The War in Afghanistan is over, a few months shy of its twentieth anniversary. The longest running active conflict ever engaged in by the United States, the longest occupation of a foreign territory (that the U.S does not pretend belongs to it, or is a state) is over. The result? 140,000+ Afghans dead, a trillion dollars in expenditure, a brief resumption of the rights for women that existed before the toppling of the socialist republic of the 1970’s — and the Taliban, heirs of those topplers and those who controlled the majority of the country between 1992 and 2001, better armed than ever and in control of the whole country.
So. What was the point? Initially the bombardment was an effort to flush out Osama Bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, also due its twentieth anniversary in the next few weeks. They never found him in Afghanistan, he was killed by U.S Navy Seals in neighbouring Pakistan — a decade into the U.S occupation, and a decade before the U.S withdrawal.
Two decades. $87 billion spent on forming and training an army that, once the U.S forces withdrew, had very little reason to continue acting on behalf of a government that did not apparently pay them and did not supply them. Die for a government that doesn’t care about you, or take a cash payment and return home to your family.
Joe Biden has said that the Afghanistan forces were not willing to fight, despite the thousands of them that have given their lives — 3,000 in the last 18 months by some estimates. He talks of success in preventing Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base, and capturing Osama Bin Laden. Then says that nation-building was not part of the mission at all, which is contradicted by twenty years of reality, which has turned out to be twenty years of failure. The U.S will withdraw, and end the longest running war it has engaged in, with defeat.
So, now what? The forces who occupied Afghanistan over the last twenty years will attempt to extract some of their interpreters and contractors from the country, and leave many more behind. The Taliban are in a stronger position now than they were two decades ago. Whether or not they are recognised by nations like Russia and China, who have not closed their embassies or withdrawn their nationals, will matter hugely to how things develop within the country.
The Taliban have a stated intent of transforming the country back into the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that it was between 1996 and 2001. The potential President, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was released from Pakistani custody in 2018 at the request of the United States. They may have withdrawn, but what they have done in the last twenty years will continue to materially shape the future of Afghanistan.
The future for those who thrived in the decade or so of liberalisation, backed entirely by the presence of occupying U.S military forces, is grim. The roll back of women’s rights is pretty much assured, a return to the theocratic rule and punishments is already reportedly underway in many of the provinces now under Taliban control.
There has been much made about ‘the women of Afghanistan’, a haunting refrain which those who remember the same claims being used to support occupying the country in the first placed. If you take Biden at face value, then the U.S occupation was never about the women of Afghanistan, creating a liberalised society, or any of that — so they don’t matter. If you believe that he’s lying to save face, then it’s a comprehensive and complete failure of American imperialism to use their military might to impose their ideals on Afghanistan.
There is an alternate timeline where the U.S acceded to the Taliban Govt’s request in October 2001, produced evidence of Osama Bin Laden’s involvement in 9/11 and he was handed over to Pakistan or China by 2002. The Northern Alliance could still have been supported by western forces in their conflict against the Taliban, but the Iraq War becomes the only theatre of conflict for The War on Terror.
Who knows what that looks like, or if things would have materially changed how the last two decades have unfolded. It certainly isn’t beyond Western nations to establish economic and diplomatic relations with Islamic states, especially when it comes to supplying arms. These are irrelevancies, because what has happened, has happened, and it has been a disaster and will continue to be a disaster.
There is no bright side. There is no positive to be taken from this horrible event. Those who opposed the invasion from the start, on the grounds that it could not possibly succeed by any metric established by the United States back in those shell-shocked days after 9/11, who watched the mission transform into something inexplicable but somehow inarguable, there is nothing but sadness. For those who supported it, watching twenty years and a trillion dollars crumble in mere days — watching the illusion blink out of existence — must be shocking and confusing. After all, everything was going so well, wasn’t it?
Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. The British, the Soviets and now the Americans have all viewed the country as territory to be contested — for ideological, economic or military reasons. All have found themselves defeated, and the last two attempts by the Soviet Union and the United States ensured that Afghanistan has spent over forty years in state of either civil war or occupation. I have grave doubts that this will improve in the next decade.
The average age of an Afghan is 18 years. The war was older than them, but they must now outlive the war, while living with the consequences.
There’s little to do put push our Governments to help as many refugees as they can, bring them to a safe place and allow them to establish their lives here.
Everything that can be done, must be done in terms of international cooperation, to ensure those abandoned by the United States and the Government it had established do not suffer in Afghanistan while those responsible walk away, washing the blood from their hands.
Here’s some places you can help. Please donate.
Help families fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan
Nationwide I'm a New Zealand human rights advocate who lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2005-2008. I went to…
Afghan Women Safe
Kabul has fallen. The situation in Afghanistan is dire. In these last few weeks, as a journalist, I have been haunted…