United States Withdraws From Afghanistan? Not Really
By Noam Chomsky and
Vijay Prashad (*) – Independent
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was
criminal. It was criminal because of the immense force used to demolish
Afghanistan’s physical infrastructure and to break open its social bonds.
On October 11, 2001, journalist Anatol Lieven interviewed
the Afghan leader Abdul Haq in Peshawar, Pakistan. Haq, who led part of the
resistance against the Taliban, was getting ready to return to Afghanistan
under the cover of the U.S. aerial bombardments. He was, however, not pleased
with the way the United States had decided to prosecute the war. “Military
action by itself in the present circumstances is only making things more
difficult—especially if this war goes on a long time and many civilians are
killed,” Abdul Haq told Lieven.
The war would go on for 20 years, and at least 71,344 civilians would
lose their lives during this period.
Abdul Haq told Lieven that “the best thing would be for the
U.S. to work for a united political solution involving all the Afghan groups.
Otherwise, there will be an encouragement of deep divisions between different
groups, backed by different countries and badly affecting the whole region.”
These are prescient words, but Haq knew no one was listening to him.
“Probably,” he told Lieven, “the U.S. has already made up its mind what to do,
and any recommendations by me will be too late.”
After 20 years of the incredible destruction caused by this
war, and after inflaming animosity between “all the Afghan groups,” the United
States has returned to the exact policy prescription of Abdul Haq: political
Abdul Haq returned to Afghanistan and was killed by the
Taliban on October 26, 2001. His advice is now out-of-date. In September 2001,
the various protagonists in Afghanistan—including the Taliban—were ready to
talk. They did so partly because they feared that the looming U.S. warplanes
would open the doors to hell for Afghanistan. Now, 20 years later, the gulf
between the Taliban and the others has widened. Appetite for negotiations
simply does not exist any longer.
On April 14, 2021, the speaker of Afghanistan’s
parliament—Mir Rahman Rahmani—warned that
his country is on the brink of a “civil war.” Kabul’s political circles have
been bristling with conversations about a civil war when the United States
withdraws by September 11. This is why on April 15, during a press conference
held in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Sharif Amiry of TOLOnews asked U.S.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the possibility of a civil war. Blinken
answered, “I don’t think that it is in anyone’s interest, to say the least, for
Afghanistan to descend into a civil war, into a long war. And even the Taliban,
as we hear it, has said it has no interest in that.”
In fact, Afghanistan has been in a civil war for half a
century, at least since the creation of the mujahideen—including Abdul Haq—to
battle the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan government (1978-1992).
This civil war was intensified by the U.S. support of Afghanistan’s most
conservative and extreme right-wing elements, groups that would become part of
Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Islamist factions. Never once has the United
States offered a path to peace during this period; instead, it has always shown
an eagerness at each turn to use the immensity of the U.S. force to control the
outcome in Kabul.
Even this withdrawal, which was announced in late April 2021
and began on May 1, is not as clear-cut as it seems. “It’s time for American
troops to come home,” announced U.S.
President Joe Biden on April 14, 2021. On the same day, the U.S. Department of
Defense clarified that
2,500 troops would leave Afghanistan by September 11. In a March 14 article,
meanwhile, the New York Times had noted that
the U.S. has 3,500 troops in Afghanistan even though “[p]ublicly, 2,500 U.S. troops
are said to be in the country.” The undercount by the Pentagon is obscurantism.
A report by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment,
furthermore, noted that
the United States has about 16,000 contractors on the ground in Afghanistan.
They provide a variety of services, which most likely include military support.
None of these contractors—or the additional undisclosed 1,000
U.S. troops—are slated for withdrawal, nor will aerial bombardment—including
drone strikes—end, and there will be no end to special forces missions either.
On April 21, Blinken said that
the United States would provide nearly $300 million to the Afghanistan
government of Ashraf Ghani. Ghani, who—like his predecessor Hamid Karzai—often
appears to be more of a mayor of Kabul than the president of Afghanistan, is
being outflanked by his rivals. Kabul is buzzing with talk of post-withdrawal
governments, including a proposal by
Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to form a government that he would
lead and that would not include the Taliban. The U.S., meanwhile, has consented
to the idea that the Taliban should have a role in the government; it is now
being said openly
that the Biden administration believes the Taliban would “govern less harshly”
than it did from 1996 to 2001.
The United States, it appears, is willing to allow the
Taliban to return to power with two caveats: first, that the U.S. presence
remains, and second, that the main rivals of the United States—namely China and
Russia—have no role in Kabul. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton spoke in
Chennai, India, where she proposed the creation of a New Silk Road Initiative
that linked Central Asia through Afghanistan and via the ports of India; the
purpose of this initiative was to cut off Russia from its links in Central Asia
and to prevent the establishment of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, which
now runs all the way to Turkey.
Stability is not in the cards for Afghanistan. In January,
Vladimir Norov, former foreign minister of Uzbekistan and the current
secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), addressed
a webinar organized
by the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. Norov said that Daesh or ISIS has
been shifting its fighters from Syria to northern Afghanistan. This movement of
extremist fighters is of concern not only to Afghanistan but also to Central
Asia and to China. In 2020, the Washington Post revealed that
the U.S. military had been providing aerial support for the Taliban as it made
gains against ISIS fighters. Even if there is a peace deal with the Taliban,
ISIS will destabilize it.
Forgotten are the words of concern for Afghan women, words
that provided legitimacy for the U.S. invasion in October 2001. Rasil Basu, a
United Nations official, served as a senior adviser on women’s development to
the Afghan government from 1986 to 1988. The Afghan Constitution of 1987
provided women with equal rights, which allowed women’s groups to struggle
against patriarchal norms and fight for equality at work and at home. Because
large numbers of men had died in the war, Basu told us, women went into several
occupations. There were substantial gains for women’s rights, including a rise
in literacy rates. All this has been largely erased during the U.S. war over
these past two decades.
Even before the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988-89,
men who are now jockeying for power—such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—said that they
would undo these gains. Basu remembered the shabanamas, notices that
circulated to women and warned them to obey patriarchal norms (she submitted an opinion piece warning
of this catastrophe to the New York Times, to the Washington Post, and to Ms.
Magazine, all of whom rejected it).
Afghanistan’s last communist head of government—Mohammed
Najibullah (1987-1992)—submitted a National Reconciliation Policy, in which he
put women’s rights at the top of the agenda. It was rejected by the U.S.-backed
Islamists, many of whom remain in positions of authority today.
No lessons have been learned from this history. The U.S.
will “withdraw,” but will also leave behind its assets to checkmate China and
Russia. These geopolitical considerations eclipse any concern for the Afghan people.
This article was produced by Globetrotter