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Abandoning Afghanistan: The Hindu Kush in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1979-2021


Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

President Biden is now sticking to his predecessor’s deal, and simply appears to abandon Afghanistan allowing the Taliban to take over the country to impose their strict rule on the land and its people.

The symbolic date of 11 September is meant to once again determine the fate of the Afghan people. But, events on the ground have made a mockery of the best-laid Biden plan, as over the past weekend the Taliban simply overran Kabul and are now completely in charge of the country (14-5 August 2021) – about one month ahead of schedule.

Afghanistan’s Civil War: A Cold War Legacy

The current war in Afghanistan predates the iconic 9/11 attacks and harks back all he way into the previous century’s Cold War – a Cold War pitting the U.S. ans its NATO allies against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. At that stage, Afghanistan was ruled by a Socialist government supported by Moscow. In fact, a 20-year Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty was signed on 5 December 1978. And, a little more than a year later, the Soviets invaded the country: “At the end of December 1979, the Soviet Union sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan and immediately assumed complete military and political control of Kabul and large portions of the country,” in order to support the government against an Islamic insurgency carried out by Holy Warriors or Mujahedeen (or practitioners of jihad). So, it would seem that the seemingly never-ending war in the Hindu Kush is nothing but the fault of the Soviets . . . and that is how history has in fact recorded the events. In reality, though, turns out that peace-loving Jimmy Carter (1977-81) has full responsibility for the current state of turmoil in the Hindu Kush and all around the world, as I explained in full detail in 2010, writing in a newspaper that no longer exists:

‘During the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-81), the role of the national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski [1928-2017], cannot be underestimated in this context. Brzezinski, as an American of Polish descent was then a rabid anti-Communist, and upon his appointment he immediately set up the Nationalities Working Group (NWG) dedicated to the idea of weakening the Soviet Union by inflaming ethnic tensions among subject Soviet peoples, primarily targeting the Islamic populations living under communism. He seems to have been particularly involved in the situation in Afghanistan, which wasn’t even part of the USSR. In an interview conducted by the well-known French journalist Vincent Jauvert, published in Le Nouvel Observateur (Jan. 15-21, 1998), Brzezinski made some astounding claims: “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujahedeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, Dec. 24, 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul and that very day I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” He then qualifies his hyperbole somewhat: “We [the US] didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” The Carter administration thus willingly seems to have supported the mujahedeen and their foreign allies — the “Afghan Arabs” — in a bid to precipitate the Soviets’ intervention and their ultimate demise. The notorious Charlie Wilson famously exclaimed at the time, “We had 58,000 dead in Vietnam, and we owe the Russians one.” Upon Jauvert’s query regarding the Islamic blowback and its effects on contemporary society, Jimmy Carter’s one-time national security adviser simply retorted: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”.’

The U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian, directed by Dr Adam Howard since 2019, still happily ignores historical reality and writes that the “Carter administration had closely watched [the Soviet] buildup from the outset, its reaction following the invasion revealed that, until the end, it clung to the hope that the Soviets would not invade, based on the unjustified assumption that Moscow would conclude that the costs of invasion were too high.” But Brzezinski’s words published in Le Nouvel Observateur (Jan. 15-21, 1998) show that the Americans did not not shy away from fanning the flames of Islamic fundamentalism in order to defeat the Soviets. In the 21st century, people and states are still experiencing the long-term blowback, a veritable orgy of violence that President Carter’s national security adviser ascribed to “[s]ome stirred-up Moslems.”

These ‘stirred-up Moslems,’ with such colourful names as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Boko Haram and ISIS or the Jabhat al-Nusra have determined and continue to determine the direction of U.S. and global foreign policy.

