The withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan, as outlined in the 2020 peace deal, saw the rapid fall of the country to the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital, Kabul, on August 16th, 2021 – an abrupt, ugly, but unsurprising end to a drawn-out war that has been the longest in American history.
President Joe Biden has been under heavy criticism by both liberal and conservative politicians and pundits alike for his decision to end the war that has lasted through four presidencies. However, it was a long-overdue decision. More than two-thirds of the American public supported the decision to withdraw from the war, which saw the death of 47,245 Afghan civilians and 2,448 American military service members. The war also cost an estimated $778 billion USD in tax dollars.
While Biden should be commended for his decision, the rhetoric he and supporters of the military pullout have used to deflect criticism reveals the lack of introspection done on why the US was in Afghanistan in the first place and the reasons to leave. In his address on August 16th, Biden lamented the Afghan military and government’s lack of “will to fight for [their] future.” He pointed to their failure to secure the unpopular regime the US propped up in 2004, which has been marred by institutional corruption since. He then referenced Afghanistan’s historic title as the “graveyard of empires” as sufficient explanation for the US military’s failure to defeat the Taliban and bring security to the Republic, alluding to a historical character of Afghanistan that will prevent any nation-building project from succeeding. Many experts supporting Biden’s decision have also painted the Afghan people as an inherently traditional and tribal population incapable of having a functional modern nation-state. This narrative also conveniently overlooks the United States’ historic and recent role in shaping the contemporary political landscape of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s seemingly perpetual instability in recent decades and the Taliban’s very existence stem from American foreign policy rather than some unchanging historical character built into the country and its people.
The Destabilization of Afghanistan & the Emergence of the Taliban
Modern Afghanistan was first invaded and occupied by the British Empire in 1838 and was subsequently embroiled in 80 years of civil war ending in 1919. Independence was followed by decades of monarchical rule that was eventually toppled by a similarly authoritarian military coup in 1973, led by then Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan. In 1978, another more popular coup led by the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) saw the violent overthrow of Daoud Khan and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, led by a new civilian government.
While the new Afghan government signed a treaty of friendship with the USSR in 1978, it proclaimed independence from Soviet influence and declared its policies to be based on Islamic principles, Afghan nationalism, and socioeconomic justice. Looking to transition from a feudal monarchy to a socialist democracy, the PDPA implemented several reforms that included equality for women, the legalization of trade unions, and sweeping land reforms. However, this drew the ire of the old traditionalist feudal class in the countryside, who organized loose Islamic militant groups (known collectively as the Mujahideen) and launched a guerrilla war against the PDPA. The Mujahideen perceived the PDPA as a secular puppet government of the USSR despite the PDPA’s claims of Afghan nationalism and independence from the Soviet sphere of influence.
With tension and violence escalating, the PDPA reached out to the United States, asking for its support to counterbalance the Soviet Union’s influence to somehow appease the Mujahideen. The Americans refused. Instead, seeing an opportunity to destabilize a sovereign socialist government in a geopolitically sensitive region to the USSR, they launched Operation Cyclone, a CIA program that funded, armed, and trained the religious tribes of the Afghan countryside to combat the PDPA and, later, the invading Soviet Union. In addition to providing military assistance, the CIA, alongside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, funded madrasas in the country and in neighbouring Pakistan – religious schools that taught a fundamentalist Wahhabist interpretation of Islam in order to “stimulate resistance against foreign invasion.”
As the newly formed Democratic Republic struggled to contain the Mujahideen, the Soviet government, afraid the PDPA would strike an alliance with the US or fall to the Mujahideen, eventually invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979. After a nine-year military occupation, in a similar fashion to the US military’s recent occupation, the USSR found itself at a stalemate due to the guerrilla tactics of the Mujahideen, who Ronald Reagan lauded as “freedom fighters.” The Soviet military eventually exited in 1989, which saw the eventual defeat of the PDPA and the founding of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 1992. The nation was then immediately thrown into civil war, drawing parallels to the events unfolding today.
Throughout the Soviet-Afghan war, Operation Cyclone allowed for the formation of many contemporary Islamic fundamentalist groups including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda who emerged from the conflict. The Taliban, Deobandi fundamentalists, would eventually rise to power within this new volatile republic in 1996 and rename it the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s six-year rule of Afghanistan was marked by despotism and the reversal of social and economic advancements made by the PDPA.
