Afghanistan: What Went Wrong? What Have We Learned?

By Marc Pilisuk

For years, military preparedness and war itself have been granted extensive support in the United States. At the current moment, public opinion is questioning whether this support has added to Americans’ security or placed it in greater danger. Indeed, the termination of a failed war in Afghanistan has brought into question, whether that war was wrong from the start.

Al Qaeda had provided shelter for those who had planned the attack on targets within the United States. They were a small group in a largely rural country which had fought off many powerful invaders, including the Soviet Union.  The larger population of Afghanistan was made of communities more identified with their tribes than with Afghanistan itself. A major governing force, the Taliban was deeply supported by Pakistan, and was seen as an opposition to Soviet influence.  Within the Taliban’s sphere of influence, U.S. chose to aid a sect of warlords who would oppose Russian influence. After the United States initiated a war against Iran, the Taliban leadership offered opportunities to end the conflict in exchange for guarantee of safety of the Taliban religious leader.  Taliban leaders also offered to help the United States locate Osama Bin Laden, as part of a deal to end the conflict. 

These offers were rejected by Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld and President Bush.[1]  U.S. policy was guided by inadequate intelligence. It was also constrained by the assumptions that nations were comprised of elite leaders who were on our side either in a cold war against nation states on the wrong side in a cold war against communism or in a declared war on terror. Nation states were the recognized players.  Deals with them over economic use of their territory or military bases could be made without regard to the culture or to the voices of people who resided in these countries. Had intelligence sources been able to hear the voices of Afghan tribes, they would have become aware of how diverse the Taliban were.  Some Taliban were associated with Pashtun tribes crossing borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some had leaders tied to Pakistani intelligence circles. Some Taliban groups had a non-confrontational goal of acting as a traditional government.  This group has consistently opposed Al Qaeda.  Others were militant against the imposition of a government in Kabul brought there by a foreign power.[2]

With the Soviet Union in retreat, the United States provided support to the Mujahadin warlords.  Their influence was strongly felt among a movement of Taliban sects which played no role in the terrorist attacks on the United States. [3] The U.S. war on Afghanistan was aimed at supporting a government of our creation, a military force that we trained and supplied, and an endless series of bombing raids targeting Taliban forces. These raids resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties as collateral damage and great sympathy for a part of the Taliban message =– to get foreign military forces out of their country. The U.S. government supported a corrupt government in Kabul, tolerating the corruption, while publicizing programs we had funded in the cities granting education and human rights to women.  The liberating consequences of this opening for the rights of women, however, was a product of western influences.  It was not shared by majority of Afghan women who were faced with the world’s second high rate of infant mortality and hunger and subjected to the drone bombings killing or maiming their families[i]

Pentagon spokesmen proclaimed the view that the U.S. invasion was working, that we were creating a Western style government, defended by their devoted military and partnering in a war against terrorism. The recently released Afghanistan Papers revealed that many top US military leaders long knew that the claims being used to get ever increasing support for the Kabul government were not true. The United States and its NATO allies were not capable of winning. Soldiers would continue to die, and the weapons contractors were the only victors since they profit most from wars that are endless.

So, what have we learned? A generation before, he Pentagon Papers had revealed that a similar lie had been used to extend the Vietnam war long beyond the time when more bombing was going to make a difference. Now with a chaotic end of major military intervention in Afghanistan we are getting one more chance to ask what has been gained by military actions in Afghanistan — as well as in Vietnam, Iraq, Panama, and the proxy wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Were these worth the cost in dollars and lives? 

With current threats of escalating tensions among nuclear super-powers the stakes have grown too high to risk another military miscalculation. The conflicts with Russia and China are political, diplomatic, and economic, not military. But the $1.3 trillion allocated this year for military purposes includes $933 billion for the DOD Overseas Contingency Office, including $59 billion for this same purpose to the State Department. Another $62.3 billion goes to 17 intelligence agencies. The National Nuclear Security Administration is given $15.5 billion for nuclear weapons projects. And another $296 billion goes to veterans’ care. [4] That item is critical to help soldiers who return with lost limbs, traumatic brain injury, traumatic stress and the moral injury faced by many who came to believe the injuries they were inflicting on civilians were for an unjustifiable cause. Other costs include an ever-increasing $93.8 billion in the military-related national debt.

The approval of this level of funding is assured by testimony from military “experts” without mentioning their positions as board members or consultants to the largest military corporations. The heart of the problem is that these military advisors live in a world where force is the tool to overwhelm other countries—in short, the worldview that brought us the tragedies of Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Vietnam.

 What is new is the fact that some courageous members of Congress are offering legislation to curb the war machine. Diplomacy and greater respect for international law are needed, but the first step is to trim the hawks. We have an opening.

Currently four pieces of legislation are in progress that would lessen the grip of the war machine. The ICBM Act would curb the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and provide funding for a universal coronavirus vaccine. The Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act (H.R. 2850) would point the way toward ending the menace of nuclear war. The Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act (H.R. 4718) would bar U.S. weapons sales to countries violating international human rights law or international humanitarian law. Finally, the No First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act (S. 1219 and H.R. 2003) would establish a no first use of nuclear weapons policy for the United States.

By pressing for the enactment of these measures, we can help to ensure that our elected Senators and Representatives know that their constituencies no longer accept a vast military drain on the federal budget and, instead, favor giving priority to protecting us against the real dangers of climate change and disease pandemics.

Marc Pilisuk is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, and he currently serves on the faculty at the San Francisco-based Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center where he has taught extensively on conflict resolution, globalization, ecological psychology and sustainability. Prof. Pilisuk’s distinguished academic career spans five decades, delving unabashedly into humanitarian topics of peace and violence, social justice, environmental politics, social networks and family caregiving.

[1] Human Rights Watch-Crisis of Impunity

Crisis of Impunity – Pakistan’s Support Of The Taliban – Human …

https://www.hrw.org › afghan2 › Afghan0701-02

[2] The Guardian – Bush rejects Taliban offer to hand Bin Laden over

Staff and agencies

Sun 14 Oct 2001 17.19 EDT

[3] Combating Terrorism Center West Point- Mustafa Hamid’s Analysis of Mujahidin-Activity ref number AFGP_ 2002-600088   https://ctc.usma.edu/harmony-program/mustafa-hamids-analysis-of-mujahidin-activities-original-language-2/

[4] The data on expenditures provided by Project on Government oversight: The defense monitor 2021, ISSN# 0195-6450 Volume XLVX Number 2

Marc Pilisuk is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, and he currently serves on the faculty at the San Francisco-based Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center where he has taught extensively on conflict resolution, globalization, ecological psychology and sustainability. Prof. Pilisuk’s distinguished academic career spans five decades, delving unabashedly into humanitarian topics of peace and violence, social justice, environmental politics, social networks and family care-giving.

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