Media coverage of the Taliban takeover of Kabul would lead most Americans to believe that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began after 9/11, with the invasion to topple the previous Taliban government. But Afghanistan has been at war continuously for 42 years, and the Pentagon has been involved every step of the way, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. These origins of the series of Afghan wars have gone down the memory hole, and have especially been hidden from the generation born after 9/11.
Far from standing in the way of an Islamist takeover, a series of U.S. interventions helped create, arm, and facilitate the mujahedin (jihadist fighters) that took the country away from the more secular direction it had been taking in the 1960s-‘80s. Afghan women and girls had rights until 1992, when the U.S.-backed mujahedin defeated the communists, and that was four years before the first Taliban takeover. I had followed Afghan politics with morbid fascination for decades, and although the Pentagon drove the Taliban out of Kabul in 2001, I was hardly alone in predicting that the Taliban insurgents would eventually return, as they have two decades later.
What Afghanistan has in common with both Vietnam and Iraq is its long history of resistance to foreign occupiers, long before the Americans ever arrived. This resistance to foreign rule is the only factor that has united Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and sectarian groups in the past two centuries. The fall of Kabul, like the fall of Saigon, demonstrates again that imperialism often doesn’t work, even to meet the goals of the imperial power.
The historical pattern is clear: Afghanistan is the ‘roach motel’ of empires. As the old roach motel ad stated, “They check in, but they don’t check out.” Imperial forces get lured into battle, and then get bogged down in a quagmire they cannot win. British soldiers barely escaped with their lives from three colonial wars in Afghanistan, before their global empire finally collapsed. The Russians withdrew in defeat only a few years before the Soviet Union and its Afghan allies collapsed. And now the Americans have followed down the same path of imperial hubris and defeat. It is critically important to understand the back story of how U.S. meddling actually facilitated the unraveling of Afghanistan.
1) The Soviet-Afghan War was a U.S. trap
Afghanistan has not always been governed by bearded Islamist men. In the 1960s through the 1980s, women and girls could go to school, have their heads uncovered, and not be ruled by mullahs. Afghanistan’s political crisis began in 1973, when the king Zahir Shah was ousted in a coup led by secular general Mohammed Daoud, who himself overthrown by a pro-Soviet Communist revolutionary coup in 1978. The faction-ridden Communist government was threatened by Islamist insurgents known as mujahedin (jihadist fighters), triggering a Soviet invasion and occupation in December 1979. The Soviet occupiers brutally suppressed not only the mujahedin, but committed massacres and helicopter attacks on Afghan villagers, alienating them from the puppet Communist government.
It would be years before it was revealed that President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a strongly anti-Communist Polish immigrant, had consciously provoked or lured the Soviets into invading Afghanistan by secretly arming the Islamist mujahedin fighting against the Soviet-backed revolutionary government.
In a 1998 interview with a French newspaper, Brzezinski revealed that in July 1979, “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…..We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”
Brzezinski explained that the secret arming of the Islamist rebels “had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap …The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war’.” When asked if he regretted the arming of the Islamist rebels, Brzezinski replied, “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
After the Reagan administration took power in 1981, it openly supplied weapons, including Stinger missiles, to the mujahedin, who at that time also assisted by a Saudi engineer named Osama Bin Laden. Two-thirds of the military aid went to Pashtun mujahedin such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious Pashtun warlord. American popular culture lionized the mujahedin as anti-Communist “freedom fighters,” in movies such as Rambo III and Red Dawn.
By openly backing the mujahedin against the Soviets, the Carter and Reagan administrations helped set into motion a cycle of violence that has since claimed more than two million Afghan lives, and helped to create the Taliban. Brzezinski turned out to be prescient, in that the Islamist mujahedin forced a Soviet troop withdrawal after only ten years, in 1989, one of disasters that led to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The following year, in 1992, the mujahedin routed the pro-Soviet Afghan puppet government of Najibullah, and quickly took Kabul.
2. U.S.-backed rulers restricted women’s rights before the Taliban existed
The first fall of Kabul to Islamist insurgents marked the end of Afghanistan’s secular era. The first severe restrictions on women’s rights were instituted in 1992 not by the Taliban (which had not yet been formed), but by the U.S.-backed mujahedin who took power. The Pentagon and CIA armed and financed the same vicious militia warlords who brought fundamentalist misogyny to Kabul in the first place. According to Amnesty International, the “rape of women by armed guards appeared to be condoned by leaders as a method of intimidating vanquished populations and of rewarding soldiers,” and mujahedin “were reported to have stopped women from working outside their homes, or from attending health and family planning courses…Educated women particularly working in the fields of education and welfare were repeatedly threatened.”
