Afghanistan: Eleven Years Later

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Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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  1. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    My hope is that the subject will be discussed during the upcoming presidential debates, but something tells me both candidates are too fearful of public opinion to tell the truth.

    I’m not sure on this one. The President’s been pretty clear that his plan is to get the US out by 2014. Now if the truth also means saying “well the taliban are probably gonna be back in charge” then that’s a different story.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The asinine decision to apply American law to Afghanistan poppies is probably the worst decision we could have made.

    I have no idea how much death/destruction that one decision will be responsible for but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it will end up killing more people than 9/11 itself did.Report

    • When faced with an unresolvable conflict between the goals of our two most expensive wars, and thus had to pick one or the other, we chose “both.”Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      According to Marc W. Herold’s extensive database, Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States’ Aerial Bombing, between 3,100 and 3,600 civilians were directly killed by U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom bombing and Special Forces attacks between October 7, 2001 and June 3, 2003. This estimate counts only “impact deaths” – deaths that occurred in the immediate aftermath of an explosion or shooting – and does not count deaths that occurred later as a result of injuries sustained, or deaths that occurred as an indirect consequence of the U.S. airstrikes and invasion.

      A 2002 analysis by The Guardian estimated that as many as 20,000 Afghans died in 2001 as an indirect result of the initial U.S. airstrikes and ground invasion.[7]

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilian_casualties_in_the_War_in_Afghanistan_%282001%E2%80%93present%29#cite_note-32Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Those deaths, while awful, don’t strike me as necessarily being poppy related.

        We (for whatever definition of “we” you deem appropriate… if you want to say “not me!”, that’s fine) were still in the red haze at that point.Report

    • Avatar Scott says:

      JB:

      The Taliban were hard on the poppy growers until they needed the funds then they didn’t seem to object so much. If the Taliban get funds from the poppy growers then they are a legitimate target.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        The Taliban had been dispersed. Had we hooked up the farmers with GSK or Bayer or any number of companies, we could have had along-term mutually beneficial relationship established with a bunch of people more than happy to engage in stable commerce.

        As it is, they were given a much different choice.

        Now we can talk about how we’re pleased to have bombed poppies with a street value of millions of dollars! Every week. Intercepted opium with a street value of millions of dollars! Every week. Intercepted heroin with a street value of millions of dollars! Every week.

        And go on to wonder why they’re treating us like we treated the Russians in Red Dawn.Report

    • Avatar Jon Rowe says:

      One thing I don’t understand (I may have asked this q before but forgotten the answer): Why didn’t we just buy all the poppies from the farmers, get them on our side and use the poppies to make legal opiates, like painkillers for our military medics?Report

  3. Avatar Kolohe says:

    “Bin Laden’s death demonstrated that this war should have ALWAYS been about Al Qaeda and should have been almost exclusively a special ops initiative”

    It would have been tough for the Bin Laden raid to work without (more or less) secure basing facilities in the center of South West Asia. But maybe it would, after all, extraction was seaward.

    Moreover, though, the distinction between Al-Queda fighters and Taliban fighters was not as clear in 2001. Granted the former have always been foreginers, but they were fairly closely aligned and both would have shot at you from the same direction if you went trapsing around the country in 2001.

    Also, the war *was* just basically a special forces op for the first 3 or so years. Our boots on the ground endstregth was only around 10K, creeping up and finally hitting 20K by early 2006. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/Programs/FP/afghanistan%2520index/index.pdf

    We should have though, just declared victory and went home as soon as Karzai was installed.Report

  4. Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

    I like this post. A lot.Report

    • Me, too.

      I wish I had not been as supportive of the war in Afghanistan at its inception as I was. It was revanchism, plain and simple. In any case, it reflects no particular wisdom on my part to be against the war now.

      Do I get any credit for never supporting the war in Iraq?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I wish I had not been as supportive of the war in Afghanistan at its inception as I was

        This is a series of essays.

