20 Years of Suffering: The US Was Never Going to “Save” Afghanistan

Within the past few weeks, headlines of major news outlets have brought to the spotlight a rise in violent incidents and tensions within Afghanistan. The Taliban had been swiftly capturing one Afghan province after another like a knife cutting through warm butter. By 15 August, “the fall of Kabul” was stamped across every headline around the world as US forces evacuated the Afghan capital and tyrannised Afghans latched onto US planes, many meeting death as their fate. The Taliban, the toppling of which the US premised its two-decades-long occupation on, was back.

There is undoubtedly a strong tendency within the media and in the mindset of people to disregard such matters, passing off a rise in violence in Afghanistan as an inevitable daily occurrence because it’s just “Afghanistan”. This phenomenon is largely due to the orientalist perspective that sees violence and barbarism as somehow being inherent to the peoples east of the Mediterranean. The practice does a grave disservice not only to the complex history of Afghanistan but also to the Afghan people, who have suffered for generations under the overarching issues of exploitation and imperialism.

We will explore the history of the US in Afghanistan, from their initial involvement in the 1980s to the 1990s when they began funding what came to be the Taliban to the early 2000s when they sold the entire world a war in the name of fighting what they had created. How do the Afghan people fare into this? And what can we expect to see from the international sphere?

When did US intervention in Afghanistan start?

Understanding Afghanistan means, like all other nations across the global South, situating it in the context of near-constant imperialist aggression and exploitation. Afghanistan, in particular, has historically represented and continues to represent a geopolitical prize to Western imperialism for its resource-rich earth and its strategic location as a portal into deeper Asia.

In 1978, amidst the Cold War, the people of Afghanistan yearned to collectively take control of their land. To that end, Afghans led a peoples’ revolution aiming to transform Afghanistan into a socialist society, just as countless other peoples across the global South did throughout the 20th century in an attempt to break from the shackles of capitalist-imperialist violence. But, meeting the same fate as many of these 20th-century peoples’ revolutions, the socialist dream in Afghanistan was cut off at the knees by Western aggression, spearheaded by the US, for whom the lands and people of the “third world” were theirs to plunder. And so with a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programme began the US effort — with the assistance of regional allies like the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence — to crush the newly established socialist government of Afghanistan.

Operation Cyclone, as it was baptised by the CIA, saw the US funnel money and weapons into a counter-revolutionary religious extremist group in Afghanistan, the mujahideen, in a bid to overthrow the secular government in power. Operation Cyclone currently stands as the most expensive covert operation to date, with funding rising from $695,000 in 1979 to a staggering $630 million per year in 1987. The covert action programme was ardent in its commitment to stirring violent religious fanaticism among Afghan society, so much so that it began the radicalisation process at the most vulnerable sector of the population: children. The US poured millions into the creation of propagandised school books in local languages packed with violent images and militant “jihadi” teachings to incite radicalisation and insurgency.

This funding, training and indoctrination of the mujahideen eventually led to the offshoot of multiple extremist factions, including, of course, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, who benefitted handsomely from these materials. Today, more than 40 years later, we continue to reap the consequences of the US’ barbaric anti-communist crusade.

1993 Independent article eulogising Osama bin Laden, benefactor of Operation Cyclone and future Al-Qaeda leader. Image obtained via Business Insider.

Many seem to find solace in claiming that the US only began funding the mujahideen after the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979 (as if, were that to be the case, it would somehow justify the incitement of militant religious extremism). However, the CIA’s recruitment of jihadists began six months before the arrival of Soviet troops in an effort to trigger Soviet military intervention.

Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujahideen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec, 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser to President Carter, in a 1998 interview

According to Brzezinski, the US “knowingly increased the probability” that the Soviet Union would intervene in Afghanistan: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”

Assistance to the mujahideen persevered until the early 90s, even after the Soviet retreat, during the Afghan civil war. Eventually, and predictably, former mujahideen warlords that had branched off into the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996. Contrary to the popular notion that “Islamic fundamentalism” sends the US and the wider West into a moral frenzy is the solid alliance between the latter and the likes of the Taliban, who the US saw as a reliable business partner. Matter-of-factly, the Taliban was courted throughout the 90s by American oil companies like Unocal, on behalf of US business interests, to secure cooperation for the building of a pipeline that would rip through Afghanistan’s rich lands. The Taliban was hence offered a cut in the profit to be made from the exploitation and appropriation of Afghan resources. Although the plan never materialised, it exemplifies the Janus-faced approach of public discourse on the “protection of human rights” and private interests at the altar of Western capital.

Post-9/11 era

The September 11, 2001, attacks provided the US with the ideal pretence to launch its devastating “war on terror” that has, as of today, affected 80 countries, killed 800,000 people, displaced almost 40 million globally and lined the pockets of war profiteers with a staggering $6.4 trillion spent to “fight terrorism”.

The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was framed as a direct response to the 9/11 attacks. Throughout the 20 years of war, there has been a continuous cycle of Taliban resurgence followed by US and NATO crackdowns. The US military and its NATO allies planted the roots of Afghan instability as their aggression towards the Taliban exacerbated the already volatile situation. Crucial institutions such as schools and hospitals remain in ruins today and NATO forces carry a shattering record of war crimes under their belt throughout the 20-year occupation.

As I said in April, the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives. That’s why we went.

President Biden in a 8 July, 2021 speech

President Biden recently echoed his predecessor George W. Bush, who in 2001, boasted about the Taliban being defeated by the US military’s “capabilities”. Besides the sheer tomfoolery of these claims, considering the Taliban has re-captured all of Afghanistan after the $2.26 trillion poured into two decades of destruction, the US never intended to “deliver justice” to bin Laden. Back in 2001, after the first eight days of US bombardment, the Taliban offered to hand over bin Laden to be tried and brought to justice by a third party, an offer that Bush rejected in the service of the relentless US war machine.

