The Long History of America’s Violent Intervention in Afghanistan

The people of Afghanistan are paying a horrible price for the protracted U.S. occupation.

Gregory Shupak August 1, 2018

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (C) walks with US General John Nicholson (centre R) at the Resolute Support Mission headquarters on an unannounced visit to Kabul on March 13, 2018. (THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images)

In Octo­ber, America’s war in Afghanistan will turn 17. At that point, it will be old enough to go and fight in itself — and there is no end in sight. The Unit­ed States esca­lat­ed the war in 2018 by increas­ing the num­ber of its troops and airstrikes, and this year is bring­ing a record-high num­ber of civil­ian deaths. Afghanistan has the worst rate of infant mor­tal­i­ty in the world and ranks 175 out of 186 coun­tries on the Human Devel­op­ment Index. Mil­lions of Afghans live in severe pover­ty, unem­ploy­ment is high, 41 per­cent of Afghan chil­dren under the age of five are stunt­ed and 33 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is food inse­cure. While the U.S‑led efforts to paci­fy the coun­try have often been ratio­nal­ized on the grounds that they will sup­pos­ed­ly lead to the eman­ci­pa­tion of Afghan women, just 8.8 per­cent of adult women have reached sec­ondary school (com­pared to 35.4 per­cent of men), and the Afghan gov­ern­ment — which the Unit­ed States is fight­ing to keep in pow­er — is ignor­ing vio­lence against women. Tor­ture under that gov­ern­ment is wide­spread and on the rise, with a quar­ter of the vic­tims under the age of 18.

These are the con­di­tions that pre­vail under U.S occupation.

Since the 2001 inva­sion, the Unit­ed States and its part­ners have car­ried out spec­tac­u­lar crimes in Afghanistan. Less than a month into the war, the Unit­ed States scat­tered clus­ter bombs over a civil­ian vil­lage, and bombed a mosque and a hos­pi­tal. A 2007 U.S‑NATO bomb­ing in Hel­mand province’s Gereshk dis­trict killed many civil­ians, pos­si­bly more than 100. A year lat­er, a U.S‑led coali­tion airstrike in Nan­ga­har province killed 47 Afghan civil­ians at a wed­ding. The next month, an Amer­i­can bomb­ing in Her­at killed 90 civil­ians. An Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al report exam­ines 10 cas­es from 2009 to 2013 where main­ly U.S. forces were respon­si­ble for civil­ian deaths, most­ly through air strikes or night raids. At least 140 civil­ians were killed in these inci­dents, includ­ing preg­nant women and at least 50 children.”

No one has ever been held account­able for these atroc­i­ties. In Octo­ber 2015, a Médecins Sans Fron­tières (MSF) trau­ma cen­ter in Kun­duz was destroyed by a sus­tained bomb­ing cam­paign by U.S.-led coali­tion forces that killed at least 42 patients, 14 staff and 4 care­tak­ers. The Unit­ed States claims that this was an acci­dent, but MSF says it gave the hospital’s GPS coor­di­nates to the coali­tion four days before the attack. MSF reports, Our patients burned in their beds, our med­ical staff were decap­i­tat­ed or lost limbs. Oth­ers were shot from the air while they fled the burn­ing building.”

Dead­ly U.S. bomb­ings con­tin­ue to the present. Less than two weeks ago, a U.S. bomb­ing killed 14 Afghan civil­ians, three of them chil­dren, in Kun­duz. That’s not an exhaus­tive list of U.S crimes in Afghanistan, but as long as the Unit­ed States and its part­ners are bomb­ing Afghanistan, more hor­rors can be expected.

