Is 20 years in Afghanistan long enough?

US troops on guard in Helmand Province. From the Washington Post.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Looming Tower (1) Lawrence Wright tells how a crucial miscalculation by US commanders not to reinforce ground forces in November 2001 as they launched the first thunderous attacks on Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden’s fortified cave in the Afghan White Mountains, allowed bin Laden and a vital part of his entourage to escape across the border and into hiding in the Tribal Regions of Pakistan.

This miscalculation, though not foreseen at the time, cost the US and it’s NATO allies dear. It’s not just the money; though President Biden didn’t shy away on Wednesday afternoon last week (as he announced the withdrawal of all US troops by September 2021), from saying that the drawn out war had cost ‘trillions of dollars’. Which, no matter how you spin it, is a helluva lot of money.

But money, in truth, is the calculable cost of any war. It’s numbers on a balance sheet, always written in red, and always in the debit column.

Because in war there is no credit balance!

But it’s the incalculable cost that is the real unknown in any war. It’s the incalculable cost that truly hurts. That does the real damage. The real harm. The long, lasting, irreparable damage that no amount of money can repair.

But there’s always more money, right? Especially if you’re American.

Where others kneel in their mosques and temples, American’s cow before the almighty dollar and find it impossible to grasp the fact that not everyone in the world wants to be like them. That not everyone wants to be American.

But once you’re dead. You’re dead. There’s no coming back. The US lost more than 2000 troops in Afghanistan alone. But in total the coalition forces (including the US) lost more than 3500 lives, from a staggering 31 different nations, as far apart and as varied as New Zealand, Latvia, Jordan and Denmark, to name but a few.

But lives lost, as tragic as each and every death is, are but one red line of numbers in the debit column. There are many other lines; most just as tragic, many with much longer lasting ramifications, that cannot be quantified. The red line is there, but in place of a number is an unknown. A question mark perhaps; or maybe just a dash, because the cost in dollars cannot be quantified or easily figured out.

For example, more than 37 million people displaced.

The cost? In aid, in administering and caring for these people, can perhaps be figured out. But what of the personal cost to the displaced persons. Their loss of mental health and well being, loss of income, loss of a home, loss of a leg, an arm, an eye? Loss of sleep! What about anguish? How much is the anguish worth? The tears? The untold, the unfathomable, the unreachable depths of despair and heart ache? How much for all that? For more than 37 million people displaced during the War on Terror.

The generations of Afghan and Iraqi children who have known nothing but war in their short, unfortunate lives. The women raped, murdered, forced into slavery by the hypocritical, Islamic extremism that utilises takfir (2, but see notes below) as a byword to legitimise and explain their particular form of chaos, death and destruction, all in the name of Islam.

The young men and boys pushed into the arms of Islamic extremists by the callous, indiscriminate allied bombardments that destroyed houses, the infrastructure, the schools, the hospitals, and took countless civilian lives, dismantling the mental capacities of the survivors in the process, opening them up to the twisted ideologies of the takfiris. Bombardments that breed the next generation of suicide bombers and broken, shattered lives to be thrown away cheaply against those who they are told are their enemies.

So, did that small miscalculation in the White mountains, that warrants no more than a line in a prize winning book, add up to be the biggest, most expensive mistake in history?

Or was the invasion of Iraq inevitable following the Afghan debacle? Was the War on Terror unavoidable because Rumsfeld, Cheney and others wanted the black gold that lay beneath the Iraqi deserts?

We’ll probably never know for sure of course. Because what happened, happened. And the likes of you and me are not qualified to judge whether such information is worth seeing.

And anyway, what has passed cannot be lived again no matter how much we might wish it, right? No matter how much the 37 million displaced persons may wish it; no matter how much the families of the more than 800,000 people killed during the War on Terror may wish it.

But we know now that that miniscule error, that slight miscalculation, if it can be called such an inoffensive name for what turned out to be such an offensive, revolting action, was just the first of many such ‘miscalculations’.

Poor planning, the complete lack of any cohesive strategy and only a vague notion of who and why they were fighting meant this conflict got off on the wrong foot and never found it’s balance. The Afghanistan Papers suggests that poor intelligence on the ground and an inability to identify ‘the bad guys’ hobbled the US and Allied Forces from the outset.

Shades of Vietnam methinks!

And aware of the distinct possibility of getting sucked into an expensive, unwinnable war, President George W. Bush had this to say to the Virginia Military Institute:

“The history of military conflict in Afghanistan [has] been one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We’re not going to repeat that mistake.”

Oh really?

Yet that mistake was repeated, not once, not twice, but three times by successive administrations who repeatedly pulled the wool over the public’s eyes in a bid to conceal the shambolic truth that the hubris of Bush et al couldn’t conceive that a bunch of Afghan country boys and misfit Muslims cobbled together into a ramshackle force could outwit, outdo and out fight the military might of the United States.

