It is right that the Western troops are finally leaving our country — they should have done so much earlier. We cannot have a serious peace process as long as the Americans are in Afghanistan. We must build our country with our [own] hands. …The Americans replaced the barbaric regime of the Taliban with brutal warlords, and then began to negotiate with the Taliban, even though the nature of the Taliban has never changed. The Americans have thrown bombs, polluted the environment, made the system even more corrupt. They have never been interested in the Afghan people.
—Malalai Joya, author, activist, and former member of the Afghan Parliament.
In October of 2001, a few days before the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, I attended an anti-war rally in Boston’s Copley Square. As one of the speakers, I was appalled by the government’s decision to launch a war against one of the poorest countries in Central Asia where millions of Afghans were dependent on international food shipments. Having been to Iraq and seen up close the consequences of U.S.-enforced sanctions, I feared possibly worse suffering lay in store for the people of Afghanistan now that Bush Junior had given the green light to attack.
With the horrors of 9/11 still fresh in our hearts and minds, we were told that attacking Afghanistan was a just and legitimate response to al-Qaeda’s terrorism and to Afghanistan’s role in harboring the terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, one of the founders of al-Qaeda. But there were a few things omitted from mainstream coverage of the invasion and its official justification. Even in the present, I wonder how many Americans remember, for instance, that at one time the U.S. courted the Taliban, the rulers of Afghanistan from 1996-2001. In fact, in the late 1990s, when Clinton was president, U.S. oil and gas executives and State Department officials hosted a delegation of Taliban leaders. The purpose of those meetings was to convince the Taliban to allow a pipeline to run through the country. The Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAPI), as it was known, would transport natural gas from landlocked Central Asian nations, particularly Turkmenistan, to India. The most direct route to India is from Iran to Pakistan and then India. But the U.S. wanted to prevent Russia from getting its hands on the natural resources of Central Asia, a strategically vital region. (Whichever country dominates this region would have enormous leverage over rival economies.) The U.S. also sought to isolate Iran and restrict its ability to profit from much-needed supplies of natural gas. To transport this fuel to India and bypass both Iran and Russia, the pipeline would need to cross Afghanistan, and for this to happen, the U.S. would need the consent of the Taliban.
Long before the “courtship” began and while the Cold War was still in play, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security advisor, wanted to give the Soviets their own Vietnam. The plan? Concoct a strategy to lure them into Afghanistan where right-wing militants, financed, trained, and armed by the West, would accomplish what the Vietnamese had done in their struggle against the U.S. military. In the case of Afghanistan, a prolonged war against the Mujahadeen, (fundamentalist Islamic fighters) would surely sap the resources of the Soviet Union and trigger its inevitable collapse, thus ending the Cold War in a glorious victory for the West. Such an outcome, desired by both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S., would allow our most precious export—the “free-market” system—to flourish throughout the world, no longer hampered by the insidious spread of communism, the socio-political equivalent of the kudzu weed, or so its detractors might have imagined. Perhaps equally important was the chance to acquire unfettered access to the region’s energy sources, including oil, natural gas, and minerals.
Let’s travel a little further back in time in the history of Afghanistan: In 1973, Mohammad Sardar Daoud, a pro-Soviet military leader and cousin of the country’s last king, Zahir Shah, organized a coup that overthrew the monarchy and brought to power the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Naming himself president of the new regime, Daoud established strong ties with the Soviet Union and instituted a variety of Marxist reforms, particularly in regard to women’s rights. Five years later, dissatisfied communist rebels overthrew the government. They assassinated the president and the members of his family, and buried their bodies in a mass grave outside of Kabul, the capitol. The Afghan Communist Party came to power and claimed it would not allow the Soviet Union to influence the new government even though Daoud’s successor, President Nur Mohammad Taraki, remained on friendly terms with the Kremlin. But trouble was brewing in the countryside and among the more conservative members of Afghan society. They objected to political reforms and social changes that the former president introduced, and regarded them as anathema to the core tenets of Sunni Islam and the country’s deeply conservative traditions. And thus was born the Mujahadeen, a movement of anti-communist guerilla fighters locked in battle with the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan, which they believed defiled Islam and must be defeated.
