I remember those days like a nightmare that you can’t seem to escape. I was walking to work from my remote parking space. I had been loaned out as a draftsman to another firm while working for the architecture firm Graeber, Simmons & Cowan back in 2001. I don’t recall the name of the firm I had been loaned out to, but I can point you to the building it was in on Congress Avenue if I happen to be driving with you downtown.
A plane had struck the North tower of the World Trade Center at some point during my drive to work that morning. I was late to work as usual when I was under a deadline and working late nights. The second plane struck not too long after we had all settled down to work that day, and I believe we were dismissed early because there was no use in pretending we were going to get anything done on the project with the kinds of things that were happening in the world that day.
I remember the second plane strike most vividly because it was one of the first times that I was forced to use the internet to get essential news updates, there being no television in the office I was working at. We watched the video of the crash over and over that morning, before leaving to go home and contemplate what we had just witnessed.
When the Travis County Libertarians convened later that week to try to pass an antiwar resolution, declaring that Travis County Libertarians were opposed to the war in Afghanistan that the President was proposing, I motioned to table the declaration. With a second and a majority vote, we did table it. The majority of us at that meeting that day knew that blood called out for blood. It was inevitable and probably right for the United States to seek vengeance against the instigators of the plot that destroyed those towers in New York City. I don’t regret doing that; even today, twenty years later I don’t regret it. I regret that we violated parliamentary procedure to get the resolution tabled, but not that we refused to say that the United States had no right to seek vengeance. Blood called out for blood.
By October 7, 2001, when the war against the Taliban started:
The U.S. military, with British support, begins a bombing campaign against Taliban forces, officially launching Operation Enduring Freedom. Canada, Australia, Germany, and France pledge future support. The war’s early phase [PDF] mainly involves U.S. air strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that are assisted by a partnership of about one thousand U.S. special forces, the Northern Alliance, and ethnic Pashtun anti-Taliban forces. The first wave of conventional ground forces arrives twelve days later. Most of the ground combat is between the Taliban and its Afghan opponents.cfr.org
…I was actively planning to go overseas to help rebuild Afghanistan. They needed engineers and experienced construction personnel, and I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, my expertise to work at something that would hopefully inspire a lasting change in the country that had fostered so much hatred for the United States. This was a radical change from the teenager I had been a scant decade earlier. I was ready to go to jail rather than even register for the draft when I turned 18 in 1980. I was that opposed to war.
I knew that if we wanted to avoid a quagmire in Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires, it was going to take finesse and a deft hand on the tiller, and I hoped that the former Texas Governor was up to the job that he had signed himself up to perform as President of the United States. I wanted to be part of the success of that effort. I wanted the cycle we were caught in to end.
My hopes were soon dashed, though. By the middle of 2002, before I had made any headway in deciding if it would be smart to involve myself in Bush II’s ill-begotten war on terrorism, he was already taking his eye off the ball and had begun flirting with conducting a war against his daddy’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein:
There’s an old line: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And so it was with the Iraq war. Bush and Clinton and Powell and Blair knew quite a bit that wasn’t true. As Robert Draper shows in his book “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq,” they were certain Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Only he didn’t. They were also certain, based on decades of testimony from Iraqi expats, that Americans would be welcomed as liberators.nytimes.com
We ultimately squandered the opportunity handed to us by our allies in Afghanistan. Instead of pursuing a limited campaign that would destroy Al Qaeda and kill Osama Bin Laden, George W. Bush betrayed the needs of the nation and instead pursued imperial goals, trying to bring more countries under the direct control of the United States military through a permanent troop presence and a widening field of battle that essentially encompassed the entire globe, much less all of Afghanistan.
Osama Bin Laden left Afghanistan while we were distracted and took up residence under the protection of one of our purported allies, Pakistan. He lived in hiding there for another decade while our President’s dreams of empire were pursued at our nation’s expense. At the cost of nearly a million lives. Iraq’s government was destroyed and the entire region was destabilized because of the War on Terror. President Bush played right into OBL’s hands and attempted to colonize not just Afghanistan but Iraq as well.
We betrayed our allies, the Northern Alliance, the people who should have been the tip of the spear in everything we did in Afghanistan so as to keep our footprint in the country to a minimum, and instead tried to occupy the country. Time and again it was shown to us that this effort was doomed, and yet we kept doubling down on the investment of blood and treasure, with no one in leadership willing to admit that we were never going to be able to leave the country that we stupidly thought we could control.
We know now what that error has cost us. Has cost the people of Afghanistan. Twenty years later, the United States lead war in Afghanistan has finally come to an end, and the war between conservative governing factions in Afghanistan is set to begin. No one knows how long that war will rage, or what the ultimate outcome will be, but there is little doubt that the next war in Afghanistan is about to begin. Begin without our presence for the first time in a generation.
Donald Trump, the only president in history worse that George W. Bush, was left in charge of the United States when it came time to cut a deal to get us out of Afghanistan. President Obama could have done it, should have done it, but he thought he could turn that sow’s ear into a silk purse (the same hope of every leader left in charge of a debacle in the making) and kept us fighting an unwinnable war for the entire eight years of his Presidency.
