How one defeat breeds the next in Afghanistan

How one defeat breeds the next in Afghanistan
Opinion: The Taliban swept aside the Afghan army - trained and financed for 20 years by the US - in just a few weeks. But this disaster isn't a one-off defeat, it's an indictment of the entire fiasco that is the War on Terror, writes Alain Gresh.
9 min read
02 Sep, 2021
An Afghan boy plays on the wreckage of a Soviet-era tank alongside a road on the outskirts of Kabul. [Getty]

It was the spring of 1988, and we were gathered in Kabul. In a declaration by Mikhail Gorbachev, secretary-general of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union announced the unilateral withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan by December 1979. 

For the first time, the regime had admitted a pool of 150 foreign journalists, most of whom from the West, and most of whose understanding of the history and culture of Afghanistan was dangerously close to zero. Their knowledge could be summed up in one rudimentary axiom: the war was between the mujahideen crowned with glory and the local Communist party, a mere puppet of the Soviet Union: the People's Democratic Party which had seized power on 25 April 1978.

That evening, consigned to our hotel an hour before the curfew, we were invited to meet with the US chargé d'affaires who gave us a detailed explanation, with the self-assurance of a general on the eve of a great victory, of how the rebels were going to take control of Kabul as soon as the last Soviet troops were gone. 

"Though our media saw the conflict as an East-West confrontation between good and evil, in reality, it involved players other than the two Great Powers"

Armed with their certainties, fascinated by the "news" they had just heard, the journalists wandered through the streets of the capital in search of the image that would symbolise the inevitable defeat of the USSR, such as a tank that had fallen into the river running through the city, irrefutable proof of the collapse of the regime.

At the time, no one worried about the future of Afghan women. And yet, in the capital, only half of them wore the burqa, the head to foot veil that leaves only a small wire-meshed opening for the face. While some women in corridors of official buildings and ministries wore it, at that time they still had access to educational facilities, at least in the big cities.

Though our media saw the conflict as an East-West confrontation between good and evil, it did, in reality, involve players other than the two great powers. The Afghan Communist Party was composed of multiple blocs and had a limited but real influence among the "modernist" sectors of the population - notably the officers and soldiers - and among the ethnic minorities. This influence had helped it take power without the approval of the USSR, which was on excellent terms with the overthrown president, Mohammad Daoud Khan. At the time, I had met some of the movement's cadres and had seen how determined they were not to give up without a fight.

Make the Russians bleed

The Afghan resistance was split into many factions, and the radical elements (the term jihadists had not come into use yet) had grown stronger as the war went on and as the Red Army multiplied its atrocities. But for US President Ronald Reagan and the West in general, they were all "freedom fighters", taking on the "Evil Empire", adorned with all the virtues of gallant knights and so moving in their traditional garb.

In a book published in 1995, US journalist Selig S. Harrison and the UN mediator for Afghanistan and co-author, Diego Cordovez, one-time foreign minister of Ecuador, wrote: "Though Moscow was the bad guy, there were no good guys" in that affair. 

US-funded mujahideen stand with artillery at a remote base in 1988 in Afghanistan. [Getty]
US-funded mujahideen stand with artillery at a remote base in 1988 in Afghanistan. [Getty]

Yet for Washington, the war had to be "fought to the last Afghan" to "make the Russians bleed". This strategy had been defined in 1980 by a young scholar who was soon to join the Reagan administration, Francis Fukuyama, whose book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), had not yet made him famous. In the name of its Manichean vision, the US was going to torpedo UN efforts to guarantee a peaceful transition based on the withdrawal of the Red Army.

It is true that the US strategists, and they were not alone, interpreted the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as proof of an irresistible expansionism - the search for an access route to the Southern seas, just another stage in world conquest. The French philosopher Jean-François Revel, far-sighted as always, proclaimed the end of democracies, incapable of resisting "the most dangerous of its foreign enemies, communism, in its current form and as fully-fledged totalitarianism."

The making of jihadists

And yet the "fully-fledged" version had only a few years left to live, and the Red ATM tanks were not about to roll down the Champs Elysées. The Afghan war, bankrolled by Washington, was not a major factor in the collapse of a system which was already dying, but it did give an un-hoped-for boost to the most extremist factions among the rebels whom the US and Pakistan had been financing first: after all, they were the best fighters.

It was as an extension of this long and bloody conflict that a generation of Afghan and Arab jihadists were trained, a force that would then turn against the US, as 9/11 revealed. If Washington did not actually invent al-Qaeda as some would have us believe, its wrongheadedness was a contributing factor.

