A war that never should have happened is finally coming to an end. By Sept. 11, 2021—twenty years to the day since the 9/11 terrorist attacks—the final U.S. troops will supposedly be leaving Afghanistan, according to an announcement coming from the Biden administration. It is the longest war in U.S. history.
The latest pullout plan replaces one agreed to last year between the Trump government and Taliban forces, which would have seen U.S. troops out by May 1, 2021. Biden is pushing the date back by four months, but he’s leaving no wiggle room for further extensions. An official inside his administration says that the Biden deadline is an absolute one—U.S. forces will leave no matter what the security conditions are in Afghanistan at the time.
Since President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s strikes in New York and Washington in 2001, the war has killed more than 2,200 U.S. troops, wounded another 20,000, and burned through more than a trillion dollars. Afghanistan has reportedly lost 157,000 people to fighting since then, though that number is surely an undercount.
Add in the other conflicts the U.S. has intervened in since Afghanistan and the invasions it launched after—Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and more—and the cost, in both lives and resources, becomes truly staggering. Twenty years of war have meant as many as 800,000 deaths in the affected countries, nearly 15,000 U.S. troops and civilians killed, and as much as $8 trillion spent, by the time borrowing and interest costs are calculated.
To put that into perspective, once the true price of two decades of war is added up, the United States will have spent more than double what Biden is proposing for his Build Back Better infrastructure plans.
Endless war—At home and abroad
In the days immediately after 9/11, the Bush administration took advantage of the shock and anger that characterized those uncertain times to push for an immediate military response—even before the full details of who’d perpetrated the plane hijackings were known. Seven days after the World Trade Center towers fell, Congress voted to authorize Bush to use military force in retaliation for the attack. In the Senate, the vote was 98 to 0; in the House, it was 420 to 1.
Rep. Barbara Lee was the lone voice in Washington that spoke out in opposition. She warned the nation that the blanket authorization given to Bush was a recipe for endless war. Speaking on the House floor, she said:
“Only the most foolish and callous would not understand the grief that has really gripped our people and millions around the world. I have agonized over this vote. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. Finally, we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.”
Lee’s words were ignored. Less than a month later, the bombs were falling in Kabul. From the perspective of today, it’s obvious how prescient she was. The campaign in Afghanistan was only the opening act in the U.S.’ global “War on Terror.” Iraq was next, but Syria and others would follow.
The aggression abroad was matched with repression at home. The Patriot Act was passed, giving intelligence and security services in the new Department of Homeland Security sweeping powers to spy on U.S. citizens and infiltrate political groups. It was all justified as a necessary tradeoff between freedom and safety.
The environment of fear and hatred that the government used to push through its policies also helped set off an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant backlash that still rages, flaring up constantly in new forms and worsened by the right-wing policies.
The only productive spinoff of the invasion of Afghanistan, if it can be counted, is the fact that it sparked what would eventually become the largest worldwide peace mobilization since Vietnam, especially after Bush expanded his target list to include Iraq. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. and other countries organized anti-war coalitions and actions in every place imaginable—from the largest cities to the smallest towns and villages. Feb. 15, 2003, still stands as the largest single global day of protest in history.
Still bearing the costs of the Cold War
For the people of Afghanistan, though, the pullout of U.S. forces this fall will not mark the end of their suffering—just as Sept. 11, 2001, did not mark its beginning. For them, the terror stretches much further back. In the 1800s, the country was a geopolitical prize in the struggle between imperial powers, eventually forced into a state of semi-dependency by the British empire. Throughout the 20th century, it struggled to gain sovereignty over its own affairs and free itself from the bounds of religious fundamentalism.
From 1978 to 1992, Afghanistan was fighting to emerge from feudalism and build a modern democratic state under the leadership of a socialist-oriented government led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.
Supported by Soviet economic aid, great strides were made toward bringing education, medical care, decent housing, and sanitation to the people of this still-largely rural country. Women were liberated to enter the workforce and began gaining control over their own lives. New industries were being built.
Situated in such a strategic location, however, the movement of Afghanistan toward the socialist camp was too much for U.S. imperialism to accept. It funneled money and arms to local and imported reactionary forces opposed to the progressive government, hoping to destabilize not just Afghanistan but also inflict a heavy cost on the Soviet Union, which was providing for much of Afghanistan’s defense at the time. By the early 1990s, the U.S. mission had succeeded; the Soviet Union was gone and eventually, the progressive government in Kabul was overthrown, replaced by the U.S.-backed militia forces.
For years before the U.S. invasion, then, the people of Afghanistan suffered under the repressive rule of the Taliban. The fundamentalist guerillas, and their terrorist allies in Al Qaeda, were supported and essentially helped to power by the CIA during those closing days of the Cold War. To a certain degree, 9/11 was the blowback of those misguided anti-communist policies.
The final withdrawal?
Though Biden’s announcement that U.S. military forces will finally be departing from Afghanistan is welcome news, questions remain about how much the U.S. will still attempt to control the country and its affairs.
There is little reason to believe that U.S. special forces and counter-terrorism specialists won’t continue to operate from time to time inside Afghanistan’s borders. Also, it’s not even clear how many U.S. troops are actually there. Government officials have quietly confirmed to the press that there are far more than the 2,500 who are acknowledged to be present. And in the age of drone wars, it’s not necessary for soldiers to be physically present in a country to impose U.S. power, anyway.
The Islamist militia forces of the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan in the late ’90s and harbored bin Laden, will surely try to exploit the pullout and reassert their power. The prospects of a real peace in Afghanistan are next to zero, and the Afghan government is going to struggle to fight the Taliban and rebuild the country at the same time. Destabilization and chaos are, again, real possibilities.
Without a doubt, Afghanistan will still be paying the price of U.S. invasion and occupation for years to come. And the possibilities for peaceful development and progressive change that appeared open to the country in the 1980s will recede further into the rear-view mirror of history.