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General News    H3'ed 11/1/21

Tomgram: Ann Jones, Afghanistan (Again)

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Ann Jones began her remarkable book Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan this way: "I went to Afghanistan after the bombing stopped. Somehow, I felt obliged to help pick up the pieces. I was a New Yorker who had always lived downtown, and for a long time after the towers fell I experienced moments when I couldn't get my bearings" Four thousand collateral civilian deaths in Kabul brought no consolation for the death of thousands from around the world in the fallen towers of the city that had so long been my home. I thought America had lost its bearing, too. So I left."

Fortunately, in all these years since, Jones, a TomDispatch regular who grimly tracked the American casualties of that war home from the battlefield in her now-classic book They Were Soldiers, has never lost her bearings. Perhaps you won't be surprised to know, in fact, that she began her very first piece for this site back in 2006 this way: "Remember when peaceful, democratic, reconstructed Afghanistan was advertised as the exemplar for the extreme makeover of Iraq? In August 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already proclaiming the new Afghanistan 'a breathtaking accomplishment' and 'a successful model of what could happen to Iraq.' As everybody now knows, the model isn't working in Iraq. So, we shouldn't be surprised to learn that it's not working in Afghanistan either. The story of success in Afghanistan was always more fairy tale than fact one scam used to sell another."

And sadly enough, that scam Jones saw so clearly then was still a scam in August 2021 when the U.S. chaotically withdrew from Kabul, leaving the Taliban (only faintly) in control of the city and the rest of the country. Back in 2006, she had, ominously enough, titled the last section of that first TomDispatch piece of hers, "The Road to Taliban Land" and while she was indeed talking about a literal road, she also saw, even then, just where this country's disastrous first war of the twenty-first century was leading. And lead it did. Today, she returns to Afghanistan in her own fashion to think over just what really happened there. Brace yourself. Tom

"Now Is the Time to Be Angry"
Remembering Forgotten Afghanistan


I know, I know. It's the last thing you want to hear about. Twenty years of American carnage in Afghanistan was plenty for you, I'm sure, and there are so many other things to worry about in an America at the edge of" well, who knows what? But for me, it's different. I went to Afghanistan in 2002, already angry about this country's misbegotten war on that poor land, to offer what help I could to Afghan women. And little as I may have been able to do in those years, Afghanistan left a deep and lasting impression on me.

So, while this country has fled its shameful Afghan War, I, in some sense, am still there. That's partly because I've kept in touch with Afghan women friends and colleagues, some living through the nightmare of the Taliban back again and others improbably here in America, confined in military barracks to await resettlement in the very country that so thoroughly wrecked their own. And after all these years, I'd at least like to offer some thoughts on the subject, starting with a little history that most Americans know nothing about.

So be patient with me. War is never over when it's over. And it would be wrong to simply leave Afghanistan and its people in the dust of our disastrous departure. For me, at least, some thoughts are in order.

A Little History

News about America's chaotic exit from Afghanistan was swift, ugly, and then all over and largely forgotten. The news cycle moved on to the next sensation. But consider me behind the times. I'm still lost in remembrance of the years I spent in Afghanistan and the tales I was told of earlier days in a proud and peaceful land. Afghan history is so much longer and more complex than we know. But let me take you back for a moment to what may still prove to have been the last best days of Afghanistan.

Muhammad Zahir Shah, the final king of that country, ascended to the throne in 1933. He was only 19, but already planning Afghanistan's future. He didn't want the country to be communist or capitalist. He didn't want Afghanistan to become a servant of the Soviet Union or of any of the other large, overbearing countries in its vicinity. He wanted it to take its place in the world as a modern social democracy and so proposed a new constitution, an elected parliament, egalitarian civil rights for men and women alike, and universal suffrage to sustain just such a democratic state. He even enrolled Afghanistan in the international League of Nations.

British India, France, and Germany had already built and staffed modern-language high schools in Kabul, including one established in 1921 for girls. King Zahir Shah then built a modern university with faculties of medicine, law, science, and letters. After 1960, when the entire university became coeducational, American universities helped it establish yet more fields of study, including agriculture, education, and engineering. Photographs exist of its young students, women and men alike, clad in modern European garb, seated together on the campus lawn.

During the 1960s, Afghanistan became the most popular stop for European and American students traveling east along the world famous Hippie Trail. In southern Afghanistan, U.S. engineers and their families settled in to conduct an American aid project. Working with Afghans, they built dams and irrigation systems to bring the arid land of the South to life. Such developments were filmed in black and white and clipped into newsreels shown in American movie theaters, so that moviegoers could feel good about what their country was doing around the world.

Then, in 1973, while King Zahir Shah was on a trip to Italy, his cousin, brother-in-law, and former prime minister, Mohammed Daoud, suddenly declared a new Republic of Afghanistan and named himself president, prime minister, foreign minister, and minister of defense. And so ended the Afghan monarchy and a 40-year-long peace in a remarkably progressive Afghanistan.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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