Revenge over Reflection: The War in Afghanistan

Twenty years on from the outbreak of the Afghanistan War, the United States and their allies abandon a nation in turmoil.
By Casey Abel
Bushmaster armoured vehicle enroute to Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, 2009. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

This September marks twenty years since Al-Qaeda militants orchestrated the September 11 Terror Attacks against the peoples of the United States of America. Within hours the American government, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, began preparations for war. On October 7th, the US military signaled the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’ by launching the first of their missiles into Afghanistan.

With American withdrawals now complete, and the Taliban returned to power, a grieving Western world is in need of deep reflection. The US was blindsided by the terror attacks of September 2001, and in their aftermath political leaders were quick to stoke patriotism and prejudice. The grieving American public had little time to process the tragedy befallen them as national discourses propagated violent retribution as the patriotic response.

Australian reporter Karen Middleton flew to New York immediately after the attacks. She recalls that while America was broadly “a nation bent on revenge“, not all American’s were quick to support the call to war. During her stay Middleton witnessed a New York priest address her congregation in the days following 9/11 . Rather than facilitate communal healing through calls for violence, the priest asked whether “America should examine it’s own attitudes and policies to understand why such hatred had been brought upon it”.

For many listening, it was too much. People got to their feet and yelled in protest. They literally shouted her down.

Many Americans believed that fresh blood would wash their wounds clean. America’s invasion of Afghanistan has displaced millions, killed hundreds of thousands and opportuned the world’s largest Military Industrial Complex to rort trillions from the American taxpayer. War is an intrinsically expensive endeavor, however when the US government allows companies such as Transdigm Group to make 4,436% profits on individual items at taxpayers’ expense, war becomes blatantly unaffordable. Afghanistan has been a failure for the US on all fronts, had a grieving nation paused for reflection perhaps millions could have been spared what became a terrifying war.

The 20th Century was significant for Afghanistan and two global super powers in particular. The third British-Afghan war ended in 1919 with the British Empire determining to recognise Afghanistan as an independent country. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980 intending to implement their own puppet government. They withdrew in 1989 bankrupted and with their army in tatters. Afghanistan entered the 21st Century reputed as ‘The Graveyard of Empires’.

The American military deployed to Afghanistan in October of 2001 with two disparate objectives. The first to capture or kill the leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden. The second, to ensure Afghanistan would no longer be “a terrorist base of operations”. Bin Laden’s capture was a measurable objective. The removal of subjective terrorism from a geographic region was not. The first potential mistake of the United States military was invading Afghanistan without clearly defined measurable objectives.

Retired United States army officer Lester Grau and former Afghan Colonel Ali Jalali penned a piece in January of 2002 writing that,

To avoid the same pitfalls [as the Soviet Union], the U.S. need only keep from straying from its original military objectives.

These two warriors bold reflected that the Soviet Army failed in Afghanistan on multiple counts. An overreliance on technology saw infantry adorned in boots and webbing that failed in harsh terrain. Troops became dependent on armoured carriers that could not scale Afghan mountains. The Mujahedeen were resilient, stubborn and master’s of impossible geography. They were also accustomed to the diseases ravaging soviet ranks. Grau and Jalali concluded that the Russian army succumbed to “death by a thousand cuts“.

The US military has suffered a fate similar to their Soviet predecessors. Where the Soviet campaign collapsed after nine years the US persevered for twenty. They became trapped in a guerilla war far from home in a hostile environment with an unclear military strategy. The first of their two prime objectives remained unachieved for a decade until Bin Laden was killed in May of 2011. Their second objective of rendering Afghanistan free of terrorist organisations has been failed unequivocally.

The American-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban government but failed to cripple them. Taliban leaders fled to the mountains where they reassembled their military capabilities. The US effectively metamorphised the Taliban from a dictatorial theocratic government into a mobile terrorist organisation. The rise of ISIL in 2013 served only to highlight the paradoxical nature of fighting a war against ‘terrorism’.

Australian photojournalist Andrew Quilty published a memorable work in April pressing this point. His work reveals the faces of ordinary people brutalised by American and Australian forces during the War in Afghanistan. American and Australian soldiers terrorised and committed war crimes against the Afghan peoples throughout the war thus driving thousands of recruits to the Taliban. One Taliban soldier agreed to be interviewed by Quilty. “Jamshid” joined the Taliban after Australian forces murdered his disabled brother.

I was scared and didn’t want to go to my home, I can’t show you my heart, to describe how I felt, but if you lost someone and you  faced the people responsible, what would your reaction be? My reaction was to take up a gun.

American President George Bush proclaimed the War in Afghanistan to be an effort to help “the oppressed people of Afghanistan’. The civilian death toll has shown for years that Afghan prosperity has not been an American priority. That an American missile killed ten Afghan civilians, including seven children, on August 29th last month makes this abundantly clear. The Brereton Report has, in the least, likewise exposed a disinterest in Afghan prosperity in the Australian military.

With the war now over, the Western World is attempting to justify their abandonment of the Afghan people to the Taliban. World leaders are invariably spreading rhetoric broadly concerned with self-justification and scapegoating. When the Afghan army routed in mid-August United States President Joe Biden stated that,

American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.

Biden’s words may have comforted many Americans hurting over the war in Afghanistan, however, his message is a far cry from the reality that Afghan forces have been desperately fighting the Taliban since the US ousted them from power.

As of September 2021, the United States have lost 2,455 service members in Afghanistan. As awful a statistic as this is, it is vastly overshadowed by the 69,095 Afghan military and police personnel killed during the war. For every American service member killed in action, Afghanistan has lost twenty-eight. In light of this, Biden’s speech is significant for two reasons. It constitutes an ethical betrayal of his Afghan allies as he infers cowardice upon them, when it is they who have borne the brunt of the war. Secondly, the harshness of his words highlight the general lack of camaraderie felt in America with the people of Afghanistan.

With the War in Afghanistan now over, it is crucial the Western World pauses to reflect on the past twenty years. The US once considered their invasion of Afghanistan the first campaign in their ‘War on Terror’. With Al-Qaeda and ISIL still active the threat of Islamist terrorism remains a reality. Moreover the Taliban have regained control of Afghanistan dooming a war-traumatised generation to Islamist theocracy. If the War in Afghanistan can be considered anything, it is a tragedy of nations.

3 Replies to “Revenge over Reflection: The War in Afghanistan”

    1. Hey Amba, yes unfortunately this is true. That the war was so expensive is an often cited reason for ending it. What many people fail to pay attention to is the role the American Military Industrial Complex played in using the war as means of extorting gargantuan profits. If you click on the link in that section you will see the example I referenced 🙂

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