Afghanistan, 21 Years Later

written by A. L. Hart Havens on July 1, 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has been hogging international media attention since February of this year, has earned the reputation in western media as the most heinous military campaign of the post-WW2 era. With this questionable narrative being projected in all directions by virtually every mainstream media channel, it is worth revisiting the 21st Century’s most protracted, destructive, and morally objectionable military intervention — the US/NATO-led war in Afghanistan. The 20-year conflict that ended in an embarrassing defeat for the US government — and which the media has been eager to quietly sweep under the rug — edges out the horrific wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria as well as the Saudi Arabian-led campaign in Yemen in terms of overall human suffering.

And although Afghanistan quickly faded into the background after the Taliban recaptured power nearly a year ago, this article will examine the pivotal events surrounding this conflict and will take a look at the state of affairs in the war-torn country today. More specifically, the article raises the question of whether United States and its NATO allies through their broad-based military intervention have indeed made America and the world safer from terrorism and whether they have handed the Afghan population the precious gift of liberty and justice for all.

The Graveyard of Empires

The events of September 11, 2001 marked a series of coordinated attacks that resulted in the deaths of three thousand people on US soil and which remain unprecedented in America to this day. With the American public in a state of shock, outrage, and sorrow, it wasn’t long before the US government had found a culprit in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government, and mainstream media quickly began channeling the public’s wrath toward this impoverished third-world country.

Curiously, the US government and media showed remarkably little interest in mentioning the fact that Osama bin Laden as well as 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian citizens and that not a single one of them was an Afghan citizen. The other four hijackers were from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon.

And while this glaring omission is certainly not the only irregularity surrounding September 11th that should arouse the suspicions of an astute observer (for example, the collapse of a third tower at the World Trade Center called Tower 7), this is a complex topic which is beyond the scope of today’s article. Additionally, the revelations of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden concerning the US military’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are too extensive to explore here.

The Taliban, which had emerged victorious from a four-year civil war (sparked by a power vacuum created by the Soviet withdrawal from the country) and had ultimately consolidated control over the majority of Afghanistan’s territory by 1996, wasted no time in publicly condemning the September 11th attacks and offering its sympathy to the United States.

However, in response to the US government’s demand for the immediate surrender of the Afghan-based Osama bin Laden as part of a larger ultimatum, the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, whose physical appearance at the time was uncertain as no known pictures or videos of him existed, offered to extradite bin Laden to a third country under the condition that the US provide evidence of his culpability in the attacks. The Bush Administration rejected Omar’s offer as well as the Taliban’s pleas for talks and negotiations, explaining that the terms of the ultimatum were non-negotiable.

Omar subsequently accused the US government of using the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for regime change. The Taliban viewed the ultimatum, which would effectively grant the US military access to any area of the country it sought to inspect, as completely unreasonable and continued to press for bilateral talks, but to no avail.

The US Senate, which at the time included Democrats Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Chuck Schumer, voted unanimously (98-0) to grant George W. Bush open-ended, undefined, and unrestricted military authorization to combat terrorism in Afghanistan and beyond. The House of Representatives approved this authorization by a vote of 420-1 (with California Democrat Barbara Lee casting the sole NO vote). Republicans and Democrats had finally managed to reach across the aisle and find common ground in the waging of a war based on questionable evidence and dubious motives.

While covert CIA action began days earlier, the US bombing campaign against Afghanistan commenced on October 7, 2001 and was supported by the UK, Canada, Germany, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. And a few weeks later on October 26 while the country was engulfed in a state of blind patriotism, George W. Bush proudly signed into law the USA PATRIOT Act (an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) after it had been approved by the House of Representatives (357-66) and the Senate (98-1), with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold casting the sole NO vote. House Republican Ron Paul of Texas also broke with his party and firmly positioned himself as a vocal critic of the unconstitutional legislation.

It was at this time that Bush and members of his administration like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Ari Fleischer, Paul Wolfowitz, and Colin Powell began issuing stern statements aimed at sustaining public support for the Afghanistan campaign and at pressuring foreign countries to get on board with the war on terrorism. Memorable quotes by Bush from the early days of the war include the following… “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” … “Thanks to our military and our allies and the brave fighters of Afghanistan, the Taliban regime is coming to an end.” … “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”

The war was assigned the official codename Operation Enduring Freedom (which later became synonymous with the global war on terrorism) and it was widely speculated that the rag-tag Taliban army would offer little resistance against the full force of the world’s pre-eminent superpower and its allies. It is worth keeping in mind that in late 2001 Vladimir Putin was only in the second year of his presidency and that China did not wield anywhere near the geopolitical clout that it does today.

