Twenty years in Afghanistan: immense damage over 'a little revenge'

10:05 pm on 1 September 2021

Analysis: In the early days of the Afghanistan War and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC Bruce Springsteen released The Rising, his landmark, Grammy-winning album about the grief, fear, anger and sense of loss that was transforming the United States at the time.

It sought to capture the hurt and hope of an intense national moment, when America's sense of itself was… somewhat lost.

As I write this nearly 20 years later, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that America is still struggling to find itself.

Soldiers from the US Army HHB 3-7 Field Artillery Regiment during a mission in Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, in 2011.

Soldiers from the US Army HHB 3-7 Field Artillery Regiment during a mission in Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, in 2011, a decade into the war that costed thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars and left Afghanistan with a corrupt government and only dim prospects for peace. Photo: AFP/ Tauseef Mustafa

Today, at last the war George W Bush started in retaliation for 9/11 is over. Or, rather, it's coming to an end. Of sorts.

The New York Times is leading with the headline 'In Afghanistan, an unceremonious end to America's longest war'. The Washington Post says 'US departs Afghanistan, ending America's longest war'.

But in so many ways, this war isn't over at all.

The opening track on Springsteen's 2002 album is Lonesome Day; it speaks to resilience but also reflects the darker feelings sweeping America at the time; unforgiving feelings that 20 years on have left such a terrible legacy on the world.

Hell's brewing, dark sun's on the rise

This storm will blow through by and by

House is on fire, viper's in the grass

A little revenge and this too shall pass

This too shall pass

Springsteen's use of the modifier - "little" - may have been an attempt to nudge the patriotic rage growing around him away from full-blown war. But it was a vain hope; there was nothing little about America's howl of anger at the loss of 2996 lives and Bush's response. Osama bin Laden was successful in provoking the US into a fit of self-destructive rage. Hell was indeed brewing.

Bush Jr invaded Afghanistan with nearly 90 percent approval ratings and Iraq, in 2003, with ratings that went back above 70 percent. In the 2002 mid-term elections he won both the House and Senate with the highest approval of any president since Dwight Eisenhower.

In Afghanistan, Bush launched what would turn out to be America's longest war - one that we are seeing end in defeat before our very eyes - and the ill-defined, illogical and frankly unforgiveable endless "war against terror". Estimates for Afghanistan alone put the loss of life at over 170,000 people, including 47,000 Afghan civilians. It's cost the US $2.3 trillion.

Yet amidst the national agony of a chaotic withdrawal and bumbling by President Joe Biden, it seems Springsteen's prediction that "this too shall pass" has been proved right. America is looking to move on.

US President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Kabul, Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House.

US President Joe Biden Photo: 2021 Getty Images

The Post reported last week: "…despite wall-to-wall news coverage, many Americans see little reason to pay much attention. They concluded long ago that Afghanistan was not their - or their country's - business."

Amongst a range of views, the Post reported Anthony Quinn, 67, of San Francisco saying, "it's hard for me to get emotionally connected… it really is halfway across the world from my world. It don't weigh on me". Gil Santiago, 21, of Michigan said "We shouldn't ever have been there… It's like Vietnam; it's not our fight."

It's a huge change from the intense support for war 20 years ago.

Afghans, however, aren't afforded the luxury of watching the storm blowing through, by and by. It was the Taliban who was protecting al-Qaeda in 2001, the Taliban that the US said needed to be removed for the sake of the Afghan people. Yet it has been the Afghan people who have paid the heaviest price and the Taliban who have returned to power, for now. The country will live with the legacy of this war for many years to come.

In fairness, it is not all bad. It's reasonable to point out that infant mortality has halved. Millions of girls have reportedly got an education (although percentages have been falling since 2011), and - America's key goal - terrorist attacks from that part of the world have dried up.

Bush himself made that point in a rather sickening statement expressing sympathy for the Afghan people. But this is far from the 'nation building' project Bush embarked on nearly two decades ago.

This US Marine photo released August 29, 2021 shows a US Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) carrying a baby as the family processes through the Evacuation Control Center (ECC) during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 28, 2021.

A US marine carrying a baby as their family is processed for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, on 28 August. Photo: AFP

For all the billions spent on economic development - including those oft-referenced wells dug by New Zealand troops in Bamiyan - Afghanistan remains a desperately poor country, ranked one of the most corrupt in the world.