The US government’s role in propping up the nascent Taliban throughout the 80s and 90s has been instrumental in empowering them throughout the last two decades of war. US intervention throughout the “war on terror” has a distinctly brutal performance history. It is reprehensible for the US government to feign concern over human rights faltering under “Islamic terrorism” after a multi-decade history of arming and financing Taliban warlords-to-be. The US can never be an instigator of peace for its record is splattered with the blood of the countless victims of its imperialist aggression. The US has long played the role of the freedom-loving saviour and harbinger of peace. The harsh reality is that the US’ loyalties to Afghanistan and elsewhere across the world are rooted in self-serving economic and political gain.

Can Biden justify his decision?

Like a true politician, Joe Biden has given differing accounts as to why he has implemented this foreign policy decision after years of war in Afghanistan. On one hand, he justifies this withdrawal of troops by stating that the US has achieved what it set out to do in 2001, namely Bush’s “war on terror” which supposedly aimed to combat jihadist forces. On the other hand, he has said that withdrawal is necessary because, after two decades, US forces are not progressing and ultimately too many American soldiers have died. Perhaps, more likely, Biden’s various, erratic justifications signal that the US decision to withdraw troops is based on the fact it can no longer benefit from the occupation. 

[I]t’s … the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.   

President Biden defending the US withdrawal, 8 July 2021

If only the US adopted the above stance in 1978 when Afghans effectively decided on their own fate and led a socialist revolution. But, of course, that precise decision by the Afghan people on their future ran averse to US interests. The US sells its wars as peace missions that deliver democracy and protect human rights on a global scale and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan were no different. Bush declared in 2004 that “[t]he world and the United States stand with [the people of Afghanistan] as partners in their quest for peace and prosperity and stability and democracy”. Only in the language of imperialist warmongers does death and suffering and displacement and destruction translate into peace and prosperity and stability and democracy.

In contrast to the language used to sell the war in Afghanistan, albeit, in stark honesty, Biden has since admitted that the US was not “nation-building”. Yet, the moral high ground of “restoring peace” perseveres.

The US is being absolved from its complicity in Afghanistan’s destruction

Afghanistan has become a narco-state (a state sustained by an illegal drug trade) because the US has facilitated the exploitation of resources by the Taliban and the extortion of money. Opium production in Afghanistan increased three-fold under US occupation, while troops “guarded” the poppy fields, and, by 2015, Afghanistan produced 90% of the world’s opium. Incidentally, these figures coincide with the deepening of the opioid crisis engulfing North America, from which the pharmaceutical industry and the global heroin market profit massively.

In Afghanistan, this has naturally led to corruption within the US-backed government and a lack of organisation, security and proper legal frameworks preventing Afghans from being able to make use of their own natural resources. The US benefits from Afghanistan’s wealth, whilst the majority of Afghans suffer in poverty.

Instead of recognising its own complicity in the destruction of Afghan society, the US continues to escape blame. The US government is quick to reprimand other states such as Iran for “sponsoring terrorism” yet it was US money and weapons that spawned the Taliban and beyond. This selective outrage feeds into the orientalist idea that people of “that region” are innately barbaric, their cultures wildly different from the Judeo-Christian “norm”, their countries underdeveloped and so on.

What can the West do for Afghans now?

Contrary to the notion that seeks to paint invasion and occupation as the predecessor to liberation, the best the West can do for Afghans is to stop meddling in their affairs. The decision to withdraw US presence comes 20 years and almost a quarter of a million lives too late. Now, the obligation of the West is to provide a safe haven to Afghans fleeing the pain and suffering of not only the past two decades but the past 40 years at the behest of US intervention.

But, predictably, the West is already on the run. French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a spine-chilling speech in the midst of the distressing scenes at Kabul airport reaffirming the EU’s commitment to border violence, stating that France, and the wider EU, must “protect itself” from the “irregular influx” of Afghan “migrants”. Whilst UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has issued vague pledges to resettle fleeing Afghans, the number of refugees that the UK is willing to “take in” is nowhere near meeting the demands of the current crisis, especially considering the UK’s status as a leading contributor to the war, ranking only behind the US. Other questions arise should the UK resettle Afghans in the UK, such as how long will they be allowed to stay? May we see a second Windrush scandal?

When we look at the war on terror as a force of displacement across the world, the very same governments that are involved in these NATO campaigns are also preventing people [from] seeking asylum in their countries.

Lowkey, British rapper and activist, on Double Down News

Importantly, it is crucial to listen to local Afghans and amplify their voices, for they have lived through decades of aggression first-hand are the primary victims of this savage war. This is particularly important at this moment in time when a powerful stream of propaganda is seeking to sanitise and rehabilitate the image of NATO forces as we speak. Pushing images of US Marines cradling an Afghan newborn at Kabul airport will not make the heinous crimes committed by the coalition disappear from collective memory. We must never lose sight of the decades of US imperialism that have made it unsafe for Afghan babies today to grow up in their homeland. We owe it to Afghans to never forget nor forgive.

It is time to finally recognise Afghanistan and the wider “war on terror” for what it is: not a mission to protect human rights or fight against terrorism, but an obscene wealth transfer of ludicrous amounts — $6.4 trillion, to be exact — from the bottom of society to the top, from ordinary taxpayers to military contractors.

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. […] It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

Smedley Butler, War is a Racket (1935)
  • Senay Ahmet is a Politics, Philosophy and Law undergraduate in the UK. Her primary interests lie in exposing Western complicity and sponsorship of humanitarian crises.

  • Elisa Emch is the founder and editor-in-chief at The DYM Project and a Master’s student in International Relations specialising in history at Leiden University.

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