Words by Stasi Kapetanos and Konstantinos Zekyrias
By now most of us have surely heard about the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan the second foreign troops were pulled out. Going back to the previous time foreign troops were marched into the country in 1979, we can see many parallels with today.
The Soviet Union deployed their army into Afghanistan that very year to topple a former ally and fellow communist government they deemed to be unfavourable to their interests. Afghanistan was then bogged down in a state of constant war against a civilian population who did not want the foreign invaders there. By doing this, the Soviet Union discredited whatever supporters they had in the country. In the end, the Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan after having failed in their strategic objectives. This led to the empowerment of their fanatical and theocratic enemies in the Mujahideen who were backed by the U.S and had popular support from the Afghan people. This war killed, wounded and displaced millions of Afghan people and led to the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure.
Despite being fierce opponents of the Soviets, particularly in their invasion of Afghanistan, the American government can now clearly relate to their defunct rival’s failed escapade through their own invasion, occupation and withdrawal. Perhaps, some humble pie is due to be eaten but it really is September 11th this meal should have been ordered, it was then that America’s support of theocratic extremism in the Greater Middle East turned back to bite it. Not that this tragic event stopped them from continuing this long tradition. Anyone remember the 2016 revelation about Pentagon backed left-wing Syrian Kurdish forces fighting against CIA backed rebels? The fact that the latter groups openly collaborated with Al Qaeda affiliates raised plenty of eyebrows at the time, but conveniently seems to be forgotten by the supporters of American military interventionism and pro-war media figures, along with certain politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Turning back more strictly to Afghanistan now, the American government’s involvement in the region began not with its 2001 invasion, but with its support of the religious reactionary led resistance to the Soviet invasion. Of course they were not alone in this: Britain, China and Israel were among the unlikely alliance of self-saboteurs whose financial, logistical and military aid to these groups was key in preventing the tragedy of a communist Afghanistan under Soviet influence and later causing terrorist attacks back within their own borders.
Now to be precise, the Taliban was not one of the groups known as the Mujahideen which received this support, as the Taliban had not yet come into existence. However, the organisation’s founder, Mullah Omar fought for multiple Mujahideen groups, as did current Supreme Commander of the Taliban and Supreme Leader of Afghanistan Hibatullah Akhundzada. Afghanistan’s ‘Islamic Party’, a future ally of the Taliban against both the occupying forces and the Afghan government, was also a key component of the Mujahideen. Another key Mujahideen component, the ‘Islamic Revolution Movement’, practically merged into the Taliban in 1994.
Of course there were more moderate or at least compromising elements within the Mujahideen who have gone on to resist the Taliban every step of the way. These groups went on to become the Northern Alliance, along with ex-communists and other opponents of the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, despite not having the upper hand, held its own against the Taliban until the U.S military invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Fast forward to the year 2021 and they, for the most part, are not even in the way, just like Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet communist forces before them.
On the 11th September, 2001, Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, a few minutes later United Airlines Flight 175 was brought into collision with the South Tower. This was the largest terrorist attack in the history of the United States, causing the deaths of 2,966 people. Anti-Soviet warrior Osama Bin Laden, who was located in Afghanistan, was held responsible for orchestrating this. The American government set out an ultimatum to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader of Afghanistan at the time, to either deliver Bin Laden directly to them and dismantle all militant training camps or face an attack.
Mullah Omar, however, refused to hand over Bin Laden to the American President demanding further evidence and offered to do so via a third country for Bin Laden to stand trial in. U.S President George Bush rejected the offer and on October 5th 2001, the United States-led coalition launched an invasion of Afghanistan with the purposes of finding Bin Laden and toppling the Taliban. On the 14th September, Australia became one of the first countries to pledge support, invoking Article IV of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty on the basis that it would ‘demonstrate our steadfast commitment to work with the United States in combating international terrorism’.
Approximately one month later, the United States-led coalition and the Northern Alliance forced the Taliban to flee Kabul for Kandahar. Al-Qaeda militants were situated in the mountainous region of Tora Bora when the U.S.-led coalition engaged them with aerial bombardments. This had created a window of opportunity where Osama Bin Laden could have been captured. However, pleas for the reinforcements to launch an assault and to block the mountain paths leading to Pakistan were rejected. Instead, relatively untrained Afghan militias, especially in comparison with the more mobile American divisions, allocated the task of retrieving Bin Laden.
