The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

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SEPT 2022 Issue
Field Notes

Sandcastles: Afghanistan, One Year On

A symbolic twenty years after 9/11, the Biden administration formally ended the United States’ war in Afghanistan, withdrawing the last of its troops from the south-central Asian nation. Melancholy anniversaries serve as reminders of missed opportunities, and this one is no different. Here, however, blunders appear frivolous when compared to the extraordinary corruption and pitiless violence perpetrated by US-backed forces in the region. While much has been made of the shockingly haphazard exit, the ease with which the Taliban seized Kabul, and the grim prospects for women, for girls, and for Afghans who worked with coalition forces, the cardinal sin of the war was not how it ended, but how it began.

In retrospect, the September 11 attacks offered the United States a rare occasion to live up to its self-image as a democratic, upstanding nation by championing a diplomatic solution to the tragedy. Few would have objected; in fact, many nations rallied to support the US in its darkest hour. President George W. Bush instead sought brutal reprisals for anyone his administration deemed an “enemy of freedom.”1 The commander-in-chief inaugurated his globe-trotting quest in Afghanistan, christening the enterprise, “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Despite Bush’s insistence the war on terror would be “global” in nature, it quickly became clear that his administration’s eye for “enemies” was remarkably discriminating, as only a handful of countries, Afghanistan and Iraq top among them, were targeted at the expense of other, more egregious offenders: e.g. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism; the United Arab Emirates, a haven for terrorists looking to launder their money; or Pakistan, whose Inter-Services Intelligence agency sustains numerous close links to terrorist organizations. After al-Qaeda was routed from Afghanistan, scrutiny moved to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, even as the Salafi jihadist network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, remained at large. This short attention span—or at least the appearance of one—didn’t inspire confidence in Bush’s war on terror. Indeed, as the occupation of Iraq took hold, many criticized his administration for forgetting about Afghanistan, which was then deteriorating into a hopeless quagmire. Nearly two decades later, Bush’s war ranks as the US’s longest, and one of its most expensive, ringing in at more than $2.313 trillion.2 In the meantime, Bush’s larger war on terror has come to span at least eighty-five countries, each absorbed into the folds of US influence.3 “We will confront this mortal danger to all humanity,” Bush crowed at a 2005 speech in Norfolk, Virginia, “and we will not tire, and we will not rest until the war on terror is won.”4 For the Texan and his successors, the war on terror brought not victory, however, but decades of deceit.

For decades now, the United States has doled out its beloved brand of rough justice around the Greater Middle East. Afghanistan is only one of its theaters, but it is nonetheless an instructive one.

Everyone in charge of the war effort there, it seems—from four-star generals to ambassadors and senior White House officials—knew all along that their project was doomed from the start.5 Despite orchestrating pageantry for public consumption, behind closed doors few in the White House held any illusions about the prospect of victory, whatever that meant. “I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant, even before I went over,” Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill told federal interviewers, “and nobody could.”

For starters, few high-ups could clearly determine who the real “bad guys” were. Vicious warlords, drug lords, and pedophiles made up the ranks of our enemies—and our allies. At a more logistical level, however, the war effort exhibited a decided lack of planning, coordination, and strategy from start to finish, as investigative reporter Craig Whitlock exhaustively demonstrates in his Afghanistan Papers exposé. McNeill, who served as the commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, put it plainly: “there was no campaign plan.” He wasn’t alone in his assessment. British Gen. David Richards, leader of NATO forces from 2006 to 2007, Richard Boucher, a senior diplomat, Maj. Stephen Boesen, an officer in the Iowa National Guard, and many more harbored similar misgivings. But it was Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, White House “war czar” under Presidents Bush and Obama, who put it most elegantly. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” he said in an interview with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the oversight authority on all matters Afghanistan. Insisting he wasn’t being hyperbolic, he added, “it’s really much worse than you think.”6

As in the earlier adventure in Vietnam, only careful choreography over the course of three consecutive US administrations—two Republican and one Democratic—managed to maintain a façade of orderly conduct, steady progress, and ultimate triumph, cast eternally “just around the corner.”7

