The End of the Endless War
Four decisions shaped the U.S.'s 20-year military involvement in Afghanistan. The media is ignoring three of them.
THE UNITED STATES MOVED into Afghanistan when the Soviets did, in 1979. The mission was codenamed Operation Cyclone. Jimmy Carter was president. The CIA was involved. And I was in first grade. That’s how long we’ve been in Kabul.
Forty-two years of history in a fantastically complex foreign country, spanning eight presidencies, cannot be adequately explained by a soundbite, by the high-blood-pressure ravings of a performative pundit on one of the cable news programs—and certainly not in the first few hours of a withdrawal at the end of a military conflict (some call it a war; others, an occupation) that lasted two decades.
After four years of desperately normalizing the mob money launderer-cum-Kremlin puppet in the White House, ignoring his ownership by Vladimir Putin and his inveterate ties to the criminal underworld, not to mention his drug abuse, his history of rape and sexual assault, and his egregious lack of qualifications for the gig—how many times did Kushner’s buddy Van Jones say, “Today is the day Donald Trump became president?”—our mainstream media crucifies Joe Biden if he so much as stammers, snaps at a lousy White House correspondent for asking a stupid question, or goes home to Delaware for the weekend. What we learned these last two weeks is that the MSM, even the supposedly objective outfits like CNN, want the president to fail. There’s simply no other way to explain the biased, predetermined-narrative-driven, lazy coverage of the Afghanistan evacuation.
The mainstream media rushed to cast the Afghanistan withdrawal as Benghazi, or the evacuation of Saigon. It is neither of those things, analogous only in the most dumbed-down and ill-informed way. The cable-news yowlers and Twitterstorians who a week ago attacked Biden by comparing the withdrawal to the end of the Vietnam War already sound particularly foolish. Gerald Ford presided over the Fall of Saigon, but I don’t recall pundits in 1975 blaming him for the entire Indochina conflict dating back to Dien Bien Phu. It was astonishing how little Trump’s name was mentioned in the frenzied coverage, or Mike Pompeo’s, or the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld troika that got us into this mess in the first place.
Mass-evacuating troops and civilians after 20 years was always going to be messy, no matter what The Former Guy says. Biden’s decisive, courageous handling of Afghanistan already looks better this week, now that the last of the armed forces are gone. Next month, it will look even better; in a year, Joe will be praised by anyone not drunk on MAGA Kool-Aid; and history will look even more kindly on what is already the best presidency of my lifetime.
The mistake most of these so-called experts made, in their hot-take analyses, was to conflate four separate decisions, which I present in reverse chronological order:
The execution of the withdrawal (2021, Biden)
The decision to withdraw and hand the country to the Taliban (2020, Trump )
The decision to remain in Afghanistan after defeating the Taliban (2001, Bush II)
The decision to go to war post-9/11 (2001, Bush II)
Let’s examine each more closely:
1/ Get Out (2021)
Let’s talk about the time a hegemonic Western imperial power tried to pull its military forces out of Afghanistan. The year is 1842. The British Major General, the wonderfully-named Sir William Elphinstone, reaches an agreement with the Afghan prince, Wazir Akbar Khan, who promises safe passage for the troops as they retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad.
There are 4,000 soldiers under Elphinstone’s command, as well as some 12,000 civilians—family members, servants, workers, Indian sepoys. The plan is to brave the 90-mile path through the Hindu Kush to the British garrison on foot. As part of the ceasefire, gunpowder had to be surrendered, so they are at the mercy of the bellicose Afghans, in prime ambush position in the hills above. Also, it’s early January, the road is snowy and treacherous, and it’s freezing cold.
As the company sets off, Akbar Khan yells to the Afghan tribesmen, “Spare them!”—in Persian, which the British understand. But in Pashto, which they cannot, he yells, “Kill them!” And so the tribesmen attack.
Some of the Indians survived the shelling and the frostbite, returning to Kabul to be sold into slavery. Most did not. Of the 4,000 British troops who set off on the journey, only one—one!—made it to Jalalabad alive. Elphinstone, who had stubbornly refused to turn back and seek shelter when the double-cross became clear, died in Afghanistan, along with 3,998 men under his command.
