Afghanistan – Graveyard of Empires

As Kabul falls and the Taliban retakes the country they once ruled over with an iron fist, there is palpable frustration over how it all unfolded. Over $200 billion spent, nearly 3,000 American lives and countless Afghan lives lost and all of the civil rights progress, was wiped out in mere hours. 

Much of the current dialogue in the media has centered around which President deserves the blame instead of focusing on the real issues that prevented America from being able to build a stable and long-lasting democracy in Afghanistan. While there is much blame to go around, there are 4 major reasons why America’s intervention in Afghanistan failed.

1) America’s lack of a cohesive vision for the war

2) Misunderstanding of the tribal dynamics in Afghanistan

3) Corruption/Payroll problems

4) The U.S. Military industrial complex 

1.

After 9/11, America wanted revenge. Osama Bin Laden and his fighters were hiding in Afghanistan, so President George W. Bush’s administration decided to invade, while still concurrently fighting in Iraq. After that fateful day, the American government itself was entirely remade and repurposed for counter terrorism (i.e The NSA, TSA etc). In regard to defeating terorrism, America was actually quite successful. We destroyed Al-Qaeda and there hasn’t been a major attack on the West since 2005. In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared the new goal of the war to “rebuilding” Afghanistan. In that regard, 18 years later, it’s safe to say that we failed. 

Mission Accomplished" Banner Could Go on Display at Bush Library - CBS News
George W. Bush declaring “Mission Accomplished” in 2003)

America was never going to succeed in rebuilding Afghanistan, never. It takes an imperialistic arrogance, a nation fueled by jingoistic, nationalistic pride, to think the USA could invade a territory with a two-thousand years history of internal turmoil and warring tribes and create a westernized, puppet government of our own design. How else can we describe our beliefs after watching the Russians invade Afghanistan just 20 years prior? A war that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We rebuilt Afghanistan, sure, but America never intended to establish a government by and for the Afghan people. No, we built a government designed to combat terrorism and ally itself with the West. A government that crumbled within hours of America’s withdrawal. 

2. 

America has always failed to understand the dynamics of tribal politics. That’s what Afghanistan is, a nation of tribes (Pashtun, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara). The Taliban itself are mostly Pashtun tribesmen. To establish a stable peace, America brokered with warlords, tribal leaders, militia groups and various former terrorist groups to form a coalition, but nothing bound these people other than the American military paying/supporting them. We built a government with a leader, but not a government with a state. There was no underlying social infrastructure or cohesive ideology holding the government together, only America’s military might.

What’s worse is that America had ample knowledge and prior experience with the tribal politics of Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s, America armed the Mujahideen rebels who fought alongside the Taliban to repel the invasion. After the Soviets pulled out in 1989, Afghanistan went through a civil war, ending with the Taliban taking over in 1996. Bin Laden himself and his fighters received American funding and they were even trained by the CIA itself. 

3. 

The U.S has known for years that the Afghan government/military was rife with corruption and incapable of carrying out its duties. According to the International Corruption Perception Index, Afghanistan ranks 177 out of 180 countries. During the waning years of the war, due to corruption and mismanagement, Afghan soldiers weren’t even getting paid and lacked basic necessities. Soldiers would take bribes, illegally steal land, and confiscate civilian goods. Many Afghan soldiers didn’t actually even exist. Afghanistan was a nation of “ghost soldiers”, soldiers who didn’t exist but were used to inflate the numbers in the salary bill and siphon off millions of dollars annually. Former President Hamid Karzai (2001-2014) allegedly stuffed the ballot boxes for his re-election campaign and openly admitted that the CIA had delivered bags of cash to his office for years. 

The most recent President of Afghanistan disappeared and left the country with over $190 million dollars. He has most recently shown up in the UAE. The government we built in Afghanistan had a judicial system that rewarded bribery, leaders that stole from their own people and a military with inflated numbers that was seemingly incapable of defending itself. How and why would the Afghan people support a government that they couldn’t trust? 

4. 

Most of the criticism over the collapse of Afghanistan is being directed at President Biden. However, this withdrawal plan was signed by Trump and the Taliban in 2020. President Trump himself, while in office, was adamant in withdrawing all troops as quickly as possible. 

