Absent a drastic change in the battlefield or an unlikely contingency, the 20-year US-led campaign in Afghanistan has been declared over. The remaining 2,500 US troops will be pulled out by September 11, 2021, President Joe Biden has declared. NATO countries with forces in the country are following suit.
According to one, the US presence in Afghanistan amounted to an unnecessary human and financial cost that could no longer be justified.
According to the other, the post-2001 “war on terror” represented another military campaign by the US war machine that was condemnable from the start and is better to end now.
The first of these narratives is primarily conscious of the war’s burden on the US military and the economy, while the second objects to it as militarist adventurism. Closer examination, however, exposes the largely self-interested nature of both perspectives.
It is fair to say that regardless of which perspective one follows, the effects of Biden’s decision on millions of Afghan civilians who aren’t party to the ongoing war will be a rising threat of violence and widespread hunger, and they must now also contemplate the daunting prospects of reduced international support.
The nearly 10,000-strong US-led NATO contingent was already disengaged from active battle according to the terms of a US-Taliban accord reached last year in Doha, Qatar. Pulling them out can only mean a deeper disengagement that might pave the way for humanitarian support.
The narrative on the “war on terror” must take adequate account of the larger war the US has been fighting in Afghanistan since the early 1980s, originally as the leader of the Western camp against the Soviet Union’s expansionism. The multi-pronged effort to give the Soviets their own “Vietnam” began even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
Then-US president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, masterminded a strategy to drag the Soviets into Afghanistan, persuading the Carter administration to lend support to the Afghan Islamist groups who were fighting against the pro-Soviet Afghan government and were hosted by the Pakistani military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
Later, when the Soviet Army did invade Afghanistan, partly to fend off the threats by jihadist groups in the Muslim-majority Central Asian republics, but also to save the Soviets’ client regime in Afghanistan, the military quagmire US strategists had in mind put millions of Afghans and their country’s fledgling infrastructure in the crossfire, resulting in massive casualties and reducing much of the country to uninhabitable rubble.
In a larger sense, this campaign was consequential in building a front line in Afghanistan that effectively halted Soviet-style communism’s global expansion and contributed to its ultimate collapse. To this end, weapons and funding to Pakistan-based jihadist groups poured in, particularly to those who proved most effective in killing Afghan and Soviet soldiers, meaning those more fervently fundamentalist.
Responsibility for handling the effort on the ground was given to the Pakistani military, notably its notorious intelligence arm, Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). In this heated frenzy, little regard was given to Afghanistan’s chances of returning to some form of viability if the Soviets withdrew and cut their financial support to the Kabul government.
This disregard was witnessed when the eventual withdrawal of the Soviet army in early 1989 took place, an event followed by absence of any concerted effort by the US and its allies to ensure Afghanistan’s return to a somewhat viable state.
The ensuing tragedy due to a power vacuum in Kabul and infighting among the jihadist groups was left to sort itself out now that the anti-Soviet ideological battle was over. But this was soon forgotten; when US president George H W Bush was briefed regarding the events in Kabul at a high point of hostilities in the early 1990s, he was surprised the Afghan war was still ongoing.
When asked about the consequences of the US support to jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Brzezinski is said to have replied later on with pathological apathy: “What was more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Back then Joe Biden was a member of the US Senate, and the main flank of the Democratic Party together with the more hawkish Republican Party supported the anti-Soviet intervention policy in Afghanistan.
Barring occasional closed-door admissions by senior US politicians, the “long war” in Afghanistan in popular imagination in the US does not extend beyond October 2001, when George W Bush launched the war against the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda, not least among the media commentators now appraising Biden’s historic declaration of the war’s end.
Influential voices have, instead, quickly set to work to depict Afghanistan as a country always at war, a narrative instrumentalized to make the country seem intractable and better left on its own, an eternally hostile and ragged terrain where love for ancient habits is unchangeable, seems to have a firm grip.
This potent image has been battling for legitimacy among the plurality of voices on post-2001 US engagement in Afghanistan. Even to some among those who launched the Afghan campaign, the country represented a never-ending war and an ungovernable collective of tribes, justifying the adoption of a “light footprint” strategy that allowed also for shifting attention soon afterward to the “heavy footprint” battlefield in Iraq.
As was later revealed, there was little consensus on the objectives of the war in Afghanistan in the White House and the Pentagon. This reluctance to forge coherent policy was given fuel by the media commentaries that poured pessimism or critiqued the military campaign as a colonial conquest disguised as a humanitarian mission.
But the actual history of prewar Afghanistan should negate such parsimonious pigeonholing.
Another image of the country shows a country in the throes of gradual progress and liberalizing change, at least in big cities like Kabul, before the period of war, defying the predominantly conservative image one might have of the country today. A long-forgotten idyllic peace in the country at times beckoned bohemian hippies in search of tucked-away corners in the Hindu Kush.
Even now, some progress in Afghanistan is undeniable as a result of unprecedented international support, seen in many forms.
Hundreds of TV channels and newspapers, public and private universities, thousands of schools covering distant districts where children strive to become literate (baa-sawaad, a revered status in Afghan culture), and a vibrant civil society might unsettle assumptions that they are a people irredeemably caught in the past.
The country does suffer from social conservatism in many ways. But this comes in as many shades as there are cities, ethnicities, regions and sects in the country. Only a small minority might agree with the fundamentalist politics espoused by the Taliban.
Welcoming Biden’s withdrawal as either the end of an effort to bring democracy to an incorrigibly backward country or as a deserved humbling of the United States’ imperialist conceit ignores the perspective that takes ordinary Afghans as a focal point, when they might be in need of continued international humanitarian support after nearly five decades of living with chaos and at a time when hope for peace and stability under the country’s fledgling democracy might not be entirely lost.
America’s post-2001 “war on terror” is only a recent chapter in a much longer war, the effects of which Afghans have borne, and has been carried out to fulfill a responsibility the US turned away from in the early 1990s. Biden’s withdrawal decision should be assessed at least partially based on whether the US and its allies now will meet this responsibility – however long it might take.
Kambaiz Rafi is a PhD candidate in political economy at University College London.