It was the worst defeat in British military history. When the Prime Minister heard the news, he literally had a stroke. The massacre cinched the reputation of rugged Afghanistan as the “Graveyard of Empires.”
Fast-forward to 2021. This time, the hegemonic Western power with troops in Kabul is the United States. This time, the Afghan leader we don’t trust is the head of the Taliban. But this time, well over 100,000 people are airlifted out of Kabul, out of Afghanistan completely, to safety.
Yes, there are some Americans still in the country—Americans who blithely ignored the State Department’s warnings to get out immediately, that began back in April. As with Americans who choose not to get vaccinated, Biden can only lead the horses to water. If they choose not to drink, that’s on them.
Yes, people died in the evacuation effort, including 13 service members. I became physically ill hearing the news of the bombing that claimed their lives. But realistically, the chances were slim of getting that many people out of Afghanistan that quickly, in a period of tumult, without sustaining any casualties. Under the circumstances, the result was almost miraculous—quite unlike what the frenzied press rushed to present in the initial hours of the evacuation. The U.S. military achieved something that no other country has ever come close to accomplishing, not even the mighty British Empire at its apex. That is what those 13 heroic service members died for.
Joe Biden did not fail this past week. CNN did.
2/ Capitulation (2020)
That mob-owned poltroon Donald John Trump and his porcine Secretary of State, the corrupt and arrogant Mike Pompeo, agreed to hand Afghanistan to the Taliban in February 2020. Trump’s former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, derided the pact as “a surrender agreement.” Why did they do it? To hand Biden a political hot potato—and, almost certainly, to make money for their cronies like Erik Prince.
The Former Guy wanted to meet with the Taliban at Camp David in 2019—on September 11th! The plan was scrapped because it was too obviously anti-American for even the MAGA king to pull off.
The guy who would lead the Taliban after our withdrawal—Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a relic from the early days of Mullah Omar; that’s his slovenly self with the porcine Pompeo in the above photograph—was freed from the Pakistani prison where he’d been held since his arrest by the CIA in 2010, at Trump’s request, in 2018, along with some 5,000 other dangerous Taliban fighters.
Oh, and also: That smirking asshole Pompeo intentionally mucked up the works at State, delaying the visa applications of the translators and other Afghan allies who sought asylum in the U.S.
In summary: Trump/Pompeo gave away the ghost to the Taliban; stuck Joe with a deadline for full withdrawal, after which our troops would be subject to attack; freed the worst of the Taliban from Pakistani prisons, including their new head of state; and then, if that wasn’t enough, made fleeing the country more difficult for Afghans who risked their lives to help us. What they did made it more likely that we would sustain casualties. It was straight-up capitulation.
Biden had a choice: he could either abide by the shitty agreement negotiated by the traitor Pompeo, or he could rip it up. He chose to honor it, because, as he put it, Trump was the president at the time, and the United States makes good on its word.
One of his detractors’ main talking points is that Biden could have and should have declared the document null and void. “If he thought the deal was bad, he could have renegotiated,” said the coward Christopher Miller, Trump’s acting Secretary of Defense, who sat on his fucking hands all day while insurrections besieged the Capitol on January 6. “He had plenty of opportunity to do that if he so desired.”
That is a compelling argument, until you think about it for more than 15 seconds. Opportunity to do what? What outcome, exactly, would be better? In practice, the choice came down to this: honor the agreement, and withdraw the troops; or tell the Taliban to fuck off, and send even more troops to Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, and certainly the rest of his time in office.
Biden chose what most of us would choose, when faced with that same decision (most Americans, including most members of the military, want us out of Afghanistan). He ended the Endless War.
3/ Build Better (2001)
Formed in the madrassas of Pakistan in 1994, the Taliban took Kabul two years later, establishing an emirate that quickly became the most repressive, retrograde government on earth. Talib means student, but there was nothing scholarly about the Taliban. These were not intellectuals but terrorists, in the literal sense of the word: a small but powerful fringe group terrorizing the rest of the population—especially women—and justifying their abominable behavior by waving around a Koran.
There were plenty of articles written about the Taliban’s abuse of women in the late 90s and early 2000s. Each one caused me to shake my head in disbelief that something so horrible, so cruel, and so wrongminded existed in the modern world.
On the second day of March, 2001, the Taliban began the process of destroying the twin statues of the Buddha, hewn into the rock at Bamiyan in the sixth century. I wrote about this on March 6, 2001, in a piece called “Status of Stone and Flesh: The Real Atrocities of Afghanistan,” on my long-since-defunct LARGEREGO blog—back before blogging software, when I coded it in html by hand, and hyperlinks to sources were not yet a thing. Here it is, in its entirety:
It’s like a scene from a Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster: turbaned Arab-looking terrorists in military get-ups train anti-aircraft missiles on two colossal stone Buddhas, mutter praises to Allah, and blow the centuries-old statues to smithereens.
Only it’s happening not in Hollywood, but in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. And it’s quite real.
The destruction of the aforementioned statues, as well as thousands of smaller ones not hewn into rock, is a direct order from Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Mohammed Omar, who makes Saddam Hussein look like an art therapist.
“We are not against culture,” the foreign minister of a government that prohibits literature, film, photography, television, dance, theatre, painting, and now, emphatically, sculpture told The Associated Press, “but we don't believe in these things. They are against Islam.”
The mandate prompted an international outcry. UNESCO condemned the Taliban and sent an emissary to stay the razing. Buddhist monks led vocal rallies (!) in India and Nepal in protest. Even leaders in such bastions of religious and cultural tolerance as Iran and Cambodia criticized Mullah’s decree.
Taliban’s Minister of Culture and Information, who we presume focuses more on the latter, told the world that the Taliban was making quick work of the two statues. “It is easier to destroy than to build,” he assured The New York Times.
There may be a silver lining in the dark cloud that makes murky Mullah’s mind. Perhaps this wanton act of barbarism will focus the world’s attention on the real atrocities taking place in Afghanistan. Cultural treasures or no, the statues are stone. The ten million Afghan women who live under harsh Taliban law are flesh and blood.
Women were badly abused before the Taliban imposed strict Islamic law. Since, their lifestyle makes The Handmaid’s Tale read like a fairy tale.
According to the Taliban clerics, women should not be seen or heard in public—except to be tortured, mutilated, or executed, that is. They exist to cook, clean, procreate, and sate male sexual desire. Anything else is a violation of Islamic law and subject to cruel reprisal.
The result: Women are in effect under permanent house arrest. They are rarely allowed outside of their houses, and then only with a proper male chaperone and covered from head to toe with a burqa, a shapeless black bag veiling the skin. They are routinely flogged for not properly covering their ankles. They can’t wear shoes that make a clicking sound when they walk. Bright colored garments and cosmetics are verboten. If they wear nail polish, their fingers are hacked off.
The houses in question have painted-over windows. This is ostensibly to prevent men from glimpsing inside the house, but it also prevents women from looking out. They are also forbidden to go out on the balconies of the houses. All night and all day they are confined, often alone.
Not that there is much to do outside. Women are not permitted to gather for any recreational purpose, nor can they use public baths or other public facilities. They are forbidden to play sports, or ride bicycles or motorcycles. They may not communicate with any man who is not their chaperone—this includes shopkeepers, tailors, doctors, judges, and teachers. They are not even allowed to laugh.
Worst of all, they are not allowed to work and are denied education. There are precious few female doctors and nurses in the country, and Afghan women are not permitted to go to male ones.
Women are nothing in Afghanistan. They are beaten, maimed, abused, raped, and executed with alarming regularity. They are given away by farmers who are no longer allowed to grow opium, Afghanistan’s sole lucrative export, in lieu of cash to repay debts. And the psychological damage is impossible to imagine.
This has been going on for a decade, and the world allows it to go on. Afghanistan, after all, has no oil, so the suffering of its citizens is not a priority of the U.S. or any other government. And until it is, the Afghan women will continue to suffer.
Let’s hope the destruction of the statues will put the real atrocities of the Taliban on the radar. Let’s hope the powers that be end the gender apartheid in Afghanistan. Let’s hope the Buddhas will not have died in vain.
Six months after I published this, the “real atrocities of the Taliban” were very much on the world’s collective radar. The collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001—an eerie echo of the destruction of the twin Buddhas—and Mullah Oman’s subsequent refusal to turn over the mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, led to U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. By the end of 2001, the Taliban government was no more.
Twenty years ago, I was certainly in favor of removing these ignorant, evil men, liberating the Afghan women, and helping the people of Afghanistan establish a democracy. It might not work, but it was certainly worth a try. And what else we were going to do? The Taliban were removed, but they’d killed any rival political leaders years ago. We couldn’t leave behind a vacuum.
My perspective has changed a bit these last two decades. After four years of Trump, GOP voter suppression, and the besieging of the Capitol on January 6, I understand that democracy can only flourish when the people are willing to work for it, fight for it, and if necessary die for it. Democracy is not a passive form of government. It requires an engaged, dialed-in citizenry. Who are we to try and protect the women of Afghanistan? We can’t even protect the women of the United States. Who are we to try and make Afghanistan safe for the LGBTQ community, for minorities, for those of other faiths? We can’t do that here. Who are we to safeguard the right to vote for all Afghans? We have failed to secure this right in our own country. It was audacious for us to even try to wave a magic wand and form a democracy in Afghanistan.
But then, hope requires audacity. And I’d like to think that some good has, and still will, come of our 20 years in that country. A whole generation has come of age not under oppressive Taliban rule. Surely that counts for something.
There are those who characterize our presence in Afghanistan as an occupation. I understand the criticism, but I don’t think it’s fair. Occupying armies are there to take something by force—a natural resource, an oil field, what have you. We were there for 20 years to try and keep the peace while a fledgling democracy grew. That’s not the same thing as, say, imperial Japan occupying the Dutch East Indies.
Yes, we made mistakes. Yes, Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were the worst. Yes, cynical actors exploited our idealism. Yes, the mission was ill-defined and lasted much longer than we thought. But I think back to that piece I wrote 20 years ago, the abused Afghan women, the ignoramuses destroying centuries-old works of art, and I still think it was a noble effort that may yet prove successful. The service members lost in Afghanistan these last 20 years did not die in vain.
4/ Tuesday (2001)
This one is a no-brainer.
Osama bin Laden was the mastermind of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Once this was definitively known, there was no question that we needed to hunt him down and destroy his terror network. When the Taliban refused to turn him over, we had no choice but to go to Afghanistan and get him.
Bush and Cheney fucked up more things than I can possibly get into right now: They didn’t single-mindedly pursue bin Laden, somehow allowing a seven-foot-tall guy on a dialysis machine to escape. They didn’t have a clear exit strategy or war objective. They squandered the unity of the country in the days after the attacks. Worst of all, they invaded a sovereign nation that had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11, diverting our war efforts from Afghanistan and costing us an extra $1 trillion. Oh, and to pay for that Iraqi misadventure, they cut taxes, screwing up the economy to such a degree that it almost completely collapsed seven years later. Oops!
But none of that has anything to do with the decision to go to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Read the press clippings in the aftermath of the attacks. Even the liberals were banging the war drums. Any president, Democrat or Republican, would have made the same choice.
This is a very long piece, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I haven’t delved into Tora Bora, the Mujahideen, Halliburton, Blackwater, Hamid Karzai, opium, Helmond Province, McCain and Obama and the Surge, Felix Sater, the ISI, Stanley McChrystal and Mike Flynn, the Afghan warlord assassinated on September 10, 2001, or the role of the Kremlin and the Russian mob in all of this.
But that just proves my point: this is complicated. Afghanistan does not lend itself to the cable news format of strident, opinioned pundits yelling over one another. With events like this, we need more information to arrive at any conclusions, and greater distance to have the proper perspective. (To wit: I feel like I’ve only just grasped the first Gulf War, 30 years after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait). By rushing to judgment, CNN and the other cable news networks did journalism a grave disservice.