How to Dig an Imperial War Grave

By Shona McCallum

Afghanistan is often described as ‘the graveyard of empires’. The epithet was generated from a repeated pattern of global powers attempting military invasion, occupation, and restructuring in the country but eventually retreating, defeated, without having met such aims. Arguably, Afghanistan’s extreme underdevelopment and unrelenting state of conflict find their origins here too – this history of suffering and stunting has buried many more Afghans than foreigners. This repetition has occurred once again; the saying re-emerging as an apt epitaph for US intervention in the nation – seen in the form of war and aid. As the last US soldiers withdraw from the country – one which has taken a mere weeks to collapse following the official withdrawal of the military from the country – surveying the US’s role historically within the country is more imperative than ever to understand how they have dug Afghanistan’s grave.

Afghanistan was the first ‘war on terror’, with US and UK forces invading the nation shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The aim of the ironically titled ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ was to prevent Afghanistan functioning as a training ground for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Within a month, the Taliban fled Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, under darkness. By the end of the year, the total defeat of the Taliban seemed to vindicate US intervention. 

The following year a defiant George Bush, speaking to the US military, acknowledged the history of foreign involvement in Afghanistan was “one of initial success followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure”.  He promised “we’re not going to repeat that mistake.”

Today, however, these words prove chillingly foreboding. Following 2001, public and political opinion was divided between the new-found responsibility for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, and a punish and leave approach. A NYT article from 2001 feared a “military quagmire” in Afghanistan reminiscent of Vietnam, proving prescient. Buoyed by early success, however, George Bush pledged to “rebuild” a democratic government and liberal society in Afghanistan with humanitarian aid – an aspiration which now seems hopelessly deluded. Thus, a NATO-led group of militaries and NGOs embarked on an improbable combination of sustained military resistance to the Taliban (war), and optimistic nation-building (aid). 

These contradictions quickly developed problems. As the war stagnated and development projects ground along, US administrations were caught-up in crippling indecision. The impossibilities which arose in 2002 as the dust of the original invasion settled – to continue a costly, difficult military occupation or to attempt humanitarian restructuring of an impoverished nation – hung over an entrenched, attritional war. From these morphed the problem: did continued US presence and war do more harm than good? Paradoxically, under Obama administration in 2011, aid flows and US troop levels both peaked, at $6.7bn and 110,000 personnel. The blustering, unplanned invasion led to over-zealous, unplanned reconstruction efforts for Afghanistan’s war-torn infrastructure, institutions, and society – then paralysis. 

More recent events show the awful effects of this. In 2020, the US’s Trump administration and Taliban agreed on a controversial deal: the US to leave Afghanistan completely by September 2021 and the Taliban to no longer train or support terrorists. In line with this agreement, the Biden administration pulled troops out of Afghanistan in July 2021. Despite the disastrous manner of leaving, Biden defended the decision, denying nation-building was ever an aim, and dismissing the conflict as “Afghanistan’s civil war”. A mere month after American troops left, a triumphant Taliban returned to Kabul on August 15th 2021, jubilantly bearing left-over American weapons, in broad-daylight – a reversed repetition of twenty years prior. 

The war ended in failure, and aid did not fare much better. Between 2001-2019, Afghanistan received $76.1bn in aid. Estimates suggest 80% was ‘targeted’ to short-term military and security spending in the 5 most conflict-ridden provinces. A US government report found that 30-40% of aid was lost to waste, fraud, or abuse. Endemic corruption in the Afghan government (ranked 165 out of 178 countries) meant money dissipated. Even where aid made it to projects, donor mismanagement often meant little impact, such as building schools in rural areas where there were no teachers. 

Economically, Afghanistan remains reliant on opiate and mineral exportation, with the small $15billion increase in GDP since 2001 mainly attributed to NGO activity. Socially, illiteracy remains at around 60% and 60/1000 babies die before their fifth birthday (World Bank). There are thought to be 2.6 million Afghan refugees worldwide, with upwards of 389,000 internally displaced people. It is thought that 241,000 Afghans were killed directly in the war since 2001. 

These are the statistical outcomes of America’s war in Afghanistan – which cost a reported $1trillion, over 2,300 soldier lives, and saw defence contractors such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Blackwater profit vastly while committing war crimes against Afghan civilians – after two decades of misguided intervention and imperialism. 

With hind-sight US involvement seems a rash and short-sighted reaction to the terrorist threat, a fleeting glimpse of might and righteousness. Pursued purportedly along the lines of emotive ideals like democracy, freedom, and women’s rights, events in Afghanistan only expose that occupation never brings liberation, and war never brings peace. Of course, after the West’s first nebulous ‘war on terror’, a similarly blunt military and security campaign multiplied these complex and devastating impacts across the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. Perhaps the lesson against military intervention and nation-building will be acknowledged, amended, and laid to rest, or perhaps it will re-emerge, unheeded from Afghanistan’s doomed imperial graveyard.

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