        I flip back through the things I wrote in 2001 and 2002 and notice many things that I stand by, many things that make me wince, and remember many things that, if they happened again tomorrow, would have me write similar things again tomorrow… even knowing what I know now. (Seriously: If you’re going to protest War in Afghanistan, then tell the Liberate Palestine people to go to the other park and to please escort the Free Mumia people.)

        Afghanistan seemed necessary at the time.

        God help me, I have no idea what we’re doing there today.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

          I never supported Afghanistan but I was 100% behind the Iraq War. Even today I believe we went in there for legitimate reasons. It was just a completely wrong assumption.Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The Taliban government was not legal by any stretch of the imagination. First, there was no such entity which governed all of Afghanistan. The Taliban controlled Kabul and a few outlying provinces. To the north, they had no control and no mandate. Only a few countries ever recognised the Taliban regime, the ones which backed it financially and militarily. When the Taliban came to power, they fractured internally and damned near destroyed Kabul. That picture on your diary? It’s the old King’s summer palace, not far from Kabul. I’ve been there. The Taliban destroyed it in an internecine fight.

    Nor is the USA responsible for how things have worked out. We’re responsible for what we’ve done there. Afghanistan is a creation of the outside world: the Durand Line and Afghanistan’s borders were not drafted with any participation from the people who must live with them. If the government of Afghanistan is corrupt, well, that’s not our problem, either. We’ve got officers walking around with suitcases full of money, all handed out to “tribal leadership” who are nothing more than gangsters and warlords. So those “tribal leaders” take the money and pay their condottieri and put the rest in their pockets – what’s the problem here? We gave that money to them. Why are we responsible for how it’s spent?

    This war was not really about Al Qaeda. It was about eliminating a lawless regime which served as a staging ground for attacks on the rest of the world. Let us have none of this pie-eyed talk of how the Taliban was not in a place to oppose foreign forces operating within their borders: the Karzai regime tolerates us for the same reason the Taliban tolerated Al Qaeda: Al Qaeda paid the Taliban and we continue to pay the Karzai regime.

    Blame America if it suits you. Blame is the argument of the weak. Afghanistan’s always been Pakistan’s dumping ground for troublemakers. If you really must blame anyone, you might consider Pakistan’s role in creating and maintaining the Taliban’s hegemony in the years of Mullah Omar. Women aren’t doing so well in Pakistan’s territory. Nor are Shiites or Sufis or anyone else. It’s a nightmare. While we’re on the subject of Pakistan, we might ask why we’re propping up that corrupt regime with US tax dollars and paying extortion money so we can get supplies into Afghanistan.

    And there’s Iran, now poking around in Afghanistan, supporting their own assortment of Bad Guys. We always hear about the east of Afghanistan but seldom about the western side. Lots of troubles out there and the American presence is damned near nil.

    Nobody’s going to say anything about Afghanistan. The GOP wouldn’t dare take on the subject, they’re all about a Big Military and hegemonic war, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Democrats won’t say anything: they want to stick to some arbitrary exit plan.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      This argument is a wondrous mix of factual truths and normative silliness.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Point out the normative silliness.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Nor is the USA responsible for how things have worked out.

          If the government of Afghanistan is corrupt, well, that’s not our problem, either.

          Blame America if it suits you. Blame is the argument of the weak.

          All the factual stuff I agree with, but these normative conclusions don’t follow well. You can’t be a deeply involved participant and not share blame for how it’s turned out, and in fact the corruption of the Afghan government is our problem (whether by that you mean “at least partly responsible for” or “is an issue that’s causing, and going to cause, us fits”).

          And I’m pretty sure you’ve criticized the way the U.S. has operated in Afghanistan in the past, and indeed the facts presented in your comment here are hard to read except as a criticism of the way the U.S. has operated, so the implication that we ought not pin any blame to the U.S., seems in contradiction to what you yourself have done.” And to say that assigning some of the blame to our own country is “the argument of the weak” doesn’t reflect the reality that as citizens of a democracy we have both the privilege, and some will argue the responsibility, to try to correct our country’s errors and direct it to a better path.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            I’m not reaching any conclusions. Some while back, I wrote what I would have done in Afghanistan. I’d have raised up an organic culture as a philosophical opposition to the Taliban, one which would respect the rights of man. My strategy would have worked.

