One week ago, the US military finally left Afghanistan after 20 years. Good. Justice and peace cannot be achieved by an occupying army, only by the Afghan people themselves. The Afghan invasion and occupation was the wrong reaction to the attack on the United States by al-Qaeda on September 11th, 2001. Let us lay aside the emotions caused by this attack and look steely-eyed into the abyss of history. Bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaeda replaced by new reactionary forces that arose because of our aggression.
We cannot forget that the war cost the US over 2000 dead Americans, tens of thousands of disabled Americans, and over $1 trillion dollars. We cannot forget that over 100,000 Afghans died from our occupation, including many civilians that we killed directly. We cannot forget how our occupation fostered corruption in Afghanistan that made millionaires of a small number of well-connected Afghan men and ultimately helped the Taliban regain control.
Perhaps this mess started, not after the 9/11 attacks, but after the Communist Revolution in Afghanistan. In the midst of the Cold War, the United States would repeatedly fund various anti-communist resistance groups to combat any communist influence. During the Afghan-Soviet War, we gave money and weapons (albeit indirectly through Pakistan) to the “anti-Soviet freedom fighters”, the Mujahideen. We even made them the “good guys” in Rambo III.
Afghanistan has long been a border state, dominated by warring factions whose local ambitions have been fueled by external powers. In the 19th century, this was called “the Great Game”. Post-WWII, the United States increasingly took on the role of enforcing a West-first worldview, exerting its power in a new “Great Game” against the Soviet Union and China. Various countries have rushed to create a strategic advantage for themselves in the East, and its civilians have paid the price.
We could have devoted a fraction of what our military has spent prior to occupying and during the occupation of Afghanistan on promoting economic development, education, and health as well as building a native Afghan nonviolent resistance movement. People who have enough to eat, a job with a decent income, and the ability to read have much more ability to organize and use nonviolent tactics to undermine the support of their leaders.
We forget when we judge the success of nonviolent resistance that, after twenty years of violent resistance to the Taliban, the Taliban won in the end.
By taking a long-term nonviolent approach, one focused on economic development, education, and improving the health of all Afghans, we would have left Afghanistan a far better place than we have so far. Search for photos of Afghanistan in the 1970s if you want to know the direction we could have continued to help them grow in. The cost of lives and worthless government spending of the USA’s failed 20-year policy was immensely higher than our approach.
Instead, the approach we took left Afghanistan in shambles. A violent regime, one we helped to create, now has hold of the country once again. The United States did not just create this enemy during the Cold War, it continued to create the Taliban every day for the past 20 years. With every drone strike, every village raid, our government gave the Afghan people more and more of a reason to resist our efforts. While the Taliban still remains fairly unpopular amongst all Afghans, it cannot go unstated that we gave those who support the regime a better reason to join the Taliban than the Taliban ever could. In the eyes of some, tyrannical stability is better than “democratic” warfare.
Had we not invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, and numerous other countries that bore the brunt of our weapons, we would have had more than enough to switch our country away from technologies that promote global warming. Nearly 20 years after our invasion of Afghanistan, we could have demonstrated to the world the good that is possible when we tackle the looming climate catastrophe. We could have had universal healthcare and education. We could have had a green economy that lifts everyone up rather than making the 1% immensely rich.
Our occupations demonstrate that, as a country, we have the ability to bear high costs over decades for imperial policies. We now have the chance to use those funds and allocate them towards a more sustainable future. It is the time to build a Sustainable and Just Future for all Americans and lead the way forward for everyone on our beautiful planet. We must also change our foreign policy for good. If the United States wishes to spread democracy, it cannot continue to topple governments.
Freedom must be born properly, by the people and for the people, if it is to last.