From the publisher… On leaving Afghanistan

There is such a deep and complex history to Afghanistan and its surrounding region of ancient civilizations that the more you know about it, the more tragic it becomes. How we got to this point, with harrowing airport images as the US clumsily tries to extract itself, goes back many decades, decades full of important events that are receiving scant mention in the coverage. In this issue we are running three articles that bring forth different aspects, because to understand Afghanistan in the last 40 years you find out a lot about how games are played by the rich and powerful to exploit the weak in order to gain influence, power, and, the real driving force, control of resources. (Three more choice suggestions in the editors’ picks on page 13, too.)

My college time (’69-’73) was focused on the Viet Nam war. With the Iranian hostage crisis and the overthrow of the Shah in the late ’70s, my attention drifted there. Islamic fundamentalism had seized power. Religious fundamentalists, wherever they are, cause me great concern. As a secular person I have always been wary of wars (not to mention social policies) whose underpinnings were justified in dogmatic religion. When I saw the US begin supporting the mujaheddin in Afghanistan under Reagan (and subsequently learned it began under Carter!), my bells were going off.

And now here we are. I just re-read the book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid, published in 2000. I recommend it highly; it is still very relevant. It deeply covers the twin dynamics of conflicts between the various warlords the US helped empower against the Soviets, and the international struggles for alliances to support oil and gas pipelines crossing Afghan territory. The ’90s also saw the rise of the poppy economy after the agriculture economy was wrecked in that war. Also there are the shifting roles of neighboring nations, Pakistan of course, but also Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, among others. Rashid has recently commented there’s not much changed with the Taliban 20 years later, but we can only hope their toned-down rhetoric holds.  

What we have now is a shattered, war-torn nation desperately in need of funding, about to be economically tortured by withheld financing and aid, while we, the ones who brought and sustained a decades’ long stalemated war through multiple administrations, go home. And today, the CNN headline: “The Taliban are sitting on $1 trillion worth of minerals the world desperately needs.”  

I cannot fathom the anguish being felt by so many. The soldiers who went and suffered through it, and still carry that pain inside. Those who were wounded; remember, their families suffer as well. And of course those for whom their loved one didn’t come back. For what? And then there are the many endangered Afghans who worked as soldiers or translators or helpers for the US, and who are in the hearts and memories of those they worked with. And of course, the women who have made progress after the repression of the past decades now facing an uncertain future. 

The August 21 front-page headline of The Economist reads, “Biden’s Debacle.” This longrunning debacle has many owners. I feel it goes back to the 1953 CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, which helped set off the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. First Carter, and then Reagan’s full-blown military aid empowering the warlords, against whom the Taliban formed. Bill Clinton continuing the money and weapons flow while pursuing gas and oil pipelines. George W. Bush deserves huge blame for his war of choice in Iraq in 2003, putting his efforts there and thus accepting the stalemate in Afghanistan. Obama was fine with night raids and drone strikes, even after killing Bin Laden. Trump freed 5,000 Taliban prisoners while negotiating a “we will leave, don’t shoot at us” plan with the Taliban, and then blocking the paperwork of Afghan allies who wanted out, compounding the mess we are seeing.

As we reach the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, I am reminded of a rhetorical question raised at the time: “Why do they hate us?” I think W. may have responded, “They hate us for our freedoms.” Yeah; that freedom to overthrow governments, to impose draconian economic sanctions, to carry on wars by proxy, to put claims on other nations’ resources, to put military bases all over the world, to be supportive of dictators who repress their own people. You know what? I hate that stuff too. How about you?

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