            I also remember what was said when I brought up that strategy. Told me all I needed to know about Normative around here. Interventionist nonsense. Nation building. Horrible, horrible. Cargo cult. Creepy.

            Yeah. And every powerful man in Afghanistan maintains a few juvenile transvestite catamites, the bacha bazi boys. That’s the normative culture we’re funding. Still say my way’s better, working with the thousands of orphans and street children, building a perfect antidote to what the madrassa culture is producing.

            No, I’ve had it with any lectures about Normative Anything around here. Yes I have. Blame? Kiss my ass, America should have destroyed that Taliban culture and built a better one. We didn’t because we’re a bunch of weak-willed pussies. We don’t even eat our own dog food — democracy? rights of man? rights of women? right to education? We don’t believe any of that happy horse shit. So much for anyone else’s view of Normative, I have my own.Report

            • Avatar DBrown says:

              Looks like you are one of the few who here bothers to learn about a war/country. All I can say is, the sooner we get out, the better for us and them.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                I’d certainly get the hell out of everywhere but Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. I’d also control the Peshawar Road and up through the Khyber Pass. We have no business up there in the Hindu Kush. All we’re doing up there is running little Shoot Me Please parades.

                But I wouldn’t leave Afghanistan entirely. Not for at least another few decades, if only to keep the likes of Gulbuddin Hekhmatyar at bay. There’s one asshole I’d hunt forever, run him down and kill him. A few more like him, too, badly in need of a Hellfire enema.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe says:

                It’s not the Kush itself that’s the problem, the Hazara are cool enough. It’s in the open valley south of the Kush that’s the problem. The Kabul-Jalalabad -Kyber-Peshwar route is an important logistic path (though you can manage to do without it as long as you do have the Northern line from Kabul to MeS and onto the rest of the stans), but that also goes right through the middle of the Pasthun belt.

                Getting HiG to DIAF is fine by me, though Haqanni is the bigger problem these days. (or was a year ago).Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      Blaise,

      With care to not turn this into a fisking battle, a couple of points:

      “The Taliban government was not legal by any stretch of the imagination. First, there was no such entity which governed all of Afghanistan.”

      I agree, but imagine the US took them out and then didn’t bother to help get a new government in place. The world community would have crucified us. They were ‘legal’ in the sense that we became morally obligated the moment we removed them.

      “This war was not really about Al Qaeda. It was about eliminating a lawless regime which served as a staging ground for attacks on the rest of the world.”

      That statement doesn’t make sense when you’ve already said the Taliban didn’t control much outside Kabul. Al Qaeda could have set up shop there without their permission and there was little or nothing they could have done to stop them. We actually gave them legitimacy by treating them like the ruling power that permitted AQ to operate there. Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        We did try to put in a new government. Now here’s where you’re right: I’ve said before that Khalilzad cut Karzai off at the knees and wouldn’t give him sufficient hayba. Arabic word, sorta means prestige, but mainly the sort which engenders awe, fear and submission. We did have elections. The Taliban’s been on its back foot ever since: those elections gave mandate to the elected. Now the Taliban have to re-fight the wars of the 1980s and 90s, all over again. Huge win for us.

        The Taliban didn’t even control their own warlords. They were constantly feuding with each other. Mostly, the Taliban were Pashtun but that doesn’t mean anything much: they fight with each other. Like the Kurds, they only share a language.

        No, Al Qaeda could not have set up in Afghanistan without the Taliban’s say-so. Osama bin Laden had earned much cred and paid his way wherever he went. The Taliban had shahrafa din, a line of honour debt, open with Osama bin Ladin himself. The Taliban might fight among themselves but they would never have tolerated a Yemeni interloper.

