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Afghanistan has been a point of contention in American politics for the past four decades. Ever since the former Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, the United States has been engaged in either proxy conflicts or military occupation in the region. Most students at the University of Michigan have been alive for as long as the current conflict has been around, running nearly 20 years prior to President Joe Biden’s withdrawal.

The situation is confusing, and I’ve seen many different reactions to it. I’ve seen war hawks vying for the U.S. to re-enter the conflict, people jubilant that the U.S. finally withdrew from the area, analyses that include fears of Chinese influence and potential cooperation with the Taliban, others fearful of women’s rights degrading, witches trying to hex the Taliban and many others. But one thing remains clear: This is one of the most significant political events of the early 21st century. 

Is this an end to U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, or is this just the Pentagon waiting to come back with a vengeance? Only time will tell. The withdrawal is getting flack for looking shoddy, but I’m here to say that the entire Afghanistan conflict was a nonsuccess from day one.

To understand how flawed our entry into Afghanistan was, we have to understand the history behind it specifically by reviewing the stakes of the Soviet-Afghan War. In 1973, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a Marxist-Leninist party, helped overthrow King Mohammed Zahir Shah to put former Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan in power. Khan was initially friendly and grateful toward the PDPA with the party representing itself in the new Republic of Afghanistan. However, relations with Khan later deteriorated, and many of these representatives were fired. 

In 1978, the PDPA, alongside the Afghan National Army, overthrew Khan to create the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a nation that was highly amicable to the Soviet Union. When insurgents began cropping up to fight the new government, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan called upon the Soviet Union to quell these uprisings. These insurgents were called the mujahideen and were a conglomerate mass of rebels fighting the new government for their own reasons. And the U.S., eager to disempower the Soviet Union, began arming and equipping these rebels with plenty of weapons and support.

When the Soviet Union left the region, these mujahideen fighters began fighting each other. In this conflict, Kabul was devastated. On top of the previous war, this new civil war displaced more people than ever before. And the victor of the civil war? The Taliban. Over the next few years, they would establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance rose to prominence to fight the Taliban, which received U.S. support and funding up until the 2001 invasion led by the U.S.

The U.S. and its allies would continue fighting the Taliban up until the aforementioned withdrawal. In the interim period between the U.S. invasion in 2001 and now, nearly 52,000 Afghan civilians have died in the conflict, and one-third of the Afghan population suffers from food insecurity. According to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 30% of the population is facing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity. And nearly six million people have been displaced from their homes throughout the 20-year war. The U.S. has not helped the people in Afghanistan — rather, it has contributed to the devastation in an already broken part of the world.

The U.S. funded the Afghan government for nearly 20 years and oversaw enormous amounts of corruption. At least 40% of all of the U.S. Department of Defense contracts with the military went toward criminal organizations and corrupt officials with some even going to warlords in the region.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Taliban is a theocratic totalitarian party dedicating itself to imposing its distortion of Islam. They’ve been demonstrably vile in their treatment of women and political dissidents. But the hawkish U.S. media has been desperate to find another way to sway public opinion (majority support leaving Afghanistan) in favor of staying in the war. And with the recent development of the Kabul airport attack on Aug. 26, I can only hope the U.S. doesn’t decide to continue their imperial occupation and continue to wreak havoc.

This conflict is not merely Biden’s fault, but the fault of every president from Reagan up until now. And the least we can do is take in Afghan refugees. It’s our responsibility to the people of Afghanistan, even if it only scratches the surface.

Sam Fogel is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at samfogel@umich.edu.