Despite its proclaimed desire to forge a democratic path for itself, the newly formed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan found itself stuck in the middle of the Cold War politics of the late 20th century. These destabilizing effects created the volatile contemporary political landscape of Afghanistan and its fundamentalist political actors today.
The 2001 invasion & the founding of the Patchwork Republic
The Taliban’s victory was initially welcomed by Washington. The Americans had long been hoping to build a trans-central Asian pipeline through Afghanistan to access the oil of the Caspian Sea that would have likely not been possible under the former socialist republic. The Clinton administration and the Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL) began assessing the situation, declaring the Taliban as the ideal cooperative government to manage this pipeline project. “The thing with the Taliban was that they didn’t have a clue about the oil and gas business. The idea was to bring them over, establish some credibility with them that we were a real company,” explained Marty Miller, former Vice President of UNOCAL, who, in 1997, hosted a meeting with Taliban representatives in Texas to discuss the potential construction of the pipeline.
Despite formal friendly relations and developing business opportunities with the Taliban, the fundamentalist political group was deemed to be too unreliable of a partner by the Clinton administration and UNOCAL. This was, in part, because of the Taliban’s continued harboring of Al-Qaeda, whose infamous leader, ex-Mujahideen fighter Osama bin Laden, publicly declared the group’s opposition to the US presence in the Middle East. Ultimately, despite the Taliban’s cooperation, the construction of a trans-central Asian oil pipeline was scrapped because of the danger posed to Americans by the presence of Al-Qaeda.
After a series of terrorist attacks in East Africa and the Middle East in the late 90s, Al-Qaeda’s threats to the United States came to fruition with the harrowing events of September 11th, 2001. Despite the Taliban government’s offer to capture and extradite bin Laden, the Bush administration retaliated by invading Afghanistan in October of 2001 with the express aims of defeating Al-Qaeda, capturing Osama bin Laden, and overthrowing the Taliban government.
The Taliban swiftly retreated from the urban cities to the countryside, while a US-backed interim government was installed in 2002, headed by tribal and religious leader Hamid Karzai, a former UNOCAL consultant and Mujahideen fundraiser. Karzai would go on to win the elections of 2004, founding the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Despite the inability to capture Osama bin Laden nor completely defeat the Taliban, the blow dealt to Al-Qaeda and the installation of a moderate government in Afghanistan were initially framed as successes of American nation-building. However, in hindsight, this proved to be far from true.
Soon after entering Afghanistan and propping up the new Karzai government, the threads of the American invasion began coming apart at the seams. The military campaign had stalled as the Taliban launched a guerrilla war from the countryside, leading then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to decline that the American military found itself in a stalemate. Meanwhile, the newly formed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan proved to be a barely functional, patchwork government of former Mujahideen warlords, oligarchic businessmen, and US-aligned elites.
A 2013 Washington Post report revealed that not only were US military personnel told to look the other way from bribery and other corruption of the Karzai government, but the CIA actively participated in and fostered corruption to streamline security interests. A 2020 report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, (SIGAR) containing a forensic audit of $US63 billion the US has spent on Afghanistan’s infrastructure since 2002, revealed that “$19 billion, or 30% of the amount reviewed, was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.” Ryan Crocker, who served as the top US diplomat in Kabul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, concluded that “[o]ur biggest single project… may have been the development of mass corruption.”
The consequence of all this has been the rapid collapse of a demoralized Afghan government in less than one week of the US executing its 2020 negotiated peace deal with the Taliban, of which the Ghani government was excluded from negotiations. The events of the past week in Kabul recall the words of former US diplomat James Dobbins: “We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”
Post-2010 – The “Good” War sours
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama labeled the Iraq War the “dumb war,” opposed to Afghanistan’s “good war”, claiming that humanitarian and security objectives in Afghanistan were worth fighting for in contrast to other wars. Despite proclaiming to want to end the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration ultimately passed it onto a third president. His successor, Donald Trump, who campaigned on ending the war, did a similar U-turn once in office. “My original instinct was to pull out… but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” he said only a few months into his presidency.