        Here’s a concrete example: the Taliban have sheltered a fairly large group of Chinese Muslim rebels, the Uighur, in their midst. There are still quite a few of them in Pakistan, in Haqqani’s territory. These Uighur are still Communists, they practice communal farming and have been teaching the Pashtun how to run such farms. The Taliban doesn’t like Communism, it’s haram, godless. The Uighur are excellent fighters, operating in Pakistan as Al Qaeda once operated in Afghanistan, not only training their own fighters, but running the training facilities. Because they came out of the Chinese system, they’re all better-educated than their Pashtun hosts. For these reasons and many others, tensions exist between the Uighur and their hosts. We captured quite a few Uighurs, they went through Gitmo. Lots of them were sent to Albania, where they’re fish out of water. There’s some effort to get these refugees into the USA. All they wanted was to establish a free Uighur state. That they were in an Al Qaeda training camp, well, where else could they go to get weapons training? Now they’re running their own little training camps, up in Waziristan and the Pakistani government won’t shut them down.

        We didn’t remove anything when we kicked the Taliban out of Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, Mike. We ran off a gang of squatters. It’s no different than a gang crackdown on a few blocks in Los Angeles. That’s what these Taliban were and still are. They appear where the rule of law has broken down.Report

      • Avatar Scott says:

        Mike:

        “I agree, but imagine the US took them out and then didn’t bother to help get a new government in place. ”

        So you are agreeing, if so why the “but”? The Taliban gov’t was only legal if your sense of legality comes from the use of force rather than the consent of the governed.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe says:

          Which is how most governments for most of history have been based. Democracy is a rare thing in history, and heck, only about half the world is doing that now. And only half of *those* guys are doing it anywhere close to ‘right’Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

          Scott,

          Others have already mentioned this but history is full of countries ruled by those who took power by force. Our own country had eleven years between the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution which legally created the United States of America, yet we celebrate July 4, 1776 as the date of our founding, correct?

          My point is that while the Taliban was not recognized by international consensus, the Taliban ruled the majority of the country AND was recognized by a few other nations. That’s more than we had circa 1777.

          What’s more, as I said, when the U.S. ran them out of power, they gave them legitimacy by treating them as a ruling power that welcomed terroists. Point of fact, the demands made of them pre-invasion:

          1.Deliver to the U.S. all of the leaders of Al-Qaeda
          2.Release all foreign nationals that have been “unjustly imprisoned”
          3.Protect foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers
          4.Close immediately every terrorist training camp
          5.Hand over every terrorist and their supporters to appropriate authorities
          6.Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps for inspection

          These sound like the demands one would make to a ruling power.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      The vast majority of the damage to the King’s (and Queen’s) Palace occured during the initial Marxist revolution.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Wrong. As usual. Confirming what I was told at the time, Wiki:

        Darul Aman Palace was first gutted by fire in 1969. It was restored to house the Defence Ministry during the 1970s and 1980s. During the Communist coup of 1978, the building was set on fire. It was damaged again as rival Mujahideen factions fought for control of Kabul during the early 1990s. Heavy shelling by the Mujahideen after the end of the Soviet invasion left the building a gutted ruin.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe says:

          Hint- early 90’s is not ‘The Taliban’.

          When I was there, only the Queen’s palace (which was a wreck) and the Russian O-club (which only was gutted of any fixture of value) you could walk around and into, the King’s palace was too structurally unsafe.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      “the Karzai regime tolerates us for the same reason the Taliban tolerated Al Qaeda: Al Qaeda paid the Taliban and we continue to pay the Karzai regime.”

      Which oversimplifies and mischaracterizes Bin laden’s relationship with Mullah Omar. Both shared a vision of a restoration of the (a-)historic Caliphate from the Indus river (and beyond) to the Strait of Gibraltar. Bin Laden was a lot more eager (and reckless) than Omar was in achieving this vision, and there were differences in strategic priorities, (i.e. Bin Laden’s #1 thing was to attack the US, Omar’s was not) but in the very big picture, they saw eye to eye.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

        Mullah Omar strikes me still as an odd quasi-messianic figure who is a bit like say Shoko Asahara of Ohm.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Please. Al Qaeda had been run out of Sudan and found a new base in Afghanistan, which he paid for in gold. OBL scrupulously paid his way everywhere he went. You’re the one saying the mujahideen weren’t the Taliban. They were one and the same. They fought each other then and they’re fighting each other now. The only unity they’ve ever exhibited was in the face of a common enemy: deprive them of that and they’ll start feuding internally again.

