The Road to Hell

The airport in Kabul–Afghanis trying to leave

I keep reading pronouncements by politicians and newspaper pundits, as well as comments by readers who state that the U.S. entered Afghanistan with good intentions (in addition, of course, to capturing Osama bin Laden). America wanted to install democracy, to build a nation, and to protect the rights of women. We failed because the Afghans are a collection of warring tribes, primitives who prefer a 7th Century theocracy. Unfortunately, a very large percentage of my fellow citizens believe the official propaganda, because they have no sense of history beyond the 24-hour news cycle.

The real story is nothing like this hogwash.

The Soviet-Afghan War

Our involvement in Afghanistan did not begin in 2001, but at least as far back as 1979. At that time a weak communist government in Kabul was being challenged by religious rebels. On July 3, 1979, President Carter authorized the CIA to provide around $500,000 in aid to the rebels. One of the objectives was to entice the Soviets to get involved. In the words of former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States government “knowingly increased the probability” that the Soviets would invade Afghanistan. Brzezinski enthusiastically defended this decision, saying: “That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap. … We now [had] the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”

Our early involvement was kept secret from the public and not acknowledged by many historians of the time, who either bought the government line or didn’t have access to classified documents. United States assistance increased dramatically once the Soviets did invade, six months later. We allied with such stellar democracies as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fund the mujaheddin and supply a stream of jihadis (holy warriors). This covert aid, during the 10 years of the Soviet-Afghan War, cost the U.S. taxpayers around $2.4 billion in cash and military equipment, including Stinger missiles.

The cost to Afghan civilians was between 850,000 and 1.5 million lives. Millions of others became refugees. Moreover, even after the Soviets left, the casualties continue and do so to this day. The country is riddled with land mines, most placed by the Soviets—per the U.N. estimate, around 10 million. They, and other unexploded ordnance, kill or maim more civilians and domestic animals than in any other country.

It should be noted that casualties of our invasions around the world continue as well, including Agent Orange in Vietnam and depleted uranium in Iraq.

The Soviets did not intend for the war to last 10 years. In February 1980, senior United States Foreign Ministry official Eric Gonsalves said, “What the Soviets want in Kabul is a government which would not threaten it, not necessarily a Marxist one.” However, U.S. policy was to keep this war going as long as possible. Eugene V. Rostow, a former Under Secretary of State, argued that it was “important to do everything reasonable to prolong and intensify the battle in Afghanistan” in order to weaken the Soviet Union.

The Taliban Rule

One of the jihadis who fought in Afghanistan and who started a recruitment and support network for the mujaheddin was a Saudi national named Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden merged his group with other Islamist extremists to found al-Qaeda, which carried out multiple terrorist attacks around the globe.

During the late 1980s, a group of veteran jihadi fighters residing just across the border in Pakistan had formed a new organization, the Taliban. Three years after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the government in Kabul fell, leaving a power vacuum. A violent struggle between factions ensued, and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, was able to take the reins of the country.

The brutality and misogyny of the Taliban is too well known to need further documentation here. In addition to oppressing their own people, the Taliban cooperated with al-Qaeda and harbored many of its fighters. Even so, we didn’t have a problem with them, anymore than we have a problem with the Saudi government for its cruelty and misogyny. We continue supplying the Saudis with the weapons they use to commit genocide in Yemen.

U.S. Invades Afghanistan

Al-Qaeda was responsible for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. Bin Laden was in eastern Afghanistan at the time, where his training camps were located. The U.S. demanded that the Taliban hand him over, but the demands were rebuffed. What we ended up doing was to bomb some of the training camps.

The official reason for our invasion, after 9/11, was that the Taliban refused to turn bin Laden over to the United States. On 9/13, Taliban leaders said they were willing to arrest him and try him in an Afghan court if we presented evidence of his guilt. This offer was ignored. At that time, however, bin Laden was in Pakistan getting medical treatment. He may or may not have had anything to do with 9/11, although he later claimed credit for it. The perpetrators were 15 Saudis, two Emiratis, and one Egyptian. Pres. Bush couldn’t go after our “allies,” Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Egypt. Afghanistan was the second poorest country in the world—an easy target.

The government and the media drummed up support in the usual manner, saying we were going to build a democracy in Afghanistan. In addition, we would bring women out of purdah into the modern world, with decent educations and good jobs. George W. Bush trumpeted concern for women to justify both his Afghan and Iraqi invasions.

Both the invasions of Afghanistan and (later) Iraq offered great opportunities for V.P Dick Cheney. His company Halliburton, and its subsidiary KBR, had been in a financial crisis. The no-bid no-ceiling multi-billion dollar military contracts it received turned it around from the edge of bankruptcy to one of the world’s largest defense contractors.

A good chunk of the $2 trillion that came out of your taxes went to the corrupt government we installed. Money meant for the Afghan military was siphoned off—higher level officers sold equipment for cash and pocketed funds that were meant to feed their soldiers, who often went hungry. It should be no surprise that their army collapsed. Nation building? In 2007, 34% of Afghans were living in poverty. In 2017, 59% were poor.

Overall the war has directly killed 171,000 to 174,000 Afghans. This figure doesn’t include indirect deaths due to lack of access to food, water, medicine, etc. America lost over 2,300 service members. I don’t have figures for the number of those permanently disabled, on either side of the conflict. And I’m not going to thank our soldiers for their service. I am very, very sorry that they—and all the Afghans—were used as pawns in the clash of empires.

The U.S. occupation did enable many women to receive an education and obtain decent jobs. Infant mortality dropped by 50%. But this year so far, there have been a record number of civilian casualties, almost half of them women and children. Now we’re abandoning those women and children, as well as most of the male Afghans who worked with us. Over 6 million Afghan refugees are living in Pakistan and Iran. Others have found their way to Tajikistan, Turkey and Western Europe. Canada has pledged to take in 20,000 refugees. The U.S. has pledged to take a mere 10,000—and at the time of this writing, had only taken 500. Still, due to enormous pressure from the American public, that number may increase substantially.

On balance, our good intentions were worth less than nothing. The real reasons for the war, the only reasons, were greed and lust for power.

4 Responses to The Road to Hell

  1. Connie O Byrne August 19, 2021 at 4:05 am #

    Thank you. Thank you for a truly honest, direct and blunt history and assessment of this mess. Of course, not everyone will either accept nor acknowledge these facts. Nonetheless, I am grateful for your words and your continued willingness to, as they say, “speak truth to power”.

  2. Esther M Newton August 19, 2021 at 6:52 am #

    Yes, greed and lust for power, but I also think that the US government was under enormous pressure to do “something” in retaliation for 9/11. As you write, Saudi Arabia was never forced to pay any price for the participation of their nationals in 9/11, just as Saudi faced no consequences of consequence for murdering Kashogi or for oppressing their women or for decimating Yemen, in fact “we” support them in that.

  3. Richard Koob August 20, 2021 at 1:59 pm #

    Canadian friends also told me that the US was protecting the poppy fields that supplied the pharmaceuticals – resulting in hundreds of thousands of overdoses in the US

  4. Mary McCarthy August 22, 2021 at 6:03 am #

    Excellent article as usual. And with this long, twisted manipulation of public opinion, now there is an opportunity for more. The Repubs will use the collapse of Kabul to justify their brand of fanaticism and misogyny.

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