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The seeming enigma of Afghanistan

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing...”

“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

So said Douglas Lute, a three-star Army General who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, to government interviewers in 2015.

What I hope you are about to read should in no way be taken as personal disrespect or animosity towards serving or ex-military personnel.

But the question posed by General Lute – “what are we trying to do here” – must be discussed openly.

Afghanistan has been the site of foreign invasions and meddling, civil wars and totalitarian rule for over four decades.

Moscow installed a pro-Soviet leader in 1980, and immediately faced opposition from mujahadeen Muslim holy warriors covertly backed and armed by the USA and Saudi Arabia.

The bulk the 1980s saw America continuing to arm mujahadeen fighters, and eventually the Geneva Peace Accord signed by the Soviet Union, USA, Pakistan and what substituted for an Afghanistan Government led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1988/89.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 triggered the immediate collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan Government. The Mujahadeen splintered into rival groups, with the capital Kabul reduced to rubble, and tens of thousands were added to the million-plus civilian death toll of the preceding decade.

The Taliban emerged from this wreckage, promising to restore their version of order and security by wrapping a veil of extremist Islam over the country – subjugating women, public beatings and executions – completing that takeover by 1997/98.

Only three countries officially recognised the Taliban regime: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

This is where Osama bin Laden comes in. Bin Laden cosied up to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and used Afghanistan as a base for al-Qaida terrorist activities.

In retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, the USA and its allies launched operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ with a ground and air assault on Kabul. The Taliban were driven out of power, beginning a two-decade period of foreign occupation, characterised by political instability, insurgent and terrorist attacks.

At this point in this tragic timeline, we should ask the question – what did the USA and its Allies think victory in Afghanistan would like?

Was the Taliban meant to roll over or disappear into the Hindu Kush never to be heard from again? Or would the West class a never-ending war as victory?

If the USA and its Allies thought they could impose Judaeo-Christian values and their version of ‘nation building’ down the barrel of a gun, they were tragically mistaken, and guilty of incredible arrogance and hubris.

Australia cannot be exempt from criticism for participating in this war. As a nation we are tied to the military interests of America via ANZUS – the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty.

Prime Minister John Howard, eyeing poor polling numbers, called a federal election on October 5, 2001, less than a month after 9/11, and campaigned on national security and ‘boat people’ issues.

With bipartisan support, he committed the Australian military to the US-led assault on Afghanistan, without a clearly defined objective or description of a post war Afghanistan.

He did however get to bask in the praise of President Bush, who called him a “man of steel’’ for his support of the military invasion. His party won the November 2001 election by a comfortable margin.

Another unsavoury hidden aspect of this Afghanistan War is heroin.

In some years up to 93 per cent of the world’s heroin supply is cultivated in Afghanistan. Having an illicit narcotic as the major commodity creates a network of finance, transport and criminal loyalties resistant to the US-led nation building. Cultivation drives employment and corruption.

The Obama administration tried many times to circumvent the trade by paying vast sums of money to rural warlords to grow food crops, but to no avail. The Taliban would find this money and divert it to purchasing weapons, the warlords would demand more money, and the cycle would continue.

The movement of money of course highlights the financial cost of the War and prompts the question of who benefited.

There can be no doubt weapons manufacturers and private ‘contractors’ benefitted from the money spent on the War. America is calculated to have spent over $US2 trillion, factoring in military hardware, personnel housing and food, security, training the Afghan Army, transport, military bases in neighbouring Pakistan, consultants, and ‘nation building’ payments to government officials and local warlords.

The UK and Germany spent an estimated $US30 billion and $US19 billion respectively over two decades. Australia $10 billion.

In 2011 Wikileaks founder Julian Assange warned, “The goal is to use Afghanistan to wash money out of the tax bases of USA and Europe through Afghanistan and back into the hands of a transnational security elite. The goal is an endless war, not a successful war.”

In 2010 Wikileaks released American diplomatic cables confirming the then Afghan vice-president Ahmad Zia Massoud was stopped at Dubai Airport in 2009 with $US52 million in cash, then allowed on his way with no explanation required. The siphoning of money out of Afghanistan by Afghan officials into property purchases in the United Arab Emirates was well known; as was extortion of construction contractors, theft of public funds and misappropriating government property. But by choice, nothing was done.

While this War drifted from public attention, fought in a place most people can’t place on a map, casualties mounted, and the Taliban powerbase never faded away to give the West the victory they desired.

Enter the self-described deal-maker – Donald Trump. With his usual lack of nuance, Trump declared America must “get out of Afghanistan” and a deal needs to be done.

In February 2020 a deal was struck between the US and the Taliban, which is nothing short of surrender. The lengthy details can be seen in the signed agreement, but in short, the USA agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan in a known timeline, immediately releasing 5000 combat and political prisoners, removing all trade sanctions against the Taliban, giving a written promise not to threaten the Taliban with force or intervene in its internal affairs ever again, and provide economic co-operation for re-construction of the Afghan economy.

So much for the ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ mantra we have heard for two decades.

This is total capitulation. It is an admission that the war was unwinnable and without an exit strategy.

Given the advance notice, it is obvious the Taliban would simply wait until the Americans bailed out then surge back into power.

As a close ally, the Australian Government should have been aware of the terms of the deal and American’s intention to cut and run – the federal government should have planned Australian evacuations in advance of the current crisis.

The weasel words coming out of Canberra at the moment make clear the Government was caught napping, hoping for the best rather than planning for the worst.

Of course, we have a moral obligation to protect Afghans who aided our ill-fated invasion and failed nation-building.

We also have a moral obligation to help the serving and ex-military personnel and their families who bear the scars of their involvement. Operational trauma is a major factor in a suicide rate that is magnitudes higher than the general public. To deny support is to devalue the contribution of individual personnel.

It remains to be seen whether the $500 million expansion of the Australian War Memorial will acknowledge the capitulation of Western forces. It is a fine line between glorification and truth telling, and acknowledgement is part of the process.

Where to now for Afghanistan? The Taliban is claiming they have changed, and will allow the education of girls and women to work ‘within the bounds of Islamic Principles,’ but behind the scenes schools are being closed and girls are being ‘gifted’ to Taliban loyalists. Women are being sent home from work and university students denied entry.

We rightly condemn this barbarism, but conveniently forget the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, supposedly the USA’s partner in peace in the Middle East. And the sale of Australian-made military weapons to both Saudi Arabia (for use in bombing Yemen) and the United Arab Emirates. Both of whom recognised the first iteration of the Taliban.

The corporate military machine rolls on. As do the ideological poll driven whims of the political class.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” – US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.