        And not everyone liked OBL within the Taliban. There were mass defections from the Taliban as the foreign fighters got pride of place. OBL eventually became one of Mullah Omar’s few defenders.

        Mullah Omar had no grand vision. He couldn’t even get his own warlords to form up in a line. Well, the Americans can’t get their scruffy Afghan trainees in a line, either.Report

  6. Avatar Citizen says:

    Blaise,
    If the tribes of Afghanistan wanted to force the Taliban out, do you think they could have achieved that objective?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Maybe, a decade ago. The Taliban murdered off the Pashtun tribal leadership back in 2004, another big attack in 2010. The Pashtun have this proto-parliament notion they call a jirgeh. Everyone mills around and discusses everything under the sun, they’re supposed to be conducted under a truce. But the Taliban had other ideas. They wait for them to form, then massacre the leaders.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        The 2010 (and 2011) attacks were by Pakistani Taliban (TTP) against anti-Taliban tribal leaders in Pakistan.

        By and large, the Pasthun tribal leadership wouldn’t have a problem with Taliban leadership as long as the Taliban leadership gave the tribal leadership their due (as they did during the Taliban’s ascendancy up to 2001)

        The non-Pasthuns would have a big problem with Taliban leadership, and would become the guerillas fighting the government if the Taliban were to get back in power. (which they won’t exactly because these guys now hold most of the instruments of state power, and the long term backing of the west – neither of which they had in the 90’s)Report

        • Avatar MFarmer says:

          I find the internal group/tribal relationships in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the mideast in general, about as interesting as the Kardashians’ love lives. We should vacate the mideast and put all our efforts and the money wasted there into energy production here in the US. America has intervened in mideast affairs from the beginning, and the fact that we haven’t learned anything from all the failures, wasted lives and money is astounding.Report

          • Avatar MFarmer says:

            I can’t express how disappointing it is that no one in the policial realm with real power and influence has led a movement to develope a non-interventionist foreign policy, or that a grass-root movement hasn’t arisen to force politicians to withdraw our troops and close the bases.Report

            • Avatar MFarmer says:

              political realm, that is.

              Who was it that said we can’t bomb Afghanistan back to the 15th century, because they live in the 2nd century?Report

            • Avatar Kolohe says:

              Ron Paul has a package of views too unpalatable to the left of center, and left wing isolationists never stay that way.

              But mostly, by and large, Americans love American Greatness as long as Americans aren’t dying overmuch.Report

  7. Avatar damon says:

    “Never get into a land war in asia.”

    nuff said. We “broke” it the most recent time, and we failed, as we were destined to do so, as all who have come before us have.

    We should have pulled out years ago and cut our losses. Yes, America will be blamed, but the whole world blames America for all their troubles anyway, whether or not we actually had a hand is said troubles.Report

  8. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    “By attacking the Taliban directly and removing the legal government, we made ourselves responsible for a country that was essentially living in the Middle Ages.”

    I think maybe our problems actually remain teleological.Report

  9. Hey Mike, I’ve not much to add, but I enjoyed this post.Report

  10. Avatar Philip H says:

    MIke,
    You know well my feelings on both wars – which tend to be the opposite of yours. I do agree that 11 years in Afghanistan is about 10 years too long, but at least there we had an actual target and a real enemy in the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, as opposed to lies and deceit in the form of well documented non-existent NBC weapons. Iraq was not propelled by logically correct but factually challenged assumptions – it was propelled by jingoistic ideology which bent fiction into fact to allow the US to make a military point.

    Sadly, aside from the hundreds of thousands of dead in both countries, these wars will leave as their legacy a nearly economically broken America. Sort of like Russia after their Afghan misadventure come to think of it.Report