The mujahedin were even more ridden with factions than the Communists had been, often along ethnic lines between southern Pashtun and northern Turkic tribes, and they promptly went to war with each other over the spoils. The civil war devastated parts of Kabul, and lawlessness spread through the countryside. The Bush and Clinton administrations and U.S. media largely turned a blind eye to the abuses by their victorious anti-Communist allies.
The Taliban was founded by Pashtun students as a reaction to the chaos of mujahedin rule, promising to bring law and order. The capital quickly fell to Taliban forces in 1996, in the second fall of Kabul. Although the Taliban government instituted a brutal sense of order, the institutional oppression of women and girls became more systematic, as they were ordered to adopt the burqa and drop out of work and school.
Even so, the Clinton administration at first negotiated with the Taliban over access to Afghan gas fields, and a Taliban delegation visited Texas for pipeline negotiations. It was not until 1998, when the Taliban gave refuge to Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorists, that the Clinton administration turned against the Taliban. By then, the defeated northern mujahedin warlord militias had coalesced as the Northern Alliance, and attacked the Taliban as they had attacked the Communists.
3. Retaliation for 9/11 was a trap
In organizing Al Qaeda, Bin Laden took a page from Brzezinski’s playbook. Since Islamist resistance had drawn in the Soviet superpower to Afghanistan and defeated it, perhaps the U.S. superpower could be similarly drawn into the Afghan quagmire. British journalist Robert Fisk had interviewed Bin Laden in his Afghan refuge in 1997. Three days after 9/11, Fisk presciently asserted that “Retaliation is a Trap,” but few Americans listened to his prediction. I interviewed Fisk on my WORT radio show in Madison, and he told me that by attacking U.S. embassies and eventually U.S. cities, Bin Laden felt he could provoke another empire to retaliate by occupying Afghanistan, and getting bogged down in the same futile war that the Soviets had lost.
Fisk explained in another interview that Bin Laden’s goal was “to bring the Americans in, to strike so brutally and with so much blood at an innocent Muslim people that an explosion comes throughout the Middle East. Bin Laden was constantly revolving in his mind the fact that he had got rid of the Russians; therefore, the Americans can be got rid of, too. And where better than in the country where he knows how to fight?” In the same way that Brzezinski armed mujahedin to provoke the Soviets into occupying Afghanistan, Bin Laden launched 9/11 to provoke the Americans into following the same path. By sending an RSVP of B-52s and loose talk about a new “crusade,” President George W. Bush played along with Bin Laden’s script.
As I wrote after 9/11, and before the U.S. invasion, “The recent history of Afghanistan demonstrates that a new war in that country would not simply be like the U.S. war in Vietnam. The war would instead be like Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Colombia and Somalia all rolled into one. Afghanistan offers a package deal of multiple disasters, loaded with extra bonus features,” such as ethnic and sectarian divisions, an opium-based illicit economy, and divisions among warlord militias.
Four days after the U.S. bombing began, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) released a statement warning that “the ‘Northern Alliance’ groups lie in ambush like hungry wolves so they, while riding the guns of the U.S., can assault and swarm into Kabul…and as a consequence again spoil the aspiration of the people for the establishment of a stable and democratic government acceptable to all. The continuation of US attacks and the increase in the number of innocent civilian victims not only gives an excuse to the Taliban, but also will cause the empowering of the fundamentalist forces in the region and even in the world.”
After the U.S. and its Northern Alliance allies quickly drove the Taliban from Kabul with a high-tech war in October-November 2001, it seemed that Fisk’s prediction was ludicrous. The Northern Alliance warlords and opportunist Pashtun politicians set up a corrupt U.S.-backed government in Kabul, which was never popular with Afghans. Today, Fisk looks downright prophetic, as the Americans blindly followed the path as the Soviets toward eventual stalemate and defeat. The U.S. war was doomed before it was even launched.
4. The U.S. war against the Taliban followed the Soviet pattern
Like the Soviets, the Americans believed that control over Kabul is control over the country, even though the insurgents came to run most of the countryside. They believed that aerial strikes by jets and drones (like the Soviets’ helicopters) would defeat the insurgents, when the bombing only alienated more civilians. Some believed that torture would help to crack the insurgency, when it only legitimized Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule. They believed that driving Taliban and Hekmatyar’s Pashtun insurgents into Pakistan counted as victory, only to have created a border safe haven for the insurgency. They were also manipulated by tribal leaders to attack local rivals, driving the (previously neutral) rivals into the hands of the insurgency.
