The Official History of the Successful War in Afghanistan

The quasi-official history of the Afghan War has now be written by cable news house historians. Key elements:

1. The terrorist organization al-Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan at the time of 9/11 and so HAD to be destroyed to prevent further attacks on our Homeland. It was a “war of necessity,” as President Obama said as he continued it. The allied forces succeeded in killing hundreds of terrorists and driving al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. And there has not been another 9/11. It was a success. That’s the MAIN point.

2. The Taliban, the organization governing Afghanistan, had been hosting al-Qaeda and was/is itself a terrorist organization. It had to be toppled also, to prevent future terrorist attacks on the Homeland. The allied forces accomplished this goal successfully too, with ease, within weeks.

3. After being overthrown, the Taliban were unexpectedly resilient. They soon regained control of much of the country. More U.S. troops had to be introduced, to protect all the democratic reforms being implemented, and to fight a “counterinsurgency” war against the Taliban rebels “rebels” against the legitimate government we’d set up for them. So tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers were recruited, trained and supplied. This was another success. But the Afghan government was corrupt and incompetent. Our efforts to engender democracy suffered from the people’s unfamiliarity with the process of standing in line to vote for leaders when there were already ones in power. There was mounting contempt for our handpicked leaders like Hamid Karzai. Election turnout was low, the process was drenched in corruption; the 2019 result was contested and even the U.S. rejected its results. U.S.-style “democracy” never took root in Afghanistan.

Our efforts to educate women and girls were noble. But they were undermined by not just the Taliban but our warlord friends and by traditional fathers who opposed their daughters’ schooling by secular teachers. Our efforts to discourage the burqa were stymied when we realized most Afghan women had worn the burqa long before the Taliban came along; it was felt appropriate not just by the Taliban but by many of the U.S.’s allies in the counterinsurgency war. (We had perhaps generated too high expectations when we associated the conquest of Afghanistan with the liberation of Afghan women from “the veil” so vilified as a symbol of Taliban brutality even before the war began.)

Our efforts to train a modern army didn’t succeed completely because of the poor quality of the recruits, who were often illiterate (unable to read manuals), uneducated (unaware of the heliocentric system), addicted to the ubiquitous hashish and opium, extremely prone to desertion, and increasingly inclined to turn their guns around in “green-on-blue” incidents. Our troops had been told that they were giving the Afghans democracy, and couldn’t understand why the Afghans didn’t seem to want it, or to want them on their soil. We spent trillions of dollars to build a 300,000 man military. Then we were assured by the Afghan officers that they could repulse the 75,000 rag-tag, lightly armed Taliban militants. But the U.S.-trained government forces buckled, showing that billions of dollars and years of U.S. effort at nation-building could not win a war. We did our best, winning every battle, but Afghanistan was too backward to become a democracy like us.

4. The withdrawal was necessary (the expert concludes), because the mission was impossible. The organization of evacuation was flawed because we didn’t have the time we expected because the incompetent Afghan army tanked and crooked Pres. Ashraf Ghani flew off with millions. But hell, we got out 140,000 people in record time! Unfortunately, we were not able to bring out as many translators as we wanted, our beloved allies against the Taliban. Since they may be rounded up and charged with treason—just because they joined us in our fruitless effort to control their country and associate themselves with all the atrocities accompanying that mission—they may even be executed. More than having “U.S. ties,” many participated actively in our military effort to crush those who’ve now regained power. We feel bad for them, embarrassed that we can’t save all those who were loyal to us in the failed war to reshape their country. It is sad too, that so many girls getting an education, learning English, cherishing an American Dream, are left behind.

Oh, and sad too about that mistaken drone strike at the very end. The last drone strike of the war was first reported as a successful strike against ISIL-K. Then when observers contacted the press about what they’d seen, the U.S. military was obliged to admit it had been a mistake, killing 7 children, in broad daylight in downtown Kabul. It almost raises questions about how many of the “combatants” killed in drone strikes in less well-observed locations over twenty years were really innocent parents and kids.

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So the four components of this postwar apologetic are:

(1) justification for the ancient assault on the Bora Bora camp that eliminated al-Qaeda in Afghanistan;
(2) validation for the separate 20-year war against the Afghani “insurgency” based on the initial (ignorant) conflation of (the Arab-internationalist jihadi terror group) al-Qaeda and the (Pashtun-nationalist, Sunni-fundamentalist, xenophobic) Taliban;
(3) attribution of the U.S. failure to remold the country as planned to the ethnic and cultural characteristics of the Afghan people; and
(4) remorse that the withdrawal was botched (mostly due to Afghan incompetence) such that tens of thousands of Afghans wanting to leave on evacuation flights were unable to do so.

No rethinking, No self-criticism. No regrets about the initial invasion; indeed, the media is back to calling the Taliban “terrorists” thus reminding us of the vapidity of that term as deployed (awarded and retracted) by the U.S. in general. No questioning of the right of the U.S. to topple a government and occupy a country because a terrorist with a few hundred militants living at a remote site had attacked the U.S. No mention—of course!—about how longtime post-Taliban president Hamid Karzai was hand-picked at the U.S.-sponsored Loya Jirga (by U.S. envoy and Paul Wolfowitz protégé Zalmay Kalilzad ) over the popular favorite, the former king. No mention of how U.S. plans for Afghanistan (like those later for Iraq) were rooted in U.S. ignorance of both societies.