Until that collapsed. Cracks appeared as early as August 2009, when mistreatment of Afghan civilians by US forces was becoming too frequent and too obvious to ignore, and the number of dead US soldiers was becoming too large for Americans to stomach.8 But it was finally exhaustion, and not penance, that defined the growing disquiet among liberals and progressives who heaved sighs of relief at Biden’s eventual withdrawal.9 It is important to note, however, that Biden, himself a hardened imperialist, did not withdraw from the country of his own accord. Instead, the “empire politician,” as journalists at The Intercept dubbed him, merely kept the US end of Donald Trump’s much-derided 2020 deal with the Taliban, which secured a US withdrawal by May 2021 in return for the Taliban putting a stop to attacks on coalition forces.10 Indeed, the largely bipartisan objection to American involvement in the region lay not with Afghanistan per se, but rather with America’s “forever wars.”11

As many Americans turned against a war they had originally supported, they learned the hard way that conflicts, while easy to ignite, prove quite difficult to resolve. To complicate matters further, the official goalposts kept shifting: first, the war’s objective was to uproot al-Qaeda and, later, the Taliban, then it was to fortify women’s rights in Afghanistan, and finally it was to extinguish terrorism globally, while at the same time building impoverished, war-shattered Afghanistan into a modern, fully functional democracy. Achieving any one of these alone was next to impossible, never mind all four. The real aim of the war, however, the one hidden behind layers of deceit, was three-pronged: to enrich actors in the military-industrial complex, to resuscitate the global capitalist system, and to pursue, out of revenge for 9/11, a nation-building agenda in Afghanistan that would produce a terror-busting, pro-Washington central government in Kabul.

The first of these was certainly achieved. According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, Lockheed Martin received seventy-five billion dollars in Pentagon contracts in fiscal year 2020 alone.12 Four other corporations—Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman—took home comparable fortunes.

But what about the other two?

Take the second prong: resuscitating capitalism. By the late 1990s and the early 2000s, on the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan, the global capitalist system was floundering. The dot-com bubble had burst, a speculative attack on the Thai baht exploded into a financial crisis that tore across East and Southeast Asia from 1997 to 1999, and the September 9/11 attacks brought on a belated recession in the United States in 2001. Surplus capital was threatening to spill over into what Marxists call a “crisis of overaccumulation.”13

But capital has the peculiar ability to “[accumulate] through crises,” as sociologist William I. Robinson points out, and the wealthy and powerful know better than to let a good crisis go to waste.14 And so it was that after 9/11, with the global economy approaching stagnation, “the transnational capitalist class,” as Robinson dubs them, turned to the strong arm of the State for help in securing and stabilizing profit. In fortifying the State’s capacity for war-making and violence to secure capital accumulation, it becomes clear that “US interventionism” in places like Afghanistan and Iraq “is not a departure from capitalist globalization but a response to its crisis.” By this, Robinson does not mean only that interventions can force market liberalization, but also that interventions “are themselves markets and investment opportunities,” especially for the contractors who build the bases, staff the mess halls, procure the weaponry, and provide general support for the US military.15 Indeed, Afghanistan and Iraq were a boon for both capital and the American economy: in the late 1990s, national defense spending accounted for about 3 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product; by 2022, that number may reach over 10 percent.16

As for the United States’s nation-building agenda in Afghanistan, the pretext for the other two prongs, one need not look hard to find evidence of its abject failure. Almost immediately after the American withdrawal, Afghanistan’s beleaguered central government, for years propped up by the US, crumbled. Afghanistan had for years been skating on dangerously thin ice. Its leaders in Kabul, long bereft of popular support, struggled to retain a semblance of legitimacy in the face of Taliban encroachment. During the tenures of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, Kabul entrenched a deeply unpopular kleptocracy with the full knowledge and support of US leaders who sacrificed any hope of honest governance for the sake of illusory “security.”17 (Karzai had familial ties to the narcotics trade, as did many top officials in his governments, and Ghani, the country’s final president, allegedly fled the capital with “four cars and a helicopter full of cash” as the city fell.)18