In 2019, SIGAR released the Afghanistan Papers, a series of government documents and interviews with US officials that revealed that senior US officials sought to mislead the public on the war effort’s success in Afghanistan “despite hard proof to the contrary.” The reality on the ground was that the stalemate the US found itself in against the Taliban in the 2000s had only further hardened, while corruption in the US-backed Afghan government continued to run rampant. “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason,” said one anonymous executive with the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Despite the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and the virtual defeat of al-Qaeda – the goals of the Afghanistan war as stated by both Bush in 2001 and Biden in 2021 – why did the United States seek to mislead the public to justify remaining in what was recognized as an unwinnable stalemate in Afghanistan?
A Profitable Stalemate – Prolonging the War
Afghanistan sits at the doorstep of the main rising competitors to American hegemony – China, India, and Russia. It also borders oil-rich nations that the US has expressed interest in – Iran and several former Soviet states such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As discussed earlier, this central position has also long made Afghanistan the dream site for a strategic central Asian pipeline accessing the oil-rich Caspian Sea. The pipeline, first proposed 30 years ago, is now scheduled for construction in 2021, but those untapped profits pale in comparison to Afghanistan’s real hidden treasure.
In 2010, an internal Pentagon memo relayed the discovery of nearly $1 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan – namely the much-coveted lithium used in smartphones and laptop batteries, as well as other crucial minerals used in modern industry such as iron, gold, copper, cobalt, and others. This memo went on to say that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” and “one of the most important mining centers in the world.”
The instability caused by the conflict has prevented these minerals from being extracted. However, the American military-industrial complex had already taken steps to secure the deposits. In 2019, SOS International (SOSi), a Virginia-based company with links to the US military, was granted exclusive preliminary rights to a major share of Afghanistan’s mines by President Ghani. An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) discovered that a major stakeholder in SOSi was the president’s brother, Hashmat Ghani.
With the fall of the Afghan republic, the American media, which has been staunchly critical of Biden’s decision to end the war, is already lamenting the loss of minerals. One CNN headline reads, “The Taliban are sitting on $1 trillion worth of minerals the world desperately needs,” while CNBC is already warning that China is looking to “exploit Afghanistan’s rare earth metals.”
Aside from Afghanistan’s resources, exploiting and promoting violence in Afghanistan has been the most lucrative business to come out of it. The top five biggest American defense contractors who conduct business in Afghanistan — Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics – saw their stocks skyrocket since the beginning of the war in 2001. Interestingly, these stocks also saw a noticeable spike after 2010 – after the mission of the war as defined by Biden in his August 16th address had been completed and during the stagnation period covered in the Afghanistan Papers.
It is worth noting that Raytheon senior executive Mark Esper and Lockheed Martin senior executive John Rood were appointed Secretary of Defense and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy respectively by the Trump Administration. The Trump administration went on to oversee the heaviest bombing campaign in the history of the war.
Looking into the financial incentives to stay in Afghanistan for the American military and private sector, as well as the damning revelations of the Afghanistan Papers, it is glaringly apparent that the war was dragged on for so long to continue exploiting its profitable violence. With counter-terrorism waning as a valid reason to stay following the defeat of Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, nation-building to secure the US-friendly Ashraf Ghani government – and by extension, the minerals – became the new foil to the American public from 2010 onwards. So long as the US occupation could remain steady, so did the profits for American defense contractors and their investors.
A New Trajectory for Afghanistan
Biden’s decision to pull out of a war whose only winners have been arms dealers should be praised. However, the cold refusal of American politicians and media to confront the realities of the war and their hand in destabilizing Afghanistan is reflected in the haphazard way they have exited the country. They have essentially left Afghanistan’s population to be forcibly governed by a far-right fundamentalist group that initially emerged as a result of US foreign policy.
The Pentagon’s projection in 2010 that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” may grimly come true in an unexpected way under a similarly Wahhabi-influenced Taliban government. Given the US’s willingness to conduct business with the Taliban prior to 9/11, and the Taliban’s claim to turn a new “more tolerant” leaf, it is not outside the realm of possibility that formal diplomatic and business relations between the US and Taliban government will be reforged. In fact, the Taliban has expressed its willingness to continue construction of the trans-central Asian pipeline project the US military sought to secure.
Going forward, Afghanistan will most likely still find itself embroiled in political conflict on the global stage, with the China-US trade war surely playing a stronger role in the region. Regardless, the exit of a foreign occupying force from Afghanistan effectively for the first time since 1979 presents the Afghan people with the opportunity to take back their historical political trajectory, work within the domestic politics of their society, and progress past the deep damage wrought by foreign occupation.