“The oppressed people of afghanistan will know the generosity of america and our allies.”
— George W. Bush, Oct. 7, 2001
The 9/11 attacks could have been dealt with as a crime. This would have been sane and consistent with precedent. When lawbreaking occurs, we seek the perpetrators, rather than starting wars with unrelated parties. When the IRA set off bombs in London, nobody called for air strikes on West Belfast (or on Boston, where a great deal of IRA funding came from). When the Oklahoma City bombing was found to have been perpetrated by a white supremacist associated with ultra-right militias, there was no call to obliterate Idaho or Montana. Instead, the attacker was searched for, found, apprehended, brought to court, found guilty, and sentenced.
This was not the approach taken by the Bush administration. Rather than seek out and punish the guilty—and only the guilty—it swiftly launched a “global war on terror” that led to the deaths of millions.1
After the attacks, the Bush administration demanded that the Taliban immediately hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States. The Taliban, in response, offered to put bin Laden on trial, if the United States provided evidence of his guilt. Bush refused. Nor did he consider the Taliban’s offer to give up bin Laden to a neutral third country. His demand, he said, was nonnegotiable. He would not provide the requested evidence (in fact, he had none at the time). He would not enter into talks. Historian Carter Malkasian notes that Bush “did not instruct Powell to open a line to the Taliban to work things out, which would have been the normal diplomatic course of action to avoid a war.”
In fact, long before 9/11, the Taliban had reached out to the United States and offered to put Bin Laden on trial under the supervision of a “neutral international organization,” but the United States government showed no interest and did not respond. Milton Bearden, a CIA station chief who oversaw U.S. covert operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s, told the Washington Post after 9/11 that the Taliban had long been signaling to the United States that they “wanted to get rid of” bin Laden, and probably “set up bin Laden for capture by the United States” but the United States responded to the signals with threats. Relations between the Taliban and bin Laden’s Al Qaeda were, in fact, “deeply contentious,” and the Taliban had repeatedly placed bin Laden under house arrest.
Instead of entering into extradition talks with the Taliban, days after 9/11, Washington demanded that Pakistan eliminate “truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population,” and caused the withdrawal of aid workers along with severe reduction in food supplies, thereby leaving “millions of Afghans … at grave risk of starvation.” Despite sharp protests from aid organizations, and warnings of what might ensue if the United States bombed the country, there was little discussion of the possible humanitarian consequences for Afghans of any U.S. action.
In the first week of October, 2001, Bush launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” and sent a “powerful barrage of cruise missiles and long-range bombers against Afghanistan” to try to destroy the Taliban’s government. “The Taliban will pay a price,” he declared, calling his attacks “carefully targeted.” This was not the approach favored by many scholars of terrorism, who had been “caution[ing] against a quick-hit military response,” encouraging “police work and prudence” instead. In Foreign Affairs, military historian Michael Howard raised the possibility of responding to the crime through “a police operation conducted under the auspices of the United Nations … against a criminal conspiracy whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court, where they would receive a fair trial and, if found guilty, be awarded an appropriate sentence.” But Bush himself, according to neoconservative writer Robert Kagan, “wanted vengeance.” Colin Powell got the impression that the president “wanted to kill somebody.” Indeed, on September 20, Bush told religious leaders in the Oval Office: “I’m having difficulty controlling my bloodlust.” Against one of the poorest countries on Earth, the U.S. sent “F-15E strike fighters, carrier-based F-18C fighters, black B-2 stealth bombers, and 40-year-old Vietnam-era B-52G/H bomber … the propeller-driven AC-130 Specter gunship carried a 150mm cannon, 25mm Gatling guns, and 40mm cannons … akin to a flying artillery battery. Manned aircraft were joined by new Predator drones.” U.S. forces were soon running out of targets to bomb, since “the Taliban had few headquarters and little infrastructure to hit.” (Veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn commented in 2009 that “what the Americans never explain in Afghanistan or Iraq is why they are using weapons designed for world war three against villages that have not left the Middle Ages—which makes heavy civilian casualties inevitable.”)
