Afghanistan Nightmare Comes to the Inevitable End

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Top illustration by Tim Forkes

Afghanistan has fallen under the complete control of the Taliban. That was pretty fast. Eleven days, according to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley. Actually, I think the end began about 19 months ago.

It’s getting sickening hearing people, talking heads, getting on television pointing fingers at this administration or the previous administration. Then there are the talking heads who have a more nuanced message that says at least four administrations bear responsibility for this foreign affairs disaster: George W. Bush (43), Barack H. Obama (44), Donald J. Trump (45) and now Joe R. Biden (46).

That’s not even the full picture of responsibility. For that we have to start with the Ronald Reagan Administration (40) who funded and armed the Mujahideen after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. So maybe Jimmy Carter (39) bears some responsibility as well, if we ask the question, “Did Carter do enough to push the Soviets out of the country?”

The real responsibility for this current debacle starts with the Reagan Administration siding with the Mujahideen, giving them financing and weapons, especially shoulder-mounted ground to air missiles the Mujahideen used to shoot down Soviet aircraft, especially helicopters.

George Crile III wrote a book about the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan during the 1980s titled, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. Aaron Sorkin wrote a script based on the book that became the Mike Nichols film, Charlie Wilson’s War.”

The C.I.A. in Pakistan went from doing nothing on a $5 million budget to having hundreds of millions to fund and arm the Mujahideen.

Once the Soviets left, from May 15, 1988 to February 15, 1989, the United States took its hands off the country, leaving a vacuum that was eventually filled by the Taliban. Charlie Wilson, a Democratic representative from Texas, along with many others in government — from both sides of the aisle — warned of what would happen if the United States didn’t take a hand in filling that vacuum with people who were more inclined to an open society, with schools especially to educate the children of the time about the values of a democratic society.

Instead, we got the Taliban and Usama bin Laden developing their idea of a nation: a 7th century Muslim theocracy with horrible oppression and state-sanctioned violence against its own citizens. They were so proud of their ability to chop off heads in the name of God, or Allah if you prefer. It’s hard not to be judgmental when we see that going on.

On the flipside the U.S. doesn’t have clean hands when it comes to human rights. Not even in the 21st century.  The U.S. has broken over 400 treaties just with the indigenous nations of North America. Then there was the genocide, mainly through disease, but also brutality.

Slavery of course, America’s original sin. All these years later and we’re still resisting the need to examine systemic racism in the mechanisms of government and the culture as a whole. African Americans don’t need to learn very much about it, they live it every day.

In our current times we still see unarmed people of color, black and brown men in particular, gunned down by police. Various states are enacting voter suppression bills that make it much harder for people of color to vote.

So, when it comes to oppression the United States is pretty good at it too. Our methods of capital punishment are far less bloody … well, I don’t really know. Generally we don’t put the killed prisoners on display once they are dead. But we do love our capital punishment.

So over the years every administration since 1979 has had a hand in the creation of the Taliban. What more could Carter have done to push the Soviets out, other than keep our athletes out of the Olympics? What could he have done about the Shah of Iran coming to the U.S. to die? Why didn’t U.S. intelligence see the rise of the theocracy in Iran, or the sacking of the U.S. embassy and the Iranian government taking embassy staff hostage?

Those questions have never been answered. They may have never been seriously asked. News organizations asked and got some answers, but there was never an independent commission nor a select committee in Congress.

As a nation we don’t really like to examine our past, look into and dissect our mistakes. We did it for the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but that was only after intense public pressure from all sides of the political rainbow. One thing that commission was not allowed to do was put former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney under oath and on the record. We will never know what they knew and when they knew it.

I remember watching The Secretary of State and former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice trying to explain her lack of action after receiving all the intelligence about al Qaeda planning to attack the U.S.

People wanted the same type of commission for the domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. capitol, January 6, 2021. Instead we have a select committee looking into it. That’s a topic for another day.

The fall of Afghanistan … did it really fall? Or did it just settle into its natural state? In 1991 the Taliban began to consolidate their power in Afghanistan, waging a civil war with several tribes in the Northern Alliance.

At some point after January 20, 1993, President Bill Clinton could have done something to push back on the primary government in Afghanistan, but that’s a country in a part of the world most people can’t find on a map. They pushed the Soviet Union out so bully for them.

The Clinton Administration began to take notice of the Taliban in 1999 when the leader of al Qaeda relocated to Afghanistan after being chased out of several African nations. Usama bin Laden helped push the Soviets out so as far as the Taliban was concerned, bin Laden was welcome. They shared the same views on strict Islamic government and shared Jihad, plus bin Laden wanted to kick the Westerners out of his home country, Saudi Arabia.

On October 12, 2000 when Al Qaeda bombed the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemen harbor of Aden, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Afghanistan were on the American public’s radar. Eleven months later al Qaeda would hijack four passenger jets, flying two of them into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and one that was purposely crashed into a Pennsylvania field by the passengers to prevent the plane from reaching the terrorists’ target.

Less than a month after September 11, 2001, there were American special forces in Afghanistan organizing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban government. President George W. Bush ramped up the war in Afghanistan to crush al Qaeda and bring Usama bin Laden to justice … which didn’t happen.