From Fighting Communists to Battling the Taliban: America’s Role in the Hindu Kush

Throughout the 1980’s, the war in Afghanistan was the Cold War’s prime proxy-theatre, which even enterred popular culture with movie heroes like Rambo or James Bond helping the Mujahedeen fight the Communists in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. And in the end, the Soviet Union proved unable to withstand the U.S.-supported Islamic resistance, leading to the withdrawal of its forces in a “well-executed and carefully planned disengagement operation” that started in May 1988 and ended on 15 February 1989. A Research Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Franz-Stefan Gady, explains in some detail that it “all began in November 1986 when the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev [1985-91] made the decision to withdraw all Soviet combat troops.”

As a result, Gorbachev summoned key members of the People’s Democratic Party

of Afghanistan (PDPA) including its new General Secretary, Muhammad Najibullah,

to Moscow in late 1986 and informed the Afghan communists that they had two

years to prepare for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and to implement a policy of

national reconciliation backed up by massive Soviet economic, financial, and

military aid. The signing of the so-called Geneva Accords, on April 14, 1988,

between Afghanistan, Pakistan, with the Soviet Union and the United States as

guarantors, finally paved the way for the Soviet withdrawal from the Hindukush,

while it also boosted Moscow’s hope for the future existence of a friendly, neutral

government in Kabul under the leadership of Muhammad Najibullah.

Following the Soviet withdrawal from the country. the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) survived for another three years before the whole country succumbed to a bloody civil war that saw various warlords fight each other until the “Taliban armed group emerged as a substantial player” in the winter of 1994. Many of its members had studied in conservative religious schools in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.” The movement’s name is based on the Arabic word for student, which “in the Pashto language . . . literally means ‘one who is seeking,’ or more specifically ‘someone who is seeking religious knowledge’,” as explained by the professor of social sciences, David Dressel. Still, the Taliban version of Islam is quite unlike any other form of Islamist ideology, as argued by the eminent journalist Ahmed Rashid: “The Taliban represent nobody but themselves and they recognize no Islam but their own.” Nevertheless, Rashid readily acknowledges the influence of the Deobandi school of Hanafi Islam practised and preached in Pakistan and going back to the teachings of such historical figures as Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi (1832–80) and Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī (1826–1905).

In their zeal to spread the faith and propagate jihad, the Taliban ended up giving refuge to Osama bin Laden, which was to lead eventually to the U.S. invasion in October 2001 and the subsequent war/occupation of 20 years that has now come to a sudden and abrupt end. The Soviets proved unable to withstand the onslaught of the Mujahedeen and their successors, the Americans proved equally unable to withstand the Taliban, once again proving that Afghanistan really is the “Graveyard of Empires.” Alas, nobody would ever have expected the American withdrawal to be so haphazard and the Taliban victory to be so quick and complete.

Taliban 2.0 or the Victory of Jihad?

The Taliban had been steadily reconquering Afghanistan since last May, until last Sunday (15 August 2021), “Taliban fighters sped down wide open highways on motorcycles and in captured government Humvees and police vehicles, rolling uncontested into the nation’s capital,” as eloquently put by the New York Times.

The Afghan army did not put up a fight, but surrendered and fled the battlefield. Ar least, that is how President Biden explained this military defeat: “The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened?  Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.” The U.S. President basically blamed the Afghan military, falling short of actually calling its soldiers cowards. What the U.S. President apparently failed to understand is the fact that the Taliban had been applying a “strategy of coercion and persuasion” for months, ever since Trump started negotiating with the Islamists, while failing to include representatives of the Afghan government. The Taliban strategy apparently used the telephone as its primary conduit, as revealed by  Muhammad Jallal, a tribal elder in Baghlan Province in northern Afghanistan. Jallal told reporters that a member of the Taliban called him simply saying “If they do not surrender, we will kill them.” And this telephone threat was repeated over and again at different locations throughout the whole of the country. In other words, in the 21st century the Taliban behaved like latter-day incarnations of Genghis Khan (d. 1227) and Timur Lenk (1336-1405), nomadic leaders who had perfected the multi-faceted strategy of “calculated terror,” as termed by the author Erik Hildinger in his 1997 book Warriors Of The Steppe. Genghis and Timur used word of mouth propaganda to spread their threats of complete annihilation of cities and their populations in case of non-compliance. And the Taliban appear to have more or less done the same today.

