The US ruling class once bellowed about a great civilizing mission in Afghanistan, one that would liberate women and build democratic institutions. By the end of August this year, Americans had been reduced to seeking assurances from the Taliban that they would not attack the US embassy.
The United States has spent $2.26 trillion on a war that, as of April 2021, had killed 241,000 people — 70,000 of them civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan — excluding those who have died because of disease or lost access to food, water, or infrastructure as a result of the war. Millions of refugees have fled Afghanistan over four decades of conflict, including twenty years spent under US occupation. At the end of 2020, 2.9 million Afghans were internally displaced. Nearly 400,000 more had been forced from their homes as of mid-August this year.
Conditions in Afghanistan could scarcely be worse. Afghans have a shorter life expectancy than anyone else on Earth, and no country has a higher infant mortality rate. Despite all the talk about how vital the war and occupation were to improve the lot of Afghan women, the country’s maternal mortality rate is one of the worst in the world.
Counting the Cost
During their time in the country, American forces committed one atrocity after another. In the first month of the war, the US military dusted civilians with cluster bombs. In those early weeks, US forces bombed, and largely wrecked, the same Red Cross complex twice in ten days. The second time, they used satellite-guided bombs to destroy and set on fire warehouses storing tons of food and blankets for 55,000 disabled Afghans. In both cases, the facilities were clearly marked as belonging to the agency.
A 2008 US-led coalition assault on western Afghanistan killed ninety civilians, including sixty children. An Amnesty International examination of ten cases between 2009 and 2013 found that “at least 140 civilians were killed in these incidents, including pregnant women and at least 50 children.” Another US air strike killed forty-seven civilians who were on their way to a wedding in Nuristan province.
In 2015, with the war by now in its adolescence, a US gunship fired 211 shells at the main hospital building of Doctors Without Borders’ (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) trauma hospital in Kunduz, the only facility treating major trauma injuries anywhere in northeastern Afghanistan, serving thousands of people. The attack killed forty-two, burning patients in their beds and decapitating and severing the limbs of staff. MSF had given the United States GPS coordinates for the center days earlier. Throughout the bombing, MSF staff called military authorities to try to get them to stop.
An American bombing in 2018 killed fourteen members of one family, including three small children. The next year, US air strikes killed 546 civilians. As the Afghanistan Papers show, the US government knew for years that it was not going to militarily defeat the Taliban. But US forces went on killing Afghans all the same.
The Afghan government that the United States was propping up has its own discreditable record. In 2019, its military helicopters killed at least seventy people, the vast majority of them civilians, when they bombed a mosque in Kunduz. The forces of the now-defunct US puppet regime sexually assaulted children many times. They were guilty of torture on a wide scale and ignored violence against women.
This litany of horrors does not mean that a Taliban return to government holds great promise for Afghans. Kabul may have had a “Saigon moment,” but the Taliban are not a movement like the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the American presence in Afghanistan was an irredeemable exercise, which subjected Afghans to dire living standards regularly punctuated by lethal violence.
Giving the USSR Its Vietnam
The US role in shaping Afghanistan goes back far beyond 9/11. In the 1970s, intelligence agents from the United States, Pakistan, and the prerevolutionary Iran of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi began supporting conservative Islamic groups that were trying to oust the Afghan president, Mohammed Daoud Khan. Daoud had overthrown the country’s monarchy and established a republic, with help from the Afghan communists.
The United States and its allies also worked to bolster right-wing elements in Daoud’s government, in a bid to tilt it away from the USSR. Iran’s Organization of Intelligence and Security of the Nation (SAVAK) provided weapons to Afghan religious fundamentalists who launched a failed uprising. Some of their leaders found exile in Pakistan, where they received considerable support from the country’s military intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
In 1978, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew Daoud’s government, fearing that he was going to have them liquidated, and set up a pro-Soviet administration. The Islamists and other conservative elements took up arms against it with Pakistan’s support. On July 3, 1979, Jimmy Carter signed a directive ordering US aid for the anti-communist mujahideen.
Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wanted to draw the USSR into a difficult and costly war: “We can give the USSR its Vietnam,” Brzezinski famously said. Moscow was initially disinclined to send troops into Afghanistan, but later fell into the trap and invaded in December 1979, when it seemed as if the PDPA government was about to collapse.