More than just ignorance. Ignorance of the consequences of ignorance. (Once asked as a political candidate George W. Bush was asked what he wanted “History” to record about him. “History?” smirked the one-time Yale history major, who had graduated with a C average, “We’ll all be dead!”) The U.S. never saw the need to study the history, the context, whether of Afghanistan or Iraq: the point was to use bombs, house raids, firefights, sheer terror, alongside trillions of dollars to build roads, bridges, schools, industries that any normal person would welcome! Why would people be resentful? What could go wrong?

Such were the depths of ignorance of the invaders, if they were ever serious in their expectations. (I do recall John Bolton was hoping in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion that any new puppet regime would recognize Israel!)

Whatever gave them the idea that with the fall of the Taliban women and girls would flock to schools, learning to read and write as they did in the 1980s, when the Soviet-backed government actually brought up female literacy significantly, especially in Kabul where the burqa became rare and women could walk the streets uncovered.? (As you recall the Soviets withdrew in 1989, “evacuating” thousands of Afghans including these educated women who now perhaps like in Uzbekistan.) Did they not understand that the Taliban aside, Afghan society is extraordinarily conservative, tribal, and patriarchal? And that fathers and brothers have been raised in a system that encourages them to control their female relatives, restrain their ambitions, protect them from heresy and temptation? And that warlords the U.S. was partnering with were deeply misogynistic? The U.S. Occupiers were clueless about Afghan society, Afghan realities. Is it any wonder fine schools were built, just to be torched?

And what the hell made them think that they could build a modern 300,000 strong Afghan military? Those bemoaning the abandonment of the girls’ education project should give some thought to the issue of boys’ education in the country. The foreigners failed to instill morale, or even give the troops a clear cause to fight for, other than to repress the Taliban. Yes, they could attract such loyal allies as the translators appearing in cable TV interviews recently; they all have their American dreams. We don’t see interviews with the rank and file government troops that turned over their guard posts cordially to the Talibs, hoping there will finally be real peace.

I recall seeing a poll ten years after the end of the Vietnam War, asking, “Was the Vietnam War a heroic cause, or a mistake?” I thought at the time that one could as well ask: “Was the Nazi invasion of Russia a heroic cause, or a mistake?” Neither of the above, obviously. Both were crimes against peace and humanity.

The official assessment is that the Afghan War was a heroic cause (how could it not have been, it was waged by the USA!), its main goals were achieved. But it was a mistake to rely on Afghan leadership, to tolerate its investment in the opium trade, It was a mistake to expect to mold illiterate low-motivated troops into a modern army. It was perhaps a mistake to think the U.S. could transform traditional Afghan ideas about gender overnight. (But this is what the official assessment highlights: the transcendent goodness of the U.S. campaign to educate and liberate Afghan women!)

The official assessment says nothing about how the Taliban and al Qaeda were fundamentally dissimilar; how the Taliban swept to power after bin Laden was already secure in his camp in 1996; how the relationship with bin Laden expressed Pashtunwali hospitality and recognition of bin Laden’s role in the anti-Soviet war rather than solidarity with international jihad. It downplays the fact that bin Laden and many other al-Qaeda leaders escaped Afghanistan to Pakistan, and that the al-Qaeda killed in Afghanistan were in the low hundreds. But the emerging official history counts the bombing of Tora Bora as a win.

The official history still also sees the 2001 toppling of the Taliban as a victory, even though the Taliban left the cities voluntarily after clerics and elders advised them to do so to avoid civilian bombing deaths. And they never disappeared; indeed, they won in the end. This was an abject defeat, like Vietnam. And, like Vietnam, a crime against humanity.

That’s the real recent history of the U.S. in Afghanistan, in a nutshell. But lest the masses dwell on the criminality and shamefulness of it all, and the disastrous region-wide regime-change project that has followed, the expert commentators focus of the sad plight of the schoolgirls and the translators who are now unable to leave their country. We are informed that the schoolgirls will be denied further education, even though the Taliban has stated girls will be able to attend schools through a certain level; we are in any case urged to believe the worst, because it makes the Taliban seem that much worse, and somehow better justifies the long U.S. war against them.

Translators we’re told need to get out because the Taliban will kill them. I do not know this is the case; I would think some might have skills the Taliban can use. But even if they were to systematically punish collaborators, did not the French resistance do so to citizens cooperating with the German invader? We keep hearing about how the translators “worked for us,” “sided with America,” as these are good things in themselves. Those who note the translators’ service cannot see the war and occupation as a crime and thus cooperation with the invader criminal as well—surely in the eyes of many of the people (not just necessarily the Taliban) of Afghanistan. Thus withdrawal is followed by self-righteousness, self-congratulation, regret at our allies’ interminable incompetence and failure to implement the democracy we gave them, and praise for the efficiency and humanity of the final mission.

But then there was (as I wrote this) CENTPAC chief. Gen McKenzie acknowledging that the final drone strike launched by the U.S. (on a Kabul target, Aug. 28) killed 10 civilians including seven children. The military had earlier announced a successful strike against terrorists threatening the evacuation. In the last couple years, drone strikes in Afghanistan greatly intensified and the death toll soared. There have been numerous reports about drone strikes killing civilians in the hinterland, easy to deny. But this attack had been in Kabul, in the clear light of day, caught on multiple cameras. McKenzie had to ‘fess up under the circumstances.

But oh, how totally appropriate that the crime end there, with a public apology by the top brass for doing something it was doing from October 2001: killing innocent civilians for no good reason.

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu