On the 16th Anniversary of the US War in Afghanistan: Will the US Ever Learn?

Prof. Moghadam in February 1989, as the last Soviet troops were leaving Afghanistan
Prof. Moghadam in February 1989, as the last Soviet troops were leaving Afghanistan

Remarks prepared for the October 4 rally protesting the 16th anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan; delivered for Prof. Moghadam by Joan Ecklein 

Val MoghadamThis rally protests the overlong American involvement in Afghanistan, which is said to have begun in 2001, when following the World Trade Center assaults, the Bush Administration bombed Afghanistan and dislodged the Taliban in retaliation for its refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden. The U.S. then took credit for what it claimed to be a success story of schools for girls and assistance to farmers. But the reality was very different. By 2006, the Taliban had resurfaced and has continued to wage war against the foreign invaders, the Afghan government, the country’s small Shia community, symbols of modernization, and women in professional and leadership roles. I should know, as I have been contacted by many pro-bono lawyers to prepare affidavits in support of asylum claims by Afghan women who have received death threats and seek refuge in the U.S.   

Last April, the heavy bombardment of Afghanistan by the U.S. military was intended to show American/Trump administration muscle, but what it actually highlighted was the failure of American intervention in Afghan politics. When one tallies the list of costly American military failures – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria – it is a wonder that the U.S. military remains extravagantly resourced and always ready for one more strategic blunder – not to mention the devastation to a foreign country’s people, natural resources, economy, and cultural heritage.

Boston rally to end the US war in Afghanistan on the occasion of its 16th anniversary
Boston rally to end the US war in Afghanistan on the occasion of its 16th anniversary

America has been involved in Afghanistan since 1979, when it decided to destabilize the new, left-wing and modernizing People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), which had come to power in April 1978 with promises of land reform, public schooling, road construction, and healthcare.  Under Brzezinski’s influence, President Carter decided to dispatch the CIA to support the tribal-Islamist uprising against the new government. After the Soviet Union reluctantly agreed to the Afghan government’s appeal for help, it sent troops in December 1979, with the expectation that they would be out by the spring. Instead, the Reagan administration decided to create a quagmire for the Soviet Union, and thus provided the rebels – known as the Mujahideen – with heavy weaponry, including missiles to shoot down Soviet planes, via Pakistan. It should be noted that Osama bin Laden joined and trained in that so-called jihad. The DRA finally collapsed in April 1992. After the U.S. washed its hand of the country, the Mujahideen began to fight each other and the Taliban took control in 1996.  

I had been following developments in Afghanistan since its 1978 revolution and was appalled by the turn of events and by the American complicity in supporting a tribal-Islamist-feudal rebellion opposed to land reform and schooling for girls, and in bringing down a modernizing government. In January-February 1989 I visited Kabul to conduct interviews and gather documentary data on women’s situation. I saw girls’ schools, literacy classes and vocational programs for poor women, and women in supervisory positions in a factory and in governmental organizations. In other words, there had been progress even in the midst of an internationalized civil conflict. The fall of the DRA was a very sad day for me, as I had come to love the country and its people, especially the cadres in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, with whom I had spent hours conversing about social policy and women’s issues. (Afghans speak Pashtun, which I do not know, but also Dari, a variant of Persian, which I do speak, having been born in Iran.) 

In 2001, the U.S. was back in Afghanistan. For a while it looked like Afghanistan would be stable and friendly. So the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq, invading and occupying that country in 2003 – with the dreadful consequences that continue to this day, including the emergence of ISIS. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban resurfaced in 2006, appearing also in Pakistan, and the Obama administration resorted to drone attacks on both countries. Subsequently, ISIS – a creature of the Iraq disaster that was vastly strengthened by the destabilization of Libya and Syria – came into control of parts of Afghanistan. That is the context in which U.S. dropped that massive bomb last April that could cause death and destruction for about 5 miles.

The American intervention on the side of the Mujahideen in the 1980s and the more recent drone and other military attacks on Afghanistan have only exacerbated insecurity, instability, and hostility in that country. Among the “collateral damage” are Afghan women and girls, who remain mired in patriarchal structures and physical insecurity.

What does the U.S. have to show for its 40-year history of destabilizing a left-wing government, leaving Afghanistan to its own devices when the Mujahideen warlords came to power, overthrowing the Taliban to install a friendly government (the incompetent and corrupt Karzai regime), and periodically dropping bombs? Today, Afghanistan is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world. A large percentage of the population suffers from shortages of housing, clean water, and electricity and cannot afford the high cost of food. Afghan women face the highest rates of illiteracy and maternal mortality in the world.  Educated and outspoken Afghan women in professional roles are often targeted for assassination. The Taliban and ISIS are in control of parts of the country. And the cycle of violence and destruction continues unabated.

Will the U.S. never learn that the imposition of military power is not the solution to a country’s problems? When will the U.S. learn that the interests of the military-industrial complex are not the same as the interests of the American people? Can we the people not compel the leaders of this country to turn away from military options and unilateralism and instead utilize our country’s resources and expertise toward peaceful solutions arrived at multilaterally? 

Val Moghadam is a member of WILPF Boston branch, and the Mass Peace Action Board of Directors