Illustration by Baraa Al Jorf

The Rotten Legacy of the United States in Afghanistan

For the United States, Afghanistan became the classic imperialist misadventure: a gruesome conflict in which foreign tyrants compete with domestic tyrants over the right to be tyrannical.

Feb 29, 2020

On Feb. 29, the United States Government signed an agreement with the Afghan Taliban, starting a process that most observers believe will conclude with a peace deal in the region.
Under normal circumstances, the end of a 20-year war would be a reason to celebrate. However, in this particular case, the aftermath will likely be as ghastly as the war. By signing this deal, the United States will leave Afghanistan as it entered it: in foolish haste, with a complete absence of strategic planning and a display of extraordinary apathy for ordinary Afghans.
The past half century of international geopolitics has been defined by the follies of the United States in Afghanistan. In response to the Soviet Union’s own imperialist adventure in the country, the Central Intelligence Agency launched “Operation Cyclone,” a clandestine mission to fund and arm the Afghan Mujahideen. The operation was cruel, irrational and backfired on the powers that had ordained it.
In the process of funding a religious extremist group to fight the “godless” communists, the United States helped create Frankenstein’s Monster. After defeating the Soviets, the American-trained Mujahideen splintered into a hodgepodge of different terrorist groups which wreaked havoc from Iraq to India. This included the Taliban, who eventually became the dominant political entity in Afghanistan.
Such recklessness continued after the U.S invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001. While the desire to hold the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden accountable in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks was understandable, the Bush administration erred by starting a war with no coherent long-term purpose. In the absence of any real strategic objective, the government worked overtime to find one. At different times in the process, the war in Afghanistan was pitched as a “nation-building” project, as a “clash of civilizations” and even as a feminist project designed to liberate Afghan women from the cruel yoke of the Taliban.
The logic behind each of these supposed objectives was fundamentally flawed. If the United States truly cared about nation-building, why was it promoting a horrific drone program which prioritized military efficacy over the lives of ordinary civilians? Similarly, the “clash of civilizations” narrative was not only false, but it also served as the foundation for the rampant Islamophobia that was to follow. And finally, it was hard to take the Bush administration's feminist credentials seriously when it was simultaneously promoting domestic policies that restricted women’s rights, such as measures to limit access to family planning and abortion services. Over the course of the war, this facade would slip further, as the United States allied with local warlords accused of rape and sexual assault. In that sense, Afghanistan became the classic imperialist misadventure: a gruesome conflict in which foreign tyrants competed with domestic tyrants over the right to be tyrannical.
And so a war was waged, with no apparent strategic objective apart from some nebulous conception of victory.
This brings us to the current negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. While no reasonable individual would argue against the need for peace, the nature of the negotiations suggest that the United States is again ready to jettison the interests of ordinary Afghans for domestic political interests. This is shown by the exclusion of the Afghan government, the legitimate political authority in the country, from initial negotiations. This decision itself undermines the United States’ claims of nation-building, as its own creation was not even deemed worthy enough to have a seat at the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, the negotiations have been marked by the complete absence of any guarantees for Afghan women’s rights. The United States, once so concerned about women’s rights in Afghanistan, now has no qualms about handing power and legitimacy back to the Taliban, which banned women from attending schools and holding most professional positions during its despotic rule in the 1990s.
If the United States government truly cared about peace, it would have initiated a more holistic initial peace process that includes the civilian government, minorities and most importantly, female voices. In effect, any agreement stemming from these unscrupulous negotiations will not be a peace deal, but rather a partial surrender by the United States to the Taliban. It will be a license to the Taliban to oppress women, undermine democratic institutions and to impose its wicked policies over significant chunks of Afghanistan.
As for the victims, they have long been forgotten. They lie in military cemeteries across the United States, in unmarked graves in rural Afghanistan and in refugee camps across South and Central Asia, abandoned by an “international community” which treated them like pawns in some geopolitical game of chess. That will always be the legacy of the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan, regardless of the outcome of the proposed peace deal.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is a contributing writer. Email him at
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