After the bombing began, the Taliban again offered to enter talks about turning over bin Laden, on condition that the United States stop bombing the country. (They gave up their demand to see evidence of bin Laden’s guilt.) The Taliban labeled the bombings a “terrorist attack,” which many of them undoubtedly were, and the number of Afghan civilian deaths would soon exceed the number of deaths in the 9/11 attacks themselves. A Human Rights Watch account from the end of October documented horrific bombings of remote Afghan villages, where residents “were adamant that there were no Taliban or Al-Qaida positions in the area.” One 40-year-old mother lost her husband and all six of her children in one of the U.S.’s “carefully targeted” bombing raids. U.S. bombs struck facilities of the UN and the International Red Cross—killing multiple workers and “all but wip[ing] out the [International Red Cross’] sole complex with supplies of food and blankets for 55,000 disabled Afghans”—even though the U.S. had been given the locations of the facilities beforehand.
Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who reported from Afghanistan at the time, says that “the bombing was traumatizing the Afghan civilians whom it was supposed to be liberating”2:
“[T]he Afghan refugees I interviewed every day could think and talk of nothing else. Their hearts shattered by decades of gunfire and explosions, these refugees had seen nothing like the bombs that were ploughing up their country now. With no experience of precision ordnance, they were almost mad with fear, as their imaginations overloaded their fragile mental circuitry with remembered images of carnage.”
Chayes writes of “the anguish I heard every day—the pleas to tell President Bush, for the love of God, to stop the bombing,” but says that U.S. media at the time was reluctant to broadcast negative news about the war, and “a CNN correspondent told me that she had received written instructions not to film civilian casualties.” An editor at NPR even accused Chayes of “disseminating Taliban propaganda” and said her sources must be “pro-Bin Laden.”
The wanton killing of innocent civilians is, of course, the opposite of a “war on terrorism.” It is terrorism itself. But U.S. officials reacted with utter callousness to the carnage. After a village was hit “with torrents of withering fire from an AC-130 aerial gunship,” killing dozens of civilians, a Pentagon official remarked “the people there are dead because we wanted them dead” and “we hit what we wanted to hit.” (Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented: “I cannot deal with that particular village.”) Another village was wiped out in October by 2,000 lbs of explosives, with the Taliban completely missed but 100 innocent people killed.
Afghan opponents of the Taliban were appalled by the use of bombing. Abdul Haq, one of the main leaders of the anti-Taliban opposition forces, expressed his vehement objection:
“[T]he U.S. is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose. And we don’t like that. Because Afghans are now being made to suffer for these Arab fanatics, but we all know who brought these Arabs to Afghanistan in the 1980s, armed them and gave them a base. It was the Americans and the CIA. And the Americans who did this all got medals and good careers, while all these years Afghans suffered from these Arabs and their allies. Now, when America is attacked, instead of punishing the Americans who did this, it punishes the Afghans.”
Haq argued that the American bombings were actually undercutting the efforts of anti-Taliban forces.3 Haq was not alone in his view. In late October 2001, three weeks into the campaign, 1,000 Afghan leaders gathered in Peshawar, some exiles, some coming from within Afghanistan, all committed to overthrowing the Taliban regime. It was “a rare display of unity among tribal elders, Islamic scholars, fractious politicians, and former guerrilla commanders,” the press reported. They had many disagreements, but unanimously “urged the U.S. to stop the air raids” and appealed to the international media to call for an end to the “bombing of innocent people.” They urged that other means be adopted to overthrow the hated Taliban regime, a goal they believed could be achieved without further death and destruction. The leading Afghan women’s rights organization, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), issued a declaration on October 11, 2001, strongly opposing the “vast aggression on our country” by the U.S., which will “shed the blood of innocent civilians.” The declaration called for “eradication of the plague of the Taliban and al-Qaeda” by the “uprising of the Afghan nation,” not by a murderous assault of foreign aggressors. They added that “despite the claim of the U.S. that only military and terrorist bases of the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be struck and that its actions would be accurately targeted and proportionate, what we have witnessed for the past seven days leaves no doubt that this invasion will shed the blood of numerous women, men, children, young and old of our country.”
Donald Rumsfeld disclaimed U.S. responsibility for any civilian deaths, on the grounds that “we did not start this war.” This meant, he said, that “responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they’re innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the al Qaeda and the Taliban.” The statement was, of course, ludicrous: the Taliban had not attacked the United States, and the U.S. had launched the war itself in clear violation of international law. Bush himself scoffed at suggestions that it would be criminal to launch an unauthorized invasion of a sovereign nation, saying “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” (The applicable legal standard is that violence in self-defense is justified only in the case of armed attack, not terrorism, and must still be approved by the UN Security Council. The United States did not seek the approval of the Security Council, even though it could have obtained it, probably because this would have established the principle that the United States has to defer to some higher authority before carrying out the use of violence, which the Bush Administration did not believe.) In fact, there were no credible grounds for the invasion whatsoever, meaning that on Rumsfeld’s principle (whoever starts a war is responsible for every casualty), all violence that occurred as a consequence of the U.S. attack would be the responsibility of the U.S.