But let us return to Kabul in the Spring of 1988. 

"The Afghan war, bankrolled by Washington, was not a major factor in the collapse of a system which was already dying, but it did give an un-hoped-for boost to the most extremist factions among the rebels"

Contrary to the illusions of that US diplomat, the regime survived for three years after the Red Army's departure, resisted far better in fact than today's Afghan authorities have done. It took the Russian decision to stop supplying weapons to its one-time ally and the defection of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, who has survived all the episodes of the war up to the present day, to bring down the regime. 

The ensuing years of civil war have strengthened the power of the Taliban, those "theological students" generously financed by US ally, Pakistan. They put an end to the warring between the different groups of mujahideen, took Kabul in 1996, established an obscurantist regime, and provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden. 

But for Washington, the cold war was over and Afghanistan was no longer a priority. And the fate of Afghan women, sometimes used to justify the US invasion, was quickly forgotten.

The 'War on Terror' and an endless downward spiral

But then, after 9/11, the US embarked upon a new crusade, the "War on Terror", and invaded the country. Like the Soviets, they found themselves bogged down in an endless conflict with no hope of victory. Their "surgical strikes" killed Taliban but also many innocent victims; the suicide attacks brought reprisals that did not spare the civilian population either; the "pacification" drove increasing numbers of Afghans to the big cities or into exile.

As for the US promise to establish democracy, it was never kept. As Human Rights Watch put it as early as 2002, "when the United States drove out the Taliban in November 2001, the Afghans were promised a new democratic era with respect for human rights… the hopes that were raised never materialised."

Imposed from abroad, divided and corrupt, dependant on militias whose atrocities were widely documented, the country's new rulers were soon seen to be minions of the US, and a resistance movement developed which only engendered more repression. A never-ending vicious circle, similar to the nightmare experienced by the Red Army.

The end of empires and unwinnable wars

In 1969, well before the Soviet and US interventions, an Afghan academic wrote a pamphlet introducing his country to foreigners: "One of the main traits of the Afghan character is their indomitable attachment to their independence. Afghans can put up patiently with ill luck or poverty but cannot be made to resign themselves to domination by a foreign power, however enlightened or progressive." 

Three times in the course of recent history, in 1842, 1881, and 1919 the British empire encountered disastrous confirmation of this principle. The first two times, what was at stake was "forestalling" Czarist incursions into Asia which appeared to threaten India, the jewel of the imperial crown: the third time was to cope with the development of a nationalist anti-colonial movement in the country. 

The USSR came next, trying to "forestall" "imperialist plotting" and today it is the turn of the United States to withdraw at the end of the longest war in its history, waged in the name of the necessity to eradicate terrorism.

"Today it is the turn of the United States to withdraw at the end of the longest war in its history, waged in the name of the necessity to eradicate terrorism"

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those imperial setbacks were something of an exception at a time when colonial empires still held sway over the planet. Whereas the defeats that came after were mostly confirmations that the very idea of empire was dead, and that independence was henceforth to be the order of the day for those peoples once thought of as "underage."

In a recent assessment drawn up by the prestigious Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, DC, one of its principal analysts, Antony Cordesman, said: "If one examines the cost of the war and the lack of any clear or consistent strategic rationale for continuing it, then it is far from clear that the US should ever have committed the resources to the conflict that it did, or that it had the grand strategic priority to justify two decades of conflict."

And yet, the intervention in Afghanistan has been labelled a "strategic priority" in the "War on Terror", and the US was joined by a number of other governments (including even France after its initial reticence). 

This "20-year war" casts every conflict, insurrection and protest anywhere on the planet as part of an eschatological struggle against evil, against the elusive and indestructible chimaera that is "terrorism". It is not "an enemy" but a form of action which has endured through history and been employed by movements as diverse as anarchism, Zionism, Irish nationalism, or al-Qaeda, but also - and this is much less talked about - by national governments (France in Algeria or Israel in the Middle East).

Therefore, the US defeat in Afghanistan marks above all the fiasco of one such unwinnable war and its variants from the Sahel to Kurdistan, from Palestine to Yemen, which only add fuel to the phenomenon they claim to combat. 

How much longer will it take to understand the consequences?

Alain Gresh is the Director of Orient XXI, a journalist and expert in Middle East affairs. He is the author of 'L'Islam, la République et le monde', Fayard, 2014 among many others. 

This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.