Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

A gigantic lost project

AFGHANISTAN / For 20 years, US authorities lied about the war.

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
Author: Craig Whitlock
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, USA

Stated in the Washington Post journalist Craig Whitlock’s book The Afghanistan Papers. A Secret History of the War: By the war’s end, more than 775,000 troops had fought in Afghanistan. More than 2300 died, and 21,000 returned home wounded. The war is said to have cost 2.261 billion dollars (approx. 20,000 billion kroner). Such figures demanded justification.

A project called Lessons Learned started quietly in the US administration around 2015. The intention was to analyze political mistakes in Afghanistan to avoid repetition. Confessions came from generals and diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials, and 3000 soldiers who had fought in the «global war on terror.» They spoke openly, as the project was intended to remain an internal matter. Whitlock heard about the case, and after three years of fighting in court, a total of 10,000 pages of interview notes were published.

The documents describe a gigantic loss-making project, while the public was told for years that «we are making progress. We are winning the war.» A general in the Bush administration admits that «there was no plan, no long-term strategy.» Two years after the start of the war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared in one of his many handwritten notes, known as «Snowflakes»: «I have no clear idea who the bad guys are in Afghanistan.» This ignorance applied on a broad basis and would eventually haunt the United States. No one in the government explained to the public how, when, or under what conditions they planned to end operations in the country. But President Bush was confident: «We will not repeat the mistakes other big nations invading Afghanistan have made [read Russia], namely to be successful at first, followed by many years of hesitation and eventually defeat.»

The Taliban were branded as terrorists.

Bush repeated the mistakes

A blunder from the start was failing to distinguish between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Both professed a religious extremist ideology, but they pursued different goals. Al Qaeda was primarily a global Arab network – bin Laden wanted to overthrow the Saudi royal family and other autocrats in the Middle East who allied with the United States. He lived in Afghanistan only because he had been deported from Sudan. The Taliban, on the other hand, had exclusively local interests. Most of their followers consisted of various Pashtun tribes who fought for power in the country. The Bush administration defined the Taliban as an enemy because they protected bin Laden and refused to extradite him after 9/11. But in 2002, there were few Al Qaeda supporters left in Afghanistan. Most had been killed, and the rest had fled. Thus, the Americans and their allies spent twenty years fighting various militant groups in Afghanistan, people who had nothing to do with 9/11.

Additionally, Whitlock’s material shows that bin Laden could have been captured as early as December 2001. He had been located near Jalalabad. However, the Americans fumbled with military decisions long enough for the main enemy number one to escape. It took ten years before they could find him again.

The international community made another mistake. An UN-led summit took place in Bonn in December 2001. The task was to negotiate a temporary power structure in Afghanistan. Involved parties and representatives from Iran, Pakistan, Russia and India, among others, participated. It ended in a «diplomatic triumph» – Hamid Karzai was appointed the country’s leader, and a process was set in motion to draft laws and prepare for national elections. But a fatal mistake at the Bonn conference was overlooked: It excluded the Taliban. The Taliban had, by this time, shown a willingness to surrender and negotiate Afghanistan’s future. Now they were branded as terrorists. They never forgot that.

A bitterly poor country

The Americans and their allies came to a bitterly poor country. There was nothing to build anything with. The money had to come from outside. But how should it be used? The reconstruction plan consisted of the Bush administration’s order: «Go and help Karzai.»

But even now, the intention to get Afghanistan back on its feet quickly and then go home proved illusory. «Help Karzai» consisted of forming a model state à la the United States, a constitutional democracy with an elected president. But the Afghans had no experience in such matters. They were used to tribal structures where everyone fought for himself. «For the best of society» meant nothing to them. «Centralized power was a disaster», a European spokesman later admitted. As one farmer put it: «I have kept sheep and goats and grown vegetables on this land since time immemorial and have never had a central government. Why do I need one now?» And tax, an unknown word.

Freshly appointed Afghan officials, who could neither read nor write and who desperately needed all the dollars they could get their hands on, were put in charge of massive fortunes. It ended in chaos and corruption. Americans were sent to Afghanistan in a rotating system, arriving without speaking the language and without knowledge of the culture, only to return home after a few months and be replaced by new recruits without the necessary basic knowledge. Gradually, loyalty pulverized to a zero point. Karzai eventually felt betrayed by the United States and indulged in massive corruption. Who was friend, who was foe? Afghans and Americans sometimes lost control and went berserk among those they were supposed to protect.

At the same time, the war in Iraq attracted more and more attention and devoured more and more of the war budgets, which left Afghanistan in a backwater of failed warfare. And as failures accumulated, it became increasingly important to tell the Americans back home that everything was going well and that the Taliban were in full retreat. During his second election campaign, President Bush even declared that the Taliban «no longer exists.» Possibly he meant but forgot to add that they had crossed the border to Pakistan, where they were well taken care of and provided with weapons.

Centralized power was a disaster.

What are we fighting for?

The war on drugs was a prime example of failure. In 2006, poppies were estimated to account for a third of Afghanistan’s total economy, and the country supplied the world with up to 90 percent of the total opium. The Americans had launched Operation River Dance. They were to end opium cultivation, first with tractors and bulldozers. Useless. They considered poison spraying from the air: politically and ecologically useless. But it was said that all farmers, religious leaders and local decision-makers supported the campaign. Lies. Instead, alienated and deprived of vital incomes, poor farmers became perfect recruits for the Taliban.

Telling the unpleasant truth in public was risky. General David McKiernan, Commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, suffered the consequences. Towards the end of the Bush regime, he was the first general to admit that the war in the country was going badly. He was quickly fired without explanation. Under Obama, the quagmire continued, despite attempts at a «new, comprehensive strategy.» Cash flows flowed to the «building of Afghanistan’s independence» and the sending of soldiers to repel insurgency. But good results were missing, and the question remained unanswered until the very end: What are we fighting for?

The Americans’ catastrophic and dishonourable escape from Afghanistan in August 2021 could ultimately only be taken for what it was – a crushing defeat. They managed to undermine the belief in the political system, a pillar of democracy.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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