SIGAR – “Since its founding in 2008, SIGAR has tried to make the U.S. government’s reconstruction of Afghanistan more likely to succeed. Our investigations held criminals accountable for defrauding the U.S. government; our audits and special projects reports identified weaknesses in programs before it was too late to improve them; our quarterly reports provided near real-time analysis of reconstruction problems as they unfolded; and our lessons learned reports identified challenges that threaten the viability of the entire American enterprise of rebuilding Afghanistan, and any similar efforts that may come after it. SIGAR has issued 427 audits, 191 special project reports, 52 quarterly reports, and 10 comprehensive lessons learned reports. Meanwhile, SIGAR’s criminal investigations have resulted in 160 convictions. This oversight work has cumulatively resulted in $3.84 billion in savings for the U.S. taxpayer.

-SIGAR – “After conducting more than 760 interviews and reviewing thousands of government documents, our lessons learned analysis has revealed a troubled reconstruction effort that has yielded some success but has also been marked by too many failures.”

Trump facilitated the ultimate victory of the Taliban

Juan Cole identifies the “top 6 ways” Trump undermined the US occupation and fighting in Afghanistan (https://www.juancole.com/2021/08/departure-afghanistan-taliban.html).

#1 – “In December, 2018, Trump ordered that half of the then 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan be brought out.” He did this without consulting the Secretary of Defense James Mattis and without any recommendation from then Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Joseph Dunford. Both Mattis and Dunford thought it was a bad idea “because it would cause instability in South Asia and raise the risk of terrorism against the U.S.”

#2 – Trump and his advisers negotiated with the Taliban independently of the US State Department and excluded the government headed by Ashraf Ghani. Instead, in December 2019, “Trump’s informal envoy Zalmay Khalilzad announced the resumption of negotiations.

#3. “On February 29, 2020, Trump announces there will be peace in our time, with the signing of a peace treaty with the Taliban. Cole cites a BBC report, “President Trump said it had been a ‘long and hard journey’ in Afghanistan. ‘It’s time after all these years to bring our people back home.’” Furthermore, Trump said “it was ‘time for someone else to do that work and it will be the Taliban and it could be surrounding countries. I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we’re not all wasting time.’” Trump also said “he believed that the Taliban would take up the slack in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan.”

At the time, Cole writes, “Trump promised to pull 8,500 troops out of the country in about 4 1/2 months,” by May 1, 2021, though the decision was based on questionable assumptions about the Taliban. Trump also promised “that the Afghanistan government of Ashraf Ghani would release 5,000 captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Ashraf Ghani at first resisted this provision, saying he was not party to the talks and thought it a horrible idea. But under strong Trump pressure, Ghani let the fighters go by the following October.” On their part, the Taliban promised “not to attack the remaining U.S. troops in the country, based on the agreement these troops with be completely withdrawn by May 1.

Cole also notes that the peace treaty “was clearly rushed through by Trump in hopes it would add to his popularity and help him win the November, 2020 presidential election.”

#4 – Trump had earlier tweeted out in October 2020 “that all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by Christmas of that year.” He tweeted without consulting Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan. With this informal but authoritative tweet announcement, the US lost considerable leverage in any subsequent discussions with the Taliban but it also ignored that there “was no way logistically to get the then 4,500 troops out of the country” in two months.

#5 – While Trump was drawing down the US troop levels in Afghanistan, “he was doing nothing to get Afghan interpreters and allies out of harm’s way.” At the same time, Trump’s aide “Stephen Miller knee-capped the SIV special visa program for such Afghans and threw a long-term wrench into its works that hobbled the Biden administration when it came in.” Olivia Troye, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, is quoted by Cole: “Trump had FOUR years-while putting this plan in place-to evacuate these Afghan allies who were the lifelines for many of us who spent time in Afghanistan. The process slowed to a trickle for reviews/other ‘priorities’- then came to a halt.” Troye accused Miller of ‘racist hysteria’ about Afghans and Iraqis.”

