The abject failure of post 9/11 foreign and military policies in Afghanistan

The utter failure of international foreign and defence policy in Afghanistan (going back decades) with all the deep, profound consequences for the Afghan people, was the cumulative result of wilful, self seeking, ignorant, short-term, wrong-headed strategies which lined the pockets of defence contractors and advanced the ego-driven careers of (often amoral) politicians of every stripe and nationality.

“We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” recalled Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House war czar under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“We did not know what we were doing,” said Richard Boucher, the Bush administration’s top diplomat for South and Central Asia.

“There was a tremendous … dysfunctionality in unity of command inside of Afghanistan, inside the military,” recalled Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, an early Afghanistan War commander.

“There was no campaign plan,” confessed Army Gen. Dan McNeill, who twice served as the top commander in Afghanistan under Bush. “I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could.”

These and hundreds of other officials, military officers, diplomats, and analysts could have leveled with the American people immediately or at any time in the last 20 years. Had they done so, perhaps the war in Afghanistan could have been shortened by a decade or more; perhaps following conflicts wouldn’t have been so easy to start or proved so difficult to end; perhaps more than 770,000 people wouldn’t be dead and up to 59 million forced from their homes by America’s post-9/11 wars.

Nick Turse, The Intercept, 2021

The attack on the twin towers killed 2976 innocent people. It was designed to lay a trap and the USA and its allies walked into it.  Aerial bombardment and fighting war from the air had failed before – Vietnam – and it was sure to fail again for anyone with eyes to see what was happening on the ground.

To imagine, after 20 years almost to the day the USA marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, that the Taliban would be forming the Afghan government, is to leave any sane person speechless.

As do the numbers

A recent study by Brown University found that costs of the war (and future commitments) in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2022 amount to $2.3tn, which includes interest on debt used to finance the war and expenses such as veterans’ care and spending in Pakistan, which the US used as a base for Afghan-related operations, and runs through to the 2022 fiscal year based on requested money.

In the UK, recent figures put out by the British government put the total cost of major operations in Afghanistan in the low twenty billions. But independent analysts think the true operational cost could be around double that figure. And this is without trying to count the additional costs to the health service of caring for wounded veterans over their lifetimes.

The terrible human toll

In 2017, the United States military relaxed its rules of engagement for airstrikes in Afghanistan, which resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties. From the last year of the Obama administration to the last full year of recorded data during the Trump administration, the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan increased by 330 percent. Prior wars and civil conflict in the country have made Afghan society extremely vulnerable to the reverberating effects of the current war. Those war effects include elevated rates of disease due to lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, and reduced access to health care. Nearly every factor associated with premature death — poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, environmental degradation — is exacerbated by the current war.

About 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. More than 71,000 of those killed have been civilians.

Of this, almost 33,000 children have been killed and maimed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. That is an average of one child every five hours.

There were 2,448 American service members killed in Afghanistan; 3,846 contractors; 444 Aid workers and 72 journalists.

And Afghanistan led to Iraq – based on lies

As we know, Afghanistan led to Iraq and under false pretexts – Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 and did not have weapons of mass destruction either.  (Our film We Are Many charts this). All this in turn led to further conflicts in the region (Libya, Syria).

The Institute for Policy Studies estimates

  • Over the 20 years since 9/11, the U.S. has spent $21 trillion on foreign and domestic militarization.
  • Of that total, $16 trillion went to the military— including at least $7.2 trillion for military contracts.
  • Another$3 trillion went to veterans’ programs, $949 billion went to Homeland Security, and $732 billion went to federal law enforcement.
  • For far less than it spent on militarization since 9/11, the U.S. could reinvest to meet critical challenges that have been neglected for the last 20 years:
    • $4.5 trillioncould fully decarbonize the U.S. electric grid.
    • $2.3 trillion could create 5 million jobs at $15 per hour with benefits and cost-of-living adjustments for 10 years.
    • $25 billioncould provide COVID vaccines for the populations of low-income countries.

As USA academic Linda Bilmes says, “While Washington bickers about what, if anything, has been achieved after 20 years and nearly $5tn spent on “forever wars”, there is one clear winner: the US defense industry.”

