The Real Reason the US is Staying in Afghanistan

As someone who lived and worked at the field level in Afghanistan for six years (2008-14) implementing projects for the U.S. Agency for International Development, I am bemused by the fact that the mainstream media (who should have known better or worse yet, actually did) misled the public into believing that it was — or ever will be — possible for the U.S. to reach a meaningful peace accord with the Taliban for amicably ending the Afghan war. Moreover, anyone who thinks a piece of paper a purported Taliban leadership council accepts and signs at a given point in time has any lasting value is woefully naïve and ignorant of who the Taliban are and what governs their belief system and way of life. Spoiler alert: It’s not a diplomatic legal document.

For starters, probably 70% or more of the ethnic Pashtuns who have inhabited the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region (this border is a figment of 19th century British imperialism) for centuries and have adopted over the last 35 years a variation of the Saudi Arabia-spread fundamentalist form of Islam (taught at the Saudi-funded religious schools they attended in Pakistan) as their way of life are illiterate — beyond being able to read Koran verses in Arabic. Moreover, the Taliban have no written theological doctrine or scholarship. These facts should be a clue that written documents are unimportant in their lives. The society that calls itself the Taliban (Arabic for “the students”) live a mostly subsistent life without access to electricity, media, mass communications, or material goods. Most have never travel outside their homelands. They are extremely hostile to outsiders and adhere to a strict Medieval moral code (Pashtunwali) and their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law (Shari’a).

The Taliban only tolerated Osama bin Laden and his Arab jihadi cohorts being in their country before 9/11 because they were co-religionists (Sunni Muslims) who assisted and provided funding to the Taliban and other Afghan mujahideen fighters in driving the Soviet infidels out of their ancestral lands in the 1980s. This is the same fight against foreign intervention that the Taliban have been waging against the U.S-installed government in Kabul and the U.S. and NATO occupation troops that have remained in Afghanistan after Osama and his gang were vanquished in early 2002.

Most Afghans I got to know (including Taliban sympathizers in Kandahar where I lived for three years) were actually glad the U.S. came in after 9/11 and drove out the Arabs. This undertaking was mostly a low profile CIA operation with minimal U.S. boots on the ground. The first couple years of foreign aid (before nation building) was also greatly appreciated. Kabul was a safe and vibrant city through 2006 or so. But as more foreign troops and aid works arrived, bombing sorties increased, and western influence became more prevalent, the insurgency became more widespread and violent. When it became clear that U.S. and NATO forces were not imminently leaving, public sentiment in most areas outside of Kabul turned in support of the Taliban. Over my six years in-country, anti-government elements progressively intensified their efforts to drive out the foreigners as more U.S. and NATO troop were sent in to fight the insurgents. The U.S.-led combat operations never succeeded in achieving an attrition effect. But the massive U.S. spending fueled rampant corruption. The Taliban made a fortune extracting payments (reminiscent of the Silk Road days) from the military convoys that had to pass through their tribal lands on their way from the port at Karachi in Pakistan to Kandahar Airfield. The Air Force used the fuel, supplies, and munitions the convoys delivered to Kandahar to bomb the Taliban in these same areas! I could give a dozen more examples of such self-defeating absurdities that characterized the failed war-fighting and nation-building efforts the longer they lasted. (Actually, I do in my book.)

The Taliban are not militant jihadists. Their only concern is their ancient homelands. The only antagonism the Taliban have for Americans is the fact that the U.S. military has occupied their country to various degrees over the last 17 year as USAID and other international organizations attempted to impose western cultural values that conflict with their Saudi-indoctrinated fundamentalist form of Islam. (Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government before 9/11.) Moreover, Taliban leaders have been wary since the U.S. troop surge in 2009 that the U.S. intended to maintain permanent bases in their country. This is why the Taliban and other Afghan nationalists intensified their fight to expel latest round of foreign invaders in a civil war to oust the U.S.-backed government. (Media pundits who lament that civil war and chaos will break out if the U.S. troops withdraw have somehow missed the last 40 years of Afghan history.)

It’s always been an inaccurate pejorative for the U.S. government and media to refer to the Taliban as “terrorists.” Consider this scenario: A foreign power invades and occupies your country; it installs and pays the costs (over $5 billion in FY 2020) for keeping a friendly pro-western government in power; the Afghan officials who profit from these payments (corruption is a way of life in Afghanistan as the SIGAR has repeatedly documented) are willing to let the foreign power retain permanent military bases in your country (which are needed to keep them in power). As an Afghan nationalist, you don’t want your way of life changed at gunpoint and don’t want a foreign power to use bases in your country to project power in the region and possibly attack the neighboring (predominately Muslim) countries. Given this situation, you join a home-grown insurgency that opposes the foreign troops staying and having your traditional way of life coercively changed.

