The Taliban has taken over Afghanistan.
I expected this to happen at some point after our withdrawal of troops from the country earlier this year, so much so that I wrote a column this past May that essentially took for granted the idea that the Taliban would eventually take over. I expected that it would take more than three and a half months for them to do so, but I expected it would happen at some point.
My opinion on the withdrawal has not changed since May. I still think that no matter how horrible life under the Taliban is and has been, the failure of the previous Afghan government to maintain control of Afghanistan even with our support shows that we were unable to create a democratic regime in Afghanistan and that we were correct to leave. Afghanistan faces a dark future, but our exit only accelerated that future’s arrival, it did not cause it. Many politicians and pundits — Republicans and Democrats alike — have said that this withdrawal could have been “executed” more effectively, but I don’t buy that at all.
Beyond the failure on the U.S. government’s part to evacuate Afghan allies and U.S. personnel, which is absolutely valid to criticize Biden for, most critics of the pull out fail to pinpoint what the Biden administration could have done differently to prevent the Taliban’s rise or otherwise leave a better situation than we did. That’s because there’s nothing they could have done. For four decades, the U.S. has worked, perhaps unintentionally but certainly tirelessly, to create the situation where only the Taliban could take over at the end of their foreign occupation.
While the U.S. has been involved in modern-day Afghanistan since the 1830s, when Pennsylvanian explorer Josiah Harlan was granted a feudal kingdom in exchange for fighting the British, the relevant history of U.S. involvement begins in 1979. That was when, in order to fight the newly-formed Communist government of Afghanistan, the U.S. began funding anti-communist rebels known as mujahideen. Beyond just overthrowing the Communist government, the project of funding the mujahideen, known as Operation Cyclone, aimed to attract Soviet intervention to protect their ally, or, as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recalls a CIA official putting it, “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.” This strategy was successful, leading to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which lasted until 1989 and ended in the Soviets withdrawing after failing to defeat the mujahideen, much like our withdrawal this year. Some, but not all, of those mujahideen fighters became the Taliban after the Soviets left and, after years of civil war, took over the country in 1996.
While the fact that only some of the mujahideen became the Taliban may make it seem like the U.S. did not intend to create a force as violent and extremist as the Taliban, the other mujahideen groups prove that to be untrue. One of the most highly-funded mujahideen leaders was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Islamist rebel group Hezb-e Islami, who was perhaps best known for throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. Instead, it’s clear that the U.S. was primarily concerned with these groups being used against its own interest.
Keep in mind, Hekmatyar and his forces ended up fighting the Taliban after the Soviets left — although he is now in talks with the Taliban to potentially form a government with them. Funding brutal Islamist warlords was an intentional and systemic part of U.S. anti-communist efforts in Afghanistan, and there is a direct throughline between the groups the U.S. funded and the groups that have now overrun the country.
Nevertheless, after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and overthrew the Taliban, it had the opportunity to back forces that, even if they were not able to create a stable and lasting democracy, might have proven resilient enough to last more than three months on their own. It did not.
The Islamic Republic government that we backed — not to be confused with the Islamic Emirate name that the Taliban use — could best be described as debilitatingly corrupt. Sarah Chayes, a journalist who covered Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban and then ran several NGOs in the country, describes an environment where “Afghan government officials would shake people down at every interaction” and where “international funding … was being siphoned off or captured by government officials and their cronies.”
This is not to mention the government’s heavy involvement in opium trafficking, the eradication of which was perhaps the only success of the previous Taliban regime. With all of this in mind, along with the Islamic Republic’s staggering inability to maintain law and order, it’s easy to see why few Afghan people were willing to fight to prevent the Taliban from taking over.
It’s easy to think of all of this as a mistake, a failure of the U.S. to understand how Afghanistan operates and how to build a democracy there, but one that we can learn from and do differently in the future. That would be incorrect. President George W. Bush, who oversaw the invasion of Afghanistan, took sizable campaign donations from weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, all of which profited massively from the war in Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan, who enacted much of Operation Cyclone, took money from the same sources. And while both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden have inveighed against “endless wars,” both received millions in their 2020 election campaigns from the same weapons manufacturers as Bush did almost 20 years before.
With that in mind, it’s hard to see the endless quagmire that successive administrations have created in Afghanistan as some sort of bungle, rather than an intentional decision to benefit some of their largest donors. This is most evident by the fact that, even as Biden claims that the U.S. is done intervening in Afghanistan, he continues to order aerial airstrikes. As long as companies can continue to profit off of war, they will continue to corrupt our government to ensure that those wars continue and their bottom line expands. That, above all else, should be the lesson from Afghanistan.
Brandon Cowit is a Senior Opinion Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.