The legacy of war – and climate change.

Meantime, as the people of Afghanistan are left again to pick up the pieces of the latest chapter of the ‘great game’ played out on their land, by foreigners, it’s not only war and conflict they are facing – it’s also climate change.

One August night under a cloudy sky, Hamid Agha slept peacefully in his home, packed with extended family members, in the town of Charikar in Afghanistan. Around midnight, the rainfall began. The rumble of waters flowing down the hillsides woke Hamid Agha up. He rushed to the door. Clods of earth and rocks hit him and the flood ripped him out of his house.

The flash flood on the night of August 26 highlighted the deadly consequences of climate change in Afghanistan. The heavy dependence on traditional agriculture and rapid population growth make the country extremely vulnerable to climate change, which undermines all aspects of development. The more weather patterns change, the more Afghans suffer – and they have been suffering already through 40 years of war.

The wars have spared few Afghans. They are now doomed to live out a global warming catastrophe, too. Hamid Agha, who had survived the war, was carried away from his home by the flood. He heard children screaming for help amid the apocalyptic scene engulfing his house. Floating away, he caught the wall of his neighbor’s home.

Of those in Hamid Agha’s home that night, he was the only one to survive. The other 10 people were swept away.

“I had earned all of my life,” said Hamid Agha, 50, who goes without a surname. “My hair is white. All I had worked for in my life, my mother, my wife, my children, my daughter-in-law, my grandchildren, my house, and my car were taken away.” Hamid Agha wept in despair and helplessness in the face of climate change.

Hamid Agha sheltered in a neighbor’s house until dawn and began to search for his family in the daylight. The bodies of his loved ones were spread around the neighborhood. He found his mother’s body hanging in a neighbor’s tree. His 18-year-old son had been dragged by the flood into a car, where his body was discovered. Hamid Agha found his grandchild inside their cradle, dead.

From a peaceful August night to a morning of grief – Hamid Agha buried six family members in one day. Two days later, he found the bodies of another son and his daughter stuck in the mud. Four days after that Hamid Agha was still searching for one son and a 2-year-old grandchild. Two sons, in their 20s, who were not home at the time, struggle with Hamid Agha to live on.

Ezzatullah Mehrdad, The Diplomat, 2020

We cannot bomb, maim and force our way out of the existential climate threat ahead.

There is no greater case to be made for the need to ‘transform defence’ than that of the convergence of the human and financial toll in Afghanistan with the existential threat of climate change.

Clive Lewis, former soldier and MP for Norwich, said this in the UK Parliament on 25 August 2021, at the time of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan:

Listening to the parliamentary debate, I was reminded of a quote from the post-colonial academic Edward Said: “Every empire tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.” The delusion that Said identified becomes even more apparent when you consider how much money has been made from the “war on terror”, of which the war in Afghanistan was a key part. Many of those who pursued this had direct links to the corporations that profited so handsomely. The Afghan war cost Britain an estimated £40bn, which pales in comparison to the US government’s $2.26tn price-tag.

These vast sums – our taxes – were paid to transnational security companies such as G4S, Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics. The history of British and US foreign policy is littered with even starker examples of companies that actually lobbied for armed intervention to further corporate interests, from United Fruit’s lobbying of the US government to overthrow the Guatemalan government in 1954, to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) pressuring our own government to protect its interests in Iran, leading to the overthrow of the country’s first democratically elected government. A cursory glance at history would reveal many other instances.

The war in Afghanistan was an attempt to revive a 19th-century idea of “global Britain”. It was part of an approach to international affairs – evidently still widely shared in our parliament – that has nothing to contribute to the 21st century. To make it through the turbulent times ahead, our leaders will require qualities they too often lack: patience, honesty, the willingness to build long-term coalitions. Without concerted action, the unfolding climate crisis will increase international instability. Our future will be one of failed states, food and water shortages, and forced mass migration unless we share technologies for renewable energy, write off crippling debts and support rather than suppress the development of countries we have failed to dominate. Britain, hosting Cop26 later this year, has a chance to demonstrate genuine international leadership and show how to deal with the global instability that is, in part, our historic legacy. We cannot bomb, maim and force our way out of the existential climate threat ahead.