There’s less than a month before the United States is set to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. This was the result of an agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban in February of last year, an agreement that continues to put the Afghan government on edge.
Biden’s hesitant though. At the least, it’s reported he’s considering a six-month extension on the deal. His take on the Trump-era deal:
“The fact is that – that was not a very solidly negotiated deal.”
Recently leaked documents, letters from Secretary of State Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani reveal a possible peace plan the US hopes to push between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The deal does not, however, mention US troops, which likely means they could be withdrawn on May 1 while the deal is still underway, or they could stay until a deal is reached.
Withdrawing troops on May 1 without a deal would mean the US has far less leverage, likely upsetting the Afghan government’s side. Negotiating a deal by May 1 that pleases both sides and possibly neighboring countries (Blinken wants them involved in some capacity) seems pretty unlikely for a war that is twenty-years strong.
This should all give us pause.
The Weight of This War
The US government is now caught between a rock and a hard place. If these leaked documents become the basis for a deal, then question of the military’s position remains a separate issue from these diplomatic efforts. Troops could be pulled out by the May 1 deadline, leaving the US with little bargaining power to help the Afghan government negotiate their side, or they could stay, with all of the heaviness that this war brings.
Biden is currently reviewing Trump-era landmine policy which allows for the use of landmines (they had been banned by Obama with exception of their use on the Korean peninsula). “Reviewing” the policy is quite different then what he told the public back on the campaign trail in February of last year:
“The Trump administration’s reversal of years of considered decisions by Democratic and Republican presidents to curtail the use of landmines is another reckless act by a president ill-suited to serve as commander-in-chief…It will put more civilians at risk of being injured by unexploded mines, and is unnecessary from a military perspective. As president, I will promptly roll back this deeply misguided decision.”
How things change. A Pentagon spokesperson remarked this past week that landmines are “a vital tool in conventional warfare.” He didn’t mention that unexploded landmines hang around long after troops are gone. They maim and kill civilians, like children playing near them. This is a real concern in Afghanistan, which has one of the highest number of unexploded landmines. It’s reported that there are 150 landmine casualties every month, and “eight of every 10 casualties is a child who inadvertently picks up an unexploded ordinance.”
A Culture of Corruption
Along with the military concerns are the political ones. The US’s track record propping up corrupt leaders and government in officials in Afghanistan has been documented. Attempts by the US and its allies (the UK in particular) to stamp out the ever-growing and extraordinarily profitable opium trade in the country demonstrates a level of double-talk that is almost inconceivable.
The opium business is on the rise in Afghanistan, with corrupt Afghan politicians seemingly happy to take part. The irony: the group that was most successful at reducing the opium trade to almost zero was the Taliban.
This is no secret; even Western media reports it. In an extensive exposé on the topic in 2019, The Washington Post reported:
“In July 2000, when the Taliban controlled most of the country, its reclusive one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, declared that opium was un-Islamic and imposed a ban on growing poppies.
“Much to the surprise of the rest of the world, the ban worked. Afraid to cross the Taliban, Afghan farmers immediately ceased planting poppies. The United Nations estimated that poppy cultivation plunged by 90 percent from 2000 to 2001.
“The edict stirred tumult in global heroin markets and disrupted the Afghan economy. But even today, Afghans recall the moment with awe and say it demonstrates the comparative haplessness of the current Afghan government, the United States and their allies in the opium wars.”
The date of this report (2019) is important. That is because, two years earlier, The New York Times published this, contradicting the notion that it is more the government than the Taliban that is the problem in the opium wars.
The article claims that the Taliban was raking in millions through the opium trade and had increased their profits by refining raw opium sap into heroin themselves, rather than simply shipping out the raw product for refining outside of the country:
“The labs themselves are simple, tucked into nondescript huts or caves: a couple-dozen empty barrels for mixing, sacks or gallon jugs of precursor chemicals, piles of firewood, a press machine, a generator and a water pump with a long hose to draw from a nearby well.
“They are heroin refining operations, and the Afghan police and American Special Forces keep running into them all over Afghanistan this year. Officials and diplomats are increasingly worried that the labs’ proliferation is one of the most troubling turns yet in the long struggle to end the Taliban insurgency.”
It’s not possible for me to verify this, but the work seems to have been done for us.
The date of this NYT article—October 2017—aligns with the time that the US military began Operation Iron Tempest in Afghanistan (launched late 2017). This operation was by the US military’s own accounts a failure.
