The US Turn to Go Home
Monday, August 16, we awoke to the news that the Taliban had taken over Kabul and the leader of Afghanistan had fled to Uzbekistan. There was panic in the streets as countless thousands tried to get to the airport to leave the city. There was chaos at the airport as US troops tried to evacuate US citizens and their Afghan supporters, translators and staff. The US Embassy was burning all the sensitive documents and equipment they could. The iconic picture was of a huge US military aircraft taking off with Afghans still clinging to it.
The Taliban leaders began to try to assure the press that the panic was unwarranted, and that human rights would be respected including the rights of women. But on the streets pickup trucks of Taliban fighters patrolled and reports began of women being harassed and taken prisoner for such infractions as wearing slippers. Reporters told of streets being deserted with no women appearing anywhere. The one road to the airport was blocked by Taliban troops with foreigners allowed through but not Afghans.
Blame began to be hurled, with the media declaring the US had been caught completely by surprise at the speed with which the Taliban had regained control of the country.
President Joe Biden responded to a storm of criticism that the USA was perpetrating an atrocity, undoing and profaning the sacrifices of generations of US troops, and failing to insure any sort of orderly end to US presence in Afghanistan. He insisted that the USA had served its purpose in securing the operations of the civilian government of Afghanistan and training a generation of military security forces, equipping them, and preparing them to lead. After 4 Presidents, 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats, had sent US troops in response to a UN resolution in 2001, he was unwilling to back-off from the negotiated arrangement his predecessor, Donald Trump, had made for US troops to leave. What had happened, he said, was that when it came to the point that the Afghan government and military needed to forcefully resist the rise of the Taliban they refused to do so. It is irrelevant to say that US military in Afghanistan knew the Afghan military would not fight without the Americans fighting with them. It is irrelevant to say the US mission, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, is a failure. It is simply time, Biden said, to end US attempts to build Afghan democracy.
Even a cursory reading of history shows that Afghanistan is an area where peace and order have always been in short supply. Moreover, the Afghans have constantly resisted foreign intervention, even when it was invited to come in (as in the case of the USSR in 1979). It has always been the lack of internal stability that has plagued the country.
The present unrest cannot be understood without careful study of the way Wahhabist Islamic sectarianism has arisen. Not all Islam is the same, and neither is all Wahhabism (reformist conservative Islam that adherents prefer to call Salafi.) The Taliban arose as this type of movement, determined to install radical monotheism through force if necessary. Their reform called for purification of heretical references and influences, restoration of patriarchy and subjugation of women, and installation of theocracy. The ruthless way in which the Taliban operated, assisted by conservative Pakistani military along the extensive border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, created international concern. The issues were human rights and also the obliteration of Afghan and regional cultural history, including destruction of vast collections in museums and libraries, and the dynamiting of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.
After the destruction of the NY World Trade Center on 9/11 2001, President Bush demanded that Afghanistan (with Taliban in control of the area near Pakistan where bin Laden was believed to be) turn over Osama bin Laden, and that was refused. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom and in December the UN authorized the International Security Assistance Force. This was to back up the administration of Hamid Karzai who was made head of an Afghan Transitional Administration in July 2002. For 20 years this UN force, composed of some 33,000 US troops of a total of 150,000 international military (on average per year; with a high of 110,000 US troops there in 2011 to a low of about 4000 last year). The US “mission” evolved from making Afghanistan secure enough to develop and “getting bin Laden” (accomplished in 2011 during the presidency of Barack Obama) to preparing and equipping the Afghan military to do the job of internal security.
Public opinion has immediately decided the US failed to accomplish anything in Afghanistan. History will either concur or disagree that as with Great Britain in the 19th century and the USSR in the 20th century, the USA in the 21st century failed in its basic tasks.
Still, it is a country with a dazzling history and potential.
I, for one, hope that this generation of Taliban has improved in its ability to value people, respect differences of opinion, and build the country.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.