Current Affairs History Military Politics

How The United States’ Both Destroyed And Saved The Taliban

Taliban fighters surrender their arms, Afghanistan
Taliban fighters surrender their arms, Afghanistan

In the latter half of 2001 the United States of America, supported by Britain, and later in co-operation with a resurgent United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (the so-called Northern Alliance), went to war with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban-governed state which controlled roughly four-fifths of the mountain-locked country. In a mere matter of months the theocratic administration of Mullah Mohammed Omar Mujahid was gone, its loyalists dead, imprisoned or on the run, its followers dispersed back to their towns and villages, and the general population more or less resigned to the new dispensation brought by the invaders – bought foreign and domestic – after several decades of conflict. Despite perfunctory armed resistance to the new International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by remnants of the old regime, as well as far more numerous internecine clashes between local political and communal rivals, not to mention ISAF’s pursuit of the utterly demoralised Al-Qaeda, by early 2002 there seemed some justification for optimism. Of course that wasn’t to last, as Tom Engelhardt explains:

“The other day, as I was reading through the New York Times, I came upon this headline: “Powerful Afghan Police Chief Killed in Kabul.” His name was Matiullah Khan.  He had once been “an illiterate highway patrol commander” in an obscure southern province of Afghanistan and was taken out in a “targeted suicide bombing” on the streets of the capital — and I realized that I knew him!  Since I’ve never been within a few thousand miles of Kabul, I certainly didn’t know him in the normal sense. I had, you might say, edited Matiullah Khan. He was one of a crop of new warlords who rose to wealth and power by hitching their ambitions to the American war and the U.S. military personnel sent to their country to fight it.  Khan, in particular, made staggering sums by essentially setting up an “Afghan Blackwater,” a hire-a-gun — in fact, so many guns — protection agency for American convoys delivering supplies to far-flung U.S. bases and outposts in southern Afghanistan.

He became the protector and benefactor of a remarkable Afghan woman who is a key character in Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, which I edited and published in the American Empire Project series I co-run for Metropolitan Books. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Gopal covered the Afghan War for years in a way no other Western journalist did. He spent time with crucial allies of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with a Taliban commander, with warlords and American Special Ops guys, politicians and housewives. He traveled rural Afghanistan as few American reporters were capable of doing.  In the process, he made a discovery that was startling indeed and has yet to really sink in here.

In a nutshell, in 2001, the invading Americans put al-Qaeda to flight and crushed the Taliban.  From most of its top leadership to its foot soldiers, the Talibs were almost uniformly prepared, even eager, to put down their weapons, go back to their villages, and be left in peace. In other words, it was all over. There was just one problem. The Americans, on Washington’s mission to win the Global War on Terror, just couldn’t stop fighting. In their inability to grasp the situation, they essentially forced the Taliban back onto the battlefield and so created an insurgency and a war that they couldn’t win.”

Read the whole entry on Tom’s Dispatch.

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