TomDispatch began with the Afghan War with a sense I had from its earliest moments that it was a misbegotten venture of the first order. Here, for instance, is a comment I wrote about that disaster in December 2002, a little over a year after the U.S. began bombing and then invaded that country:
"This week, two wounded American soldiers and a dead one brought some modest attention to the American situation in Afghanistan. [The Toronto Sun's Eric] Margolis reminds us that the Soviets, too, were initially triumphant in Afghanistan, installed a puppet government, declared the liberation of Afghan women, and churned out similar propaganda about their good deeds. Where the analogy breaks down, of course, is that there is no other superpower left to fund and arm a resistance movement against an American Afghanistan. Still, we declared victory awfully early and didn't go home. It's likely to prove a dangerous combination. (The word to watch for in the American press is 'quagmire.' When you see that and Afghanistan appearing in the same articles, you'll know we know we're in trouble.)"
Unfortunately, when it came to the American media, that Vietnam-era word never made a serious appearance, even as the Afghan War stretched on, year after year, ever more quagmirishly. In a sense, on a planet without another superpower, America was left to play the roles of both the Soviet Union during its disastrous war of the 1980s in Afghanistan and of the United States in those same years when it put such effort into creating a crew of extreme Islamist fighters to take the Russians down. In other words, in a world of one, all the imperial roles were ours and it couldn't be clearer now that we did indeed take ourselves down in a fashion that, in its final moments at Kabul's airport, proved all too desperately dramatic.
Today, TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon considers just what lessons Washington might now draw (but undoubtedly won't) from those endless decades of involvement in Afghanistan. Tom
Be Careful What You Wish For
The True Lessons of the Afghan War
By Rajan Menon
Disagreements over how to assess the American exodus from Afghanistan have kept the pundits busy these last weeks, even though there wasn't much to say that hadn't been said before. For some of them, however, that was irrelevant. Having overseen or promoted the failed Afghan War themselves, all the while brandishing various "metrics" of success, they were engaged in transparent reputation-salvaging.
Not surprisingly, the entire spectacle has been tiresome and unproductive. Better to devote time and energy to distilling the Afghan war's larger lessons.
Here are four worth considering.
Lesson One: When You Make Policy, Give Serious Thought to Possible Unintended Consequences
The architects of American policy toward Afghanistan since the late 1970s bear responsibility for the disasters that occurred there because they couldn't, or wouldn't, look beyond their noses. As a result, their policies backfired with drastic consequences. Some historical scene-setting is required to understand just why and how.
Let's start in another country and another time. Consider the December 1979 decision of the leadership of the Soviet Union to send in the Red Army to save the ruling Marxist and pro-Soviet People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Having seized control of that country the previous year, the PDPA was soon pleading for help. By centralizing its power in the Afghan capital, Kabul (never a good way to govern that land), and seeking to modernize society at breakneck speed through, among other things, promoting the education and advancement of women it had provoked an Islamic insurgency that spread rapidly. Once Soviet troops joined the fray, the United States, assisted by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and even China, would start funding, arming, and training the mujahedeen, a collection of Islamist groups committed to waging jihad there.
The decision to arm them set the stage for much of what happened in Afghanistan ever since, especially because Washington gave Pakistan carte blanche to decide which of the jihadist groups would be armed, leaving that country's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Agency to call the shots. The ISI favored the most radical mujahedeen groups, calculating that an Islamist-ruled Afghanistan would provide Pakistan with "strategic depth" by ending India's influence there.
India did indeed have close ties with the PDPA, as well as the previous government of Mohammed Daoud, who had overthrown King Zahir Shah, his cousin, in 1973. Pakistan's Islamist parties, especially the Jama'at-i-Islami, which had been proselytizing among the millions of Afghan refugees then in Pakistan, along with the most fundamentalist of the exiled Afghan Islamist groups, also helped recruit fighters for the war against the Soviet troops.
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