By Somar Wijayadasa*
President Joe Biden of the United States announced that its war in Afghanistan, the US’s longest war ever, will end on September 11, 2021.
A glimpse of Afghanistan’s history—dubbed as “the country where Empires go to die” will help us understand why many empires failed in that country.
Afghanistan, rightfully called a “graveyard of empires”, is a mountainous landlocked country located along the ancient Silk Road between Asia and Europe, and surrounded by powerful nations such as India, Pakistan, and Russia.
For centuries, it was a melting pot as new empires rose up and took control of, and thereby a place where a diverse set of cultures met and exchanged goods and ideas.
Prior to Alexander the Great’s invasion in 328 BC, Afghanistan was under the rule of the Persian Empire.
A Buddhist civilization flourished under the Maurya Empire from 305 BC until the end of the tenth century. Various Buddha statues, stupas and many cave temples with frescos still hold witness to a thriving period in Afghan history.
[In 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of two enormous and ancient Buddha statues (125ft and 180ft tall, respectively) that were carved into the face of a sandstone cliff some 1,500 years ago by the monks who came from China and India.]
Over the next thousand years, the Huns, the Turks, the Arabs, and the Mongolian Genghis Khan invaded the country in 1219. Thereafter, Afghanistan was ruled by various Indian and Persian empires—including Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century.
In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani came into power acquiring land from Persia, the Mughals, and the Uzbeks and consolidated Afghanistan.
The British invaded Afghanistan in 1838-42 and in 1878-81 but failed to colonize it.
In 1979, the Soviet Union sent in troops (US and others describe it as an invasion) to foster Afghanistan’s communist leader Babrak Kamal’s regime but the Afghan mujahidin empowered (financially and militarily) by the US and several others—fought the Soviet troops over the next several years.
According to the Middle East Institute in Washington, “In the decade following the Soviet invasion in 1979, 1.5 million Afghans were killed, millions were injured and disabled, 6.2 million fled to Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere, and 2.2 million more were internally displaced”.
Despite Soviet support, the Afghan Marxist regime failed to consolidate its power. Finally, in 1989, having lost more than 15,000 troops and billions of dollars, its 100,000 strong Soviet army withdrew—leaving Afghanistan in anarchy.
In April 1992, the Mujahidin declared it an Islamic State, and in 1996, the Taliban came to power, implemented draconian domestic policies including an extremist version of Islamic law across the country, and ordered the destruction of many symbols and structures of a rich pre-Islamic past.
The Taliban trained and harboured terrorists, and most importantly provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden (the creator of al-Qaeda).
The al-Qaeda trained rebels killed 18 American servicemen in Mogadishu (1993); bombed New York’s World Trade Center (1993); bombed US Embassies in Nairobi, where 213 people were killed and 4,500 injured, and in Dar-es-Salaam, where 11 people were killed and 85 injured (1998), to name a few.
Osama bin Laden’s biggest attacks were inside the United States on September 11, 2001 that demolished the World Trade Center and killed nearly 3000 people. Thus began the US War to apprehend Osama bin Laden, and dismantle his terrorist network in Afghanistan.
Biden to End the Longest ever War
Biden’s date to end the war in Afghanistan on September 9, 2021, represents the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania that caused the then President George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan in 2001.
Saying that each of the last four presidents wanted to end America’s longest war, Biden argued that the objective of the war—to root out Al-Qaeda and prevent further terrorist attacks against the US—was accomplished by 2011, when Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.
The pullout was agreed by the administration of Donald Trump as part of a peace deal with the Taliban, which was signed in Doha in February 2020. The deal set May 1, 2021 as the deadline for a complete withdrawal of US forces. Therefore, the Taliban refuses to engage in any negotiations with the US if the May 1 deadline is missed.
At the height of the US War during President Obama’s administration, there were around 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, bolstered by around 45,000 NATO service personnel.
According to official records, during the last two decades, approximately 2,400 US troops and 1,100 NATO service members have died, tens of thousands of US forces wounded, at least half a million Afghans—government forces, Taliban fighters, and civilians—have been killed or wounded, millions of Afghans displaced and more than $2 trillion in taxpayer money spent.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) claims that since January 2021, almost 1,800 civilians, including many women and children, were killed or wounded in the fighting between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The number of killed or wounded women rose by 37%, while child casualties increased by 23%, mostly victims of ground engagements; improvised explosive devices; and targeted killings.
Insurgent groups including the Taliban have caused most of the casualties among the population, while the Afghan National Army and other pro-government units were reportedly responsible for killing and wounding many civilians so far this year.
Not All Agree with Biden
Though bipartisan support for invading Afghanistan in 2001 was almost unanimous, Biden’s judicious decision to withdraw from there has faced objections from Republicans and a few Democrats saying “You don’t end wars by withdrawing, you just hand victory to your enemies”.
Republicans have widely condemned the move, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calling it a “grave mistake” and an “abdication of American leadership”, and Senator Lindsey Graham saying the withdrawal is a “disaster in the making”.
Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney who oversaw the original invasion, denounced the withdrawal as a “dangerous signal that the United States fundamentally does not understand—or is willfully ignorant of—the terrorist threat” and something that “hands the Taliban and [al-Qaeda] a propaganda victory, abandons our global leadership position, and plays into our adversaries’ hands”.
Democrat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen tweeted “It undermines our commitment to the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women”.
As I have written in many articles on America’s escapades into the Middle East on the pretext of bestowing human rights, freedom and democracy to those countries that ended with nothing but a monumental waste of human and financial resources, I agree with Biden’s decision to end this catastrophic war.
Since the US leaves Afghanistan without any preconditions or policy contingencies, it is evident that the Afghan government will collapse without US military backing. While Kabul and main cities remain mostly under government control, vast swathes of rural Afghanistan are ruled by the fractious and brutal Taliban.
The million-dollar question with so many uncertainties is whether there will ever be a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government or whether the Afghan government will collapse and the Taliban will take over the whole country.
If that happens, will the Taliban revert to its primitive repressive ways of ruling the country by depriving girls to attend schools, and subjugating women and treating them as subhumans fit only for household slavery. Also, will the Taliban take revenge on Afghans who cooperated with Americans as we witnessed after the Vietnam War?
No matter what, the US is leaving a fractured and devastated Afghanistan under the control of the same tyrannical Taliban leaders who were there in 2001.
Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector said: “In short, the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan accomplished nothing other than killing more than 2,000 Americans, wasting trillions of dollars of American treasure, and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Afghans while leaving their country little more than a tortured wasteland”.
That reminds me of the words of Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty: “Afghanistan has not been and never will be conquered, and will never surrender to anyone”.
*Somar Wijayadasa, an International lawyer was a Faculty Member of the University of Sri Lanka (1967-1973), worked in UN organizations (IAEA & FAO from 1973-1985), a Delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000.