But the rot of corruption spread well beyond the government corridors of Kabul. Like the British before them, US leaders “adopted a policy of paying off and co-opting local warlords and drug traffickers” across the country, according to historian Ali A. Olomi, contracting out the dirty work of provincial control to crooks like Mohammed Qasim Fahim Khan, a reviled Tajik tyrant, and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious Uzbek warlord credibly accused of war crimes and attempted rape of a political opponent.19 As these unscrupulous characters infiltrated seats of power—Dostum and Fahim Khan, for instance, both served as vice president of Afghanistan—the White House’s much-touted projects of social uplift stalled. This was always inevitable. No fledgling government with democratic hopes can survive unscathed or undamaged when poisoned by such extensive graft. Because typically American problems necessarily call for typically American solutions, Congress elected to throw hundreds of billions of dollars at the monster US officials created. To no avail. No amount of money could salvage the doomed ventures.

Neither could joint partnerships with European allies. Where coalition forces were concerned, attempts at reforming the Afghan justice system (helmed by Italy), police forces (by Germany), and narcotics industry (by the United Kingdom) flamed out in similarly spectacular fashion. As much as Rome and Washington tried, “none of [their reforms] could compete with Afghanistan’s informal system of justice, which relied on political connections, tribal affiliations and rampant bribery,” according to Craig Whitlock, an investigative journalist at The Washington Post.20 Formal law and order are, today, virtually nonexistent. Meanwhile, the German-trained Afghan police forces ended up tormenting the very people they swore oaths to protect. Extortion, bribery, and corruption ran rampant, as underpaid officers sought unconventional means to pad their pockets. It was a “mess,” one police chief admitted in mid-2019.21 As for the efficacy of narcotics interdiction, the British mandate, the numbers speak for themselves. According to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, poppy cultivation increased more than four-fold and opium production almost three-fold between 2002 and 2017.22

There is a lick of irony to this mess: in attempting to revamp Afghan society from the ground up, US and coalition forces grafted many of their country’s own problems onto Afghanistan. Take the police, jointly trained by the Germans and the Americans. While reporters at The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the New York Times, and New York Magazine reported on Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces, they paid little attention to the possibility that German and US forces may not be equipped to fulfill their duties.23 Or worse, they may have contributed to the troubles. For instance, in 2018, Germany faced a national reckoning with extreme-right and neo-Nazi infiltration of the highest echelons of its military and police.24 Likewise the United States, whose police departments are plagued with corruption, ties to domestic terror groups, and involvement in narcotics trafficking.25 Is it surprising, then, that corrupt German and American police forces did not uproot corruption from Afghan police departments?

Perhaps the most curious choice of all, however, was the one that put the United Kingdom in charge of curbing Afghanistan’s narcotics industry. After all, Britain “was built as a narco-empire,” according to historian Peter Frankopan.26 Indeed, during its imperial century (1815–1914), as Britain worked to pry open lucrative Chinese markets to Western trade, the empire was equally bent on protecting the interests of its drug smugglers who cultivated opium poppy in colonial Bengal and trafficked it for sale in Chinese markets. Mandarins in the Qing dynasty, at the same time, were attempting to suppress the drug trade, as opium addiction ravaged the nation’s social fabric. In response, Britain projected fearsome military might, running the Chinese blockade at Hong Kong’s Pearl River estuary and sending warships to the delta, thus sparking the first of two Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860).

Foreign meddling during the war in Afghanistan, hypocritical as it was, is not the only culprit that explains the country’s state today. Part of Afghanistan’s woes can also be traced to its postwar monetary policy. In the flurry of reports flowing out of the country late in 2021, it was revealed that Afghanistan doesn’t actually print its own currency. Instead, its central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank, contracts the work out to European institutions on whom the country is partially reliant for its money supply. Now, outsourcing money-printing doesn’t entail catastrophe per se: Finland, Denmark, and two-thirds of African nations do it.27 But in a deeply credit-poor society like Afghanistan, where cash is king, any drop in bank notes flowing through the country necessarily spells disaster for ordinary people.28 The situation would be compounded if, say, shipments of afghanis were blocked in any way, given the already-tenuous control the country holds over its currency. Indeed, the United Nations warned in March 2022 that Afghanistan risked “‘irreversible’ ruin” if drastic fiscal interventions and direct talks with the Taliban government were not undertaken with all possible speed.29

