Fri 28 January 2022

In the collapse of its $2 trillion 20-year war in Afghanistan, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives, Hasan Sari sees the last disastrous epitaph for US foreign policy

The United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan 20 years after its invasion of the mountainous landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia.

Washington, which listed ousting Taliban for harbouring Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures linked to the 9/11 attacks as the main pretext when rallying the world behind its invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, is now evacuating the remaining staff of its diplomatic mission in Kabul. CH-47s were carrying out shuttle runs between the US embassy and the airport on Sunday 16 August, while Taliban fighters were waiting on the outskirts of the Afghani capital for a peaceful ‘transfer of power’.

The Taliban are on the brink of total victory, officially retaking control of the country with no real fight in the provinces and barely a bullet fired in Kabul.

The US… built a rootless, corrupt and dysfunctional Afghan government that remained completely dependent on the White House and the US military power for its survival

It is a strategic reversal in a conflict that goes back to the late 1970s when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, primarily motivated by geopolitical interests in the region. In a bid to stop the Moscows’s communist expansion, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited and sponsored Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and its ‘Afghan Arab’ fighters, and other armed Mujahideen groups during the Soviet-Afghan War

Ironically, the two post-war superpowers – the USSR and the US – have both lost their wars on the same battleground of Afghanistan to the same rivals. But while Washington and its other western allies rushed to evacuate their embassies and consulates in Kabul and other provinces, Russia, which until today designates Taliban as a terrorist movement (though it did warmly receive a Taliban delegation in Moscow recently) announced that it would not be evacuating its embassy in Kabul. The Taliban promised the safety of the diplomatic mission “due to good relations between the two”.

The swift collapse of the Afghani political regime and armed forces speaks volumes. The US spent more than $88 billion to arm, equip and train Afghanistan’s army and police forces out of $2 trillion spent on the war in Afghanistan. Despite these staggering sums of money, the promises repeatedly made by Washington to assist Afghanis in building a new free, stable and prosperous Afghanistan were never kept.

The dramatic and unhappy end of the US military adventure in Afghanistan has triggered a great sense of bitterness and disappointment among the many Americans, NATO allies and Afghanis who lost love ones in a long and costly war. Yesterday, as they woke up to the shocking scenes of the Taliban rapidly retaking control of the country, it was as if time had only been on pause since 2001.

Since the war against the Taliban began twenty years ago, 2,448 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan up to April 2021, and 3,846 US contractors. 1,144 other allied service members, including from other NATO member states, have been killed. A further 20,660 US soldiers have been injured in action. 

The death toll among the Afghan national military and police is around 66,000. Former Afghani President Ghani, who left the country for Tajikistan yesterday, said in 2019 that more than 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed since he became president five years earlier.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), nearly 111,000 civilians have been killed or injured since it began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009. 

Initially, there was consensus amidst national and international circles that the invasion of Afghanistan, though it may have not have been legal, was just and necessary, aimed at bringing about democracy and liberating Afghans, especially women, from cruel oppressors.

But the United States, though it promised to create a developing and sustainable democracy based on political pluralism, an economy with national projects attracting millions of Afghanis living in poverty, and programs empowering the most vulnerable social groups such as women and children, instead built a rootless, corrupt and dysfunctional Afghan government that remained completely dependent on the White House and the US military power for its survival.

According to United Nations data from 1996 to 2001, before the war that toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan had almost completely eradicated opium. Under the watch of the US, the country has become the source of 80 per cent of global illicit opium production.

Despite billions of dollars spent trying to fight opium poppy cultivation, a 2019 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction described counternarcotics efforts as a ‘failure.’ 

After the US and NATO failed in this unique opportunity to make a difference over two decades, Afghanistan is once again falling into the grip of the medieval cult of the Taliban. Under its authoritarian rule, it’s unlikely the international community will be able to deliver much assistance to vulnerable Afghanis.  However, international aid efforts should still focus on the variety of social ills in Afghanistan, such as poverty, interethnic strife, inequality of women, and widespread thievery, kidnapping, and banditry.

To help those who face punishment from the Taliban for helping American forces, the US has negotiated the relocation of as many as 50,000 Afghan interpreters and family members to temporary places at two American bases in Qatar and Kuwait. The international community must also consider offering political asylum to hundreds of Afghani intellectuals, social activists, artists and journalists who exposed the brutality and extremism of the Taliban. 

Once again, history has made clear that the famous saying: “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires” is more than a cliché. In just two bloody decades, the US ‘War on Terror’ since the attacks of 9/11 has proven to be blind and disastrous. Every American military invasion was catastrophic and all their withdrawals were followed by a disaster. It handed over Iraq to Iran and “Daesh”. It handed over Syria to al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood militias. It handed over Libya to Al-Qaeda and Erdogan. Now it’s handing over Afghanistan to the Taliban. 

What a legacy!


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