The Taliban were toppled within six weeks, and offered to surrender. Donald Rumsfeld declared “We don’t negotiate surrenders,” and in November’s Bonn conference, which aimed to produce a political settlement for the country, the Taliban were excluded from negotiations. Masoom Stanekzai, a senior adviser in the postwar Afghan government, later called the failure to include the Taliban “historic mistake,” and Carter Malkasian says “the mood of the time overrode wiser diplomacy.” That mood, according to the leader of the U.S. delegation, was, “they have been defeated. Why should they be included?” Rumsfeld “vetoed any peace with the Taliban” warning new Afghan president Hamid Karzai that “any deal” accommodating the Taliban “would be against U.S. interests.” Rumsfeld “may have even threatened to pull U.S. support if any deal went through.” Malkasian notes that “this narrow and inflexible approach contravened diplomatic wisdom to bring adversaries into a post-war political settlement” and set up the long war that was to follow. “When Karzai brought up the 2004 Taliban peace feelers, the Bush administration banned negotiations with the top Taliban leaders,” writing up a “blacklist” that “the Afghan government was forbidden from talking with”4 and who were only to be “captured or killed.” Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad believes “America’s longest war might have instead gone down in history as one of its shortest had the United States been willing to talk to the Taliban in December 2001.” Foreign Service officer Todd Greentree, who worked in Afghanistan, says the U.S. “violated the Afghan way of war,” under which “when one side wins, the other side puts down their arms and reconciles with the side that won.” The “American way of war,” by contrast, is to seek absolute annihilation and to treat the other side as subhuman monsters bent on world domination.
The Bush administration had, of course, given little thought to the actual consequences of overthrowing the Taliban. Malkasian notes that “significant investments in reconstruction, economic development, and institutions were not conceived,” and ambassador Ryan Crocker summarized Rumsfeld’s attitude as “Our job is about killing bad guys … [W]e have killed the bad guys, who cares what happens next?” Indeed, the attack had been launched because Bush was in the mood to “kill someone,” and wanted to punish the Taliban for their defiance. It was not a war to bring democracy or women’s rights to Afghanistan, both of which were an afterthought cynically invoked to justify the calamity.
In fact, Bush swiftly lost interest in Afghanistan. Plans to invade Iraq had started on September 11, 2001.5 The very afternoon of the day of the attacks, Donald Rumsfeld asked the CIA to produce “best info fast” so that he could “judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [bin Laden].” When asked about the hunt for bin Laden in March 2002, Bush replied, “I truly am not that concerned about him.” (Bush later lied and denied having said it.) Bush indicated that since bin Laden was no longer “running Afghanistan” he was not a priority. (Of course, not only did bin Laden never come close to “running Afghanistan,” but the Taliban found him a nuisance and offered to give him up.)
Once Bush’s attention was fixed on Iraq, the Afghanistan war was treated as unimportant and those serving there were left wondering what their mission was supposed to be. (There had never really been one, besides a desire to avenge the deaths of 9/11 victims by killing some people who resembled the people who we suspected were responsible.) According to a memo from Donald Rumsfeld, when Rumsfeld asked the president if he wanted to “meet that week with General Franks and General McNeill” Bush replied, “Who is General McNeill?” and Rumsfeld had to explain that “he is the general in charge of Afghanistan.” (Bush replied “Well, I don’t need to meet with him.”)
Plenty of money was funneled into Afghanistan. Adjusted for inflation, the ultimate amount spent was “more than the United States spent in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II.” At one point “the U.S. government was pumping roughly as much money into Afghanistan as the undeveloped country’s economy produced on its own.” But much of that money might as well have been set on fire: “U.S. officials wasted huge sums on projects that Afghans did not need or did not want. Much of the money ended up in the pockets of overpriced contractors or corrupt Afghan officials, while U.S.-financed schools, clinics and roads fell into disrepair due to poor construction or maintenance—if they were built at all.” In fact, “much of the American money enriched U.S. contractors without ever entering the Afghan economy.”
In the words of the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, what the U.S. did build with that money was a “corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government that depended on U.S. military power for its survival.” Corruption was so bad that, according to the UN, by 2012, “Afghans were paying $3.9 billion in bribes per year; half of all Afghans paid a bribe for a public service.” According to the Institute of World Politics, militias “were using their position and closeness with the government and U.S. military to control roads, secure lucrative contracts, establish themselves as regional powers, and sometimes serve both sides, cooperating with both international and Taliban forces to maximize profits.”
