I apologize in advance. In this blog, I focus on disastrous United States military action and not on the horrors suffered by the Afghani people, in the past, present, and future. United States imperialist action in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; United States efforts to isolate and punish the people of Cuba and Venezuela; drone wars in Africa and the Middle East; continued American support for undemocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Honduras, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, and Pakistan; and United States military assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan have victimized hundreds of millions of people, destabilized vast regions of the planet, enriched merchants of war, undermined American credibility at home and abroad, and created an enormous budget deficit in this country.
In the 1987 movie The Princess Bride, Vizzini, a Sicilian assassin, warns Wesley, also known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders — the most famous of which is, ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia.’”
The United States really fell into that classic blunder when it ignored 19th century British debacles during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1843) and Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878 - 1880) and it pretended it could avoid the fate of the Soviet Union in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1988). A 1979 internal memo to the Soviet Union’s governing Politburo explained why “nation building” by the Soviet Union or the United States was doomed to failure. The reactionary forces described in the memo are now known as the Taliban.
“The Afghan reactionary forces are very skillfully taking advantage of the almost complete illiteracy of the population, complex international and intertribal conflicts, religious fanaticism and nationalism. Subversive actions, sabotage and the resistance of the overthrown class of exploiters are deepening the economic problems, lowering industrial and agricultural output, as well as hampering business activity, raising prices and reducing the influx of revenue into the state budget . . . The actions of reactionary forces, which are at present headed by Muslim leaders, who rely on the ‘Muslim Brothers’ organization, have banded together on the basis of their common negative relation to the new order in separatist and nationalist groupings.”
The memo warned the Politburo that “The use of Soviet troops in repressing the Afghan counterrevolution would seriously damage the international authority of the USSR . . . In addition, the use of Soviet troops would reveal the weakness of the Taraki government and would widen the scope of the counterrevolution both domestically and abroad, bringing the attack of anti-governmental forces to a much higher level.”
In his 2010 memoir Decision Points, former President George W. Bush tried to justify the 2001 decision to invade Afghanistan and the prolonged war that followed what he and his advisors had anticipated would be a quick military intervention. This was not just about revenge for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or a strategy to kill Osama bin Laden and destroy Al-Qaeda.
According to Bush’s ghostwriting team, no one thinks he actually wrote the book, “Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better. We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society. The terrorist took refuge in places of chaos, despair, and repression. A democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists” (205).
Later in the text, Bush acknowledged that the “task turned out to be more daunting than I anticipated,” in part because “Our government was not prepared for nation building.” He came to realize that it would take “many years to complete the work” (220). Bush, never known to be introspective, did not anticipate it would take 20 years until the United States acknowledged the failure of its nation-building policies, withdrew its troops, and then watched the rapid collapse of its puppet government based in the capital city of Kabul and the government’s U.S. trained and paid armed forces.
The nation-building task was “more daunting “ than Bush and his advisors anticipated because of their ignorance about Afghanistan and because they apparently never consulted either Wikipedia or the CIA World Factbook. It is a mountainous region of tribes, clans, and linguistic groups, with millions of people who have little connection to those outside of their locality or village. The constitution of Afghanistan, created in 2004 under U.S, auspices, recognizes fourteen major ethno-linguistic groups. The largest group is the Pashtun who make up almost half of the population of Afghanistan and are the dominate group in the Taliban. They speak the Pashto language and are themselves divided into almost distinct 400 tribes and clans. Millions of Pashtun also live in neighboring Pakistan because of artificial national boundaries established by the British when they essentially created Afghanistan in the 19th century as a buffer between their south Asian colonies an expanding Russian Empire. The British installed a Pashtun leader as the ruler of all of the area they designated as Afghanistan. Much of U.S. support came from smaller ethno-linguistic groups that have historically resisted Pashtun rule.
If only the Bush Administration in 2001 or policy makers in the Obama and Trump Administrations had watched the movie The Princess Bride or had access to the Soviet Politburo memo. Because of my superior Internet skills, I found it, translated from Russian to English, on the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Apparently, the memo, “Our Future Policy in Connection with the Situation in Afghanistan,” became available to the public in 1993.
As the puppet Kabul government and its military forces imploded, United States intelligence agencies and military officials continued to misunderstand the depth of the U.S. Afghan failure, the strength of the Taliban, and the immediacy of a Taliban take-over. Twenty years of rosy predictions continued up until the last moments making inevitable the final frenzied U.S. exit, the Afghani President skipping town, and the panic that ensued as Afghanis who worked for the U.S. and its allies tried to flee.