#6 – The outgoing trump administration complicated the Afghanistan situation for the incoming Biden administration by reducing the number of US troops in the country to 2,500, unilaterally pledging to put out US troops by May 1, 2021, refusing to brief the incoming Biden administration on the Afghanistan situation in November, December and January, so Biden and his officials came into office flying blind.

Enter Joe Biden

The political discourse and public reactions accompanying the withdrawal of US troops. Could it have been better planned?

NPR’s Domenico Montanaro addresses five specific questions that have arisen about Biden’s withdrawal plan, as US troops and officials and some of the people who assisted US military forces have been flown out of the Afghanistan (https://www.npr.org/2021/09/01/1033130742/5-questions-now-after-president-biden-afghanistan-withdrawal). The questions help to facilitate a reasonable conversation about Biden’s policy.

Montanaro refers first to the “stern defense” of the decision to exit Afghanistan that President Biden issued on August 31, 2021.” She reports also that the president “hailed the final evacuation — which saw more than 120,000 Americans, Afghans and others airlifted from the country — as an ‘extraordinary success.’” But there has also been a blizzard of criticisms about the implementation of the withdrawal plan. She notes as well that everyone in the administration was taken off guard by “the far-faster-than-expected Taliban takeover [which] created conditions that left the U.S. scrambling to get out.” For security, American forces had to rely on a former enemy, the Taliban, to provide some security and organization for the withdrawal to proceed. And, even then, “a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghans.”

The questions

#1 – What happens to the Americans still in Afghanistan?

Biden had promised to get all Americans out of Afghanistan who wanted to leave the country. In his remarks on Tuesday, Biden said there are about 100 to 200 Americans who remain in Afghanistan. Most are dual citizens, he said, who initially didn’t want to leave because of family roots in the country. But he insists, “If there’s American citizens left,” the president said on ABC News, “we’re going to stay to get them all out.” The problem is that Biden’s promise now depends on the cooperation of the Taliban and whether the US and the West “have enough leverage to make them continue to get that done.”

#2 – What happens to Afghan refugees and visa holders (in a politically polarized America)?

About 100,000 of the 120,000 evacuees were Afghans, according to Biden. Many have already made their way to the United States, but not everyone is happy about it. In one of his seat-of-the-paints, ill-informed public comments, Trump said “You can be sure the Taliban … didn’t allow the best and brightest to board these evacuation flights,” adding “How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America? We don’t know!” Contradicting Trump, Montanaro notes: “Special immigrant visa holders are all screened and subjected to rigorous background checks by the State Department. Many of them fought alongside U.S. troops, and many veterans are the ones leading the charge to get them to the U.S.”

Nonetheless, despite early polls that find support for Biden’s efforts, “expect the issue to become more polarized and politicized, just as it has in recent history with Syrian refugees and further back after the Vietnam War. In fact, Americans haven’t been very welcoming to refugees through the years, polls have shown.

#3 – What does the exit mean for Biden’s approach to the world?

Biden is pulling ground troops, but will he be shirking from the world? How will Biden’s administration combat terrorism or, specifically, a Taliban government that is repressive and where Afghanistan becomes a haven for violent Islamic fundamentalist organizations like ISIS-K or al Qaeda? The Middle East is not the only region of concern. Biden said “there are new threats on the horizon in the form of economic competition from China and cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation with Russia and others.” The president’s answer: “[W]e can do both: fight terrorism [or the challenges that should emerge in Afghanistan] and take on new threats that are here now and will continue to be here in the future.” The president’s comments seem to foreshadow the continuation of a foreign policy that relies disproportionately on military force or threat.

#4 – Will the exit affect Biden politically in the long term?

“The chaotic exit put a dent in the aura of competence he [Biden] has tried to build. The Biden White House has shown it’s adept at dealing with the foreseen, but it’s the unforeseen where presidential legacies are often forged.”