In 1978, six months before the Soviets invade Afghanistan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, saw an opportunity to actualize his plan. In a note he wrote to Carter, Brzezinski persuaded the president to begin providing aid to the rebels “to induce a Soviet military intervention.” In December of the following year, his dream materialized. But covert U.S. interference wasn’t the only reason for the invasion. The Soviets mistrusted the new Afghan government now led by Hafizullah Amin, who came to power after President Taraki was overthrown and then murdered. Soviet forces entered the country on December 24, 1979, killing Amin and installing Babrak Karmal, a decidedly pro-Soviet politician, as president and some might justifiably say, “puppet ruler.”
Even before the Soviets intervened, the CIA, during the final year of Carter’s presidency, began secretly arming and funding the Afghan Mujahadeen. The program, code named Operation Cyclone, lasted until 1989 when Soviet forces finally withdrew. It cost billions of dollars (the exact amount has never been revealed). Weapons and money were channeled to Afghan rebels by way of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The cash was derived largely from Saudi Arabia and hushed-up handouts from Congress. During the Reagan Administration (1981-1989), the CIA, under William Casey, joined with the ISI to recruit radical Muslims from outside of Afghanistan to stand with the Afghan Mujahadeen. One of those initial recruits was none other than Osama bin Laden, an extremely wealthy Saudi more than willing to contribute his own money to the cause of fighting a “jihad” against “atheists” and “infidels” from the USSR, the “Evil Empire” —in Reagan’s words. Bin Laden (who may or may not have been a CIA asset) did his fair share of recruiting, convincing young men from places like Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan to join the fight.
In 1982, President Reagan designated March 21 as Afghanistan Day. A year later, he had this to say about the Mujahadeen fighting the Soviet army:
To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters [italics are the author’s] battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom … Their courage teaches us a great lesson — that there are things in this world worth defending.
By the time the war ended in 1989, an estimated 500,000 to one million Afghan civilians had perished. About 90,000 Islamic rebels also died along with 18,000 Afghan troops, and over 13,000 Soviet soldiers. The Islamic fighters who had succeeded in ending the Soviet occupation failed to maintain a united front in the aftermath of the war. Instead, competing factions, each with its own agenda, fought each other for political power in a devastating civil war. According to NPR correspondent Quil Lawrence:
Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks: At one time or another, almost every single faction fought every other faction. In the chaos, the [still-standing] communist government was able to hold on in the capital for three whole years after the Soviets left. When it finally came, the liberation of Kabul turned into violent mayhem, leaving the capital city in ruins.
The Taliban rose to power as the one group able to (briefly) restore a semblance of order and security. In 1994, in the province of Kandahar, they gained control of southern Afghanistan after defeating provincial warlords and their respective militias. By the late 90s, the Taliban dominated much of the country. Though initially welcomed by civilians, they soon revealed their true nature as hard-core religious extremists who followed an exceptionally conservative branch of Sunni Islam. The Taliban’s radical interpretation of the Qur’an justified, in their eyes, the stoning of women accused of adultery, the mutilation of anyone caught stealing, the destruction of non-Islamic monuments, and the execution of anyone deemed a heretic or infidel. The Hazara, a minority ethnic group found in central Afghanistan, has been marginalized and persecuted for well over a century. As adherents of Shi’i Islam in a predominantly Sunni culture, they are considered apostates by the Taliban. In the 90s while Afghanistan’s civil war was raging, one of the Taliban commanders is reputed to have said, “Hazaras are not Muslims, you can kill them.” And they did just that. Hundreds, possibly thousands of Hazaras were murdered by the Taliban because of their ethnicity and religion, and their unmistakable resemblance to their Mongol ancestors.
On September 11, 2001, 19 Islamic militants hijacked four commercial airplanes and used them to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil—the country’s deadliest and largest attack by a foreign enemy. Two of the planes brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; a third plane struck the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C.; and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after some of the passengers tried to wrest control from the hijackers. In the end, nearly 3,000 people died that day, including all of the hijackers. Fifteen of them were from Saudi Arabia; two were from the United Arab Emirates (UAE); one was from Lebanon; and one from Egypt. None of them were from Afghanistan. But all 19 were connected with al-Qaeda, a terrorist network with training camps in Afghanistan. In exchange for substantial financial support, the Taliban, still in control of the country, granted sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his followers, now setting their sights on the West and its leading imperial power—the United States.
