Another forced scuttle
There have been lies and lies and yet more lies. Daniel Lazare savages what has been a comprehensive failure, from the ‘light footprint’ military model to the final humiliating pull-out
As I said in April, the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan - to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and deliver justice to Osama bin Laden and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives. That’s why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build …
This was Joe Biden explaining at a July 8 press conference why he was putting an end to America’s disastrous 20-year war in Afghanistan. Nearly every word was untrue.
The US did not go into Afghanistan to capture those responsible for the World Trade Center attack. If it had, it would have spared no effort in apprehending Osama bin Laden, once US-backed forces had succeeded in cornering him in Tora Bora - the mountain cave complex six miles from the Pakistani border - in December 2001. Yet, as a 2009 post-mortem by Senate Democrats makes clear, secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and his top commander, general Tommy Franks, held back because they were committed to a risk-averse “light-footprint” military model that was heavily dependent on local militias - themselves of dubious loyalty - and did not want to commit more US forces.1 Getting bin Laden was not the top priority that the Bush administration made it out to be.
Similarly, America did not go into Afghanistan to keep it “from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States”. It was already evident by that point that al Qa’eda was a diffuse network with subordinate branches not only in Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, but also in Hamburg, Germany, where eight of the most important 9/11 conspirators were based and which functioned as the operation’s real command centre. Rather than emanating out of Afghanistan, terrorism could arise throughout the globe, as subsequent events would make clear.
As for Biden’s astonishing statement that “we did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build”, the historical record is unmistakable: once it succeeded in decapitating the Taliban government, the Bush administration recognised that it would have no choice but to help put Afghanistan’s shattered political and social structure back on its feet. Indeed, the semi-official line in ‘the Blob’ - the network of think tanks and lobbyists who comprise the Washington foreign-policy establishment - was that America’s failure to build Afghanistan back up after the expulsion of the Soviets was the reason why the country would sink into anarchy in the early 1990s.
The line was more than a bit self-serving, since it assumed that the US had intervened in the 1980s in order to turn the country into something other than a reactionary hellhole. But the implication was clear: the US could not walk away a second time around.
Thus, George W Bush vowed in 2002 “to rebuild Afghanistan, so that it will never again abuse its people, threaten its neighbours, and provide a haven for terrorists”.2 Zamay Khalilzad, Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan, added in 2005: “For the past three and a half years the United States has been engaged with the Afghan people in an ambitious programme of state-building.”3
Biden sang the same tune as the chairman of the powerful Senate foreign-relations committee: “I’m reluctant to use the word ‘nation-building’, because it is such a loaded political term these days,” he said in October 2001, when US intervention was just getting underway:
But if we leave Afghanistan in chaos, it will be another time bomb waiting to explode … They’ll need to de-mine the most heavily mined nation in the world. They’ll need crop substitution programmes to rid themselves of the title of the world’s foremost producers of heroin and opium. And they’ll need wells, water-purification centres, hospitals, village clinics - even simple roads that link one town to the next.4
Crops, wells, clinics, roads … if this isn’t nation-building, then what is? Indeed, Washington would pour $133 billion into Afghanistan over the next two decades - more than it invested in western Europe under the Marshall Plan after World War II. While the money would fund aid programmes, infrastructure and military modernisation, it would also fuel a tidal wave of corruption that would leave the country even weaker than it was previously. This is why Biden is now rewriting history to suggest that nation-building never took place at all - because he does not want to be associated with policies that turned out to be a colossal flop.
An American president spewing out lies and disinformation - how shocking! But it is not just Biden. What stands out about the bizarre US experience in Afghanistan is the incredible irrationality of the entire enterprise from the top players on down. Even by imperial standards, it was insane.
This was not the case with the Soviet intervention back in December 1979, US propaganda notwithstanding. An Afghan revolution that was taking a disastrous turn had presented Moscow with a Hobson’s choice. It could stand by and do nothing, at which point the new government would collapse in fratricidal bloodletting, while an Islamic-fundamentalist jacquerie gathered strength in the countryside. The result would be chaos in a country with which the Soviets shared a 1,400-mile border, an Iranian-style Islamic republic (albeit Sunni rather than Shi’ite) or perhaps a CIA takeover. Or, on the other hand, it could send in troops - the upshot of which would be anti-guerrilla warfare on difficult terrain, for which the European-oriented Red Army was ill-prepared. It would also mean an end to détente and growing strains on an increasingly stagnant economy.
As bad as the choices were, Moscow recognised that it would have no option but to go for one or the other.
But what will leave historians scratching their heads for generations to come is the fact that the United States faced nothing comparable. To be sure, 9/11 was a shock that would have sent any government reeling. But, instead of a carefully calibrated police action aimed at apprehending bin Laden in his mountain hideout, the Bush administration opted to send special forces halfway around the world to overthrow a government that was only indirectly implicated in the Twin Towers attack, while allowing the real perpetrator to slip away when he was all but within its grasp. Since the Rumsfeld doctrine required heavy reliance on local warlords who were brutal, corrupt and disloyal, the ultimate effect was not only to allow bin Laden to escape, but to empower forces that in some ways were even worse than those they would displace. It is not easy making the Taliban look good, but somehow the Bush administration managed to pull it off.
Which raises an important question: did the White House want to get bin Laden at all? The answer is bound up with the twisted US-Saudi partnership, America’s oldest such alliance in the Middle East. Whether or not bin Laden had actual contact with the CIA, there is no doubt that the agency regarded him as a significant asset in the 10-year US-Saudi effort to topple the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. Even after al Qa’eda bombed US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, killing more than 200 people in all, US attitudes toward the group remained surprisingly complacent.