The Taliban's control of the country may again see opium production cut, its brutal and undemocratic style of rule hardly augurs well for Afghanistan, as long as they are able to hold power. Who knows how long that will be and how its traditional opponents will react? Instability, oppression and violence are likely to continue for decades more.

What may be less obvious, especially to those Americans so eager to 'move on', is the damage this war has done around the world and back in America.

Consider the price New Zealand has paid for America's "little revenge". It's hardly a full list, but New Zealand lost 10 soldiers and spent around $300m in the Afghanistan war.

We stained our reputation in detaining dozens of Afghans and handing them over to the Americans to be tortured, in contradiction of the Geneva Conventions. The late David Beatson broke many stories on that issue on Pundit, as he struggled to get information from those in charge of the New Zealand Defence Force at the time, notably (now Sir) Jerry Mateparae and (now Mayor) Phil Goff. Both have done well since, but their reputations remain stained as well.

It's interesting to note that Goff at the time defended New Zealand's military involvement as a way to push back at the Taliban for the sake of Afghanistan's security and over time transform the country "from feudalism and anarchy to a modern 21st Century state". It seems those goals don't matter any more.

We conducted a now infamous raid that, while deemed 'justified', likely left an eight year-old girl (and at least seven others who may or may not have been insurgents) dead and saw NZDF leaders "mislead" "ministers and the public". We left behind unexploded ordinances that have killed or injured another 17 civilians. And now, in a final shameful twist, we've left behind people to whom we owe sanctuary. The list goes on. And it goes on around the world.

The "forever wars" spread like vines into Yemen, Syria and farther afield, causing more death and destruction.

Taliban forces (like these fighters shown in Kabul on 16 August) moved rapidly through Afghanistan's rural and northern areas and into to Kabul, which they took quickly on 15 August.

Taliban forces like these fighters shown in Kabul on 16 August moved rapidly through Afghanistan's rural and northern areas and into to Kabul, which they took quickly on 15 August. Photo: AFP

But what many Americans fail to appreciate is the damage their quest for revenge did to themselves. The damage to their own democracy, international reputation and way of life. Remember that from these wars stemmed Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, drone killings, mass surveillance, greater prejudice against Muslims, and more.

The demented Trump era had many parents, but this war must be seen as one of them. Part of his compelling argument as to why America needed to be made great again was based on America's failings and drifting sense of purpose in this unwinnable 'war on terror'. And because America succumbed to such bluster, other countries have followed suit.

The rise of authoritarian leaders in so many countries also has their roots in this mis-adventure.

And while it's obviously not over for Afghanistan, neither is it over for the US. Economically at least. You can think of the opportunity cost attached to the $2.3tn the US has spent in Afghanistan - the roads and bridges not repaired and built, the renewable energy plants, the schools, the hospitals, the diplomatic efforts elsewhere - all these things not invested in because of this war. But those are only the beginning.

Truman and Johnson raised taxes to pay for their wars. Bush cut taxes and borrowed, passing the bill to future generations. It's estimated America will pay another $6tn or more in interest on its war debt by 2050. Toss in another $1 to 2tn to care for its wounded and the families of the dead.

I touched on some of those costs when I wrote about the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2011. And on how effective these wars were at radicalising young Muslims, as we saw with the rise of ISIS and other groups. The Taliban has waited patiently, promised much and has now regained power, as it always said it inevitably would; now it's their turn to decide if they too will indulge in "a little revenge".

So as much as President Biden and so many Americans may wish it so, war in Afghanistan is not really over. The storm has not blown through, even after 20 years. The viper remains and this has not passed.

Even as this all started, Springsteen seemed to know we'd reach this day. His poetry of that moment captures the truth that perhaps there never is such a thing as "a little revenge". That retaliation can so easily become bigger and bleaker than the original sin. And we all pay the price for the fear and anger. The Boss ended Lonesome Day with this verse:

Better ask questions before you shoot

Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit

It's hard to swallow, come time to pay

That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away

Tragically, the right questions were never asked. The bitter fruit has been the world's to swallow and we continue to pay. The taste won't slip away for some time yet.

*Tim Watkin is a founder of political news website Pundit, has a long career in journalism and broadcasting, and now runs the Podcast team at RNZ.

-This article was originally published in Pundit.

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