The Afghanistan INSIDE Us

There are lessons both for US foreign policy and for our internal domestic life from the 20-year failure of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Most of the media response is blinding us to what we could learn.

Most media coverage and most conversations have assumed that "Afghanistan is a foreign policy problem." But there are uncomfortable aspects of the 20-year "forever war" that point right here at home. I will sketch them  close to the end of this essay.

To sum up the "foreign policy" part: The US intervention began legitimately as a defensive anti-terrorist action after 9/11. The American Empire turned that into a "forever war" against Afghanistaa. This past week, the American Empire lost that war. That doesn't mean the Afghans who won are democratic or magnanimous, and it doesn't mean that all the frightened Afghans are bad guys. . But American democracy and the American Republic won a small but important victory against the Empire, if we have the good sense to claim it.

 I notice that most of the media are describing the fall of the Kabul government as the Taliban versus Afghanistan. But the Taliban are Afghans. They have deep roots in Afghan society.  They were and perhaps still are the ultra right-wing version of Islam. (There are similar energies among some jews, Christians, Hindus, even Buddhists.)  Their public proclamations in the last few weeks have promised an open-hearted relationship with civilians throughout Afghanistan.

They have already shown that their fighters have more commitment to their vision of their country than the “official” army bought by two trillion American dollars. That “army” faded away into less than smoke as soon as American power was withdrawn.

Perhaps the Taliban promises  will turn out to be fake, or turn out impossible to fulfill if civil servants and police officers who are panicked by the political earthquake flee or refuse  to work, and are coerced.. We may learn that the Taliban are still as oppressive as they once were.Or we may learn that they have learned. Either way, it will have to be Afghans who organize to change their own country.

If I were an Afghan, with the Americans gone I would be opposing the Taliban with all my might. Inside the United States, I oppose their equivalent – the ultra-right-wing  militias that were part of the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6.

I am not an Afghan, and I know that I and my government have no ethical legitimacy in trying to jam my money and my Army down the throats of Afghans. No ethical legitimacy and no practical effectiveness. It only wounds my own America as well as Afghanistan when my government tries to do that.

The ethically legitimate act of the US in Afghanistan was with approval by the UN Security Council, as international law and US treaty law provide, to break up Al Qaeda after its attack on the Twin Towers. That was accomplished in six months, not 20 years.

Even that could have been done more ethically, without using torture on those arrested, without endless prison in Guantanamo but with trials in US courts under US law.

Instead, the “forever war.”  The result of US governmental hubris, and the result of that hubris was an insurgent movement with high morale and clever strategy.

Why was most of the US government and media so stunned by the swift collapse of the puppet government in Kabul?  Because most of the US military and foreign-policy Establishment had blinded themselves to how weak was their effort to impose an American system on Afghanistan. They were not even consciously lying;  they could not believe in the strength of the ragtag uprising and the weakness of an imperial imposition.

The swift and total collapse of the Kabul government and its army was not evidence that President Biden made a mistake.  It was, rather, evidence that his assesssment of the Afghan reality was much closer to correct than that of the stay-onners..

America had plenty of evidence, if we had paid attention. Not just the failures of the British Empire twice in the 19th century and the Soviet Empire once in the twentieth, when they tried to occupy Afghanistan. But also the failures of the US government when it invaded, occupied, and tried to control Vietnam and Iraq. 

There were even two lessons in our dealings with Iran. First, success in the difficult negotiations that led to an Iran with no nuclear-weapons program without a ruinous war. Second, the Trumpist stupidity and cruelty that threw away that great success, imposed murderous sanctions even in the midst of pandemic,  and convinced Iran that the US could not be trusted.

All this left behind destruction and death. Even in Vietnam, almost 50 years later, with a reasonably decent society at home and at peace with the US, people were still dying from US Agent Orange and US land mines and cluster bombs.  And in the US, what could two trillion dollars have accomplished to avert climate crisis, create jobs in the Rust Belt, reduce racial inequality?

Finally, I promised to look at the Afghanistan at home. I wrote that the Taliban were the much stronger Afghan equivalent of the comparatively weak mob on January 6.There is already a blurry Afghanistan growing INSIDE us. How do we grow ourselves in a different direction ?

How do we keep that mob from growing into an American Taliban? The answer depends on us – you, me, millions of us.

  • Is the growing power of huge corporations becoming a kind of "Kabul government" -- with few roots in American neighborhoods and democratic American life? Is that the origin of a "forever war"? Is it the root of violent disaffection?
  • Can we turn America from its imperial hubris – which was here from the beginning, in the form of slavery and genocide and the destruction of much of our land -- passenger pigeons, bison, forests, the prairie?

  • Can we turn America once again to regrowing its democratic roots and hopes – which were also there from the beginning?
  • Can we find in ourselves a vigorously nonviolent version of committed citizenship and high morale  -- more commited to imaginative and effective soul-force than the American would-be Taliban are to violence?
  • Can we free ourselves of the “occupying force” of huge corporation  – and thereby also outwork and outlive and out-ethic and out-morale our own Taliban?

Can we make an America that is

not an oppressive empire at home and abroad,

laying waste an exhausted Earth,

but a democratic republic replenishing Earth?