International terrorism from that nation did stop, but it continued around the world, with bin Laden taking up peaceful residence in neighboring Pakistan until May 2011 when Seal Team 6 dropped into his compound and whacked him, a couple of his sons and some al Qaeda body guards.

Still, despite some of his chief advisors telling him it was long past time to end the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan President Barack Obama continued U.S. military involvement in that country. Obama did, however, begin to shrink the military footprint, down to 8,400 at the end of his term. This was after he was convinced a surge of American forces would turn the corner in Afghanistan shortly after Obama took office in 2009.

In 2015 Afghanistan was America’s 14-year quagmire. Six years later we are watching the end.

It would be hilariously hypocritical to see Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska telling President Biden to “come out of hiding” and that Biden should “Man up.,” if there wasn’t so much tragedy taking place. Not to mention, the president has been on television nearly every day talking about this foreign policy catastrophe, as well as the pandemic of the unvaccinated which now has several Southern, “I want my freedom!” states asking for more ventilators and morgue trucks to handle the surge of Delta Variant COVID-19 patients (living and not living) from Florida to Texas.

Where were you Senator Sasse when former President Trump was planning to pull American troops earlier, signing a deal to get them out by May 1, calling the Taliban “smart and tough” then inviting them over to Camp David for some brewskies? You Republicans quietly took down your website page the praised Trump’s “historic” agreement with the Taliban. Do you still think his agreement is historic Sen. Sasse?

“Man up”? Listening to Biden’s speech from Monday, August 16, we heard the words never spoken by Trump, for whom Ben Sasse so slavishly groveled. “I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said, adding that the buck stops with him. He wasn’t going to pass this endless war on to a fifth president.

President Biden shares some of the responsibility for this disorganized, sad and gut-wrenching end to the war in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of American citizens are still in the country, some nowhere near Kabul or the airport. On August 18 the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley were at the podiums trying to explain why the military — and the Biden Administration — were so unprepared for this abrupt end to the Afghan regime our government has propped up for 20 years.

“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” Gen. Milley said at that press conference. He was pressed on it because several news organizations, like the Washington Post and New York Times, have been reporting that some intelligence reports estimated the Afghan government and military could collapse this quickly.

The Post also reported that as soon as Trump and then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed their agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 (in Doha, Qatar) and dropped the U.S. troop presence to 2,500, the Taliban began negotiating with Afghan security forces to peacefully turn over control of the country once the U.S. began leaving Afghanistan for good.

As a result the Taliban rode into provincial capitals and eventually Kabul unopposed. Think of it: While these Afghan security forces were working with U.S. advisory troops they were also negotiating with the enemy. The Taliban were offering the low level commanders money, something they were not getting from their own government. The Afghan forces were being shorted on food, ammunition, medicine, medical supplies and paychecks as the ruling elite pillaged and plundered the U.S. aid for their individual fortunes.

MSNBC viewers might remember when Rachel Maddow did a few shows from Afghanistan. NBC Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel showed Maddow around a neighborhood of high priced villas, paid for by U.S. aid, that were being rented out to news organizations and private contractors for $25k per month. “Your tax dollars at work,” Maddow sarcastically said.

Then, just about a month ago, that same reporter, Richard Engel, riding an abandoned bicycle around Bagram Air Base after all the U.S. forces left, supposedly turning it over the Afghan forces.

One of the many questions people are asking now is why the government closed that vital, two runway facility when it appears to have been ideally suited for a mass exodus from Afghanistan. Instead of a run on that single runway facility outside Kabul, Hamid Karzai International Airport, the U.S. could have had both air bases (and airport) available, which could have been helpful to thousands of Afghans who find it difficult or impossible to get to the airport near Kabul.

Who knows? Not me, that’s certain. I’ve watched this quagmire spread, from the days of Reagan to, Bush 43, to Obama, Trump and now ending with Biden. There is no one president responsible for this mess we are watching. We’ve been collectively lying to ourselves as a nation trying to make believe we could turn Afghanistan into a functioning democracy. Like we saw in South Vietnam, the corruption and incompetence far out-paced the aid and training we tried to give Afghanistan.

At least in South Vietnam it took from January 27, 1973 until April 30, 1975 for the government and ARVN to fully collapse and give the southern half of Vietnam to the north. So we can’t really compare Afghanistan to Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Army actually tried fighting the north — after being abandoned by U.S. forces. In Afghanistan low level Afghan commanders negotiated the surrender of the country while the rest of the world was looking the other way, consumed with the pandemic.

Millions of Afghan women and girls who have never known Taliban rule, who have gone to school, received high school and college degrees, opened businesses and served in local and provincial government, now have to figure out how to leave their country because they are surely marked for death. NBC news icon Andrea Mitchell put it best, “The millions of women who’ve gone to school, learned to code, learned to become teachers, aspire to be doctors and engineers, we have another generation already, a generation that’s never known Taliban rule. They don’t want to go back.”

There is absolutely nothing we can do to keep the Taliban from forcing their 7thcentury ideas on the millions of women and girls in the country. Their revolution will have to come from within Afghanistan.

The ramifications of our involvement there have tentacles we cannot even imagine yet, but we will see as the Taliban gets more situated in their new roles. Yes, as a whole, we are glad it is now over, but we are going to be visited with the horrible results of our Afghanistan mistake for weeks and months to come. Maybe even years.

We may be gone from Afghanistan, but the horror isn’t over, not by a long shot.