Afghanistan: no, the war is not over


With absurd hubris, Biden in his speech on Aug. 31—the day the last US troops left Kabul under the deadline agreed to with the Taliban—declared that “the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan.” It’s perverse enough that he called the US evacuation of some 120,000 Afghans and Americans an “extraordinary success”—despite the fact that more than 100 US nationals and many thousands of desperate Afghans were left behind. But this reality-denying “ended the war” rhetoric is being uncritically echoed by media accounts.

The war in Afghanistan began in 1979, with the massive Soviet military intervention to put down the Mujahedeen, and the country hasn’t seen a moment of peace since then. Nor is there much prospect for peace any time in the foreseeable future. This is the same imperial narcissism we heard with the much-hyped US “withdrawal” from Afghanistan in 2014, and the “withdrawal” from Iraq in 2011. But this time, Afghanistan is essentially being turned over to the Taliban as a US-collaborationist or even near-proxy force to fight ISIS. The Taliban remain a brutal, intolerant and ultra-reactionary Islamist entity, but are now baited as co-opted moderates by the even more extremist ISIS.

This is the bitter fruit of the long Global War on Terrorism. It now appears nearly inevitable that the real if limited advances for women and minorities in Afghanistan over the past 20 years will prove to have been borrowed from the future. Women have been flogged and killed as the Taliban overran the country over the past weeks, while journalists and human rights defenders have been attacked and slain. In the first fatwa issued by Taliban officials in Herat province, mixed-gender classes have been prohibited at the colleges and universities.

Hundreds of Hazara families are reported to have fled their homes in central Bamiyan and Ghazni provinces, seeking shelter with the incipient resistance forces organizing in the Panjshir Valley. The Shi’ite Hazara were targeted for genocide by the Taliban when they were in power 20 years ago, and Amnesty International now reports that new massacres have already begun. Eyewitnesses told Amnesty that when the Taliban seized Malistan district, Ghazni province, last month, a group of nine Hazara men in Mundarakht village were rounded up and summarily put to death—several of them tortured first.

While there is an urgent moral imperative to loan what voice and solidarity we can to feminists and secularists left behind in the country, there is little reason to believe that there isn’t much worse to come.

Afghanistan’s new independent media like Khaama Press Agency continue to report the abuses, but there is a sense that their silencing is a matter of time. Prominent social media “influencers” in the country are now going dark, as activists scramble to scrub their digital lives.

And is this likely to be, at least, an authoritarian “stability” of the kind beloved by Beltway “pragmatists” and paleocons? No. Khaama now reports that the Taliban have launched an offensive against the resistance forces in the Panjshir Valley. This portends a three-way war in Afghanistan—pitting the Taliban, the resistance, and ISIS against each other. It remains to be seen how the international lines will be drawn up—whether the US will continue to groom the Taliban as a proxy force or throw its support to the resistance, whether a competitor power (Russia or China) will do either of these things, or whether (in a truly pathological cycle) ISIS territorial gains will eventually prompt one of the imperial powers to yet again intervene militarily.

A humanitarian disaster of massive proportions looms in the country. The South Asia regional director for UNICEF, George Laryea-Adjei, said that some 300,000 children are among those that have been forced to flee their homes this year, “and too many of them have witnessed scenes that no child should ever see.” (Afghanistan Times)

Two evaluations of what has brought us to this horrific scenario offer remarkably similar conclusions. One is from Human Rights Watch (HRW), entitled “How US-Funded Abuses Led to Failure in Afghanistan.” It especially notes how continued civilian casualties from US air-strikes squandered the credibility of the Afghan government those strikes were ostensibly backing up:

[C]ivilian casualties from airstrikes soared as the Trump administration vastly increased air operations while removing directives prohibiting strikes on residential buildings and loosening rules on targeting. Between 2016 and 2020, 40 percent of all civilian casualties from US and Afghan government airstrikes in Afghanistan—almost 1,600—were children. In mid-2019, civilian casualties caused by Afghan government and US forces briefly surpassed those carried out by the Taliban and Islamic State.

There is no question airstrikes significantly weakened Taliban forces (and decimated much of the Islamic State’s strongholds in Nangarhar), and no question that the Taliban’s own atrocities in urban areas increased, as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2018 report. But the psychological impact of so many civilian deaths and injuries from air operations, and the terror in rural Afghanistan inspired by the constant raids and special operations, may have done far greater damage in undermining support for the Afghan government than any military advantage gained.

It is extremely telling that civilian casualties began to increase as intra-Afghan “peace” talks began early this year, reaching a decade high.

The other report is from the Pentagon’s own Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), entitled “What we Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction.”  Its sobering opening paragraphs:

The US 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 war fighting, 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 signicant underestimations.

The extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose—though the definition of that purpose evolved over time. At various points, the US 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, once accomplished, was thought to move the US government one step closer to being able to depart.

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 US government has been often overwhelmed by the magnitude of rebuilding a country that, at the time of the US invasion, had already seen two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban brutality.

The SIGAR report emphasizes how connivance with warlords in governance, especially of Afghanistan’s provinces, played into Taliban hands. What SIGAR somewhat euphemistically calls inadaquate “monitoring and evaluation” allowed corrupt warlodism to thrive:

By legitimizing warlords with political and financial support, the United States helped empower a class of strongmen at the local and national levels who had conflicted allegiances between their own power networks and the Afghan state. Indirectly, the United States helped to lay a foundation for continued impunity of malign actors, weak rule of law, and the growth of corruption. Although U.S. agencies recognized the dangers of aligning with warlords, they did not fully appreciate the risks this posed to the mission in Afghanistan.

Those warlords came out of the Northern Alliance, the rebel force that the US began backing after 9-11, which in turn came out of the brutal and inept government led by veteran Mujahedeen commanders that was overthrown by the Talban in 1996. History has just repeated itself, while now the Taliban themselves stand to be opposed by a still more thoroughly nihilist and radicalized ISIS. There is no cause to hope that any end is in sight to this dystopian cycle. This is not “peace.” The Taliban take-over of Afghanistan represents a massive step backward for all of humanity.

Map: Perry-Castañeda Library