Looking back on the history of Afghanistan

Photo by Blake Israel

On Aug. 30 at 3:17 p.m., the last C-17 full of Americans left Kabul and Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie announced, “the completion of our mission in Afghanistan.”

Over the course of the last year, in a deal orchestrated by President Trump and carried out by President Biden, the US withdrew from Afghanistan. Taliban troops conquered ceded provinces with ease, capturing cities without firing a shot. On Sept. 11, 2001, Afghanistan was ruled entirely by the Taliban; on Sep. 11, 2021, it was once again. What do we leave behind?

To many, this is the end of a period of American oppression in Afghanistan. They are not entirely wrong. The very last drone strike in Afghanistan, in retaliation to an ISIS-K bombing at the Kabul airport that killed over 50 people, killed ten people, 7 of them children, in an attempt to prevent a potential car bomb being loaded with unidentified devices.

They were water bottles. This was not the only such tragedy during the war. In addition to the many other victims of miscalculated drone strikes, torture (“enhanced interrogation”) was prevalent, and American alliances with brutal regional warlords killed many and heightened Taliban sympathies.

Some would go one step further and suggest that the entire situation in Afghanistan can be attributed to American funding of mujahideen fighters during the brutal Soviet occupation in the 1980s, citing these groups as precursors to the Taliban. This accusation is wrong in my opinion, or at least only partly true.

After the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Mullah Omar and some other former mujahideen founded the Taliban in 1994, recruiting young refugees in Pakistan radicalized by Saudi madrassas.

The Taliban went on to overthrow the mujahideen-formed government, with some joining them but many more fleeing to form the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Thus, to consider the two groups one and the same is as offensive as to paint the French Resistance as Nazi collaborators.

That misconception aside, it is nevertheless clear that the American occupation was filled with atrocities and cruelty. But it was not merely a 20-year exercise in butchery.

The Taliban was a fundamentalist terrorist organization known for keeping women under effective house arrest, forcing religious minorities like Hindus and Sikhs to wear yellow labels, and banning basic self-expression like music under pain of death.

Public executions and dismemberment were common.

Ever since the US drove back the Taliban from Afghanistan’s urban areas, the people of Kabul, Kandahar, Mazhar-i-Sharif and many other cities have had the opportunity to enjoy new freedoms. Phrases like “American University at Kabul” and “Afghan Women’s Robotics Team” would have sounded absurd back in 2001.

Yet, for an entire generation of Afghans, they were merely a part of daily life. Those days are gone now.

The War in Afghanistan began with a demand that the Taliban hand over bin Laden; when it was not met, the United States overthrew the Taliban with the help of the Northern Alliance and began the process of nation-building.

The newly formed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was a deeply flawed democracy where bureaucracy ran on bribes. Minorities perceived it to be partial to the Pashtun ethnic group.

Furthermore, it only had power in the cities; many rural areas remained under Taliban control, where they waited to strike back, ensuring this government collapsed during the American withdrawal.

But did this swift collapse signify a need for a longer occupation to strengthen the fledgling government, or that the venture was doomed from the start, and we should have left earlier?

Across the political spectrum, the answer is the latter. President Biden certainly thinks so, as did his chief opponent to the left, Senator Sanders. On the right, it was former President Trump who started the process that Biden completed.

Aside from a handful of exceptions — Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya — in the post-communist, post domino-theory world, the appetite for foreign interventions that are based not on ending an impending threat to the United States, but on “spreading freedom,” has disappeared.

When looking at America’s most successful interventions abroad, save for Germany and Japan following World War II, very little actual nation-building was done by the military.

Kuwait and Korea saw previous governments returned to power after an invasion.

Bosnia and Kosovo, though subsumed by first Yugoslavia, then an attempt by Serbia, had strong national identities; even Libya and Iraq, previously strong centralized nations led by a dictator, stumbled into civil disunity and are still now nearly failed states. Afghanistan, barely a nation since the communist coup in 1978 and subsequent Soviet occupation, never stood a chance.

Victory in Afghanistan would have consisted of sending in a much larger force to crush the last vestiges of the Taliban, no doubt with many civilian casualties, and nation-build or remaining in the current long state of violent stalemate until the Taliban were worn down.

Either option would be opposed by the American public, tired of the Forever War and more worried about China than a return of Al Qaeda. In the end, withdrawal was the only feasible option, though it could have been executed better. Yet when I look back on the Afghanistan of the last twenty years — an Afghanistan that was corrupt, urban-centric, unequal, but had hope for a brighter future — and then see the current Afghanistan, an Afghanistan where universities are being burned and journalists hunted, I cannot help but wish otherwise.