Returning to that 2019 article in The Washington Post, they explain:
“In late 2017, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan launched Operation Iron Tempest, a storm of airstrikes by B-52 bombers, F-22 Raptors and other warplanes. The main target: a network of clandestine opium production labs that U.S. officials said was helping to generate $200 million a year in drug money for the Taliban…
“But within a year, Operation Iron Tempest had fizzled out. Many of the suspected labs turned out to be empty, mud-walled compounds. After more than 200 airstrikes, the U.S. military concluded it was a waste of resources to keep blowing up primitive targets with advanced aircraft and laser-guided munitions…
“Since 2001, the United States has spent about $9 billion on a dizzying array of programs to deter Afghanistan from supplying the world with heroin. In dozens of interviews, however, key players in the anti-narcotics campaign acknowledged that none of the measures have worked and that, in many cases, they have made things worse.”
Did the NYT decide to help the US government and military convince the public of the need to continue this feckless war? Hard to say for sure. Either their reporter was duped by what he saw and made some serious miscalculations, or someone decided that pandering to the needs of the government was worth it and lies and stretches to the truth needed to make it to print.
What we can say for sure: US money has helped the opium business in Afghanistan flourish, whether they wanted that or not. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Taliban were, post-the US invasion in 2001, completely clean of being involved in the opium trade, but one thing is clear, any involvement pales in comparison to that of the Afghan government. Former President Karzai and his administration were kingpins of the industry:
“Hamid Karzai, who had been plucked from obscurity to serve as president, was busy cementing, with U.S. acquiescence, a political order deeply linked to the opium trade. In the north, he wooed the Northern Alliance commanders as partners; in his southern homeland, he appointed Sher Mohammad Akhundzada as governor of Helmand, the nephew of the now-deceased Mullah Nasim, the same guy who had first introduced large-scale poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. ‘Narco corruption went to the top of the Afghan government,’ wrote Thomas Schweich, who served as a senior U.S. counternarcotics official in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008. ‘Sure, Karzai had Taliban enemies who profited from drugs, but he had even more supporters who did.’ (Spokesmen for both Karzai and current President Ashraf Ghani declined to comment for this story.)”
The Significance of the Opium Wars
The current president, Ashraf Ghani, warned last year:
“If the remaining prisoners of Taliban get released, a wave of narcotics may enter Britain.”
While it’s hard to say what exactly would happen, this statement, all things considered—all Afghan-government-corruption considered—is laughable. The evidence of whom is more to blame for the opium problem is not on Ghani’s side, neither is the evidence for who has harmed more civilians.
What probably concerns him more than heroin getting into the arms of Britons: threats to his power. No doubt these governments can read between the lines of Ghani’s statement. After all, his power is their power. Perhaps that is why Biden gently said of the Trump-era deal to leave Afghanistan “that was not a very solidly negotiated deal.”
If we consider something that we should hold dear—the lives of innocent people—then it would be wise to look at the evidence as to what happened to them after the deal was negotiated. This report is from December 2020 (Ashraf Ghani took office in March 2020):
“After the U.S. and Taliban reached a peace agreement in late February 2020, U.S. and other international air strikes declined – and so did the harm to civilians caused by those strikes. The Afghan government is now negotiating with the Taliban and as part of a broader offensive, perhaps aimed at increasing Afghan government leverage in the talks, air strikes by the Afghan Air Force (AAF) have increased. As a consequence, the AAF is harming more Afghan civilians than at any time in its history.”
Empty, Dangerous Rhetoric
This article is not so much about the Taliban; it isn’t a pledge of allegiance to anybody. Instead, it’s about the deception that takes place in the framing of this conflict by the US, the Afghan government, and at times the media.
Let’s take a look at what the US and Afghanistan have told the word:
“Today I convey this message to every Afghan that the government is yours, and I am only here to serve you all, whether those who elected me or those who cast their votes for other nominees…Today is the day to synchronize our efforts and means to alleviate the pain and suffering of our people. Today is the day to support and safeguard a legitimate and elected government.”
“We have enormous respect for Afghan sovereignty and the dignity of the Afghan people. Together we’re now committed to replacing war with peace and pursuing a more hopeful future as equal partners…we are committed to seeking a future of justice, peace, security, and opportunity… although our challenges are not yet behind us, that the future before us is bright.”
How grim this all seems.
If the US and the Afghan government cared about peace and alleviating pain and suffering in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s success and virtually eliminating the opium trade prior to the 2001 invasion would have at least provided them with some helpful tips as to how to manage the crisis. If the US cared about peace in Afghanistan, they probably wouldn’t send drones over to kill people, some of whom may be considered terrorist by the US, but it doesn’t need much more verification than that, and others may be civilians—like pine nut farmers—caught in the crossfires, but according to some, it’s for the greater good. And if the Afghan government truly cared about its own people, they also would take civilian life more seriously.