Unsurprisingly, “many joined the insurgency because they saw the Americans as infidel invaders and the Afghan government as a foreign puppet.” In 2008, Rodric Braithwaite reported in the Financial Times that among “Afghan journalists, former Mujahideen, professionals, people working for the ‘coalition’” who should be “natural supporters for its claims to bring peace and reconstruction,” there was in fact “deep disillusionment with the ‘coalition’ and its policies” and Afghans were comparing Hamid Karzai to “Shah Shujah, the British puppet installed during the first Afghan war.” They looked back nostalgically to Soviet rule and even the Taliban.
Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers is a useful document on the trajectory of the war, based on a trove of internal “lessons learned” interviews conducted to figure out where the United States went “wrong” in Afghanistan. Whitlock notes the basic problem that “by allowing corruption to fester, the United States helped destroy the legitimacy of the wobbly Afghan government they were fighting to prop up. With judges and police chiefs and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce order.” The U.S.-trained Afghan Local Police were “unaccountable militias that prey on the population,” and “quickly earned a reputation for brutality and drew complaints from human rights groups.” They were “the most hated institution” in Afghanistan and one official “estimated that 30 percent of Afghan police recruits deserted with their government-issued weapons so they could ‘set up their own private checkpoints’ and rob people.”
Only slightly better than the predatory police were the “ghost” police—those who were on payrolls but didn’t exist. Whitlock writes that while “the Afghan army and police forces looked robust on paper … a large percentage materialized as ghost billets, or no-show jobs,” because “Afghan commanders inflated the numbers so they could pocket millions of dollars in salaries—paid by U.S. taxpayers—for imaginary personnel, according to U.S. government audits.” At the end of Obama’s second term, “U.S. officials determined that at least 30,000 Afghan soldiers didn’t exist and removed their positions from the army payroll.” The next year, “the Afghan government erased an additional 30,000 ghost police officers from the ranks.”
New Yorker reporter Dexter Filkins says that none of this was a secret to anyone:
“[E]veryone in the U.S. government… knew that the Afghan government was predatory. They knew that it was a criminal state. They had a name for it, they called it VICE, V-I-C-E, which stood for vertically integrated criminal enterprise. That was the name that the Pentagon gave to the Afghan government.”
Lest one be too judgmental, Patrick Cockburn reminds us that some of the corruption came from desperation—because “the police make about $120 a month. … The only way they can feed their families is to take bribes.” Afghan soldiers and police were also doing dangerous work. At one point, an estimated 30 to 40 were being killed each day, to the point where “the Afghan government kept the exact numbers a secret to avoid destroying morale.” In 2019, researchers concluded that “more than 64,000 Afghans in uniform had been killed over the course of the war—roughly eighteen times the number of U.S. and NATO troops who lost their lives.”
Sarah Chayes writes that the “security concerns of the Afghans” were very different from the “security concerns of the foreigners.” American and NATO forces fretted about “former Taliban” while “the Afghans were worried about the quite real depredations of the government those Americans had put in power.” She is critical of those who believe Afghans were simply unprepared for democracy. In fact, they simply wanted a government that was competent and didn’t rob them:
“I have often been asked whether we in the West have the right to ‘impose democracy’ on people who ‘just might not want it,’ or might not be ‘ready for it.’ I think, concerning Afghanistan at least, this question is exactly backward… I have found that Afghans know precisely what democracy is—even if they might not be able to define the term. And they are crying out for it. They want from their government what most Americans and Europeans want from theirs: roads they can drive on, schools for their kids, doctors with certified qualifications so their prescriptions don’t poison people, a minimum of public accountability, and security: law and order. And they want to participate in some real way in the fashioning of their nation’s destiny. But Afghans were getting precious little of any of that, thanks to warlords like Gul Agha Shirzai, whom America was helping maintain in power. American policy in Afghanistan was not imposing or even encouraging democracy, as the U.S. government claimed it was. Instead, it was standing in the way of democracy. It was institutionalizing violence.”
