The events unfolding in Afghanistan didn’t begin with the US post-9/11 invasion. The country has a very long history of “hosting” foreign armies, dating back to before the Common Era: Persians, led by Darius I; Greeks, led by Alexander the Great; Roman, Turkic and Mongol empires; Great Britain and the Soviet Union (three times each).
There’s one key take-away: this is a country that has learned to persevere, even when faced with an invading Superpower.
To gain any perspective of the events currently underway, though, it is necessary to examine Afghanistan’s relationship with the Soviet Union. That country arose out of revolution and a three-year civil war; a mere two years after the Czar’s abdication, the emerging socialist state established diplomatic ties in 1919 with the then-Kingdom of Afghanistan, premised primarily on common disdain for Great Britain. The USSR provided financial and material assistance from that time through the “fall of communism”.
Over the next decade, Amanullah Khan instituted a constitution and civil reforms, including abolition of polygamy, the marriage of minors, and veils for women. This made the king enemies among the clergy, who asserted “no law other than Sharia”. At the same time, a wave of refugees fleeing Central Asia from the Soviets filtered into Afghanistan. They had ties to Great Britain and referred to themselves as Mujahideen. Frictions resulted in the Red Army forming units within the King’s army, until the King fled the country, leaving the Soviets with no legal standing for being in Afghanistan.
The next year, though, anti-Soviets from Turkestan fled that Socialist Republic. In the process, they violated the Soviet-Afghan border. That gave the USSR justification to re-enter Afghanistan. They penetrated perhaps 100 miles beyond the border and were encouraged by Afghans who did not appreciate the Mujahideen in their midst who, they said, were absconding with the best lands and properties of citizens. The Red Army razed Kunduz Province, leaving only native Afghans untouched.
In 1978, Afghanistan endured another upheaval now known as the Saur Revolution. This resulted in the establishment of a socialist government modeled on the USSR’s. The Politburo were not pleased. They preferred a “neutral Afghanistan” that would serve as a buffer between their country and adversaries Pakistan, Iran and China. The formation of the new PDRA again saw reforms like those implemented by Amanullah Khan. These, again, earned the new leadership threats from zealots. They implored the USSR to intervene – 19 times. The Politburo were opposed; KGB chief (and future Premier) Yuri Andropov said the risk was too high. But the US put some kind of “bug” in Soviet ears. “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would,” said Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said in an interview with a French media outlet. Ultimately, it was concluded that the USSR losing Afghanistan all together was an even greater and more undesirable risk than accepting the “invitation” to intercede. Thus, in December 1979, Brezhnev deployed the Red Army to Afghanistan (where they remained until February 1989). In the end, the Mujahideen, backed by the US and supplied with training, money and materiel, out-waited the invasion force, took control of the country and imposed Sharia. The Soviet Union dissolved shortly following withdrawal from the country.
So the US resurrected the Mujahideen and installed them in a position of prominence. They’d played the long game, after being dormant for 50 years. They engaged in a war of attrition until their enemies departed, tails between their legs. But this was not the end of it. The Mujahideen morphed into today’s Taliban and other terrorist organizations and engaged in jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere – including the US on September 11, 2001.
The “freedom fighters” of which Ronald Reagan was so proud and to which the CIA, per a braggadocious tweet on April 6th of this year, delivered Stinger missiles and their launchers, had now attacked the US. Thus, direct US involvement in Afghanistan was initiated, followed by 20 years of undeclared war.
Afghanistan’s history implied the conclusion was foregone. Whether the US occupied Afghanistan for five years or 50 years, how it would end should have been obvious, regardless of which presidential administration was installed at the time . This is likely why Bush II, Obama and Trump each could have (but didn’t) pull the plug. The fall of the regime the US propped up would impact negatively on these presidents’ re-election odds or those of the down-ticket candidates within their respective parties.
Over the course of two decades, Afghans had ample time to build toward self-governance. They didn’t. They could have availed themselves of US expertise to assemble an army capable of defending their country against usurpers. They didn’t. They could have learned logistics. They didn’t. US for-profit contractors handled that. Afghans did not master any aspect of the management of their own nation.
The blame doesn’t fall only on them. Congress, to which the Constitution provides the sole power to declare war, did not do so. Instead, they passed AUMF after AUMF, funding a stalemate. They could have ended the hostilities by asserting their mandate and rejecting the war. They didn’t.
The aftermath, on the other hand, was largely preventable. The Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020. In it, the US promised that, within 135 days, a draw-down would commence. Knowing that civilian interpreters and other “helpers” were vulnerable, as were contractors, it would have been a good time to begin issuing visas and escorting these people to safety. Sensitive documents could have been disposed of; US planes and other equipment could have been flown out. None of these things happened.
The Biden administration was informed in mid-July that the end was approaching faster than anticipated. That, too, would have been a good time to act. They didn’t. So, when the Taliban entered each provincial capital in turn, the armed forces put their guns down and their hands up. There was no resistance. Any opportunity for a calm and orderly exit evaporated.
Sadly, the US won’t learn the lessons of history and of its own perpetual intrusion into the affairs of other sovereign nations. Particularly if those states opt for a socialist leader or government, or if they have resources like oil or, as in the case of Afghanistan, copper and lithium.