Afghanistan: What Was It All For?

The staggeringly rapid takeover by the Taliban lays waste to the stated promise of American intervention and training

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Taliban fighters and local residents sit on an Afghan National Army Humvee in Laghman province on August 15, 2021. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images.)

Since watching the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, I’ve been thinking about the 1968 film “Charly,” based on the novel Flowers from Algernon, which is the story of a mentally disabled man who undergoes brain surgery and rapidly experiences an expansion of intelligence and consciousness. It’s heartwarming and full of promise—until the procedure begins to fail and Charly becomes acutely aware that the wondrous world that opened up to him is going away.

Two decades ago, the US military marched into Afghanistan with the ostensible goal announced by George Bush “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations [for Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden], and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” Succeeding at toppling the Taliban regime (and with bin Laden having fled to Pakistan), the stated mission pivoted in 2003 from combat operations to reconstruction efforts and building Western-style democracy.

If only the US had paid attention to the failed war that hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Twenty years after entering Afghanistan, after the loss of thousands of lives and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, spent by four US presidents, Joe Biden chose to exit the scene—revealing the staggering failure of the US effort to train and arm Afghan security forces to protect their own country from the brutal Taliban. It lays waste to the promise of American intervention to proffer that shift to democracy and American-style progress.

This raises the question: What was it all for? This question elicited the full array of replies—from oil and ego to blood lust and revenge—but particularly the opportunity for private military contractors like Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and Blackwater to make billions and the Pentagon to keep expanding its budget. As goes America, so goes the profiteering war machine—a reality to which I will return momentarily.

But as much as the US military and its hired guns failed to motivate Afghan forces to take responsibility to defend their country from Taliban rule, all the blood and treasure lost has also failed to provide the security for millions of Afghan girls and women who learned to read and expanded their world and their dreams through education.

This painful reality, this human dimension, this heartbreaking “Charly” moment that we are witnessing now, is only tempered by the possibility that some small number will succeed in leaving the country and others will somehow find the will to survive these coming nightmare years amid renewed violence and oppression of women’s basic human rights.

In the coming weeks and months, US intel will have plenty to answer for: How could they so badly underestimate the possibility that the Afghan forces would fold without a fight, allowing the Taliban to seize control with such rapidity and putting US citizens, allies, Afghans who provided support and other Afghans who believed in the promise of a better future in such danger? This practically makes the final exit from Saigon look like a careful operation.

I concur with those who question why it took so long to reach this moment, but we have plenty to learn about the extent of the corruption and delusion that allowed military operations to persist with the false notion that the training of the Afghan military was progressing. We also should look closely at the deals made by Afghan forces who, over the last year, took money from the Taliban to give up their weapons—and ultimately their will to fight. They may well have calculated that without US air support and other on-the-ground backing, they were no match for highly motivated Taliban fighters.

Now the Taliban—including 5,000 former prisoners released by Trump last year—regains power, strengthened with US arms, helicopters, drones and other sophisticated technology. Plenty of amoral people got rich, and the world is poorer for it.

In a moment like this, it seems right to revisit the wise words of President Eisenhower, delivered 60 years ago in his January 17, 1961, farewell address. With the passage of time, his profound insight has become almost cliché, but it’s worth remembering how resonant his warning was and is coming from a former US General who was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in the European theater and eventually oversaw the German surrender.

This was a man who understood the price of war. This was a man who saw soldiers die. As he put it, he “has witnessed the horror and lingering sadness of war.”

"Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. 

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United State corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted; only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.


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