Why should anyone care?

Afghanistan, for many, is a “tribal” country, “out of control,” distributing large quantities of opium, and diverting human and financial resources needed here at home. So why should Americans care? The United States is, in significant measure, responsible for the present conditions in Afghanistan.

United States armed Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union

The United States made its first significant commitment in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Central Intelligence Agency began its largest, most expensive and successful clandestine operation in history.

The objectives of the operation were simple. Supply weapons to the mujahideen (“freedom fighters”) in support of their “jihad” (holy war) against the Soviet “infidels” and thereby “turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.” [1]

The United States, along with other nations, supplied billions of dollars of weapons to the warlords and mujahideen through Pakistan. It was a multinational effort that turned an “army of primitive tribesmen into techno-holy warriors.” [2] By the time the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan in January 1989, the mujahideen were well-trained, seasoned fighters, armed to the hilt with modern weaponry, and beholden to no external control. And as many as 30,000 “holy warriors” traveled from other countries to join in the war.

Nine months after the Soviet Union was driven out of Afghanistan, the Berlin Wall came down and by 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The war in Afghanistan had hastened the Soviet Union’s demise, but the toll included 1.5 million Afghan deaths and the creation of 5 million Afghan refugees, not to mention the flood of American arms into Afghanistan.

Mujahideen took control of destroyed country

Failed insurgent attack

Islamic “holy warriors” from around the world had found a “holy cause” and a country within which they could organize. By 1993, they were well trained, armed, and ready to respond to a further calling. As George Crile observed, “the more dangerous legacy of the Afghan war is found in the minds and convictions of Muslims around the world. To them the miracle victory over the Soviets was the work of Allah. We set in motion the spirit of jihad and the belief in our surrogate soldiers that, having brought down one superpower they could just as easily take on another.” [3]

Unfortunately, by 1993 the United States had turned its attention from Afghanistan and “washed its hands of any responsibility.” There were few roads, few schools, and a country that had been destroyed. Warlords, Islamic extremists, drug lords, and defenseless Afghans fought over what little remained. Afghanistan became a breeding ground for militant Islamists and a perfect haven for Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda.
Remnants of the Battlefield

Taliban rose to power

The Taliban rose to power in 1995, rescuing Afghans from the violent chaos caused by conflicts among warlords and mujahideen. The euphoria first enjoyed by the takeover soon faded as the oppression of the new regime became evident. The Talibans’ interpretation of the Koran led them to conclude that women should not be allowed to work, or read, that there should be no music, art, dancing, or kite flying. Soccer fields were used for public executions, books were banned, and women were flogged publicly by “morality police” for walking in a suggestive manner. In some areas laughing in public was forbidden. These “militant young Muslims,” most of who were not Afghans by birth, assumed total authority over the daily lives of all Afghans.

The United States maintained a relationship with this repressive regime. By the spring of 2001, the United States was providing the Taliban with $43 million in financial aid, even though the oppressive theology of the Taliban was well known at the time. Why would we give the Taliban $43 million? Were they being rewarded for reducing the production of opium, as claimed? Or, as some skeptics assert, was it because they controlled the awarding of the contract to build a gas pipeline through Afghanistan, and Unocal, an American company, was vying for the contract?

The United States attacked with the help of warlords and mujahideen

That relationship with the Taliban quickly changed following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The Taliban failed to comply with our demand that they “turn over” Osama bin Laden. On October 21, the United States invaded Afghanistan to search for bin Laden. Special Forces removed the Taliban from power within two months. Success came quickly through the use of guided bombs, fewer than 1,000 heroic American soldiers, and by spending millions of dollars to purchase the aid of former warlords and mujahideen. The United States was back.  But so were many of the mujahideen and warlords who had terrorized the country before the Taliban rose to power. It required 100,000 of our troops on the ground and over nine years of intelligence gathering to find bin Laden. Perhaps we didn’t fully appreciate the difficulty of what we had demanded of Afghanistan in 2001.

Every small step matters – reasons for hope

Today the war is being waged on so many fronts that it’s easy to be concerned that winning the war is hopeless. Buried beneath the “bad news” are thousands of small struggles being won each day going unreported. These victories, while individually small, are collectively building a nation eager to rid itself of oppressors and totalitarian rule. Whether it is building community learning centers, starting a girls’ soccer program, or educating street children, together we are making a difference.

What Now?

As our government devises an exit strategy for our military, you and I should not abandon the Afghan people, as our government did in 1993. Our role in Afghanistan is clear: Join in the reconstruction and humanitarian aid effort. History has favored Americans with an opportunity to join with Afghans in remedying the consequences of thirty years of war. We must recognize that we either financed or directly waged war in Afghanistan for more than half those years.

Afghans are asking for our help. We cannot reverse history, but we can certainly embrace the role we have been invited to play. Under the circumstances, the least that we can to do is try.

Recommended Reading: Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile


[1] See Charlie Wilson’s War, by Charles Crile
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid

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