Chayes is bitterly critical of the United States for supporting some of the most brutal Afghan warlords. These included Abdul Rashid Dostum, who suffocated hundreds of Taliban prisoners-of-war to death in shipping containers,6 and allegedly abducted and raped one of his political opponents. Akbar Bai of the Turkic Council of Afghanistan described Dostum as “the biggest butcher and criminal in the world,” who “raped many people, men, women, even young girls and boys,” and is accused of having ordered the murder of his former wife after she found him having sex with an underage girl. Dostum became “America’s man in Afghanistan” and was placed on the CIA payroll, at one point receiving a monthly sum reported to be between $70,000 and $100,000. In the U.S.-backed government, Dostum ultimately became Vice President of Afghanistan, though his presence in office was so embarrassing that the Obama administration felt obligated to bar him from visiting the U.S. Dostum ultimately fled the country to escape “criminal charges in Afghanistan for having ordered his bodyguards to rape a political opponent, including with an assault rifle.”
As The Afghanistan Papers shows, much of the truth was kept from public knowledge. The special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said there was an “odor of mendacity” to all government statements. This began under Bush, but Whitlock writes that Obama staffers “took it to a new level, hyping figures that were misleading, spurious, or downright false.” In 2011, Hillary Clinton told the Senate that “life is better for most Afghans,” citing statistics showing increases in school attendance, decreases in infant mortality, hundreds of thousands of farmers who had been “trained and equipped with new seeds and other techniques” and 100,000 micro-loans given to Afghan women. Yet “government auditors would later conclude that the Obama administration had based many of its statistics regarding infant mortality, life expectancy, and school enrollment on inaccurate or unverified data.” The special inspector general said the administration “knew the data was bad” but used it anyway out of a desire to present a false picture of progress (in other words, to downplay the harm that the United States’ attack had done to the country). Whitlock says that “even when casualty counts and other figures looked bad, the White House and Pentagon would spin them in their favor. They portrayed suicide bombings in Kabul as a sign that the insurgents were too weak to engage in direct combat. They said a rise in U.S. troop deaths proved that American forces were taking the fight to the enemy.”
With WikiLeaks’ release of the Afghan War Logs in 2010, many instances of horrific violence by U.S. and coalition forces that had gone unreported were disclosed to the public. In the words of The Guardian, what were presented as targeted strikes on “Taliban militants” were often “bloody errors at civilians’ expense,” including the time “a U.S. patrol … machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman.” Other catastrophes included:
Now and then there were even more extreme atrocities, such as an Army staff seargant’s massacre of sixteen villagers in Kandahar province.7 An Australian soldier alleged to have murdered an Afghan teenager was accused in court of boasting: “I shot that cunt in the head. [Person 15] told me not to kill anyone on the last job. So I pulled out my 9mm, shot the cunt in the side of the head, blew his brains out. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” In 2015, in one of the most horrifying events of the war, a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship—call sign “Hammer”—attacked a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, burning patients alive in their beds and killing a total of 42 people. (Doctors Without Borders had provided the U.S. with the GPS coordinates of the trauma center beforehand.) The Pentagon investigated itself and concluded that it had not committed a war crime.
Further humiliating and alienating Afghans was the practice of torture, described here by the Intercept:
One of the first things the U.S. did after gaining effective control over Afghanistan following the Taliban’s ouster in 2001 was to set up secret torture chambers. Beginning in 2002, the CIA tortured both Afghans and foreign prisoners flown to these torture rooms from all over Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The worst torture chamber was nicknamed “The Darkness” by the prisoners sent there, who suffered such complete sensory deprivation that they did not even know they were in Afghanistan. They were chained in solitary confinement with no light and music blaring constantly. They were hung by their arms for as long as two days, slammed against walls, forced to lie naked on tarps while gallons of ice water were poured over their bodies. At least one prisoner died in CIA custody after being left shackled in frigid temperatures.
The Intercept notes that “no one was ever held to account for the American torture regime in Afghanistan.”
The use of armed drones resulted in extreme horrors. The New York Times reported that “even inside the government, there is no certainty about whom it has killed,” and “every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit.” Brandon Bryant, an Air Force drone operator who became a critic of their use, says an incident in which a drone killed a small child is “burned into my brain.” He believes “total civilian deaths were much higher than the administration’s estimate,” because they’re “deluding themselves about the impact.” Targets of U.S. airstrikes have included dozens of pine nut farmers and multiple wedding parties. Hamid Karzai implored Barack Obama to stop using air strikes as a weapon against terrorism, and end the civilian casualties, which Obama did not (the views of the president of Afghanistan being irrelevant to the formulation of U.S. policy). The next year saw hundreds more civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes. Each time these horrors unfolded, U.S. officials “insisted that each strike had hit its intended target, while ignoring the claims of villagers that the missiles had killed a tribal chief or decimated a meeting of village elders.” (Not everyone came out badly: U.S. defense contractors have made fortunes out of the murders, and a massive drone industry has blossomed.)