Biden seems unaware that fear and intimidation are potent persuaders, if the prospect is that one’s primary aid and support will simply vacate the premises. Instead, he waxed poetically about the reasons behind the U.S. presence in the Hindu Kush: “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that. We severely degraded al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago.” But, as I explained some weeks ago, the Bush administration did indeed go into Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks; but was quick to abandon the mission in order to go into Iraq – that profitable country which “floats on a sea of oil,” as poetically promised by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (2001-5). Echoing George W. Bush’s words while debating Al Gore in the run up to the 2000 elections, Biden explicitly said that “[o]ur mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.” Even though, nation-building was exactly what Bush ended up trying to do following his quick victory and subsequent inability to capture Bin Laden. In his wake, President Barack Obama alliteratively said that the American mission in Afghanistan was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda,” conveniently ignoring that the Americans were primarily fighting the Taliban.

Bush did launch the war-on-terror, which led to the deaths of more than 800,000 people and the displacement of 37 million more. While spending a trifle $145 billion on re-building Afghanistan in the past twenty years. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a timely report explaining that additionally the “Department of Defense (DOD) has also spent $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured. Afghans, meanwhile, have faced an even greater toll. At least 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed. More than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 have been injured since 2001—both likely significant underestimations.” Rather than going into Afghanistan to catch Bin Laden and dismantle ‘Al Qaeda and its allies,’ a “U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan” took shape that “could be described as 20 one-year reconstruction efforts, rather than one 20-year effort.” It seems that in their desire not to be seen to engage in nation-building, the U.S. launched a nation-building effort that was short-term directed and hence destined to fail. And moreover, “pervasive corruption put U.S. funds sent through the Afghan government at risk of waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Given these shaky foundations of any and all American efforts in the Hindu Kush, the Taliban continued to pursue a guerrilla war to liberate their country from foreign occupation. For even though, nowadays many people like to refer to the Taliban as “terrorists,” in reality these Islamist fighters primarily acted in defense of their own home country. They were fighting a righteous jihad against America and its NATO allies. Nowadays the term jihad is much bandied about and used and/or abused at will by Muslims as well as non-Muslims the world over. The historian and Islam specialist Mark Sedgwick maintains that the concept of jihad was developed in the eighth century, when it basically functioned as a “mixture of the Army Regulations and the Geneva Conventions, appropriate for the circumstances of the time.” At the time of the Islamic conquests (7-8th centuries), the world was divided between the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar al-Harb) and international relations between both spheres were primarily military in nature. But as the centuries progressed and relations between Muslims and the outside world achieved a quasi-peaceful status quo, punctuated by commercial exchanges and trade links, the idea of jihad changed as well. There is the well-known distinction between the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar) and the lesser jihad (aljihad al-asghar), between a personal struggle in the way of Allah (crf. Surah 29:69) and an armed struggle to protect believers against oppression and violence perpetrated by unbelievers. In other words, jihad evolved from a code of war into a defensive mechanism, tantamount to a religious duty leading to religious rewards. In Afghanistan during the 1980s, the protection of the land from Soviet occupation warranted the execution of a jihad by locals and other sympathetic believers willing to participate in a meritorious act proving one’s commitment in the way of Allah (al-jihad al-asghar). And that has also been what the Taliban have been doing for the past 20 years vis-à-vis the Americans.