It seems people aren’t so angry about the withdrawal itself, but the execution of it.  

Here’s a question though.

What else could America have done? What could we do when Afghanistan’s own President quickly left the country with millions of our money and not a single Afghan soldier fired a bullet against the Taliban? In fact, the complete surrender to the Taliban only reinforces the fact that we shouldn’t be there anymore. A government that collapses within hours isn’t and wasn’t ever actually viable.

President George. W. Bush started this war, but in 2001 and for many years after, Congress and the American public supported it. President Obama inherited the war in Afghanistan, but he too was committed to it, electing to keep troops there while drastically increasing the use of drone strikes. In 2009, Obama even launched his own “Tet offensive” and sent in a surge of 17,000 troops. President Trump also sent in a surge of troops in 2017, before reversing course two years later.

So why did 3 consecutive U.S Presidents continue fighting an increasingly costly and increasingly unpopular war even as our allies abandoned us?

As former U.S WWII General and President Eisenhower said in his farewell address in 1961, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” This military industrial complex has had a stranglehold over foreign policy for decades. 

The U.S military has known that Afghanistan was an unwinnable war for the last decade. The Washington Post proved this with the release of the “Afghanistan Papers”. In it, it shows how U.S. officials have known for the last several years that U.S.-backed personnel in Afghanistan were not a viable fighting force. Even as our NATO allies abandoned us and America was left to fight entirely on its own, the Pentagon insisted that things would turn around. In 2014, US and NATO officials declared the war to have officially ended and held a ceremony to make the occasion. In reality, during that same time, Russia had shut off their supply route into Afghanistan in retaliation for U.S Sanctions and left the U.S solely reliant on Pakistan for moving supplies, crippling America’s ability to move goods into the landlocked Afghanistan. Still, even after the war was declared over, American troops stayed and military leaders insisted that things would turn around. For nearly a decade, government officials lied about the reality of the war and the chances of successfully leaving behind a stable Afghanistan. 

You can read the entire paper here- https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/ 

Conclusion

The war in Afghanistan was an unwinnable war that plunged the U.S into insurmountable debt, destroyed any privacy Americans once had and ignited a global conflict in the Middle East. For a long time. America had a debate whether the country should have interventionalist or isolationist foreign policy. After the Allies victory in WWII, the debate ended and America spent the next seven decades using its newfound confidence and military might to fight wars all across the globe.

America should intervene in global affairs. It is how we intervene that is the problem. America is a nation of great promise and can do great things for people abroad. Sending in our military to topple a government and creating a generation of Afghans who have known nothing but war, is not the solution. Even after the failures of Vietnam, we continue to make the same mistakes.

All across our screens, we are seeing images of the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan. In the past week, the three major news networks have devoted dozens of hours to Afghanistan, but in the past 5 years, Afghanistan coverage averaged only 24 minutes a year. Biden has gotten more negative press about America’s evacuation than Trump and Obama got combined for their failed policies and for all the troops that died under their watch. All of the media’s coverage has centered on America’s “botched” withdrawal plan. What is never talked about, after America’s troops leave another nation, is the lasting damage we leave behind. What about the Afghan people? We’ve seen videos of desperate people trying to escape their home country, of women bravely protesting the Taliban and countless other inspiring stories. Do you think we will still hear about any of this in a week or two? No, we won’t. We will quickly move onto the next story. The Afghan people won’t be able to do that. Many of them will be killed, put in jail, and have all of their civil rights taken away. The attention we will spend on Afghanistan will last a week but the damage we’ve left behind will last for generations.

2 thoughts on “Afghanistan – Graveyard of Empires

  1. Compelling ! The most comprehensive and unbias bipartisan piece written on topic filled with partisan confusion.
    Very informative with facts to back up.
    Amazing to learn the simple failures of pursuit from two world powers Soviets and Americas. Great line that a government succeeds with the support of the people not a unilateral selected leader.
    Learning about the existing tribes (Pashtun, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara) sheds light on the floor plan.
    The writer is clear with his facts. This should be published on a global level.

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