I am not a foreign policy expert, nor a military strategist, just someone who has lived through enough history to feel angry at the fate Afghanis now face.
As of August 13, the Taliban, already in control of much of the countryside, have captured many provincial capitals, including Kandahar, with Kabul within view. Many Afghanis have fled northern cities, seeking refuge in Kabul. To say that the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating would be an understatement.
The desolate terrain of Afghanistan is the graveyard of battles throughout history, including the spilling of American blood over the past 20 years. As American troops have pulled out, except for those needed to protect American diplomatic interests and advisers to the Afghan government, we have to wonder what has been accomplished. For nearly two decades, American presence gave many Afghanis hope. Democracy is a tough concept to plant and grow in some parts of the world, including Afghanistan.
I am reminded of Charlie Wilson’s War, the Mike Nichols-Tom Hanks film about the Texas Congressman who helped turn the tide against the Soviet invaders by funneling money and arms to Afghani fighters. At the end of the film, there is a message, when the fighting was over, American interest quickly evaporated, leaving a vacuum for the Taliban to eventually fill. And they did, as they defeated other factions that had worker together to defeat the Soviets. The Taliban also offered safe haven to al-Qaeda, who would help solidify Taliban control over the country.
Strict application of Islamic law was used by the Taliban, particularly toward women and girls. Nearly half the population is under age 16. These kids have grown up in war zone.
Outside of cities, education seems more difficult for all, but particularly for girls. The Taliban does not permit girls to attend school, although it is reported that international aid groups have gotten some Taliban-controlled communities to bend – somewhat. According to a Washington Post article by Suzannah George and Aziz Tassal from last year, enforcement of Islamic Law can vary from area to area, as one community was allowed to operate a high school for girls. But, that’s the exception. Women typically do not work, cannot drive and must stay home. Beatings and executions are typical behavior modification techniques across Taliban territory.
“For the past 20 years, a young and educated new generation has entered the country’s social arena, a centralized government has been formed, and new opportunities have been created that were never imagined before the US invasion,” said Iqbal Barzgar, a Kabul-based political analyst. He also pointed to the number of girls who have attended school during this period.
Schools are not safe zones either. According to Jane Ferguson, in Afghanistan for PBS, she was told that government military personnel routinely used village schools as their base of operations. Earlier this year bombs in a school in Kabaul killed 85 girls and teachers.
Negotiating with the Taliban was eerily similar to the North Vietnamese. When America pulled out, the North Vietnamese moved in. With the Americans pulling military forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban moved from rural areas into more populated areas – cities.
The number of American troops in Afghanistan topped 110,000 in 2011, costing the U.S, about $100B per year. Troop numbers shrank to around 4,000 in 2020, under the pull down that started under Obama in 2012.
Through last month, 2,312 U.S. military personnel had been killed since 2001, and 20,066 had been wounded. Brown University has been tracking civilian deaths, putting the combined number of Afghani and Pakistani war zone deaths at 21,000 during this same period. According to the UN, the Taliban offensive is claiming an increasing number of women and children, since May 2, women and children make up 46 percent of casualties.
Pentagon sources put U.S. involvement in Afghanistan at $778B, not including more than $40B in Afghan reconstruction improvements. Brown University reported that combined Afghanistan/Pakistan spending during that 20 year period at $978B. Other sources say the combined spending in Afghanistan over the period of the war tops $2T.
“For the US, the war has been a complete disaster, costing several trillion dollars. No matter how much the US spin the Afghan venture, the fact is that it was compelled to leave. It will have no footprint there, and China will fill the vacuum with its soft power,” said Air Commodore (Retd.) Kaiser Tufail, a security analyst and author, who was once a captive of the Taliban.
CBS News reports that 3,000 troops are being sent to Afghanistan in the next 48 hours to help evacuate embassy personnel and civilians. Other military personnel to Qatar and Kuwait, and other personnel are arriving to help process those needing special visas.
While officially, the U.S. is not abandoning Afghanistan, it sure seems like the evacuation of Saigon as the North Vietnamese closed in on the city in 1975.
While this represents the longest war in U.S. history, large scale military operations crippled the the Taliban by 2003, and resources were being shifted to Iraq. The Taliban, with refuge in Pakistan, and shifting U.S. policy, began to slowly rebuild. Efforts to negotiate a peace with the Taliban seem as successful as the lasting peace in Vietnam.
“Why are so many Taliban willing to die for their cause, while government soldiers take flight or surrender? Why is the Afghan government in Kabul so corrupt and dysfunctional?” asked Patrick Cockburn of The Independent, who have covered the war since 2001.
Cockburn could have been talking about Vietnam.
There are a lot of very smart people in the U.S. military, State Department and political leadership, yet, how did this thing get so fucked up? Military personnel, Afghan civilians, and U.S. taxpayers deserved better.
These are my opinions.