However, because you fight against the neocolonial foreign power that has taken de facto control of your country for its self-interests, you are deemed a “terrorist.” Yes, the Taliban and other anti-government elements in Afghanistan have killed over 2,400 U.S. soldiers over the 17-year, $2-trilllion-dollar war and occupation of their country. But this happened only because more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers at one point (140,000 including other NATO countries) and squadrons of F-16s were sent to their country to kill them — while subjecting the Afghan civilian population to the hardships, collateral damage, and casualties inherent in warfare.

The question our elected officials need to be asked: Why are U.S. soldiers still in Afghanistan and being killed fighting local insurgents engaged in a civil war who are not a threat to America 17 years after the al-Qaeda jihadists responsible for the 9/11 attacks were vanquished?

The assertion that U.S. troops need to stay in Afghanistan to keep Americas safe from radical Salafi jihadists is a self-serving canard by the pro-war crowd in Washington. The Taliban are not jihadi terrorists and in fact are fighting to keep Arab jihadists and sympathizers out of their country. Congress does not need to spend $47 billion/year (current cost to U.S. taxpayers for keeping 14,000 U.S troops in Afghanistan and the pro-U.S government in Kabul in power) to prevent jihadi attacks on America originating in Afghanistan. This is a remote possibility. Arabs are unwelcome outsiders in Afghanistan — Osama was a special case due to his money and the Soviet occupation. Should jihadists establish operations in Afghanistan that threaten America after U.S. troop leave, this threat can be dealt with through surveillance, diplomacy, and covert operations. After Osama was targeted — but missed — in Khost province after the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, the 9/11 commission report documents nine subsequent occasions where intelligence provided the Clinton Administration the opportunity to extradite, capture or kill Osama before 9/11. But none of this intelligence was acted upon. As this and other history shows, the U.S. has the intelligence, diplomatic channels, and covert operations capability (if needed) to deal with genuine terrorist threats in Afghanistan and elsewhere without having a permanent troop presence and ongoing combat operations in the country.

The real reason for the pushback by the Washington national security establishment against getting all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan is the guiding maxim of our post-World War II “War State” (the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned about) that has grown into a $1-trillion/year enterprise with a worldwide empire of over 800 foreign military installations: never give up a military base in a strategic location. The U.S. military eventually will be pushed out of Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan (it’s also a civilian airport near a large restive city in Taliban territory). But Bagram Airfield (a prior Soviet base north of Kabul) is a military-only installation in an easily defended remote area. Bagram is the missing piece in our War State’s chessboard of worldwide bases. Retaining it will enable our military to “project power” throughout Central Asia. It’s a steal at $30 to $40 billion/year (assuming troops levels and graft payments are drawn down at some point) for our overfunded War State. Representative Max Thornberry, then chairman and now ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, visited Bagram in October 2018. He publicly acknowledged afterwards that the U.S. seeks “a sustainable presence” in Afghanistan. (The U.S. military’s new high-tech F-35 fighters — a $1.5 trillion program — are manufactured at a Lockheed plant near Rep. Thornberry’s district in north Texas.)

There was never a chance the Taliban would agree to anything except a complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from their proud and ancient country. It’s who they are, not a transactional matter. Likewise, there was never a chance the pro-war establishment in Washington would voluntarily give up Bagram as a future F-35 fighter base. The so-called negotiations over a peace deal with the Taliban that the Trump Administration and the media played up was Kabuki Theater and a political ploy on both sides. But the Taliban are right in saying the real losers are the Americans. This is because the Taliban will never quit fighting to evict the foreigners from their ancient lands; and the neighboring countries (Iran, Pakistan, China and the prior USSR “stans” in the north backed by Russia) will do whatever it takes to make sure the Taliban eventually win – no matter how long that takes. As this proxy war plays out, more U.S. soldiers will needlessly lose their lives in what is a lost cause that our media plays along with as dutiful enablers of our failed interventionist foreign policy. A sad state of affairs for our democratic republic.

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Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who served in the U.S Air Force in the 1970s. He then lived and worked in Europe and the Middle East, including working for Aramco in Saudi Arabia. He later worked for seven years (2007-2014) as a civilian adviser in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He is now retired and has written a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) critiquing US foreign and military policy from Vietnam to Afghanistan based on his life experiences. He lives in California and Mexico.