“Biden probably won’t get away from the shadow of this withdrawal quickly either. There will be congressional investigations — likely at a time when he would rather be talking about domestic legislation like his bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“Ultimately, though, challenges like whether the coronavirus pandemic gets under control and the economy continues to strengthen are likely going to be the most critical factors in long-term success or failure for Biden.”

#5 – Does the American public separate the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan from chaos of the withdrawal itself?

“Americans have largely grown tired of being involved in Afghanistan, but there’s a fine line in how Americans are viewing what’s happened in Afghanistan — between the war itself and the withdrawal.” A Pew poll of more than 10,000 American in late August [2021] found that “54% think getting out of Afghanistan was the right decision.” At the same time, “just 27% say the Biden administration has done at least a good job handling the situation in Afghanistan. That includes only 43% of Democrats.” The question is whether in time, as Biden hopes, “Americans will give him more credit for ending the war than blame for the exit — and that what today might look like excuses will tomorrow be seen as history’s reasons.”

The criticisms of Biden miss the point

This is the position that Media Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies take in an article for Foreign Policy in Focus on August 20, 2021 ((https://fpif.org/not-everyone-wanted-war-in-afghanistan-we-should-listen-to-those-critics-now). The write:

  “America’s corporate media are ringing with recriminations over the humiliating U.S. military defeat in Afghanistan. But very little of the criticism goes to the root of the problem, which was the original decision to militarily invade and occupy Afghanistan in the first place.

“That decision [in September and October 2001] set in motion a cycle of violence and chaos that no subsequent U.S. policy or military strategy could resolve over the next 20 years — in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any of the other countries swept up in America’s post-9/11 wars.”

Benjamin and Davies have ideas on what the US government should do now?

First: “We should start by finally listening to Barbara Lee [a US Representative from California and the only person in the US congress who voted against the war in 2001] and “pass her bill to repeal the two post-9/11 AUMFs that launched our 20-year fiasco in Afghanistan and other wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.” The AUMF is the acronym for “Authorization for Use of Military Force. It was passed by the US Congress “against those who ‘planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 or harbored such organizations or persons.’ This language is widely understood as authorizing force against al Qaeda, who planned and committed the attacks on the United States on 9/11, and the Afghan Taliban, who had harbored al Qaeda before and after the attacks.”

“Yet for more than 17 years, longer than any war in the nation’s history, the executive branch has been using the 2001 AUMF as the primary legal basis for military operations against an array of terrorist organizations in at least seven different countries around the world.

“The executive branch’s continued reliance on the 2001 AUMF for military operations far beyond what Congress originally authorized undermines Congress’ important constitutional role as the branch responsible for the decision to go to war. The lack of any sunset provision or reporting requirements in the 2001 AUMF also restricts the ability of Congress to conduct meaningful oversight over military operations and the foreign affairs of the United States.”

 Second, Benjamin and Davies recommend “Then we should pass her [Barbara Lee’s, bill to redirect $350 billion per year from the U.S. military budget (roughly a 50 percent cut) to ‘increase our diplomatic capacity and for domestic programs that will keep our Nation and our people safer.’” See the details of the bill here:  https://lee.house.gov/news/press-releases/congresswoman-barbara-lee-introduces-legislation-to-cut-350-billion-from-pentagon-budget.

Third, we need to rein in “America’s out-of-control militarism…before the same corrupt interests drag us into even more dangerous wars against more formidable enemies than the Taliban.”

Will the Biden post-Afghanistan-war responses bring “leverage” or more devastation and suffering to Afghanistan?

Currently and after US troops have been withdrawn, the Biden administration hopes to gain leverage over the Taliban by withdrawing financial assistance.

Barnett R. Rubin considers the implications of this decision. He is a former senior adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, and a nonresident fellow of the Center for International Cooperation of New York University and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft”

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/24/afghanistan-is-facing-vast-humanitarian-dissaster-not-only-airport).