The Unit­ed Nations finds that anti-gov­ern­ment ele­ments such as the Tal­iban and daesh (the so-called Islam­ic State”) are behind the major­i­ty of the attacks that have killed civil­ians so far in 2018. But it also notes a sharp increase in civil­ian casu­al­ties” from airstrikes car­ried out by pro-gov­ern­ment forces, a coali­tion in which Amer­i­ca is a cen­tral play­er, with 1,047 civil­ians killed by this side of the war thus far in 2018. There’s good rea­son to believe that the U.S‑led coali­tion is respon­si­ble for a greater por­tion of the civil­ian deaths than the UN report sug­gest. Civil­ian casu­al­ty track­ing in Afghanistan, con­duct­ed by the U.S. and Afghan gov­ern­ments, is gross­ly inad­e­quate—hard­ly a sur­prise giv­en that the per­pe­tra­tors are in charge of deter­min­ing their own guilt.

The Unit­ed States and its part­ners also share blame for Afghan civil­ian deaths caused by anti-gov­ern­ment forces. Accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Mil­i­tary Tri­bunal at Nurem­berg con­duct­ed after World War II, a war of aggres­sion is the supreme inter­na­tion­al crime dif­fer­ing only from oth­er war crimes in that it con­tains with­in itself the accu­mu­lat­ed evil of the whole.” What this means is that who­ev­er starts a war is respon­si­ble for all the atroc­i­ties that occur in that war. The 2001 U.S‑led inva­sion of Afghanistan was a war of aggres­sion. The attack was not autho­rized by the Unit­ed Nations, which means it was ille­gal. Nor is the argu­ment that the Unit­ed States had to invade because of the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 mas­sacre ten­able. In the ear­ly days of the U.S. bomb­ing of Afghanistan, the Afghan gov­ern­ment offered to dis­cuss turn­ing over Osama bin Laden if the Unit­ed States stopped its airstrikes. But the Bush admin­is­tra­tion called this non-nego­tiable,” opt­ing to wage more war and to replace the oppres­sive, misog­y­nis­tic Tal­iban with the North­ern Alliance, an out­fit, in the words of Robert Fisk, wrought with gang­sters,” and well-known rapists and mur­ders” of Afghan civilians.

That the Unit­ed States and its part­ners are cul­pa­ble for the accu­mu­lat­ed evil of the whole” in Afghanistan is even clear­er in view of the longer-term his­to­ry. America’s assault on the coun­try did not real­ly begin in 2001. As the jour­nal­ist Robert Drey­fuss shows in Devil’s Game, it dates to the ear­ly 1970s when the Unit­ed States and its part­ners — par­tic­u­lar­ly Pak­istan and Sau­di Ara­bia — con­spired to hand­cuff Afghanistan’s pro­gres­sives, nation­al­ists and left­ists — all of whom were strong at the time. These poli­cies under­mined Afghanistan’s hopes for a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety, nev­er mind one with any degree of socio-eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty. The U.S‑led alliance’s pol­i­cy reached its apoth­e­o­sis lat­er that decade when it empow­ered an insur­gency of vio­lent arch-reac­tionar­ies, unleash­ing a dev­as­tat­ing war and the emer­gence of the U.S‑backed Tal­iban gov­ern­ment in the 1990s.

Api­ra­tions of the rul­ing class

To under­stand America’s near­ly 50 years of vio­lent inter­ven­tion in Afghanistan, it is nec­es­sary to eval­u­ate the efforts of the U.S. rul­ing class to secure polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pri­ma­cy, a process that nec­es­sary includes keep­ing poten­tial chal­lengers at bay. Afghanistan is rich with nat­ur­al gas, and Afghanistan has oil reserves that in 2010 were dis­cov­ered to be sub­stan­tial­ly larg­er than pre­vi­ous­ly thought. Afghanistan has an esti­mat­ed $1 to $3 tril­lion in min­er­al wealth that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has ogled. This includes gold, cop­per, iron, mer­cury, lead, ura­ni­um, chromi­um, lithi­um and an array of rare met­als, resources that are used in cell phones, com­put­ers and mil­i­tary goods.