Al-Qaeda, at the time of the September 11 attacks, may have been inspired by bin Laden but wasn’t necessarily under his thumb. The self-confessed “evil genius” behind the attacks is Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a Pakistani national who has been detained at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval base in Cuba since 2006 after being captured in Pakistan in 2003. By the time of his confession, Mohammad had undergone so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e., torture. While in CIA custody in Afghanistan, the agency’s own records reveal the extent of the coercive methods used on him:
He was subjected to facial and abdominal slaps, the facial grab, stress positions, standing sleep deprivation (with his hands at or above head level), nudity, and water dousing. The Chief of Interrogations also ordered the use of rectal rehydration without identifying medical need, but in order to assert ‘total control over the ‘detainee.’
In addition to these methods, Mohammad was also subjected to waterboarding. According to a report released in 2014 by the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Mohammad was waterboarded 183 times. However, an article in The Washington Post on 2017 questions whether the number given in the report “reflect the numbers of times water was poured on the face of a detainee, which could have been a matter of seconds … [or] the length of time on the board … set at a maximum of 20 minutes under Justice Department guidance.”
(A death-penalty trial for the alleged planner of 9/11 and other terrorist operations was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A new date has yet to be announced.)
On October 7, less than a month after the terrorist attack, the U.S. went to war against Afghanistan. In his September 20 address to a joint session of Congress and the American people, President George Bush prepared the nation for what was coming: “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
Earlier that month, Bush declared Friday, September 14 a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the victims of 9/11. After attending a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, he traveled to Ground Zero in New York. Standing on a heap of rubble, he began to address the families who had gathered around him. But his unamplified voice didn’t carry far enough. Someone gave him a bullhorn, and when the crowd shouted, “We can’t hear you,” Bush raised up the bullhorn and replied: “I can hear you! …The rest of the world hears you … and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
Missiles, bombs, and troops armed with technologically advanced weapons were the first words spoken by the U.S. and its coalition partners when the war began on October 7, 2001. Code name: Operation Enduring Freedom, a misnomer if ever there was one. We were assured by the press, the government, and even by respected voices on the Left that this was a just war. During his campaign for president in 2008, Senator Barack Obama often referred to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan as the “good war” as opposed to the “dumb war “in Iraq. It was also a “necessary war” which the U.S. had to win at all costs in order to safeguard the American homeland, prevent future terrorist strikes by al-Qaeda militants, destroy the entire terrorist network in Afghanistan, and fortify the Afghan government as a bulwark against extremists like the Taliban, which had sheltered bin Laden and his terrorist training camps.
We were provided with other compelling reasons for supporting the war: Aside from being a “feel-good” act of revenge for 9/11, the war was a justifiable endeavor that would show the world (and our enemies) that no amount of terror would ever bring us to our knees or cause us to relinquish the “enduring values” that have made our country an indispensable force for good. The war would finally bring peace and security to the Afghan people, who had suffered terribly under Soviet occupation and civil war, culminating in the repressive apparatus of the Taliban. While that group was in power, women were denied basic human rights and subjected to harsh punishment if their behavior violated the Taliban’s narrow interpretation of Sharia (Islamic religious law) regarding the conduct of Muslim women. The U.S. with its allies and the cooperation of an interim government would build a true democracy in this impoverished, battle-scarred “graveyard of empires.” And women would regain their human rights and rightful freedoms.
Enter Laura Bush, wife of the former president. On November 17, the First Lady delivered the Radio Address to the Nation in an effort to call attention to the “brutality against women and children by the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the regime it supports”:
Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. Long before the current war began, the Taliban and its terrorist allies were making the lives of children and women in Afghanistan miserable. Women have been denied access to doctors when they’re sick. Life under the Taliban is so hard and repressive, even small displays of joy are outlawed — children aren’t allowed to fly kites; their mothers face beatings for laughing out loud. Women cannot work outside the home, or even leave their homes by themselves.