If we use the opium wars in Afghanistan as a microcosm from which to understand the twenty-year war as a whole, then quickly we see that the US’s and the Afghan government’s past calculations and decisions have been fraught with error and carelessness. Peoples’ lives—Muslims’ lives—have been destroyed as a result.
Afghan Women: A Means to War?
We are all aware of the view that is the US leaves, Afghan women will be put in harm’s way and will lose the strides they have made. The first question is, what strides have been gained, and have they been gained for all Afghan women?
Western media likes to give us examples of those strides by showing us ways that Afghan women can now use their voices. Think tanks also tell us why we should be concerned for Afghan women. While being able to have access to health care and life necessities are important and legitimate concerns, what we can find in these types of articles is also a deeply secular analysis. This is extremely important to acknowledge, because by simply agreeing with everything being said and done by the Western parties involved in this conflict, one allows for secularism to become a bigger part of the conversation and potentially the future of Afghanistan. What has a secular approach to conflict gotten us thus far? A twenty-year war with a drone program, landmines, and a blossoming opium trade.
Are there concerns for women in Afghanistan that need to be addressed? Seems fair to say, yes, just as there are concerns for impoverished villagers in general who see little option but to grow opium poppies to support their families. As we saw, when the US and its allies tried to solve the latter problem through their own framework, they utterly failed. How these problems are addressed is key.
Some argue that women’s rights may be sold for a quick deal so the US can get out of the country. That is the view of former Afghan ambassador to Italy Helena Malikyar:
“Will the United States and international community stand by the principles of women’s rights in Afghanistan or will they sell us out for the sake of political expediency?…Are they just talking the talk now and in the final stages will settle for something less than ideal for women just so they have a deal and can leave?”
But there’s also reason to consider that the opposite could also happen. Maybe the US and its allies could double-down on their ‘care’ for Afghan women, particularly considering the immense power of the woke in the culture wars. Why shouldn’t we be concerned about this, especially considering the deception we saw early on in the war in Afghanistan?
Back when the War on Terror was in its infancy, in November of 2001, then-first lady Laura Bush praised US operations in Afghanistan, saying:
“Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment…The fight against terrorism is also the fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Women were used as a pawn in this war, a war in which Ms. Bush implied in the same announcement that the US had already made great gains. That was twenty years ago.
In a 2003 opinion piece in the New York Times, a piece concerning the rights of women in Afghanistan, expressing the precariousness of women’s situation there, even The New York Times said:
“Violence against women has increased dramatically since the war.”
This continues to be a concern. The question as to why is the big question. War can create serious instability for civilians; could it be that twenty years of it has harmed many sisters in Afghanistan more than it has helped them? Asking this does not mean they did not have concerns prior to the war; it just mean twenty years of meddling from foreign powers hasn’t helped them.
The Culture Wars
Today, in the trenches of the culture wars, we’re told how we should think about LGBT rights, we’re informed that men competing in women’s sports as ‘women’ is not only OK, we’re bigots if we don’t accept that. We’re told by supposed victims of oppression (often journalists or politicians) that we are cruel and lack compassion, while these supposedly oppressed people use the oppressed, the marginalized as tools in their own publicity campaigns.
The playbook isn’t so new—Afghan women were used by the West in their War on Terror campaign, with the West championing itself as the great liberator. Any challenge to that would mean you don’t care about Afghan women and side with terrorists.
But you can care about Afghan women and the dignity of human beings without having to support wars that lead to cycles of violence and the inability of civilians to live their lives peacefully. You can look at the evidence and see that words like Laura Bush’s are not matching with actions like pine nut farmers being murdered, children dying from landmines, and opium being one of Afghanistan’s biggest exports. And yes, you can question whether the types of strides made for women are the types you think make sense according to your—and their—faith.
I can’t speak for Afghan women. As a member of the Ummah, though, I can and should care about them. Western organizations and governments wanting to help them do not work from an Islamic framework. This should, at the least, spur me to question what these groups’ incentives are, and given the utter disaster this war has been and has caused, it should lead me to be highly unsure of any efforts of these groups and governments to ‘help’ Afghan women and the Afghan people in general.
- https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/afghanistan-the-making-of-a-narco-state-48475/ ↑
- https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2020/Rising%20Civilian%20Death%20Toll%20in%20Afghanistan_Costs%20of%20War_Dec%207%202020.pdf, p.1 ↑