Of course, U.S. crimes against Afghans fueled support for the Taliban. Patrick Cockburn cited figures showing that “a quarter of Afghans approved of the use of armed force against U.S. or NATO forces, but this figure jumps to 44 per cent among those who have been shelled or bombed by them.” The Intercept notes that “night raids,” in which “U.S. and Afghan forces would burst into a home in the middle of the night and kill or capture those inside,” bred so much resentment that “they sometimes led an entire village to switch its allegiance to the Taliban.” Journalist Anand Gopal has identified 11 specific Taliban leaders who had left the group but rejoined “because of some kind of U.S. or government harassment and went on to positions of influence.” Malkasian notes that “overly aggressive and poorly informed U.S. counterterrorism operations upset Afghans and drove former Taliban back to violence. The same effect was had by the refusal of the Bush administration to curb the abusive practices of Karzai’s government and its warlord allies.”
Successive U.S. presidents continued to deny the facts while continuing the war. Whitlock observes that Barack Obama pretended to have ended the war without actually doing so. Under Donald Trump, “while the fighting had become much less visible to Americans at home, the violence inflicted new levels of mayhem on the ground, killing and wounding record numbers of Afghan civilians,” with U.S., NATO and Afghan airstrikes killing over 1,000 Afghan civilians a year, twice as much as the annual average from the previous decade. Trump escalated the indiscriminate violence, and infamously dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” (killing a number of ISIS fighters as well as a teacher and his young son, causing Hamid Karzai issue another futile protest condemning the “inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons”).
But Trump was also desperate to end the United States’ costly commitment, and signed a deal with the Taliban that promised U.S. withdrawal if the Taliban would agree to, among other things, stop attacks on U.S. and coalition forces, which the Taliban did, escalating attacks against the Afghan government instead. The agreement was made without the participation of the Afghan government—one American official described the prevailing attitude as “Who cares whether they agree or not?”—and helped set the Taliban up to take over the country without seeking anything at the negotiating table that would help Afghans. Like Trump, Biden simply wanted to get out of Afghanistan, to take the political hit and move on. When he did, the Afghan army collapsed almost immediately, as Hamid Karzai had foreseen when he commented frankly in 2012: “Everything will collapse. The army is rubbish. The government is a puppet.” Biden’s quick but disastrous exit abandoned many Afghans who had been core U.S. allies. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins says that this was obviously “inexcusable” and “criminal” since those Afghans “fought for us and they risked their lives and many of them died for us and we have left thousands of them behind.” But he concludes that the Biden administration simply didn’t think it was “worth it” to put in more effort or expense, the lives of Afghans having been considered virtually worthless to U.S. presidents since 2001.
In 2021, the United States fired the last missile of its 20-year war in Afghanistan. That missile massacred an aid worker and seven children. The U.S. military initially called it a “righteous strike,” claiming it had hit ISIS terrorists who had a bomb. After a lengthy New York Times investigation revealed the government was lying, the Pentagon backtracked and called the killings a tragic mistake. Nobody was punished.
With its characteristic mix of gruesome violence against innocent Afghans, brazen propaganda from U.S. officials, and total impunity for the perpetrators, it was certainly a fitting American act to close out the war.
“I cried so much. It was the last option. No father in the world wants to sell his son’s kidney.” — Gul Mohammad, resident of Herat, explaining why he had to sell his son’s organ to pay creditors
“Desperate to feed her family, Saleha, a housecleaner here in western Afghanistan, has incurred such an insurmountable debt that the only way she sees out is to hand over her 3-year-old daughter, Najiba, to the man who lent her the money.” — “As Afghanistan Sinks Into Destitution, Some Sell Children to Survive,” Wall Street Journal
The condition of Afghanistan today is appalling. The World Food Program warned at the end of 2021 that 98 percent of Afghans were not getting enough to eat, with millions facing starvation. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said on Aug. 2nd that “Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis remains ‘dire,’ with 18.9 million people facing ‘potentially life-threatening’ hunger and up to 6 million facing ‘near-famine conditions.’” News reports out of Afghanistan are heartbreaking. Some parents have been forced to sell one of their children in order to feed their other children. Others have had to sell their own organs, or their children’s organs.