Despite being severely undermanned in terms of resources, technology, and firepower, the Taliban proved to be up to the task, relying on a combination of difficult terrain, asymmetrical warfare, a virtually unlimited supply of fanatical fighters, and a willingness to incur massive battlefield casualties. This came in addition to the lucrative export of heroin-grade opium harvested from thousands of poppy fields, which provided a steady revenue stream that could be used toward the purchase of weapons.

Colloquially known as the graveyard of empires for inflicting heavy and untenable losses upon various foreign invaders throughout history, most recently the British Empire and the Soviet Union (which had briefly installed an Afghan politburo in the 1980s), the Taliban in 2001 was a battle-hardened force prepared for war with the United States and NATO.

The conflict started off well for the American side with a successful intense bombing campaign that drove the Taliban from power by mid-December 2001. This led to the Taliban retreating to remote mountain hideouts as well as to the US military establishing fortified bases across the country (like Bagram Airfield) and installing a US-friendly Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai. Few people at the time expected a protracted Taliban insurgency that would eventually prevail and reclaim power two decades later.

While there is not enough space in this article to cover the numerous battles which raged across the country in Kabul, Kandahar, Helmand, Jalalabad, and Tora Bora, the official death toll among the US-led coalition is approximately 3,600 (among which were 2,500 Americans) in addition to 4,000 military contractors. And although there are no reliable statistics on the total number of Afghan civilian deaths resulting from the war, some estimates place the figure at well over 50,000.

Bin Laden, Biden, Bob and Bowe Bergdahl, and the Bacha Bazi Boys

Two notable events that occurred in the immediate wake of 9/11 as the perceived risk of terrorism was at an absolute high point include the December 2001 attempted detonation of a homemade bomb on a transatlantic flight by Richard Reid (the “Shoe Bomber”) and the May 2002 arrest and declaration as an enemy combatant of US citizen José Padilla for his involvement in plans to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in a major US city.

Interestingly, Reid and Padilla are incarcerated at the ADX Florence federal supermax prison in central Colorado, which houses a number of infamous convicted terrorists, spies, and organized crime heads such as Ramzi Yousef (1993 World Trade Center bombing), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (2013 Boston Marathon bombing), Terry Nichols (1995 Oklahoma City bombing), Eric Robert Rudolph (1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing), Robert Hanssen (FBI-Soviet double agent), Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (Mexican drug cartel leader), and until very recently Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”).

Public interest in Afghanistan began to wane significantly as the prospect of a quick US victory grew increasingly slim and particularly in the lead-up to the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. And other than the occasional downing of a helicopter by a Taliban RPG, the war in Afghanistan had become somewhat of a mundane topic for the average American.

This monotony was briefly disrupted in May 2011 when the US military reported a brazen raid at a house in Pakistan that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. The media unsurprisingly used the occasion to praise the Obama-Biden Administration and to rally support for America’s continued involvement in the conflict. However, in the face of a prevalence of theories that the government had been concealing bin Laden’s death years earlier in order to maintain a pretext for continuing the war, the decision to immediately bury bin Laden’s body at sea (and in the process destroy all evidence that would allow for the corroboration of the military’s description of events) does indeed seem quite peculiar.

Further, a bizarre Afghanistan-related saga that began in 2009 involved US Army Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl walking away from his battalion in eastern Afghanistan and falling into the hands of Taliban-aligned forces. This reckless move would earn Bergdahl the reputation of a deserter and that of the most despised man in the military. Over the next five years, Bergdahl would appear in videos filmed from captivity in which he denounced the US war effort and demanded the release of captured Taliban commanders held at Guantánamo Bay, the detention camp that Barack Obama promised to close in his 2008 presidential campaign (but quickly abandoned the idea as president).

Significant resources were expended in the effort to rescue Bergdahl, which reportedly involved the deaths of six soldiers on a mission to find him. This came in addition to his father, Bob Bergdahl, undergoing a major life transformation that raised many eyebrows in the United States. Ostensibly in an attempt to build rapport with his Bowe’s captors, Bob pursued intensive Pashto-language study, issued public statements sympathetic to the Taliban, and familiarized himself with and practiced Islamic and Afghan cultural customs such as refraining from trimming his beard. Outwardly at least, Bob Bergdahl had completed a full transition from an everyday American living in small-town Idaho to an ethnic Afghan tribesman.

Eventually, a deal was reached in 2014 to hand over five Taliban detainees in return for the release of Bowe Bergdahl, who was subsequently court-martialed and dishonorably discharged from the military (but received no prison time). The released Taliban commanders (known as the “Taliban Five”), who had been held at Guantánamo without charges since 2002, now occupy important positions in Afghanistan’s new Taliban-ruled government.