Yet they did, and they continue to do so. Not because the allied troops were incapable or were fighting poorly, but because they were constantly and consistently undermined by political indecision from the top, petty political disputes, the lack of a clearly defined objective and a poor understanding of what it was they were getting into the first place.

The Afghanistan Papers make for some shocking reading, to be sure!

Recent history should have told them that this would not be a straight forward endeavour. That same hotchpotch of a fighting force had taken down the USSR as recently as the 1980’s (albeit with US support), and indirectly lead bin Laden to repeatedly goad the United States into the Afghan graveyard where the Russian footprints still lay fresh and stark in the high mountain passes, where he swore to inflict the same humiliating ignominy on the hubristic US forces (4).

And now 20 years later Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, though both have departed this world for their own versions of Paradise, must be having the last and the longest laughs of all. The Russians were broken. Now the United States hangs it’s head and departs, tail between it’s legs, as the victory bell hails a hollow, pyrrhic victory that cost the lives of far too many and has won nothing at all.

The final shake of the dice was Donald Trump’s poorly considered decision to exclude the legitimate Afghan government (no matter how corrupt they may be) from the negotiations with the Taliban last year, a decision that has brought us to where we are today.

Trump’s unilateral decision to draw-down, and finally withdraw all US forces by May 1 this year, without consultation with their allies, opened the door for Taliban advances once again.

For the last few years the Taliban had been unable to gain further foothold in Afghanistan, primarily due to the presence of the US forces which had enforced ‘a costly stalemate’ on them. But since the Trump administration agreed to the May 1st withdrawal date in the deal signed with the Taliban last February 2020, and immediately pulled out more than 50% of US forces, the Taliban have made significant advances.

Writing in January 2021, the highly respected CSIS analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote that, ‘the only reason the Taliban does not control far more territory and at least some population centers has been attributed to the level of past support the Afghan forces have received from U.S. airpower and U.S. allied support, especially to Afghan ground forces.’

Furthermore, he wrote that ‘the Afghan forces are not ready to stand on their own,’ without continued and substantial aid from the US and it’s allies.

Thus, with the Afghan Police and armed forces in disarray, and operating well below their alleged capacity, a situation brought about by a rancid concoction of corruption, attrition and an inability to recruit replacements, the Taliban have failed to live up their end of the agreement made with the US under Trump.

No great surprise one might say!

The Taliban have prevaricated, and then once again pulled out of the agreed and supposedly ongoing peace talks with the Afghan government, and have allowed territory under their control to be infiltrated by ISIS cells intent on fortifying their positions, presumably to use as a base of operations. Though for what purpose, one can only guess right now.

And let’s be clear. The Taliban have no need or desire to accommodate the Afghan government. Why should they? They can see a clear route ahead once the US and allied forces depart for good.

As one Taliban fighter said, “This fight is not to share power. This war is for religious purposes in order to bring an Islamic government and implement Islamic law.” And whilst this isn’t their official line, the Taliban negotiators have made it clear that they won’t accept any sort of power-sharing agreement. They see Afghanistan as a Muslim nation, and as such it should abide by the Sharia laws laid down in the Koran.

One can see no future for the people of Afghanistan outside of Taliban domination. The country is set to become a haven for Islamic extremism. The Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban likes to call themselves these days, may well become a place for all like minded individuals from where they might take the ideals set out by Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam and turn them into some sort of hellish reality, a rabid infection they hope will one day become an epidemic.

Francis Fukuyama wrote (3) back in the heady, hopeful days after the collapse of the USSR (brought about ironically by the tribal warriors of the mujahideen who morphed into the Taliban), that the so-called Liberal Order would bring about the end of history.

Fukuyama was, as we now know, wrong, for a variety of reasons. Oddly, it would seem that the blunt instrument wielded by the US to bring about the end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR; namely the emergent Taliban, may actually be closer to the end of history than the liberal West ever was.

The version of Islam the Taliban peddles is timeless. There is no past beyond Mohammad, and there is no future either. For the Salafi’s, living the 7th Century vision of Ibn Taymiyyah’s jihad, where all but the most extreme, as designated by Outb and others, are deemed to be takfir, one could say that time has literally stood still. What they are bringing to the people of Afghanistan, once the the US and the allies leave, is truly the end of history.

As to whether it is the beginning of something else, something infinitely worse, for the rest of us, only time will tell.

So, is 20 years in Afghanistan enough?

As Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing Gust Avrakotos, in Charlie Wilson’s War philosophically said, “We’ll see!”

References

  1. Lawrence Wright; The Looming Tower-Al Qaeda’s road to 9/11. 2007.
  2. Shiraz Maher; Salafi-Jihadism-The history of an idea. 2016.
  3. Francis Fukuyama; The end of history and the last man. 1992.
  4. Lawrence Wright, Ibid.

Notes

takfir: is basically excommunication. As Maher explains in his book (see refs above), in its most basic formulation takfir is the process of declaring another Muslim, or group of Muslims, to be outside the fold of Islam. It is analogous to the Catholic process of excommunication, though there are fundamental differences.