In an attempt to gain leverage over the Taliban, Rubin writes: “[t]he United States and other aid donors have responded to the Taliban takeover by stopping the flow of financial aid and freezing Afghanistan’s reserves and other financial accounts. Yet Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries in the world. An internal document of the World Food Program warns that, ‘A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions is unfolding before our eyes. Conflict combined with drought and covid-19 is pushing the people of Afghanistan into a humanitarian catastrophe.’”

According to the WFP document, “more than 1 in 3 Afghans — some 14 million people — are hungry today while 2 million children are malnourished and urgently need treatment. More than 3.5 million — out of a population of 38 million — are internally displaced. Just to make matters worse, a massive drought has devastated crops. More than 40 percent of the country’s crops were lost to drought this year.”

What to do?

Rubin has some ideas. “The people of the country need assistance desperately. Even if there is no government to recognize or no government worthy of recognition, international organizations have experience delivering humanitarian aid in areas controlled by unrecognized authorities. That may require establishing U.N. humanitarian corridors to allow people to flee and to deliver aid to areas beyond Kabul. It may require supporting some government institutions with whatever safeguards can be put in place. Even as the United States uses its dwindling influence to affect the political outcome, it is vital to mobilize all possible international resources to rescue Afghanistan from an even worse humanitarian crisis.”

Rubin reminds readers that “in 2014, when Biden was vice president, the United States signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan, which stated that the two countries ‘are committed to seeking a future of justice, peace, security, and opportunity for the Afghan people.’”

He concludes his article as follows. “Afghans are facing a humanitarian catastrophe of daunting proportions. The world must take action — sooner rather than later. After 20 years of botched policy, the United States has a particular obligation to mitigate the oncoming disaster. Let us hope it can find the will to do what it can.”

Benjamin and Davies are among those who advance an analysis that is similar to that of Rubin (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/08/30/afghan-crisis-must-end-americas-empire-war-corruption-and-poverty).

They worry that if the new Afghan government does not give in to US pressure and meet their demands, our leaders will starve their people and then blame the Taliban for the ensuing famine and humanitarian crisis, just as they demonize and blame other victims of U.S. economic warfare, from Cuba to Iran. 

They recommend that the least the US and its allies can do now “is to help the 40 million Afghans who have not fled their country, as they try to recover from the terrible wounds and trauma of the war America inflicted on them, as well as a massive drought that devastated 40% of their crops this year and a crippling third wave of Covid-19.” Specifically,

“The U.S. should release the $9.4 billion in Afghan funds held in U.S. banks. It should shift the $6 billion allocated for the now defunct Afghan armed forces to humanitarian aid, instead of diverting it to other forms of wasteful military spending. It should encourage European allies and the IMF not to withhold funds. Instead, they should fully fund the UN 2021 appeal for $1.3 billion in emergency aid, which as of late August was less than 40% funded.”

Concluding thoughts

The Biden administration is caught in a bind. It wants to offer some protection to the Afghan people, especially to those who assisted US troops. And it wants to bring any Americans out who want to leave. But the Taliban is now in charge. One question, then, is will the Taliban moderate their principles and behavior and allow citizens to have some rights, women to participate in the institutions of the society, and those who want to leave the country to do so? And, if the Taliban don’t go along, will Biden and his military advisers use special forces, mercenaries, air power, drones, and financial sanctions to punish the Taliban – and risk exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe that already exists. 

The Taliban have not yet consolidated their power. They face opponents of the regime, a variety of other ethnic groups and some groups, like ISIS-K, that are dedicated to an even more extreme form of Islam than the Taliban. The economy is in shambles. There is massive poverty. There is an ongoing brain drain of educated people out of the country. The Taliban itself has no experience in running an economy and meeting the needs of millions of people. There is no doubt that they will need foreign assistance. The challenge for the Biden administration: either undermine the Afghan regime through financial sanctions and counter-insurgency and leave the Afghan people to fend for themselves, or focus on providing assistance aimed at helping them to recover from the destruction wrought by the US-led war.

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