“It took three months, thousands of airstrikes, hundreds of special ops raids, and thousands of civilian causalities for the US to drive the Taliban from power in the fall of 2001,” ruefully quipped Counterpunch‘s Jeffrey St. Clair, author of the forgotten classic Grand Theft Pentagon. “Twenty years later, the Taliban retook control in less than two weeks with, so far at least, a minimum of bloodshed. I’ve seen finger-puppet regimes last longer.”
By contrast, it took the quisling South Vietnamese two years to collapse, culminating with infamous image of the helicopter taking off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. Vietnam was the longest war in American history, at least in popular memory (when was the last time that you thought about the American Indian Wars of 1609-1924?), and now Afghanistan has assumed that ignoble mantle. While Maureen Dowd and Peter Baker breathlessly wrote on September 21st to explain how “shocking” these developments were, multiple interviewees for this column said the quick collapse was both predictable and predicted years ago.
“The lesson of Afghanistan is the same lesson that should have been learned with the debacle of Vietnam, and that is that all attempts on the part of colonial powers to maintain imperial control largely through military means have ended in failure throughout the post-war period,” said Ajamu Baraka, national organizer and spokesman of the Black Alliance for Peace. “That lesson was clear to majorities of the U.S. public and resulted in what the rulers referred to as the ‘Vietnam syndrome.'”
“The cash-cow that was Afghanistan allowed for billions to be transferred from the U.S. public to the defense contractors, private military firms, construction companies that didn’t build anything, and weapons manufacturers,” he continued. “The whole infrastructure of the corrupt state was too good to turn off. As long as they could keep the Taliban at bay while they made their money, nobody really cared.”
“They are so very different except they both defeated the superpower,” said Andrew Cockburn, author of the excellent forthcoming book The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine, published by Verso. “The Afghan effort was much more half-hearted than the Vietnam war, which was such a major preoccupation in terms of both the American state and lager society for most of the 1960’s and ’70s. Afghanistan has only intermittently occupied people’s attention because the level of engagement was much lower. It was a different attitude because we don’t have draftees anymore so there wasn’t the same kind of social engagement with the war. Most people are just wondering why we didn’t get out years ago, don’t you think?”
[Editor’s note: Andrew is highly negligent here in not mentioning this Washington Babylon story from a few months back, “Biden’s Afghanistan Blunder: The War is Over. The U.S. Lost. The Taliban Won,” by his colleague Ken Silverstein, author of this Editor’s note. As a result, our internal disciplinary board has decided to suspend his lavish salary for the rest of the year.]
“A closer analogy I think is the quick collapse of the Iraqi army when ISIS forces approached them [in 2014],” said Noam Chomsky, who first came to prominence owing to his Vietnam activism. “Now that information is coming from the field, it turns out that the army barely existed. Numbers were greatly inflated, soldiers and police hadn’t been paid and lacked even ammunition, and the government was a morass of corruption. For Afghans it may, at worst, be rather like what happened a few years after the Russians withdrew and the US-backed radical Islamists took over, launching a reign of terror so severe that many welcomed the Taliban. One difference was that the Russians left a relatively popular functioning government and an army that held out for a few years without Russian support.”
“On the plus side, there’s been a war going on, in one form or another, for forty years. So hopefully that will stop and with it all the miseries from the Russian and American occupations, such as airstrikes, the incessant drone strikes, and the death squads. That will be an improvement,” added Cockburn. “There seems a possibility also things will be less corrupt, I heard that when the Taliban took over the border crossings, they were levying just a simple fee, not the sort of rampant corruption of the last regime. That’s one good aspect. On the other hand, it will be a very harsh, miserable, repressive regime. There’s no joy there. Women saw a little bit of improvement during the American occupation but not much, certainly not in the countryside, and it will get worse now.”
“Things were bad for women before the Taliban took power and things were bad for women after the Taliban left power,” said Matthew Hoh, a Senior Fellow with the Center For International Policy. “Maybe the American-backed government was not quite as theatrical in its misogyny towards women by not stoning or shooting women in crowded stadiums. But for the vast majority of women under that government, life has been cruel and vicious. Eighty percent, as many as 4 out of 5 Afghan women, are forcibly married, many of them as child brides!”
“For the vast majority of Afghan women, what they have endured has been this war where the biggest threat to them has not been lack of education or opportunity or ability to travel, it has been the threat that they, their families, their children, and their neighbors could be killed at any time by a bomb falling from the sky or a roadside bomb in the ground,” Hoh pointed out. “As for those who are ‘championing’ Afghan women now, many of them said nothing about Afghan women for the last 20 years! At this point all they are doing is recycling Washington and London talking points for the war.”
“I’m very interested to see what will happen to the opium industry, this was a narco-regime. What will the Taliban do with that? I suspect they will curb the trade as it provides alternative centers of power to the drug lords who prosper so well out there,” continued Cockburn. “The Taliban quite smartly took Kabul as peacefully as they could,” Hoh continued. “The Taliban have to be respected in the fact that they are very competent and very savvy. Whether they will be ‘the Taliban 2.0’ that they claim to be, only time will tell. We are not seeing the large-scale atrocities that people were afraid of. The fact that people in the United States are upset about the revenge and retribution being taken out because of a war that we created and sustained is infantile!”
An appalling and ahistorical series of Soviet nostalgia memes and news stories began cropping up online.
“Really sick and hard to believe,” said Chomsky when I showed him that Tweet.
One formation that remains an unindicted co-conspirator in dragging the war out this long is the antiwar movement, which staged a prolonged mass suicide in 2004-08 on cue from the Democratic Party’s Kerry and Obama presidential campaigns. “It really is quite pathetic,” continued Baraka. “But the left in the U.S. is pathetic. The U.S. anti-war movement is almost completely devoid of any strategic thinking or consciousness.”
“My hope is with the young folks coming on the scene. And that is another dramatic difference with Black Alliance for Peace, close to 70% of our over 500 paid individual members now range between 19 and 35.”
With clear aspirations to steal the Trump card from the party on the right, that font of beatific ethics, the New York Times, tastefully and with much grace rolled out an attempt to rebrand President Joe Biden as an isolationist in an August 14 column:
But Mr. Biden, who had become deeply skeptical of American efforts to remake foreign countries in his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President, asked what a few thousand American troops could do if Kabul was attacked… The president told his national security team…that he was convinced that no matter what the United States did, Afghanistan was almost certainly headed into another civil war — one Washington could not prevent, but also, in his view, one it could not be drawn into.
“I don’t see much signs of isolationism in Washington,” said Cockburn. “The military are all excited about the China fight, which is going to garner them billions!”