Afghanistan: twenty years and $2 trillion later we circle back to pre 9/11
Updated: Sep 24, 2022
Taliban fighters take control of the Afghanistan presidential palace after the president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday © AP
By Staci-lee Sherwood
Failed presidents failed policies
Prior to 2001 most Americans looked upon Afghanistan as little more than a third world country where the masses lived in rural areas with dust covered tents. Their most famous commodity came from the opium poppy flower. In 1980 Ronald Reagan had just been elected and we were engaged in an ongoing cold war with Russia. We were all over the middle east inserting ourselves into the policies and wars of Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. We did not clearly see that Afghanistan was going to turn into a dangerous failed state and a huge threat to us.
This set the stage for the next chapter a prelude to a war. Bogged down in Lebanon and facing our own economic problems we had our first clear warning, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by Islamic fundamentalists. Despite some tough talk after the bombing of U.S. barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, Reagan and Congress were pretty gun shy about pulling the trigger when it came to military action.
The nineties marked the beginning of a long dark period for the people now ruled over by the brutal Taliban regime. Despite numerous red flags the CIA still did not see this failed state, isolated from the world, as a threat but as the 2000 elections loomed and our own country had a changing of the guards the danger was about to get real. Reeling from the tumultuous economic highs and lows at home we were somewhat distracted by our own failed policies and controversial election.
First up to bat was George W. Bush whose tenure as POTUS was already marked by controversy before being sworn in. No sooner did he sit in the oval office when the biggest terrorist attack on American soil took place. For the next two decades we would debate, march, lobby and protest as to who knew what and how did this all happen. To this date there are still more unanswered questions about 9/11 attack that will forever remain a mystery. How the Taliban planned to rule was no longer a mystery. It was clear that tyranny was their style and brutalizing their own was their calling card.
September 11, 2001 is a day that will live in infamy. Much speculation has occurred as to how the U.S. was caught so off guard. Boasting in movies and books how our CIA was top shelf proved to be more fiction than fact. The media played up the surprise of the attacks while simultaneously using fear to promote the White House agenda. At a time when a leader should have been acting with a calm head and clear vision we had instead angry threats made by a vice president who himself had never served in combat. Ironically the biggest hawk in the White House had gotten himself out of going to war using several excuses but was keen on sending other people’s children to a war zone.
When Americans ask why do “they” hate us perhaps this glaring hypocrisy is one reason. The Bush – Cheney plan to invade a country that hadn’t attacked us or declared war on us would prove to be a fatal mistake both politically and economically. After going into Afghanistan under the premise of seeking out Osama bin Laden former President Bush stated “I truly am not that concerned about him,” according to the official White House transcript from a conference at the White House on March 13, 2002. After that it was a series of mistakes that wasted what little political capitol the U.S. had left.
Bush policy in Afghanistan lacked strategy, follow through and an exit plan. Getting into a war is easy but effectively meeting your goal and then extricating yourself without unnecessary bloodshed takes a detail well thought out strategy. The Bush-Cheney Administration was all bluster like a teenage bully but failed to think of long term consequences. After getting into Afghanistan it would take 3 more presidents to finally pull us out.
No sooner did we land in Afghanistan for an undetermined amount of time than controversy and crisis struck again. This time it was in Iraq where the other war was being conducted. Bush was by no means efficient at multi tasking and to attempt this with two wars in two countries was asking for a miracle, or an international incident. We all remember the photos, the videos, the global shaming of torture by the U.S. at Abu Gharib prison. This served as a distraction from the hot mess we created over in Afghanistan.
The focus on Iraq helped quiet the political impatience and unrest in Congress and the public about our mission there. However much the public forgot or lost interest in Afghanistan it did not forget about Osama bin Laden and Al Queda. One policy was to hand out flyers asking people to turn in suspected terrorists of ISIS or the Taliban. Knowing human nature, and the lack of economic opportunity there, doesn’t take much imagination to see potential for fraud. No one knows how many innocent people were turned in as ‘terrorists’ but putting a bounty out without a mechanism in place to verify the information never ends well.
The vote heard around the world took place in Afghanistan with Hamid Karzai being elected in 2001, serving as president until 2014. We all remember the photos that flooded the internet of people flashing purple fingers proudly displaying their proof of voting. Over the years the once friendly relationship between the US and Karzai showed strains of wear and a growing difference on how the US saw its role there. Karzai wanted the foreign troops out but we stayed nonetheless. In an interview from June 2021 “We recognize as Afghans all our failures, but what about the bigger forces and powers who came here for exactly that purpose? Where are they leaving us now?” he asked and answered: “In total disgrace and disaster.” Click here to read the interview
In 2003 the optics of accomplishment were years to early though one could argue we failed to really accomplish peace in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
During the 2008 election Barrack Obama ran on the theme of change. The public having grown weary from eight years of war they hadn’t signed up for went looking for a policy change. They voted in what they hoped would be a dawning of new enlightened foreign policy. They got instead what was the equivalent of the local bar changing hands, the bar stayed the same only the name of the owners changed. For the next eight years we were promised the end was in sight. The goal was just around the corner after the next bombing or interrogation.