Al-Qaeda was able to negotiate a truce with a local Afghan militia commander, and because of that it is thought that this allowed for Bin Laden’s escape to Pakistan. The failure to capture Bin Laden was criticised in a congressional report as it was a broader symptom of relying on warlords, allies of convenience, who with American financial and weaponry aid, were able to destroy their personal rivals and expand their power. Those same warlords were profiting through the trafficking of heroin and many such warlords were even sexually abusing Afghan ‘dancing boys’, a practice that carried the death penalty under the Taliban but ignored by American forces who considered it merely the local government’s responsibility.
There were two justifications presented for the Afghanistan invasion. Firstly, to destroy Al-Qaeda. Secondly, to make Afghanistan an unsuitable base of operations for the execution of terrorist plots in the future. Soon after the invasion a third justification was added, to destroy the Taliban. This justification was included even though the Taliban were not involved in the 9/11 attacks and that none of the hijackers were Afghans. The Taliban had only refused to deliver Bin Laden as the US government saw fit. This additional justification was one of the many examples of goalpost shifting throughout the war, resulting in the mission creep that led to the two decade long occupation.
Despite the failure to actually capture Bin Laden at the time, the United States seemed largely successful in materialising their aims. The leaders of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were either dead, captured, or in hiding. Bush decided to keep a light force of American troops to hunt suspected terrorists. Even after this achievement, Bush made the decision to keep a ‘light’ force of American troops on the ground to keep hunting suspected terrorists. However, the fetishization of extinguishing potential terrorist threats, eventually led to the controversial, invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The United States struggled to identify whether Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the warlords on the CIA’s payroll and Pakistan’s government were adversaries or allies. Further enigmas regarding the Islamic State and foreign fighters meant that ultimately there was no strategy. For all of the United States’ talk regarding the advancement of human rights, the human cost of the direct result of war in the Afghan and Pakistani region is 241,000 deaths with 71,000 of those being civilians. By the end of the war, the rules of engagement regarding airstrikes had been relaxed multiple times, and as a result, it contributed to the killing and maiming of on average five Afghan children daily since 2005.
The United States proved determined to spend money in an effort to build the Afghan State. The goal was to establish a ‘flourishing market economy’. Money invested into infrastructure was invested extravagantly, in ways that would turn out to be unsustainable for Afghanistan. Ultimately, the amount of money invested surpassed the amount in the post-Second World War Marshall Plan. One contractor was bestowed an allowance of $3 million, per district, per day that they themselves believed to be excessive. Despite this, Afghan tribal elders lamented that the money did not materialise into actual infrastructure. Nothing has been built in Kandahar since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 and the only large-scale hospital in the region was built by China in the 1970s. The influx of US Dollars into Afghanistan fostered an environment of kleptocracy. This delegitimised the US-propped government as being an institution full corruption and bribery and unable to function properly. As a consequence, more people turned to the Taliban in order to enforce some semblance of order. Through this, the United States had effectively strengthened the position and legitimacy of the groups it sought to defeat.
Therefore, was the human rights abuses propagated by the United States and its agents in Afghanistan in conjunction with the hollowing out of Afghan institutions and the diversion of America’s focus into Iraq led to the revitalisation of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2009, the re-emergence of the Taliban prompted Obama to authorise another troop surge. This move was emblematic of America’s overreliance on the military.
In short, a historical narrative of the fight against infidel invaders; the human rights abuses perpetrated by the United States and its allies like Australia; the dispersion of America’s attention towards its other regional interests; the dissatisfaction with Afghanistan’s tottering government; the lack of basic services; and the general alienation of the Afghan people from the central government allowed the Taliban to garner support and power in some provincial areas. As a consequence, many people in the United States realised that they were losing the war as early as 2006. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, discontent against the Afghan government was growing, and with the aid of successive Pakistani governments, the Taliban became stronger. In spite of this, America’s public position was to propagate that the war effort was making steady progress. The United States attempted to identify metrics which showed that the war in Afghanistan was successful. However, the circumstances were so dire that the real metrics had to be manipulated, inflated and distorted to such an extent that they painted an inaccurate picture.
An anonymous senior American National Security Council Official interviewed in the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers described it like this, “For example, attacks are getting worse? ‘That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.’ Then, three months later, attacks are still getting worse? ‘It’s because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning.’”