The United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia coordinated a massive effort to fund armed resistance to the Soviet invasion, which included supply of US-made anti-aircraft missiles. Tens of thousands of Islamic fundamentalist fighters from many different countries joined the war against the Soviets, including the Saudi Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later succeeded Bin Laden as leader of al-Qaeda.
The USSR spent several years looking for an exit strategy, killed many thousands of Afghans, and finally pulled its troops out of Afghanistan in 1988–89 — less than half the time that the United States spent occupying the country. The country’s government held on for another three years. In 1990, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev proposed that the USSR stop providing aid to the Afghan government and that the United States stop giving it to the mujahadeen. The United States refused and kept backing the guerrillas, seeking an all-out military victory instead of a negotiated settlement. This set the stage for Afghanistan’s brutal civil war.
When the Taliban emerged in the mid-1990s as Afghanistan’s rising force, with backing from US ally Pakistan — and with many fighters in the Taliban’s (and al-Qaeda’s) ranks having previously served as CIA-backed mujahideen — one State Department official suggested that Washington could happily do business with the new regime as part of the battle with China and Russia for influence in oil-rich Central Asia: “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament, and lots of sharia law. We can live with that.”
Indeed, US policy toward the Taliban during its first years of governance was concerned with an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get such a pipeline built.
Rush to War
The US government’s initial rationale for the 2001 invasion was that it had to bring Osama bin Laden to justice for the 9/11 massacres and oust the Taliban to prevent them from hosting international terrorist organizations. A week into the assault, the Taliban offered to discuss turning over Bin Laden in exchange for an end to the US bombing campaign. But Washington pressed ahead with the war.
This wasn’t the first time the Taliban had indicated they could be amenable to extraditing Bin Laden. According to a former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the group’s leaders had been willing to hand him over to Saudi Arabia in 1998 after the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Turki al-Faisal reported that the Taliban changed course after the United States fired cruise missiles at a reported al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
In late November 2001, the Taliban offered to negotiate the terms of their surrender. The Taliban were, as one member of the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time put it, “completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty.” Hamid Karzai, head of the new US-backed Afghan government, was open to a deal allowing Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar to remain in Kandahar under mutually acceptable supervision.
But defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s response was to say, “The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders.” The United States “thought the Taliban had gone away and weren’t going to come back,” according to Carter Malkasian, who served as a senior adviser to General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during parts of the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations. “We also wanted revenge,” he added. George W. Bush himself also described revenge as his motive for invading both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the imperial imagination, the Afghan war sometimes figured as mere batting practice for the invasion of Iraq. Hours after the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld urged General Richard Myers, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to find the “best info fast . . . judge whether good enough [to] hit SH @ same time — not only UBL.” “SH” was Saddam Hussein, and “UBL” was Usama (aka Osama) bin Laden. Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism adviser to Bush, told 60 Minutes that, on the day of the atrocities in New York and Washington, “Rumsfeld said there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq.”
But 2001 wasn’t the last time that the United States scuttled peace prospects. In 2003, the Taliban approached an Afghan government representative with a proposal that, given the effectiveness of the insurgency, would have offered a better outcome for the Taliban than they had been willing to settle for in 2001. They would give up their military campaign in exchange for immunity from prosecution and coalition attack, and the right to function as what amounted to an ordinary political party. But the United States wasn’t interested.
Seven years later, the Obama administration, after escalating the war twice, had contact with the Taliban. Both parties were internally divided about the value of negotiations. US military commander David Petraeus insisted on more-or-less-total Taliban surrender even though the group was now in a much stronger position than in 2001 or 2003. Meanwhile, the United States prioritized fighting to increase its leverage for any negotiations that might eventually take place. The two sides could not reach a deal, and the war ground on for another decade.
War and empire cannot solely be explained by the impulses and fixations of leaders like Bush and Rumsfeld. There were wider questions of imperial grand strategy at play in Afghanistan. Three months before 9/11, Reuters reported on a tentative Russian-Chinese alliance to undermine US influence in Central Asia, a region with “enormous energy and mineral wealth.”
Then there was the Iraq-Afghanistan link. As Adam Hanieh of the University of London argues, the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq “form part of a single war”:
The zone of territory encompassing the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the new Central Asian states is a single arc constituting one of the most important geographical spaces on the planet. This location symbolizes both the shared interests of the various capitalist powers — the systemic need to protect the Gulf and Central Asia from any challengers to the existing order — as well as the “Great Power” rivalry that simultaneously exists between them over access to the region’s resources.