Every appropriations bill ballooned with more military spending the public was told was necessary. For eight years the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy looked shamefully like a continuation of the Bush policy. During the Obama years most of the Bush era policies stayed in place. If Obama and his supporters were chanting for change it did not come to Afghanistan. After eight more years and billions of wasted tax dollars the problems were passed on to the next president.
In May 2011 it was announced in a statement to the nation that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian national said to have been hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan, was killed in a raid by US forces. Despite worldwide curiosity and a real need to know photographs of bin Laden were not released to the public. Despite public outcry and demand for proof of death no photographs have ever been released proving that he was killed. At a time when corruption has reached epidemic levels combined with amazing computer software there was no reason to hide behind the statement of not wanting to incite more violence as the excuse for not releasing proof of death. If this was the hope that both the war in Iraq and Afghanistan would end that would not happen for several more years.
Hearing the news of bin Laden’s death in the Situation Room May 1 2011
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
In 2014 Obama made claims to end the war stating that combat there had officially ended. He would later regret the promise of withdrawing troops because in 2016 he increased the amount that would stay deployed there till the end of his term. “For more than 13 years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan," Obama said in a statement. "Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion."
Click here for his statement https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/28/statement-president-end-combat-mission-afghanistan. Many Americans took this to mean troops would be returning home. As time passed many felt blindsided since it would be another 7 years before we finally left.
In 2016 changing of the guards took place again as we now had Donald Trump in the White House. New Yorkers were well versed in Trump’s style of doing business. As a self professed outsider he came with zero experience in global politics because running a business is nothing like running a country. We saw the writing on the wall early on as this administration would continue to fail as they exerted more inane policies As a self proclaimed deal maker and TV celebrity Trump did not have the temperament needed for successful long term geopolitical strategy. In fact his style of doing business, while better suited for a CEO was the antithesis of the type of diplomacy and patience that is required when managing difficult world leaders.
In 2020 a meeting in Qatar took place between the Trump administration and then Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. The deal was to release thousands of Taliban prisoners in exchange for peace talks but the catch was prisoners had to be released first then talks would be planned. The stance about not negotiating with terrorists has never been true, in reality we negotiate with terrorists all the time and even call some of them friends. The peace talks did not happen and the ousted former government became emboldened.
With their members now released they were free to gather and plan a coup. We know what happened next. Needless to say when you try to make a peace deal with a violent group the likelihood of peace is nil. Making a business deal is in a different universe than striking a deal between world leaders. Failure to understand the difference helped take us back to where we were in 2000. Many could see how this would demoralize the actual sitting Afghan government and hamstrung us should unforeseen problems arise.
Senator Mitt Romney R-Utah and former Governor of Massachusetts said “Recognize that we're in the position we're in right now because of terrible decisions made by two administrations: One, the Trump administration negotiating directly with the Taliban, getting ready to invite them to Camp David, opening up a prison of 5,000 Taliban and probably ISIS-K individuals and letting them free," Romney said on CNN’s "State of the Union." Romney said that it was not known whether some of the prisoners released were involved in the airport attack, but that Trump administration decisions "led to what you're seeing and the danger that exists at the airport." The Biden administration’s closing of the Bagram Air Base also played a role, he said.
Clearly there was no art to the deal with Afghanistan about the Taliban
The final player in this long play that should have ended after the first act is Biden. Though not in office very long the one positive thing he did was pull the band-aid off and pull our troops out of there. For those who lived through or studied our involvement with Vietnam those images of leaving as the Viet Cong took hold still remain in the minds of many. As American troops left Afghanistan we were reminded of the missed opportunities and failed policies that have brought us back to where we were in the beginning, leaving the country more vulnerable to the whims of the Taliban. History shows us that emboldened tyrants are unpredictable and a danger both to those they rule over and anyone else they see as perceived threat.
Though Biden was only in office as president a few short months before the final curtain call on Afghanistan he was a long time career politician. During the eight years he served as vice president he knew full well that if he ran for president, again, and won he would be facing all the problems his boss had failed on. If the Biden administration wishes to portray itself as some type of hero for pulling out of Afghanistan that would be disingenuous. Another misstep was failure to anticipate how fast the Taliban would swoop in and take control as the last US soldiers were boarding the planes out. Leaving billions of dollars of military equipment in the hands of terrorists, we will have to see how that plays out.