It’s worth recalling that a string of Afghan governments aligned with or supported by the Soviet Union attempted to institute political reforms that would improve the lives of women. Encouraging women to become educated, to join the work force beside men, and to give up traditional dress, particularly the burqa, were part of an effort to overcome the patriarchal and misogynistic aspects of Afghan society. And it was these more progressive reforms that angered conservative tribal leaders. Their opposition led to the formation of armed militias collectively called the Mujahadeen. Ironically, Laura Bush’s father-in-law, George Herbert Walker Bush, while vice president under Ronald Reagan, served an administration actively supporting the rebellion whose leaders and foot soldiers opposed the liberation of Afghan women as well as the push toward a more just and equitable society.
What better rationale for invading a multi-ethnic, Islamic nation than to defeat the forces of oppression, liberate women from the intolerable strictures in which they lived, and eradicate one of the sources of terrorism—to say nothing of rising from the ashes of 9/11 and standing tall as the world’s preeminent, never-to-be defeated power. One of the first signs that America had taken the gloves off was Washington’s demand, in mid-September, that Pakistan stop providing food and other forms of humanitarian aid to Afghan civilians. It didn’t seem to matter that millions of extremely destitute Afghans depended on this aid for survival. Apparently, the strategists who planned the war must have decided in their “cost-benefit analysis” that the threat of starvation shouldn’t get in the way of prosecuting a “good” and “necessary” war. Here’s how the Old Gray Lady (the New York Times) put it:
The threat of military strikes forced the removal of international aid workers, crippling assistance programs … after arduous journeys from Afghanistan [refugees in Pakistan] are describing scenes of desperation and fear at home as the threat of American-led military attacks turns their long-running misery into a potential catastrophe.
That was no idle threat. The attack went as planned. U.S. and NATO airstrikes threatened to increase the number of Afghans in need of international food aid by 50% to 7.5 million. The ones who were likely to die from starvation wouldn’t be the Taliban. Not by a long shot. They would be the very same people whose poverty and prolonged suffering our intervention was supposed to alleviate. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and former president of Ireland called for a pause in the bombing to allow food and other supplies to reach Afghan civilians:
There are a few convoys getting in … but these are very little in the context of winter closing in on about the 15th or 16th of November. It is a very, very urgent situation … [A pause in the airstrikes] … would allow the kind of very urgent and widespread humanitarian relief to go in to all parts of Afghanistan … So you have millions of people, they say up to seven million at risk. It is almost like a Rwanda-style problem … Are we going to preside over deaths from starvation of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people this winter, because we didn’t use the window of opportunity before winter closes [that window]?
Noted correspondent and documentarian John Pilger was even more emphatic about the need to prevent unnecessary and avoidable suffering:
[The] bombing of innocent people should stop now … It is indefensible to kill [3,000, the estimated number of people who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks] … It is equally indefensible to be killing people in Afghanistan – or do we regard them as different? Is our regard to be concentrated on those who died and are we to forget all the others who die in the name of [fighting] terrorism? …
After two weeks of airstrikes, Afghanistan’s deputy prime minister, Haji Abdul Kabir, told reporters: “If the Taliban is given evidence that Osama bin Laden is involved” ‘and the bombing campaign stopped [italics are the author’s],’ “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country … If America were to step back from the current policy, then we could negotiate … we could discuss which third country.”
President Bush rejected the offer. There would be no negotiation and no end to the bombing until all U.S. demands were met. I suppose we’ll never know whether the Taliban leadership was telling the truth and if negotiations would have been a realistic alternative. Instead, the war and the killing went on and on and on for 20 more years. And still there is no end in sight. The deadline for the withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces and the end of the evacuation is August 31, 2021. But the violence continues, this time targeted at people attempting to leave Afghanistan. As of August 28, over 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members lost their lives in a suicide attack outside the Kabul international airport. The Taliban maintain they are working with the Americans to facilitate a safe evacuation of all those wishing to leave and were not involved in the attack. The perpetrators of this latest atrocity, a group identified as Islamic State-Khorazan (ISIS-K), appear to be affiliated with ISIS, or Islamic State. Both organizations are enemies of the Taliban.
