Afghanistan – Another American Failure

The recent bombardment of Afghanistan by the U.S. military may have been intended to show American/Trump administration muscle, but what it actually highlights is the failure of the over-long 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.

The use of the so-called “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB) – a 21,000-pound bomb that is the largest and most destructive non-nuclear bomb the U.S. military possesses – over Nangarhar, Afghanistan, on April 13th, 2017, was but the latest show of military might that is bound to fail, for the U.S. and its allies have been trying to dislodge militant Islamists from Afghanistan since at least the late 1990s, when Osama bin Laden was provided safe haven by the Taliban (who overthrew the maraudering Mujahideen in 1996).

But Bin Laden had been to Afghanistan before, when throughout the 1980s the CIA and its Pakistani partners were arming the Mujahideen in their “jihad” against a modernizing left-wing government and its Soviet backers. Bin Laden joined and trained in that jihad. He later turned against the hand that fed him, so to speak, and went after symbols of U.S. power in the 9/11 assaults. The U.S. and its allies then attacked Afghanistan and dislodged the Taliban so as to bring to power a U.S.-friendly government. Although the U.S. failed to capture Bin Laden, 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 a group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIS.  Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban resurfaced in 2006, appearing also in Pakistan, and the Obama administration resorted to drone attacks on both countries. And now ISIS – a creature of the Iraq disaster now vastly strengthened by the destabilization of Libya and Syria – is in control of parts of Afghanistan. What does the U.S. do? It drops a massive bomb that can cause death and destruction for about 5 miles.

The American intervention on the side of the Mujahideen in the 1980s and the arming of jihadists set off a chain reaction that reverberates to this day. Among the “collateral damage” are Afghan women and girls, who remain mired in patriarchal structures and physical insecurity. When the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) was established in April 1978, among its first decrees was compulsory schooling for girls – something that has yet to be accomplished 40 years later. In the 1980s, U.S. pundits and anti-communist human rights spokespersons labeled the government’s education policy a form of “Sovietization”. In today’s environment of “fake news”, it should be recalled that the U.S. has frequently engaged in disinformation and propaganda – even about a modernizing government’s attempt to introduce education to a largely illiterate population.

When CIA and Pakistani support for an armed rebellion weakened the Afghan government in 1979 and it pleaded for military help from the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration was determined to create a Vietnam-like quagmire for its rival. And thus what should have been a 2-month Soviet military intervention to back the Afghan military turned into a decade-long nightmare, with the U.S. and Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, the Gulf states, and others supporting the Mujahideen diplomatically, logistically, and militarily. (If this seems to resemble Syria today, it does. Pace Marx, a historical tragedy can be repeated as tragedy and not just as farce.) 

In early 1989, while a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women in the USA—where I was working on a comparative study of revolution, Islamism, and gender in Iran and Afghanistan—I had the opportunity to travel to Kabul to conduct interviews and gather documentary data on the situation of women at that time. I saw girls’ schools, literacy classes and vocational programs for poor women, and women in supervisory positions in a factory and in governmental organizations.

While I was there, the last Soviet troops were just leaving, and the Afghan government fell in April 1992. I had already published two papers on the Afghan revolution and the situation of women, and the first edition (1993) of my book, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, had a lengthy chapter on Afghanistan. I also dedicated the book partly “to Afghan women, whose dreams of empowerment and equality have been deferred.”  The fall of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan 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 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.)  

Afghanistan is a country beset by ethnic, communal, and sectarian divisions – divisions that the DRA had tried to resolve through its short-lived reform program. The resurgence of the Taliban greatly exacerbated the insecurity felt by many citizens, but so did the American drone attacks. As a result of continued conflict, many Afghans have been fleeing their country, seeking refuge not in Iran and Pakistan as they did in the 1980s but increasingly in Europe, joining the waves of Syrians, Iraqis, and the many citizens of African countries fleeing conflict or economic distress. Many Afghans try for asylum in the U.S. Over the past decade, I have provided expert witness services to legal firms working pro bono on Afghan asylum cases, focusing mainly on cases involving women.  

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 sending in drone attacks? 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 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 the country’s resources and expertise toward peaceful solutions arrived at multilaterally? 

Val Moghadam is a member of the MAPA Board of Directors and of WILPF