Over the course of the US-led occupation, Afghanistan itself came to appear increasingly important as a potential source of such wealth.
In 2010, the United States identified almost $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in the country: as the New York Times observed, those deposits were “enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.” Seven years later, despite a drop in the prices of those minerals, the Times reported:
The lure of Afghanistan as a war-torn Klondike is well established: in 2006, the George W. Bush administration conducted aerial surveys of the country to map its mineral resources. Under President Barack Obama, the Pentagon set up a task force to try to build a mining industry in Afghanistan — a challenge that was stymied by rampant corruption, as well as security problems and the lack of roads, bridges, or railroads.
According to the Times, Trump’s administration, like its predecessors, was “tantalized” by Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which “his advisers and Afghan officials have told him could be profitably extracted by Western companies.”
Although Trump was reluctant to send more troops, he explicitly cited Afghan mineral wealth as a reason for the United States to maintain its occupation and score a blow against China, which had already secured a $3 billion contract to develop a copper mine near Kabul. After the collapse of the state established at such expense, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a rapprochement between Washington and the Taliban to make these resources available to US corporations.
Despite the chaotic scenes in Kabul, it would be an oversimplification to describe Afghanistan as an unmitigated defeat for the US ruling class. For some elements of that class, the war has been extremely lucrative.
Between 2002 and September 2003, the Department of Defense (DOD) gave out $8 billion in contracts for “reconstruction” work in Iraq and Afghanistan, with $2.7 billion earmarked for the latter. Bechtel, a firm with close ties to the Bush administration, and Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Dick Cheney’s old company Halliburton, benefited the most. Businesses involved in seemingly innocuous practices like publishing educational materials also got their share: in January 2003, Creative Associates International, a Washington-based for-profit aid company, received a $60 million contract for textbooks and teacher training in Afghanistan.
Oshkosh Corporation won a $12.5 billion contract to build nearly 12,000 mine-resistant vehicles for soldiers in Afghanistan. In 2011, Raytheon received more than $54 million to provide 300 sniper detection and perimeter defense systems for US forces in Afghanistan. On just a single day in 2014, DynCorp chalked up contracts to advise and train two Afghan ministries with a combined worth of $100 million.
The profiteering didn’t stop after the Trump administration agreed its peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020. In May of that year, Raytheon signed a $145 million contract to train Afghan air force pilots. Even in 2021, just months from the scheduled US withdrawal, the Pentagon concluded a deal worth approximately $25 million with Salient Federal Solutions for IT infrastructure in Afghanistan.
The DOD then signed a pact with Textron for $9.7 million in force-protection efforts, and Leidos secured $34 million to provide logistics support for the now-defeated Afghan government’s air force and the Special Mission Wing, a supposedly elite special operations unit. It is unclear what will happen to these contracts now that the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan.
This is a small fragment of the Afghan war racket: all told, the five largest US military contractors — Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics — saw their stocks rise by over 873 percent between the start of the US invasion and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, outperforming the stock market as a whole by 58 percent.
US forces and their allies are fleeing Afghanistan. Washington has controlled Afghanistan to a much greater extent than any other actor for twenty years, and this is the outcome: hundreds of thousands of Afghans are being uprooted and left without adequate health care or sanitation as the country faces an imminent food crisis. These are the ravages of empire, and they give the lie to any idea that American occupation was good for Afghanistan.
For the better part of fifty years, the US ruling class has chosen murderous violence for Afghans when alternatives were possible: when the country’s first republican government might have been left to govern; when the PDPA’s communist experiment could have been allowed to take shape; when the Soviets withdrew and years of civil war could have been avoided or mitigated; when a potential end to the war after 9/11 could have been seriously explored in 2001, 2003, or 2011.
Better still, the United States could have simply accepted that it has no right to determine who governs Afghanistan and permit Afghans their independence. Even now, with the war supposedly over, it appears that the United States is still killing Afghan children. This legacy — abysmal living standards and the murder of innocents — is what those who think the United States should continue to be involved in the country are endorsing.
There will be a lot of talk about what lessons the United States should draw from the Afghan fiasco — a faulty premise in any case, since America invades countries not because it is ignorant but because it is an empire — but few people in the Beltway will want to draw the obvious one: it should never have gone to war with Afghanistan in the first place.