This horror is directly the fault of the United States. After the Taliban took over the country in August 2021, the United States froze $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets, which “functionally cut the country off from many foreign banks and left the Central Bank of Afghanistan unable to access its reserves and shore up the country’s cash flow.” The Biden administration announced that it was going to give half of the Afghans’ money to American families related to the victims of 9/11—though, of course, the people of Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9/11. This cannot be described other than as an act of outright theft, as Ruth Pollard of Bloomberg notes: “The problem is, the U.S. doesn’t own that money: Afghanistan does.” (The New York Times makes the understated observation that it is “highly unusual for the United States government to commandeer a foreign country’s assets on domestic soil.”) Obaidullah Baheer of the American University of Afghanistan says there is extreme anger at the decision, for the obvious reason that “Afghanistan needs a sustainable economy if it is to survive in the long run, and the federal reserves are fundamental to it.” Naser Shahalemi, founder of End Afghan Starvation, says that “we were appalled” because “the humanitarian situation is horrific at this point. The people of Afghanistan are starving, and they are locked out of their funds. They cannot access their bank cards. They cannot access their bank accounts… because of the sanctions, they’ve been locked away from their own money… it is absolutely ridiculous because we need that money for the people of Afghanistan.” (The United States is continuing to refuse to release the money.)
The effects of U.S. policy have been “catastrophic for civilians,” as Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group notes. “The West’s immediate steps to isolate the new regime triggered Afghanistan’s meltdown.” David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee wrote “the current humanitarian crisis could kill far more Afghans than the past 20 years of war.” Mark Weisbrot concludes that the “Biden administration did not end the war, but continued it by other means, which are turning out to be more violent and destabilizing.”
Nor are we facilitating an escape from the hell we are creating. The Biden administration has rejected over 90 percent of applications from Afghans seeking to enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. The administration imposed differing standards on Afghan refugees to Ukrainian refugees—for instance, “unlike Afghans trying to secure entry to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, Ukrainians don’t have to pay a $575 administrative fee, don’t need to show proof of vaccination and don’t need to have an in-person consular interview with a U.S. representative.” (Public opinion research shows Afghan refugees are seen less favorably, perhaps partly thanks to press coverage depicting Ukrainians as “civilized” refugees who “look like us.”)
The question Americans should ask, if we are even minimally morally serious, is: what do we owe the people of Afghanistan, after all that we have done to them? If we actually believed the story we tell ourselves about being “the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known,” how would we act? George W. Bush said the United States is “a friend to the people of Afghanistan” and promised that it would drop food (alongside bombs). Today, we are starving Afghanistan to death to punish the Taliban. Consistent with our history, we are punishing defiance with extraordinary cruelty. (Since Joe Biden is happy to engage with murderous dictators who can serve U.S. interests, opposition to constructive engagement with the Taliban quite clearly comes from a desire to punish those who have defeated us rather than out of a principled commitment to Afghan lives, which, as has been demonstrated, the U.S. has never cared a whit about.)
We can begin with a few obvious changes that must be made. To deny applications from Afghan refugees is unconscionable. Miller of the International Crisis Group recommends “beginning to lift sanctions on the Taliban as a group (leaving sanctions on some individuals and an arms embargo in place); funding specific state functions in areas such as rural development, agriculture, electricity and local governance; and restoring central-bank operations to reconnect Afghanistan to the global financial system.” Sanctions punish the population for the crimes of its government, and have no justification. And as Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which operates in Afghanistan, said: “these countries who have their fingerprints all over the sorry situation here have at least to disburse the funding we need so we can avoid people perishing in enormous numbers.” Needless to say, the “fingerprints” are mostly ours.
The first thing we owe Afghanistan is to stop kicking its people in the face, to stop taking actions that starve its population and force them to sell children and organs to survive. Then we ought to try to compensate them for our crimes. We should start with a principle that has never been considered since 2001: letting Afghans themselves tell us what they want us to do, and acting accordingly. We are also going to have to accept that, whatever we might wish, the Taliban are currently governing Afghanistan and we have no choice but to deal with them.
The Afghanistan war is often discussed as a kind of noble failure, another episode of the United States’ good intentions going hopelessly awry. In such tellings, our pure idealism is thwarted by the harsh realities of life in a country unprepared for democracy. For Barack Obama, “Afghanistan had been the good war, the war that began with two fallen towers, not the war that stemmed from faulty intelligence and exaggerated claims of weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, the attack on Afghanistan was a major crime, with no justification whatsoever. Neither the Afghan people nor their authoritarian Taliban government had planned or executed the 9/11 attacks (in fact, the Taliban publicly condemned the attacks and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice). If the United States had obeyed international law and treated 9/11 as a criminal act rather than the opening shot of a global clash of civilizations, it could have spared the people of Afghanistan the ordeal of a 20-year war, spared hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives, as well as saved $2 trillion and several thousand American lives. The war was entirely avoidable, and today the Taliban emphasize that they had indicated an openness to negotiations in 2001.