As President Biden made clear in a speech to the American public, in the end, “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces . . . there is no chance that 1 year — 1 more year, 5 more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.” In his speech, Biden claimed “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy,” which we know from the Bush memoir, is not exactly accurate. Curiously, but not surprisingly, some of the same politicians who long advocated for the disastrous Afghan policy and then supported Donald Trump’s call to withdraw U.S. troops, launched partisan attacks on Biden for mishandling the withdrawal, as if there could have been some other outcome.
After the diplomatic, military, and human disaster in Afghanistan, maybe a constitutional qualification for becoming President of the United States is that a candidate should be a certified historian. The American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historian could review all candidates the way legal organizations review potential judicial appointments.
Here is some historical background on Afghanistan that might be useful to President Biden, his advisers, and members of the House and Senate. It is intended for high school students, but maybe they will find it helpful.
In what was known at the time as the “Great Game,” the British competed with the Russian Empire under the leadership of Czar Alexander for influence in Central Asia. In 1839 the British General William Elphinstone led an East India Company army of 16,500 soldiers and an additional 38,000 camp followers from India into Afghanistan. Their goal was to prevent a possible alliance between Afghanistan and Russia that would weaken British influence in the region and potentially threaten its control over India. The British captured the capital city of Kabul and forced the Afghan leader, Dost Mohamed, into exile. They then placed Shah Shujah, a pro-British member of the royal family on the throne. Afghanistan proved impossible for the British to control. In November 1840, a British official was killed by a mob in the Kabul market and his head was placed on a stake. Later, a British unit was forced to retreat back to Kabul when Mohamed Akbar, the son of Dost Mohamed, returned to Afghanistan with an army of 30,000 troops. General Elphinstone agreed to evacuate Kabul in exchange for promised safe passage to Jalalabad, a city about one hundred miles east of Kabul, that was close to the Indian border, the Khyber Pass, and the railhead in Peshawar. The British force fled through snow covered mountain passes for about twenty miles until it reached the Kabul Gorge where it was attacked by Afghan tribesmen. Camp followers, many of whom were Indian women, were abandoned by the British and massacred by the Afghans. Elphinstone decided the situation was hopeless and arranged for himself, some of the officers, and a group of English women, to escape. The rest of the British guardsmen were killed. At the time, the First Anglo-Afghan War was the greatest military defeat in British history. By 1843, Afghanistan has successfully reasserted its independence.
The Second Anglo-Afghan war was fought from 1878 to 1880. It was precipitated by Russian efforts to expand their influence in Afghanistan. Under the Treaty of Gandamak, signed in 1879, the British were permitted to open an embassy in Kabul and they were left in control over much of Afghanistan. However, soon after the treaty went into effect the British embassy in Kabul was burned to the ground and its staff was killed. At about the same time Britain’s 30th Bombay Infantry was attacked in the mountains by Afghan forces and 1,320 soldiers, including 21 officers were killed. In exchange for removing their troops from Kabul, the capital city, the Afghans agreed that the British could retain at least nominal control over the rest of the area.
In the 19th century an expanding Russian Empire viewed Afghanistan as a potential access route to the Indian Ocean. Its efforts to gain influence in the region were stymied by a British empire that wanted to block potential rivals for trade, territory, and influence in the central and southern sector of Asia. A legacy of 19th century Russian expansion into central Asia was that Islam was the second most practiced religion in the Soviet Union before its collapse and Muslims made up a majority of the population in six of the Soviet Union’s fifteen states. Concern that radical Islamic movements might challenge Soviet authority in these states was a major reason the Soviet Union fought to keep a secular pro-Soviet government in power in Afghanistan.
During the nine-year Soviet-Afghan War the Soviet Union and India supported the secular Marxist government while the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan supported the Islamist Mujahedeen Resistance. The cost in lives (over 13,000 dead and 35,000 wounded), money, and the credibility of the leadership, helped to destabilize the Soviet Union and was a major factor in the collapse of its communist government. In April 1979 the governing Soviet Politburo received a report signed by the Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, and head of the secret police. It provided a realistic evaluation of conditions in Afghanistan and recommended against sending Soviet troops to support the pro-Soviet government. Despite the report, seven months later the Soviet government decided to send troops into Afghanistan.
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