Since 2001 more than 775,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 Australian troops have been deployed, many of them having been deployed more than once in Afghanistan. From a financial perspective, the Afghanistan war was financed by debt, as opposed to more traditional ways such as taxation, bonds, and other revenues. The overall spending that took place is more than USD$2 Trillion. By 2050, interest is going to increase this figure up to USD$6.5 Trillion.
The financial cost of the war alludes to yet another tragedy of the Afghanistan War. Namely, the loss opportunities to spend those funds into more productive activities. Those finances could be utilised to directly improve the lives of people in Afghanistan and the United States. Instead, the expenses all went towards violent military operations. At this point, I cannot neglect mentioning Eisenhower’s ‘Cross of Iron Speech’. The speech was delivered in 1953 in reference to escalating tensions with the Soviet Union linking the expansion of the imperialist state with human suffering. Here is an excerpt:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, as theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. …
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
In light of these burgeoning costs and the realisation that the United States was making no breakthrough in the war, one may wonder why the war lasted this long. Perhaps it could be a mixture of the desire to maintain the survival of the US-backed government and avoid a backslide of human rights, especially women’s rights. Recent comments made by the White House Communications Director, Kate Bedingfield cast aspersions on both claims. She acknowledged that the White House was aware that the Afghan government would collapse immediately after the United States withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. Yet she also further stated that a mass evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies would have signalled the imminent collapse of the Afghan government.
If the United States was genuinely concerned about the backslide of human rights, it would have developed a strategy to help evacuate those most at risk among the innocent Afghan population. This claim also whitewashes the human right atrocities committed by the United States. For instance, it ignores the CIA death squads which entered madrassas and killed young boys to dissuade others from going to these religious schools, because one day they may become members of the Taliban. This approach also ignores the fact that the United States contributed to the hollowing out of Afghan institutions and that human rights concerns were never a justification for the invasion. Thus, it is also dubious that the preservation of the Afghan government, a paper tiger, as a force of good in the region would also sustain human rights.
This article is not to be read in a way that deprives the Taliban of its agency, nor is to be read in a way that suggests that the Taliban has (acceptable) moral justifications in either their raison d’etre or in their actions. This article’s focus is to explore the reasons behind the invasion of Afghanistan and thus, highlighting the actions of the United States and its coalition. Therefore, the western government’s actions are featured only to the extent that they are able to unearth why the ‘War on Terror’ went down the way it did and not because mass atrocities are less potent just because other actors are committing them.
With this in mind, it is impossible to ignore the financial gains and interests that benefited from the invasion of Afghanistan. Money was seemingly poured to the military to build infrastructure projects such as power plants, industrial parks, and other things which benefited few people in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, also happens to be a strategically important juncture of south Asia, central Asia, and the Middle East because Afghanistan’s location lends it to become a transit for the energy resources coming from Iran and Turkmenistan to Pakistan, India and even China.
For these reasons it seems that American interests in Afghanistan are unlikely to have ended with the recent troop withdrawal. The United States attempted to negotiate with the Taliban in the 1990s, despite their appalling human rights record, regarding the construction of an oil pipeline in Afghanistan. In fact, Taliban groups were flown to Texas, to the house of the vice president of petroleum company Unocal, which was acquired by Chevron in 2005. Ultimately, the pipeline was never built because the Taliban just so happened to not be good business partners. Incidentally, Afghanistan is also ripe with minerals which are valued at at least $1 Trillion. This prompted a disturbingly apt characterisation of Afghanistan as ‘the Saudi Arabia of lithium’ by an internal US Department of Defence memo. This depiction is revealing as the advancement of human rights by the U.S is not the prime mover, but rather it is the advancement of capital’s interests.
It is now imperative that countries, especially countries who have participated in this war, provide refuge to fleeing Afghans. In that regard, Australia has a lot of room for improvement as it will offer only 3,000 places in its humanitarian visa program specifically designated for Afghan refugees. This figure is a part of the 13,750 humanitarian visas Australia is planning to offer this year, down from the 18,750 humanitarian visas offered last year. One can only wonder if America, Australia and the West at large continue to fail the Afghan people and how much longer our societies can continue to find new cruel and inventive ways of doing so. At least they have ended this particular imperialist war, now let’s hope they do not start another one.