The Afghanistan quagmire was never going to end peacefully

Sold to the public as an incursion capture Osama bin Laden after 9/11, the Afghanistan war soon morphed into an occupation that was destined to fail
A U.S. Army soldier patrols near the village of Tarok Kolache, Friday, April 1, 2011, in the Arghandab River Valley of Afghanistan. Photo: Haraz Ghanbari/Navy Visual News Service



First published at Common Dreams

The recent unpleasantness in Afghanistan has occasioned one of the usual cyclical national bouts of self-righteousness from the media, the chattering classes, and Very Serious People in general. Who could have let this outrage occur, they wail, and for God’s sake, what are we going to do about it in five minutes flat?

This outburst proves once again that hell hath no fury like the noncombatant, a category that – America being what it is – includes most of our generals, many of whose experience with combat these days is to briefly fly into the theater of conflict (but far from combat) in order to collect imminent danger pay and a service medal or two. Shoals of their retired brethren acting as “news consultants” have lately appeared on camera, gravely intoning what they would have done.

Then there are the current commanders and their staffs keeping close tabs on the situation from Central Command, responsible for the whole Middle East from its headquarters in – wait for it – Tampa, Florida. After a tough day of crisis monitoring from the control room, where the flat-panels are usually switched to CNN, it’s off to the officers’ club for a round of margaritas. 

The sudden collapse of the Afghan army and the scenes of panic in Kabul – a well-informed source tells me there wasn’t a real firefight anywhere in the country, the local commanders having simply negotiated dozens of individual capitulations – have occasioned a frenzy of moral posturing from people who, for at least a decade and a half, have done their best not to let Afghanistan even register on their consciousness. It is a politically disparate group whose common bond of sanctimoniousness has led to a curious tactical alliance.

Utterly predictable that the Republican Party will react to anything occurring during a Democratic administration as if it were the end of the world (remember BENGHAZI?). Never mind that as of a month ago,  61 percent of Republicans supported the decision to remove troops from Afghanistan, a solid majority and not much lower than the overall support, at a whopping 73 percent of registered voters. And why not? – withdrawal was Donald Trump’s idea in the first place, although he suddenly seems to have forgotten the fact.

For once, there appears to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington that we must “do something.” Mitch McConnell’s and the other Republicans’ diatribes on Afghanistan are hardly news, but Democrats Bob Menendez, Ed Markey, and Jeanne Shaheen, have demanded the Biden administration take immediate action to protect Afghan women.

It is impossible, of course, for a normal human being to be indifferent to human tragedy. But having made a cottage industry out of making myself unpopular with both political parties, I’ll stick my neck out: something about this whole business smells rotten.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party and the conservative movement and religious Right that underpin it are absolutely saturated with misogyny. In the last couple of years, the incels have taken it to a whole new level, being distinguishable from the Taliban chiefly by virtue of wearing polo shirts instead of thawbs. And for a goose-stepping poltroon like Kevin McCarthy to be bleating about the rights of women is truly stomach-turning in its impudence.

Aside from that, Republicans seem more upset and judgmental about the overthrow of a central Asian government 7,000 miles away than the nearly successful overthrow, a few months ago, of the very government of which they are a part – an attempted overthrow that in which some of them may have participated. We eagerly await their indignant calls for an investigation of the fall of Afghanistan, yet only recently they soundly rejected a motion to investigate the events of January 6.

But liberals and others of tender, elevated thoughts are not much better. Their concern for women is in almost all cases not hypocritical (although the matter of Andrew Cuomo gives one pause), but if they are going to “do something” (or rather, have somebody else’s spouse or kid grab an M4 carbine and do something), they had better be clear what it entails: the imperial conquest of the entire Middle East and South Asia. For how do they imagine the state of women’s right in the whole region?

Over the Spīn Ghar Mountains from Afghanistan are the 225 million inhabitants of Pakistan, a country notorious for its so-called honor killings of women. Let’s not forget, they also have roughly 160 nuclear weapons. Next door are 83 million Iranians. For decades now, Israel has been telling us about Iran, in effect, “let’s you and him fight;” perhaps a women’s rights campaign would finally bring it to fruition.

Then there is pretty much the entire Arabian Peninsula, most of whose countries are allegedly our indispensible allies. And let’s not forget the one and a quarter billion Indians, inhabitants of a country where the rape and murder of Dalit women is something of a folk tradition. At that point, would it occur to anyone that perhaps we should stay home and concentrate on women’s rights in benighted regions of our own country, like Arkansas?

Perhaps it is true that the Taliban are pretty retrograde across the board: it is reported that they denounce vaccines. But we have tens of millions of potential viral suicide bombers in our own country, people whose bronze-age theology one can barely differentiate from that of the most backward Wahhabi. And it is doubtful that the edicts of any single Taliban commander condemned as many people to death as the decrees of Ron DeSantis, a man who will heartlessly and cynically kill as many people as it takes to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Whether Joe Biden made any serious tactical mistakes in the withdrawal is irrelevant in the larger scheme, because Afghanistan was doomed almost from the beginning. It started out ostensibly as a hunt for Osama bin Laden and his protective cadre of al Qaeda. But in December 2001, as U.S. and allied special forces began to narrow the search down to the Tora Bora mountains near the border with Afghanistan, strange information began to cross my desk at the House Budget Committee, where I then worked as a defense budget analyst.

The budget supplemental requests told the story of a huge military buildup in progress. Was it perhaps to send more U.S. ground troops to establish a cordon around the Tora Bora area to supplement the pathetically few special forces on the job? No, the troops and their gear were bound for the Persian Gulf, to prepare for the invasion of Iraq – a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

Senator Bob Graham was one of the few members of Congress who were disturbed by the fact that capturing bin Laden – ostensibly the cause of all our problems – played second fiddle to George W. Bush’s personal vendetta with Saddam Hussein, particularly when the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, told Graham the administration was even pulling critical forces already in Afghanistan to move to the Gulf.

As for most of the rest of Congress, they were hallucinating in the same manner as the Bush administration. Even trying to tell them the facts – which I attempted a couple of times – was like teaching evolutionary biology to a Christian fundamentalist. It was met with a combination of blank incomprehension and denial.

In fact, the period of September 2001 until the end of 2003, when it became evident that Iraq was a quagmire, was a moment of supreme national stupidity. Almost lost in all the hoopla leading up to the invasion of Iraq (so reminiscent of the Ohio State-Michigan game) was that the mission in Afghanistan had shifted from getting bin Laden and getting out to taking on the Taliban and occupying the country indefinitely. The die was cast and the result was as inevitable as a Greek tragedy. Yet here we are, two decades on, and Very Serious Persons are still saying it could have been avoided by “showing more resolve” or taking some vague alternative action.

The three presidents who succeeded Bush bear lesser, but still measureable, culpability. But also the American people, who are too stupid to understand history, geography, relationships between facts and events, and the limits of national hubris. A month ago they were solidly in favor of getting out; the subsequent plunge in the polls for that decision shows that they are still as emotionally subject to the manipulation of fake images as they were regarding Colin Powell’s bogus pictures of Iraqi WMD.

As I finish this, breaking national news is occurring only a dozen miles away from me. A man was taken into custody after a standoff in which he claimed to have a bomb that would blow up the U.S. Capitol. Perhaps before we go abroad (in the admonitory words of John Quincy Adams) “in search of monsters to destroy,” we might want to neutralize our own savage Taliban.