Over the course of two decades, I joined with members of my local peace group in outdoor vigils. The signs and banners we carried expressed out opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the years passed, the number of folks who joined us slowly dwindled to a handful of real “troopers”—committed activists. As for the public at large, it seemed the consequences of U.S. interventions overseas hardly mattered at all as the “war on terror” faded into the background of people’s concerns (with the exception of families whose sons and daughters were deployed to Afghanistan or other war zones). What did it matter that thousands of civilians in Afghanistan were dying not only from the crimes of Taliban insurgents but from U.S. drone attacks and bombings, from clandestine raids carried out by U.S. and Afghan Special Forces into civilian homes, and from the degradation of the country’s public health services. As if these actions weren’t bad enough, the CIA armed Afghan paramilitary forces to assist the U.S. in its war against the Taliban and other Islamist groups. These CIA-sponsored militias have yet to be held accountable for “serious human rights abuses, including numerous extrajudicial killings of civilians.”
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Rhode Island’s Brown University embarked upon a “Cost of War Project” in 2010. One of the aims of this endeavor is to give “the fullest possible account of [the] human, economic, and political costs” of the U.S. “war on terror” declared in response to the 9/11 attacks. In regard to Afghanistan, the Project’s research team summarized their findings:
Prior wars and civil conflict in the country have made Afghan society extremely vulnerable to the reverberating effects of the current war. Those war effects include elevated rates of disease due to lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, and reduced access to health care. Nearly every factor associated with premature death — poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, environmental degradation — is exacerbated by the current war.
According to the researchers, “About 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. More than 71,000 of those killed have been civilians.” Now, with the possible end of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan within sight, the wild-fire return of the Taliban, and the flood of thousands of terrified Afghans risking their lives to leave the country rather than live under Taliban rule, a heated debate is taking place in the U.S. Should President Biden reverse his decision about pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan and instead do everything in his power to defeat the Taliban (once again!) and put in its place an interim government subservient to Washington’s interests? Or should we get out while the going is good and let the Afghan people work out their future without us?
I wish I had the answer. All I know with any degree of confidence is that 20 years of U.S. occupation has brought little benefit to the Afghan people. We see heart-rending images of frightened families clamoring to board planes at Kabul’s airport. We remember the brutality with which Afghan women were treated in the past by radicalized militants. We fear the oppression of women, this time around, will be even worse, and that Afghan society as a whole will be riven by conflict among various groups divided by ethnicity, religion, or both.
Of course, since the U.S. has done so much to destroy Afghanistan and bring even more misery to the people, we are obligated, I believe, to provide more-than-generous humanitarian aid and to safely evacuate all those who wish to leave. That’s the bare minimum we can do. And while we’re at it, we might question the story we tell ourselves about our nation’s benevolence and good intentions. Why is there so little space in this story for the suffering we’ve caused, abetted, or contributed to in places like Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Gaza? Where are the journalists and documentarians who will stand beside the beds of hospitalized children in Yemen and remind us that their wounds, their missing limbs, and their emaciated bodies are consequences of a war we support—the war between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, a strategically important ally and one of the biggest clients for U.S. weapons manufacturers like Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.
For that matter, why is there scant coverage of what our imposition of brutal sanctions has done to civilians in Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and other countries where “regime change” is the ultimate goal? Yes, the people of Afghanistan must not be abandoned. But neither must we abandon all those who have been gravely damaged by the post-9/11 “war on terror” and by a foreign policy that puts geopolitical ambitions over humanity.
A Few Resources
In response to the crisis in Afghanistan, Frieda Alfary, an Iranian American author, librarian, and activist proposes several ways for feminists and other activists to express their solidarity with the people of Afghanistan. They can be found on her blog “Iranian Progressives in Translation.”
Also, Afghan poet Aria Aber, who was born in Germany to Afghan parents, uses her Twitter feed to share information about what people can do to help Afghans. One of her tweets provides guidance for what to say to Congressional representatives. Another tweet links to resources for ways to provide direct aid.