Also like the Soviets, the Americans never understood that the insurgency is driven not only by Islamist fundamentalism, but also by ethnic nationalism. The Taliban represent the historical grievances of the Pashtuns who saw British colonists draw the artificial ‘Durand Line’ to divide their homeland between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As I wrote in 2009, “Every U.S. mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan functioned as a Taliban Recruitment Mission. More Americans are opposing the occupation not because they sympathize with the Taliban, but precisely the opposite. The longer we mess around in a complex ethnic and tribal environment we do not understand, the more likely it is that the Taliban will take full power.”
The U.S. war has been a humanitarian catastrophe. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, in 2020 the “Afghan conflict continues to wreak a shocking and detrimental toll on women and children, who accounted for 43 per cent of all civilian casualties – 30 per cent children and 13 per cent women…. The Afghan national security forces were responsible for 22 per cent of all civilian casualties.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-backed Afghan government has killed many civilians in air strikes, and still “failed to prosecute senior officials responsible for sexual assault, torture, and killing civilians.” Taliban fighters continued to abuse human rights and commit atrocities in their areas of control, which steadily grew through the years despite the 300,000-strong Afghan National Army, U.S. air strikes, and more than a trillion dollars spent on military aid and nation-building assistance.
Like in former Yugoslavia and Iraq, the U.S. interventions left behind large “enduring” military bases. Many of the largest air bases, at Kabul, Bagram, Kandahar, Shinand, and Jalalabad, were the same bases from which the Soviets launched air attacks on the mujahedin in the 1980s. These military bases are the epitome of the roach motel—they become a self-fulfilling argument for continuing an occupation: to defend the bases. The bases were not so much built to wage the wars; the wars are being waged to leave behind a string of new, permanent bases that would forever serve as garrisons (and targets) in this strategic region between the E.U. and China.
5. U.S. hubris caused the collapse of the puppet government
In its 21st-century wars, the Pentagon always planned to leave behind Afghan and Iraqi proxy forces that would “take up the fight,” much as it tried to do through Vietnamization in 1973-75, and Moscow tried to do–just as unsuccessfully–in Afghanistan in 1989-92. But it doesn’t matter whether the troops are American or foreign, if they are backing a corrupt regime that came to power through undemocratic means. ‘Iraqization’ and ‘Afghanization’ were doomed to failure.
Like in Colombia and Laos, Afghan government officials and the Taliban were locked in a struggle over income from the lucrative drug trade, which at the same time buttressed the rural economy for the government, and financed the insurgency for the Taliban. According to historian Alfred McCoy in 2018, “opium has played a central role in shaping the country’s destiny … The persistence of both opium cultivation and the Taliban insurgency suggest the degree to which the policies that Washington has imposed upon Afghanistan since 2001 have reached a dead end….[T]he U.S. can remain trapped in the same endless cycle. As snow melts from the mountain slopes and poppy plants rise from the soil every spring, there will be a new batch of teenage recruits from impoverished villages ready to fight for the rebel cause.”
The third fall of Kabul in 2021 has closely resembled the two previous falls, as well as the rapid 1975 collapse of the South Vietnamese army in Saigon. It’s not that the Taliban suddenly became military geniuses, but rather that the U.S.-created Afghan National Army fell apart, because the soldiers knew all along they were defending foreign occupiers and the corrupt politicians that did their bidding. The Kabul regime denied of U.S. backing was like a brain-dead patient that finally got taken off of life support: it expired very quickly. The last Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who had covered the 1989 Soviet withdrawal in the Los Angeles Times, himself quickly withdrew from his country.
As both Brzezinski and Bin Laden understood, Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” where you can most effectively trap and defeat your foes. Propping up colonial puppet regimes only highlights their indebtedness to foreign masters, and helps legitimize and strengthen Islamist insurgencies, rather than weaken them. Bombing civilians and ignoring the suffering of the poor only drives them into the hands of the insurgents.
As in other regions of Asia and Africa, Islamist fundamentalism and foreign occupation are two sides of the same coin. They reinforce each other, feed off of each other, and need each other. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Democracy and secularism can only effectively emerge from within a society, if foreign interests don’t stand in the way.