After two decades of U.S. war, occupation and bloodshed in Afghanistan, the Biden administration has been faulted for not predicting the speed with which the Afghan government, propped up by the American military and trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, would collapse.
“The enmity with parties to the conflict are over,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a news conference from Kabul on Tuesday. “An inclusive government should be formed, and all parties and Afghans should participate in it.” He was speaking from the office last held by Dawa Khan Menapal, who was assassinated by the Taliban ten days earlier, during Friday prayers. Menapal was a chief spokesperson for President Ghani’s government.
Responding on the Democracy Now! news hour, Kabul-based Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary said, “The Afghan people would like to know where this road now leads, because people are thirsty for a political settlement. People are thirsty for peace.”
Bilal was a refugee from the Afghan civil war of the 1990s, which in turn followed the bloody war with the Soviet Union. He learned English in Peshawar, Pakistan, and returned in 2001 as a TV news crew’s fixer as the U.S. invasion began, following the 9/11 attacks. Through 20 years of war and occupation, he grew into a seasoned, frontline journalist.
In a recent piece published in The Telegraph, Bilal described the impact covering violence has had: “It has broken me from within…The number of coffins going back to small villages and valleys – that has been the worst feeling, like 1,000 sharp knives stabbing your heart.”
Members of Congress have promised investigations into the flawed U.S. retreat. They should look at not just the past two weeks or two months, but at the whole two decades of this disastrous war and occupation.
The Watson Institute estimates that over 47,000 Afghan civilians were killed and over 75,000 injured during the war. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction calls these numbers “both likely significant underestimations.” Close to 70,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed, 50,000 Taliban and other opposition fighters, over 2,400 U.S. service members and close to 4,000 U.S. contractors. Including the journalists, aid workers, and NATO soldiers killed, totaling at least 170,000 people have been killed overall.
Amidst the chaos of the frantic U.S. withdrawal this week, several people clung to the outside of large U.S. military planes during takeoff, eventually plummeting to their deaths or dying in transit in an airplane wheel well. U.S. soldiers are reportedly conferring with Taliban forces to maintain order at the Kabul airport, and both groups have killed a number of civilians desperately vying for a flight out of the country.
Matthew Hoh was the first U.S. State Department official known to resign in protest over the Afghan War, in 2009. He described the failed U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on Democracy Now!: “Bombing villages and doing night raids, sending commandos 20 times a night into Afghan villages to kick in doors and kill people…The results of that was, every year, the Taliban got stronger, gained more support.”
Hoh is not optimistic, adding, “the only thing more tragic than what’s happened to the Afghan people is that in a few days America will have forgotten Afghanistan again.”
Afghans won’t forget the U.S., though. Zahra Nader is a graduate student in Toronto, Canada. Born in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, she fled to Iran with her family, where she grew up as a refugee, unable to attend school. They returned to Afghanistan in 2004, and, after only a few years of schooling, became a reporter, eventually writing for the New York Times. Zahra left that dream job to move to Canada, to ensure her young son had more opportunity than she had as a child. In a phone conversation, Zahra offered a damning summary of the U.S. role in Afghanistan, starting with the late 1970s:
“The US supported the Afghan Mujahideen, the Islamic fundamentalist group fighting a proxy war against the Soviets. The Taliban was a direct result of that. Until 2001, women’s rights and human rights did not matter to anybody in the US or other Western countries. Before 9/11 happened it seemed that we did not exist. Then, they used us to frame the war.”
For Zahra Nader, for Bilal Sarwary, and tens of millions of Afghans, the difficult task of rebuilding is beginning anew. The United States has a responsibility to support these efforts, without trying to control them. The U.S. should also learn, finally, as the most recent empire to flee Afghanistan, that you can’t bomb your way to peace.