Of all the death, destruction, and suffering caused the by the war in Afghanistan, the most sickening aspect is arguably the US military’s complicity in the widespread sexual molestation and rape of young and adolescent boys (colloquially known in Afghanistan as bacha bazi) by high-ranking officers of the Afghan security forces. When these stories finally hit mainstream media in 2015, most notably the New York Times, there was an abundance of damning evidence that US troops stationed in Afghanistan had been instructed by the military to look the other way even when these deviant acts of pedophilia were taking place at US military bases.

One particularly appalling case came to light in which two honorable and highly decorated US special forces members, Dan Quinn and Charles Martland, gave a high-ranking Afghan police commander a severe beating who had been keeping a kidnapped boy chained to his bed as a sex slave for several weeks. In response to this incident, the military enacted serious disciplinary action against the two US soldiers who had attempted to rescue the boy at the desperate plea of his mother. A deliberate policy of condoning widespread child sexual abuse by friendly forces apparently constitutes a key strategic element of the global war on terrorism.

The abhorrent practice was so commonplace among the US military’s Afghan allies that it actually became a significant security threat when the Taliban began successfully recruiting abused and vengeful bacha bazi boys as honey traps to kill hundreds of army and police officers of the Afghan security forces via shooting, poisoning, and other means, as the boys were allowed easy access to police and military compounds.

The 20-year adventure in Afghanistan came to an abrupt end in August 2021 when the US-trained and NATO-equipped Afghan army was routed by Taliban forces. And in a pathetic act of cowardice as the Taliban was rapidly advancing on Kabul, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who had replaced Hamid Karzai in 2014, fled the country to seek refuge in the United Arab Emirates. Scenes of the mad scramble by westerners desperately seeking to leave the country from Kabul Airport are likely still fresh in readers’ minds, particularly as they are highly reminiscent of the chaotic 1975 evacuation of Saigon during the fall of South Vietnam.

While Republican and many Democrat politicians as well as the media criticized the Biden Administration for the military fiasco and the ensuing botched evacuations, it should not be ignored that Joe Biden actually achieved what the previous three presidents had failed to do, and that is to end the war in Afghanistan. And although this may have simply been the result of Biden’s sheer incompetence (assuming he’s even involved in any policy or operational decisions) or as an intentional strategy to reallocate military resources to the Ukrainian government, his handling of the matter stood in stark contrast to the meaningless troop drawdowns pursued by his three predecessors. Thus, if there is anything at all redeemable about Joe Biden’s 50-year political career, it is his complete and unconditional withdrawal of US and coalition forces from Afghanistan which ended a senseless 20-year war.

Donald Trump deserves some credit here as well. After George W. Bush and Barack Obama had made false promises and announced insincere timelines for the likely continued duration of the war, it was Trump who actually made an effort to leave Afghanistan, albeit a half-hearted one. This can be seen in his announcement to withdraw US troops from the country in 2020 quickly being followed by the publication of fake intelligence reports and news stories about the Russian government offering bounties to the Taliban to kill US soldiers. In the wake of these reports, which even leftist media outlets now admit were nothing but fake news, Trump unfortunately seems to have taken the advice of his neoconservative advisers to abandon the Afghanistan withdrawal in order to get tough on Russia.

Today, with the war over and US/NATO occupation forces gone, Afghanistan has entered a period of relative peace and the Afghan government now has a number of options that it can pursue to increase economic prosperity and the standard of living across the country. This is the case especially in view of Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth featuring massive deposits of copper, iron, lithium, and rare-earth metals with an estimated value of over $1 trillion USD.

The prospect of large-scale Chinese investment in the country’s mining sector would seem like a no-brainer given China’s shared border with Afghanistan and its possession of sophisticated mining technology, equipment, and operations. And while China is undoubtedly interested in gaining access to these natural resources, the Chinese government remains somewhat distrustful due to the Taliban’s strong anti-secular sentiment and its alleged harboring of Uyghur Muslim militants who seek to inflict harm upon on China. With both countries exercising caution, China and Afghanistan have slowly but steadily forged deeper political and economic ties over the past year.

In closing, it is worth looking at some basic facts about Afghanistan and the quality of its passport compared to three Arab countries that have been subjected to 21st Century regime change efforts at the hands of the US government — Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Liberated Services pointed out the poor quality of passports in the South Asia region in a previous article, which in a ranking of the world’s 199 passports from most powerful (#1) to least powerful (#199) showed India at #149, Pakistan at #196, and Bangladesh at #188.

However, the passports of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are effectively the world’s worst at #199, #198, #190, and #197. Rounding off the bottom 10 are North Korea (#191), Nepal (#192), Palestinian Territory (#193), Somalia (#194), Yemen (#195), and Pakistan (#196). Readers can look forward to future articles covering Iraq, Libya, and Syria.