Saigon in the Hindu Kush: Brzezinski’s Ghost

Now in the 2021, this righteous jihad has been rewarded by another glorious defeat – in the last century, the Mujahedeen defeated the Soviets and now, in this century, the Americans have been defeated by the Taliban. And in both cases the Afghan resistance fulfilled a religious duty in doing so; and, both were merely defending their own homeland against oppression and violence perpetrated by unbelievers. Back in the 1970s, Zbigniew Brzezinski wanted to give the Soviets a taste of their own Vietnam in the Hindu Kush, and now in the 21st century, the Americans appear to have gone through their second Saigon moment in the Hindu Kush. When the Taliban rolled into Kabul on Sunday (15 August 2021), U.S. Embassy staff engaged in a helicopter escape as had also been the case in Saigon (30 April 1975). Following the rapid retreat from Bagram Airbase, President Biden had sounded confident: “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army . . . There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.” Alas, that is just what happened. But, 2021’s real Saigon moment took place at the Kabul Airport, when an American airplane was preparing to take off rolling down the runway with hordes and hordes of desperate Afghan civilians pursuing the plane with a number even able to hold on to the bulk of the machine, clinging to the undercarriage, only to plummet to their deaths once the plane was airborne. The Taliban victory was as swift as it was surprising, with even the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, saying that “[w]e have reached a victory that wasn’t expected.” Joe Biden has now presided over a “defining geopolitical moment,” a humiliating defeat at the hands of an arguably ill-equipped and weaker enemy. The U.S. President, on the other hand, does not want to admit that much. Biden rather meekly avows that he merely respected the deal reached by his predecessor – Donald J. Trump.

But rather than trying to apportion appropriate blame at either George W. Bush, or Trump or Biden, in my opinion, in the wider context of the U.S. involvement in the Hindu Kush the rear culprit appears to be none other than peace-loving President Jimmy Carter. In the Seventies he wholeheartedly adopted the Brzezinki strategy for defeating Communism by means of strengthening and employing radical Islam, which then morphed into accepted U.S. foreign policy: “Liberal U.S. support and funding in conjunction with Saudi collusion and coaxing of various Islamist factions across the globe took place during the administrations of U.S. Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Clinton — from Afghanistan over Pakistan to Turkey (and Bosnia), to name but a few salient locations,” as I pointed out in 2016. In the case of Afghanistan, this meant that the U.S. supported the Mujahedeen as the Holy Warriors fighting against the godless Communists. In time, these Holy Warriors transformed themselves into the Taliban – vile oppressors of women and eager growers of beards. Prior to 9/11, these Islamists even used then-governor of Texas, George W. Bush, to get the ball rolling towards a much-vaunted pipeline project, as I explained at length previously. In fact, even following the notorious 2001 terror attacks, the Taliban reached out to the President Bush, but the latter “sternly rejected a Taliban offer to discuss handing over Osama bin Laden to a third country as U.S. jets began a second week of bombing” in early October 2001. Bush was determined to invade the Hindu Kush as a precursor to his real goal, the invasion of Iraq. One could even argue that the whole Bush-declared War-on-Terror was nothing but a direct consequence of the U.S. defeat of the Soviet Union, as  a new enemy was needed and already found. In April 1995,  then-NATO chief Willy Claes (1994-5) made a programmatic announcement that has dominated foreign affairs ever since: “Islamic militancy has emerged as perhaps the single gravest threat to the NATO alliance and to Western security”, since the fall of Communism a few years earlier. The 9/11 attacked seemed to prove Claes right and the subsequent “War-on-Terror” became nothing but a “Crusade Against Islam,” as I argued in 2016.

Five years later, it seems, radical Islam has defeated the United States in the Hindu Kush. The former UK Prime Minister and staunch Bush ally, Tony Blair, published a scathing attack on the Trump-Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying that “every jihadist group around the world [is now] cheering” . . . and it does now really appear that the U.S. has lost the War-on-Terror – in the Hindu Kush and perhaps more ominously, on the moral plane as well, given the ease with which President Biden chose to abandon the people of Afghanistan in order to bring American soldiers home and bring a supposed end to the endless war waged by the U.S. across the globe.

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21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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