The United States government and representatives from the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday. In it, the former pledged to remove all military personnel from Afghanistan by next summer while, in return, the Taliban guaranteed Afghan soil would “not be used against the security of the United States and its allies”.
America’s war in Afghanistan began less than a month after 9/11 – and more than a year before the United States and Britain invaded Iraq. Among the 19 men who hijacked the four planes used to attack the Twin Towers and the Pentagon almost two decades ago, there was not a single Afghan or Iraqi national.
The operational title of America’s response to those deadly attacks, which became known to most people simply as the War on Terror, was initially Operation Infinite Justice – with the invasion of Afghanistan merely its opening salvo.
President Bush was frank about the nebulous nature of such conflict, declaring only weeks after the collapse of the World Trade Centre, “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while”. Unsurprisingly, US allies in the Gulf had misgivings about not only the term crusade, but also the theological undertones to any form of justice claiming to be infinite. As a result the title was quickly changed to the slightly less outlandish Operation Enduring Freedom.
Over the following years Enduring Freedom would unfold in a range of theatres, from the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, but its genesis was Afghanistan. After all it was there that Al Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden was based, and where the organisation had operated terrorist training camps in the months preceding the 9/11 attacks. Five years earlier the Taliban had emerged from the country’s civil war as its dominant faction and, within days of US air strikes starting, it offered to surrender Bin Laden on the submission of evidence that he was guilty – a transaction President Bush rejected.
That is somewhat surprising given the Taliban had previously enjoyed passive support from the US State Department, primarily through neighbouring Pakistan. According to author Ahmed Rashid, this intensified after 1994 as the Taliban achieved unrivalled dominance in the country. The rationale behind that was simple: the Taliban was a counterweight to the Islamic Republic of Iran, who were eager to export revolution across the region and themselves supported the Northern Alliance – a united front primarily consisting of ethnic Turkmen, Hazara, Tajiks and Uzbeks.
One example of the United States turning a blind eye to Taliban excesses was in 1995 when, having captured the city of Herat, they proceeded to expel thousands of girls from school – a misdeed which received no comment from the State Department. Such reactionary forces, whose disdain for human rights far outdid others in the country, were indulged because they ensured a ‘balance of power’ in the region. Such logic, still applied today in places like Yemen, not only had devastating consequences but should remove any illusions about US support for human rights in matters of foreign policy.
‘Enduring Freedom’ proved at least partially apposite: the US army has seen active combat in Afghanistan for almost 19 years, and its deployment there now surpasses Vietnam as the country’s most protracted conflict. That is the prism through which to understand the events of last weekend, the meaning of which can be summarised in a single word that few in the political or media establishment dare utter: defeat. The United States and Britain, like the Soviet Union before them, lost in Afghanistan.
The ramifications of the conflict are often understated or outright forgotten. That is somewhat understandable given it was concurrent with war in Iraq, the greatest military calamity of the modern era. Yet the overhead is astonishing nonetheless: 2,400 American soldiers have been killed in combat so far, while a further 20,000 have been wounded. 456 British soldiers died, while many thousands more lost arms, legs and suffered psychological trauma which will stay with them forever. More than 58,000 Afghan military personnel were killed, as well as approximately 100,000 Afghan civilians. The country remains one of the poorest on Earth and production of opium – something the Taliban succeeded in almost eliminating by the early 21st century – is at historic highs. As a result neighbouring Iran has the highest number of drug addicts in the world relative to its population. One estimate has 90% of the world’s heroin being made from Afghan poppies, a figure which rises to 95% for Europe.
Most remarkable of all is how such wanton destruction, and all to maintain the status quo ante some two decades later, cost the United States $2 trillion. And Britain? According to one estimate it spent £37 billion fighting in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013. That’s £2,000 for every single household in the country.
You’d think such self-defeating failure, funded at gargantuan public expense, would mean its primary architects would be excluded by the political and media establishment – or that they themselves would feel too ashamed to issue public edicts on current affairs. And yet in the era of Donald Trump, George W Bush has been re-invented as the compassionate Republican he never was, while Tony Blair – and an assortment of New Labour ghouls from David Blunkett to Peter Mandelson – have attempted rehabilitation, often via Brexit or opposition to Jeremy Corbyn. One such individual is Labour’s former Defence Secretary John Reid – who made a considerable donation to Lisa Nandy’s leadership campaign. In 2006 he oversaw the deployment of 3,300 soldiers to Helmand, a prospect about which he was optimistic saying, “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot”. Yet within twelve months British soldiers there had fired four million bullets in some of the most intense fighting seen by any unit since the second second world war. And Reid? He would become a consultant for G4S in Iraq and Afghanistan – and was handsomely rewarded.
In a 2017 interview with Alastair Campbell for GQ, Tony Blair defended Britain’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying both interventions failed because the coalition didn’t “understand the depth of this Islamist question”. Even after two decades the author of Britain’s most disastrous sequence of foreign policy decisions since the Munich Agreement remains oblivious to cultural difference or sectarian, linguistic or regional nuance. “We thought if you removed a dictator and gave people the chance to elect their government, that they would do that and the rest was a matter of reconstructing the country” he added. Such comments compound what he said in 2006 on how intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan was, “not just about changing regimes, but changing the values systems governing the nations concerned. The banner was not regime change, it was ‘values change”. This is orientalism at its clearest: the Iraqi and Afghan only exists as it does in the mind of the West, with no agency and little nuance for countries as far apart as Britain and Tunisia. Remove the dictator and they’ll be just like us, or rather how we want them to be. After all, world history is merely a euphemism for European history – and never mind that the great powers arbitrarily determined their geographical borders.
Most ironic of all is that the approach the Americans are now pursuing was favoured by the Iranians in 2002. Back then Tehran arrested suspected Al Qaeda figures on its territory and gave Washington detailed information disclosing Taliban positions in Afghanistan. Indeed James Dobbins, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator in Afghanistan in late 2001, described Iran as “comprehensively helpful” after 9/11. And Iran’s reward? To be labelled part of an ‘axis of evil’ the following year and subjected to devastating sanctions. The alleged author of the axis of evil line, David Frum, is now a media favourite rehabilitated though an often vacuous ‘Never Trump, Never Bernie’ schtick. Meanwhile another individual – central to those attempts at collaboration – was Qassem Suleimani, the senior commander who was executed in a US drone strike in Iraq earlier this year. His body was so utterly mutilated he was allegedly identified only because of a distinctive ring on his finger.
Britain and America’s war in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, ended in defeat. Our media, and many politicians too, will not say that because many of them cheered on an utterly senseless conflict. Today they remain on our TV screens, in our newspapers and determining the national conversation. As long as that remains the case we are likely doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again.