As a result of the cur­rent war, the Unit­ed States under­took super­vi­sion of the pri­va­ti­za­tion seg­ments of the Afghan econ­o­my. A 2010 U.S State Depart­ment report notes that Afghanistan has tak­en sig­nif­i­cant steps toward fos­ter­ing a busi­ness-friend­ly envi­ron­ment for both for­eign and domes­tic invest­ment.” Schol­ar Michael Skinner’s research leads him to con­clude that the war in Afghanistan is being used by the U.S.-led Empire of Cap­i­tal as a bridge­head to open all [of] Eura­sia to glob­al free trade while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­tain­ing the aspi­ra­tions of poten­tial challengers.”

Afghanistan shared a bor­der with the Sovi­et Union and shares one with Chi­na, a com­peti­tor of the U.S rul­ing class, and anoth­er with Iran, at present one of U.S. elites’ most hat­ed adver­saries. The val­ue of this real estate is laid bare by Chi­nese and Iran­ian infra­struc­ture projects in Afghanistan — in addi­tion to those of India — which are cru­cial for deter­min­ing the trade routes that will be required to export Afghanistan’s resources. As Adam Hanieh of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don points out, the Afghanistan-Pak­istan region is at the inter­sec­tion of the Gulf and Cen­tral Asia, form­ing the cross­roads of these two ener­gy-rich areas.” This may go a long way to explain­ing the mil­i­tary bases the Unit­ed States has con­struct­ed in Afghanistan, some of which are mas­sive, sug­gest­ing Amer­i­ca may be intend­ing to stay in the coun­try and use it as a launch­ing pad for attacks with­in and pos­si­bly beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

The degree to which the U.S rul­ing class has suc­ceed­ed in its pur­suit of these goals remains an open ques­tion, but it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that the U.S eco­nom­ic and for­eign pol­i­cy estab­lish­ment does not val­ue hav­ing a mil­i­tary pres­ence and allied gov­ern­ment in such a strate­gic neigh­bor­hood. Zbig­niew Brzezin­s­ki, a chief archi­tect of the Carter administration’s plan to arm the muja­hedeen and lat­er an advi­sor to Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, was frank about this in 1997, writ­ing that the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er on the Eurasian land­mass will be of deci­sive impor­tance to America’s glob­al primacy.”

Get­ting out of Afghanistan

End­ing the war is the pre­con­di­tion for Afghans to be able to have even min­i­mal phys­i­cal safe­ty and access to social ser­vices, let alone any lofti­er polit­i­cal aspi­ra­tions beyond that. Danielle Bell, human rights chief for the UN Assis­tance Mis­sion in Afghanistan, notes that con­flict-relat­ed vio­lence is erod­ing the rights of chil­dren to edu­ca­tion, health­care, free­dom of move­ment, fam­i­ly life, play­ing out­doors and oth­er­wise enjoy­ing a child­hood free of the bru­tal effects of war.” The war dis­placed 437,907 peo­ple in 2017 alone, and inter­nal­ly-dis­placed peo­ple lack ade­quate hous­ing, food, water, health care and oppor­tu­ni­ties to pur­sue edu­ca­tion and employ­ment. As the UN Office for the Coor­di­na­tion of Human­i­tar­i­an Affairs puts it, Afghanistan has been in pro­tract­ed con­flict for almost thir­ty five years, which has seri­ous­ly ham­pered pover­ty reduc­tion and devel­op­ment, strained the fab­ric of soci­ety and deplet­ed its cop­ing mech­a­nisms.” These are among the accu­mu­lat­ed evil of the whole” wrought by America’s war on Afghanistan.

After near­ly a half cen­tu­ry, the jury is in: Afghanistan will not be safe or free under U.S tute­lage. It’s time for the war to end and a cen­tral require­ment of that is that Amer­i­ca get out.

Greg Shu­pak writes fic­tion, non-fic­tion and book reviews. His most recent book is The Wrong Sto­ry: Pales­tine, Israel, and The Media. He teach­es Media Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Guelph.
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