A US Air Force aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul on August 30, 2021.
Aamir Qureshi | AFP | Getty Images
The only positive is that finally we can stop throwing money at a problem we are unable to fix and focus that much needed revenue at home. As is usually the case the biggest winners in any war are those with government contracts. Click here for some sobering facts about the costs of war https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/
The Panjshir Valley is a gem in a war zone now under Taliban control. A country is more than its policies it’s also about its people, culture, natural beauty and imperiled wildlife.
Click here to see the natural beauty of a country most people only associate with terrorists and war
Endangered Snow Leopard try to hang amidst the threats of war and poaching
Click here to read about those trying to save them
Click here to see what wildlife call Afghanistan home
Even Russia couldn’t beat them
In response to Russia’s (then known as the Soviet Union) 1979 invasion the US responded with a boycott of the 1980 Olympics which were taking place in Moscow. Not as highly publicized we quietly backed the muslim fighters in hopes of hurting the Soviets by supplying them with nearly $3 billion in arms. After nine long years Russia finally left. In doing so they left the country in shambles and vulnerable to fundalmentalist groups like the Taliban to seize power. They took control and Afghanistan was now spiraling backwards.
Afghanistan went from a country where young women went to college dressed in western clothing to extreme religious doctrine where women were striped of all rights and forced to be covered from head to toe or risk being beaten or killed. This is the Afghanistan most Americans are familiar with. For Russia the eighties in Afghanistan was like our Vietnam and was just as much a failure. This left them with much to prove to the world as a military might not to tangle with.
Kabul Small Animal Rescue a valuable lesson to be learned
Many were stunned to learn there were animal rescues in Afghanistan. For twenty years we had been fed a steady diet of news about the Taliban, poppy farmers and gun wielding locals all of whom interacted with various military units. The idea that something positive was going on was greatly under reported. After twenty years of wasted time, energy and funds our occupation there had finally come to an official close.
The shameful spectacle of mismanagement when it came to evacuating the rescued animals and the staff who cared for them was a reminder of important lessons we failed to learn since Vietnam. The failed rescue attempt is a microcosm of the long term systemic problems our foreign policy has. What should have been a simple rescue, compared to the rest of the evacuation of our military, mushroomed out of control. This small animal rescue group was thrust onto the world stage and with it all our missteps in foreign policy to be picked apart by global observers. The gaps in how we manage policies we know have not work shined through. The animal rescue remains in operation and the staff and animals are still in Kabul.
Where do we go from here ?
Now that the Taliban is officially back in power we circle back to twenty years ago. Of great concern is the potential for them to exact a more brutal regime as vengeance for being ousted. After spending over $2,200,000,000,000 (2.26 trillion) on the fiasco in Afghanistan it’s clear we did not get anything near what we paid for in dollars, lives or wasted political capitol. The country might even be worse off with no clear idea where it’s headed. About 90% of the world’s supply of opium comes from the poppy fields in Afghanistan. The Taliban has said they will stop the trade but that will prove to be difficult if not impossible. So much of their economy depends of this flower despite the global problem or opioid addiction.
A field of poppies. From the poppy flower comes opium, morphine and heroine and oxycontin.
Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine several scenario’s could happen. Russia is surrounded by nuclear neighbors like India and Pakistan, who themselves always seem to be teetering on war. There is still much hatred and mistrust toward Russia but possibly even more towards the US. They could play a major play in escalating things in that neck of the woods for many reasons. The issues with Russia invading Ukraine are not just about capturing their land and people.
While all eyes are on Russia and Ukraine don’t discount Afghanistan just yet. While the Afghans have much to hate about Russia many also hate the US for leaving them open to Taliban rule once again. What will happen in the future and what role if any Afghanistan will play is anyone’s guess. It’s not improbable to think many might take advantage of the global turmoil and unrest. Resentment and hatred for both Russia and the US run deep.
World leaders are holding their breathe and tongue hoping war does not spill over into Europe or other NATO allies. Russia’s nuclear neighbors could also play an integral role if war spills over into their territory. With a megalomaniac like Putin no one can really count out any scenario. One thing is clear it won’t be pretty, it won’t be cheap and it will have lasting effects on the global economy. All those international trade agreements with partners who seem more like frenemies will have a far reaching ripple effect that will touch on every aspect of our lives. A prudent measure is to still keep watch over Afghanistan so we’re not blindsided. One can only hope that Washington is thinking the same thing.