Barack Obama, to his credit, did finally see to the death of the architect of the attacks on our country, but he failed to realize that with the death of OBL we no longer had a reason to stay in Afghanistan. We should have gotten out then, at least. Instead we kept lying to ourselves about what the ultimate outcome of the boondoggle would be. Another ten years went by.
Donald Trump, in his infinite lack of wisdom, decided the smart thing to do was hand the country of Afghanistan back over to the people we had fought for twenty years. He released the prisoners of war that we had captured and had them sign his peace deal, tying the hands of Joe Biden to the August 31st deadline that we have just gone through.
Make no mistake, Joe Biden understood what needed to be done when he was Barack Obama’s Vice President. He opposed the surge. He wanted us to get out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later. As Ezra sums up in his article in the NY Times, it was always going to end this way. President Biden knew this just as well as Ezra’s guest in the podcast embedded above knows this.
There was never going to be a time when the coddled, corrupt Afghan puppet that we installed as leader of the country was going to be willing to risk his life for the country that we created. The same clearly went for all of the military personnel that we meticulously trained alongside us for twenty years in-country. Without leadership that would stand firm beside them they would melt away, leaving all the technology we had left in their hands in the hands of the enemies that Donald Trump put in charge with a stroke of his pen.
The Northern Alliance might have been up to the task if we had allowed them to lead, to put their blood and treasure on the line as the cost of not supporting the central government in Kabul. We’ll never know, because that eventuality never occurred. Instead we colonized and set up a puppet government just like we did in Vietnam; and the entire façade collapsed without our constant support, also just like Vietnam.
Now. Now we need to be working with Afghanistan’s neighbors to insure that it doesn’t devolve into the hellhole the Taliban made of it before. If we don’t do this work then we will find ourselves once again drawn into conflict there sometime in the future. Drawn into conflict or attacked by terrorists that found safe harbor there just as they did before. This outcome can’t be allowed to occur; and the only way to stop it is to help make Afghanistan the place it should have been all those years ago when we decided to continue being an empire instead of being a republic of fellow humans that needed to see past wrongs righted and the guilty brought to justice.
How can we, the country that still can’t come to peace with its own slave history, its own genocide of the original population of the land our country was founded on, how can we hope to ever show others how they can move past the point were blood calls out for blood? Who else is there that will do this work if we don’t?
Featured image from: warfarehistorynetwork.com
I’m appending a series of podcasts I listened to following the collapse of the government in Kabul. Collapse? More like abdication and retreat to tropical villas paid for with money that the government officials stole from the Afghani people and from us. Compare and contrast the historical treatment provided by Dan Carlin:
With the historical treatment provided by Throughline:
You should be able to see the reasons why I value the episodes of Throughline as highly as I do when you make that comparison. Dan Carlin is a credible source of historical information and storytelling. Throughline brings you to the information from a completely different perspective.
It is understandable that the Afghani’s don’t want their country to be thought of as a graveyard. I don’t think they understand what the phrase means, though. It is a salute to their intransigence, their unwillingness to just go along to get along and endure the yoke of the imperial master. How many countries can boast that contentious history? The crime is that these people have been forced to endure so many attempts to colonize them, not that they destroyed the imperial dreams of so many different colonizers. I don’t know If I’d go so far as to say Afghanistan is the center of the world. When it was most of the trade route between China and Europe, that was certainly true in an economic sense. Every place can become a backwater, though. This is doubly true of Afghanistan. It has happened before. It was why the Taliban were allowed to do what they did for so long.
Award-winning Afghan British journalist Najibullah Quraishi is on the ground in Kabul where he has been interviewing Taliban leaders and fighters, women who have lost their rights, and citizens trying to escape. He believes that the country is on the brink of civil war. Quraishi is the correspondent for the forthcoming Frontline PBS documentary, ‘Taliban Takeover.’npr.org
The Frontline episode is gut-wrenching. It can be viewed online.
Afghanistan’s economy changed — almost overnight — when the Taliban retook control of the county. What does that mean for Afghanistan’s access to foreign aid, trade and the bricks of Afghan gold sitting in the basement of a New York building?npr.org
Baher Azmy is the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He’s been challenging the American government repeatedly over the last two decades. Right now, he’s on leave from his faculty position at Seton Hall University School of Law, where he taught constitutional law, directed their civil rights and Constitutional Litigation Clinic. The article I was drawing from today is in a book entitled Crisis Lawyering, published this last year by NYU Press, and his chapter is Guantanamo 20 years of lawyering in a lawless space.slate.com
I hope that the United States dreams of imperial conquest are truly dead and buried with the war in Afghanistan. I hope this is true, but I also doubt that it is true. Every time I think we’ve gotten smarter, I discover to my horror that people still believe the bullshit that has gotten us into bad war after bad war for more than 200 years now. I was never a pacifist, but I’m beginning to think that I should be one.