Conceivably, the disaster on September 11 2001 might have jolted Washington awake. It had relied on highly dangerous elements as part of its anti-Soviet campaign - elements that had then turned around and dealt its former backers a monstrous blow. Since evidence was mounting of high-level Saudi involvement in the attack, it was also clear that the alliance with Riyadh was overdue for a reappraisal.
But empires do not do self-criticism when they are desperate to maintain a show of strength. So the US suppressed a 28-page chapter in a joint congressional report dealing with the question of Saudi complicity, conducted a hunt for bin Laden that was no more than cursory, and then bided its time until it could strike out at a target more to its liking: Saddam Hussein.
It was rather like invading Mexico in response to Pearl Harbour, as Noam Chomsky once remarked. The war in Afghanistan was unwinnable due to the low quality of the pro-US forces among other factors, while the invasion of Iraq would unleash a nightmare of destruction in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. While 4,600 US troops would die over the next two decades, estimates of violent Iraqi deaths range as high as 208,000, with excess deaths from all invasion-related causes estimated at over a million. For Afghanistan, the relevant figures are: 2,400 US military deaths, another 1,100 deaths among pro-US coalition forces, plus as many as 69,000 Afghan military and police deaths and more than 47,245 Afghan civilian fatalities as well.
Biden then and now
While it is easy to blame the debacle on Republicans with their well-known contempt for reality, the fact remains that it never would have happened if Democrats had not helped pave the way. It was a process in which Biden would play a vital role as a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.
The party’s role is still not widely understood, but basically it can be summed up as an example of the obsequious ‘me too’ bipartisanship that is a Biden speciality. Unable to oppose a war against an Iraqi dictator whom Democrats had done as much as anyone to demonise, party members offered Bush a compromise: first deal with bin Laden before moving on to other targets. Afghanistan became the good war in Democratic eyes, while Iraq became the bad, even though a majority of Senate Democrats, including Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, talked themselves into voting for it regardless. When Bush, Rumsfeld and co allowed bin Laden to escape, they were too timid to say a word.
Biden turned himself into a White House cheerleader in the process: “I’ve been surprised and pleased the way the administration has handled this,” he said of Afghanistan just a few weeks after 9/11. “They have been measured, they have been thorough, they have been patient.” Bush would “go down as a great president,” he added in late October.5
He said in another talk in October 2001:
Our hope is that we’ll see a real stable government in Afghanistan, one that does not harbour terrorists, is acceptable to the major players in the region, represents the ethnic makeup of the country and provides the foundation for future reconstruction of that country … We need to deter any potential state sponsor of terrorism from providing support or a haven to future bin Ladens. We’ll work with others and try to help rebuild a politically and socially stable Afghanistan that does not export terrorism, narcotics or a militancy to its neighbours and to the wider world.6
Nearly every word of that forecast proved false as well. The US-installed Afghan government failed to stabilise, it failed to find acceptance among its neighbours - Pakistan would work steadily to undermine it - while poppy cultivation has risen a stunning 28 times since the US takeover.7 As for ‘terrorism’ - a catch-all term for freelance political violence that lacks America’s stamp of approval - it remains unconstrained. As Biden admitted on July 8,
Today, the terrorist threat has metastasised beyond Afghanistan, so we are positioning our resources and adapting our counter-terrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now - significantly higher in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
But it is always someone else’s fault that terrorism is spreading - that of the Taliban, of unreliable politicians in Kabul or of Islam in general. It is never, ever the fault of the US.
In retrospect, it is apparent that 2001 marked the start of a precipitous slide in American imperialism - a process that began with US intervention in Afghanistan and then moved on to the invasion of Iraq, US-led intervention in Libya, the US-backed proxy war in Syria, the neo-Nazi-led coup d’état in the Ukraine and the Anglo-American-backed Saudi air assault on Yemen. It was an imperial rampage that left death and destruction in its wake and exposed the fundamental incoherence of US power for all to see.
Biden’s Afghan pullout marks yet a further bounce downhill. Not only does it leave the fragile Kabul government marooned, but it also leaves the United States almost completely shut out of central Asia - a strategically vital area that Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey will now carve up among themselves. It is an immense victory for the Taliban, who can now brag that militant Islam has humbled the US just as thoroughly as it humiliated the Soviets in the 1980s. Although the impact on al Qa’eda and its militant offshoot, Islamic State, is uncertain, it is likely to provide them with a shot in the arm too.
The big question is whether the US will depart quietly from central Asia, strike out in another paroxysm of blind imperial rage, or perhaps stumble into an even worse military misadventure in the South China Sea. The only thing that is certain is that the Afghan crisis will prove more and more explosive in the months to come.
‘Tora Bora revisited’, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, November 30 2009: www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CPRT-111SPRT53709/html/CPRT-111SPRT53709.htm.↩︎
www.c-span.org/video/?166841-1/us-response-terrorist-attacks (quote begins at 12.28).↩︎
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/nbctext_093001.html; see also edition.cnn.com/2001/ALLPOLITICS/10/24/ret.hastert.biden/index.html.↩︎
www.c-span.org/video/?166841-1/us-response-terrorist-attacks (quote begins at 6.00).↩︎
UN Office on Drugs and Crime, ‘Afghanistan opium survey 2020’: www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghanistan/20210503_Executive_summary_Opium_Survey_2020_SMALL.pdf.↩︎