Why did the United States attack Afghanistan, then? Why did it stay there for so long? The first question was answered succinctly by Abdul Haq: it was certainly not to aid the anti-Taliban resistance in their effort to improve the lives of Afghans. Instead, Bush, consumed with the desire to kill somebody, wanted to “show muscle” in the aftermath of the attacks. Michael Howard described it as the American desire for “catharsis” and “vengeance” against an “insult to American honor,” which would not have been satisfied by a “long and meticulous police investigation.” The desire to strike back and prove strength is not an uncommon motivation in the history of U.S. foreign relations. U.S. presidents often follow the logic of a mafioso Godfather, using extreme violence as a means of asserting strength and discouraging opposition. Why did we stay in Afghanistan? In part, because no president wished to “lose,” even as it was increasingly clear that the U.S.-backed government could not command the popular support necessary to survive on its own. As Patrick Cockburn observed in 2012, “The problem for Washington and London is that they have got so many people killed in Afghanistan and spent so much money that it is difficult for them to withdraw without something that can be dressed up as a victory.” Regardless of the “true” motives behind the war, what we can say for certain is that, from Bush to Biden, American presidents have at no point showed evidence of any kind of sincere commitment to improving the welfare of the people of Afghanistan, ignoring protests from Afghans over the horrible abuses the U.S. was both perpetrating and enabling.
There are still those who defend the noble intent of U.S. policy-makers. Carter Malkasian, while acknowledging the terrible consequences of the U.S. refusal to engage the Taliban diplomatically, and the lack of interest the consequences of their overthrow, frames the war as a “trade-off” between American and Afghan well-being:
“The United States exposed Afghans to prolonged harm in order to defend Americans from another terrorist attack. We resuscitated a state of civil war so that we could sleep a little sounder at home. Villages were destroyed. Families disappeared. It was inadvertent. U.S. leaders never thought in terms of the terrible trade-off between the well-being of American citizens and the well-being of Afghans.”
Destroying one of the world’s poorest countries to “sleep a little sounder” may sound a harsh enough indictment, but Malkasian is wrong. If the Bush administration had wanted to “defend Americans from another terrorist attack,” it would have pursued the criminal network responsible for the original attack. Instead, it wanted vengeance, and launched an illegal war that killed thousands of innocent people. As ugly as a “trade-off” between Afghan lives and American safety would have been, there was no such tradeoff. Bush rapidly lost interest in bin Laden, American muscle having successfully been flexed. The destruction was not “inadvertent”—armed drones do not spontaneously deploy of their own volition. The U.S. was simply indifferent to the humanity of our victims.
Most depressingly of all, while those looking to redeem the crime of the Afghanistan war might point to progress on women’s rights and infrastructure during the Taliban’s absence, it is quite possible that had the U.S. never invaded, the Taliban would not be in power today. They were unpopular by 2001; Patrick Cockburn reports that “the brutality of the Taliban and their obsession with controlling people’s private lives meant that they had long outlived their welcome” since “even those fond of innocent pleasures such as kite-flying were rewarded with a beating or even prison.” Malkasian notes that a major source of the Taliban’s renewed strength was their ability to portray themselves as freedom-fighters against a government associated with American occupiers: “they fought for Islam and resistance to occupation, values enshrined in Afghan identity. Aligned with foreign occupiers, the government mustered no similar inspiration.” Abdul Haq had insisted that the U.S. was actually undermining the anti-Taliban resistance through its bombing campaign, and if the U.S. had left the country alone, that resistance might someday have been able to build a government with popular support. We will never know, but the U.S. may well be the main reason that Afghans are now expected to suffer indefinitely under strengthened Taliban rule.
We are now compounding our crime, and our first task is to look in the mirror and see who we are. Many Americans have opened their hearts to the people of Ukraine after Russia’s criminal invasion (although the American government declines to try to stop the war). We might consider extending the same level of compassion to the victims of one of our own country’s criminal wars. We must recognize that we have a responsibility to accept the people who are able to escape, and that what we owe Afghanistan is best classified not as charitable “aid” but as damages, restitution, or reparations.
This essay is adapted from Robinson and Chomsky’s forthcoming book on United States foreign policy.