Instead, Western nations turned again to their weapon of choice whenever war is off the table: debilitating sanctions. The United States spearheaded the movement, targeting Taliban and Haqqani Network assets and freezing seven billion dollars in government reserves held in the New York Federal Reserve Bank. (Given that the Taliban function as the de facto government in Afghanistan, it is unclear whether sanctions extend to the Afghan government, the nation, or only named individuals.) As a result, Afghans face dangerously low liquidity. With precious little inflows of money to replenish withdrawals, ATMs remain empty and wait times for those queuing up at banks can last for hours. To make matters worse, government efforts to head off a run on deposits—placing a crushingly low limit on withdrawals, sometimes capped at two hundred dollars a week—and the general wariness of foreign financial institutions to risk extending lines of credit to the Taliban-aligned central bank have pushed the country towards insolvency.31 In practical terms, this cash squeeze means that ordinary Afghans, no matter their political persuasion, cannot access their own funds from personal accounts. To add insult to injury, President Biden commandeered half of the frozen assets of the country’s central bank as restitution for victims of 9/11, promising to somehow manage the remainder to eventually rebuild the nation.33 The legality of this move has been left unspecified. (As of this writing, the US has refused to release any money, citing concerns the money could be used to fund terrorism.34)

Sanctions also stymied the flow of foreign aid into the country, which before the Taliban takeover comprised a full 75 percent of the government’s public spending.32 Public funds, like private savings, simply evaporated. Initially, the sanctions were so cruel they did not carve out exemptions for nonprofits and NGOs to deliver food and other vital assistance. Mercifully, this has since been corrected with a half-dozen general licenses, but many of these organizations remain fearful of penalties they may incur in accidentally violating the sanctions. In spite of claims they are “targeted” to only affect Taliban leadership, economic pressures are building in Afghanistan, threatening to push the already economically stressed region towards catastrophe.30 News agencies, government offices, writers, and novelists alike had warned about the inherent fragility of the Afghan economy since at least 2001—not to mention their exhaustive reporting on the cruelty, imprecision, and utter ineffectiveness of sanctions themselves—but their words have gone unheeded.35 The admixture of self-interested politicking and staggering arrogance that suffused the halls of 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue fed into a general indifference to Afghan lives. So American leaders implemented a punishing sanctions regime, despite knowing full well its dire effects.

Across the rugged Hindu Kush, horrific decisions have had to be made in order to make ends meet. Afghan families, many facing crushing poverty with their country’s economy in free-fall, are sometimes left with few options besides selling their child daughters for measly dowry payouts in the hopes of avoiding starvation, a fate threatening 95 percent of the population.36 Many of the young girls not facing subjection as “slaves” in arranged marriages have been out of school since August 2021, when the Taliban announced a moratorium on girls attending school from grades seven through twelve.37 Afghans who manage to flee often fare no better. Refugees escaping to Iran, generally via Turkey, risk mistreatment at the hands of both the Iranian police and Iranian citizens as Sunnis in Shī‘a-majority Iran.

Others turn to the black market for salvation. The Afghan drug trade, long an object of fruitless Western reform, has enjoyed booming successes in the two decades following the US invasion, notwithstanding recent Taliban attempts to curb it.38 After formally banning the poppy harvest in April 2022, the Taliban now faces an explosion in ephedra operations. Once “considered a practically worthless mountain shrub,” the plant these days represents a kind of economic deliverance, providing as it does a source of methamphetamine’s key stimulant ingredient and, consequently, a source of income for cash-strapped farmers.39 While the country still produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, reporters at Vice found Afghan meth cropping up in drug supplies from Iraq to South Africa to Indonesia, with some reaching as far as Australia, a marker of its international reach. Closer to home, meth dealers are “free to ply their trade” in the bazaars of western Afghanistan, as with opium before it.40 Digging into reporting on the shrub, its rise comes as no shock: it is easier to grow than labor-intensive poppy; it allows drug-lords to simplify the normally complex process of making meth; it produces the drug at a fraction of the price to traditional methods; and, finally, it may avoid competition with local poppy farmers, cutting down on turf wars. This semi-synthetic meth, in tandem with opium, only conspires to turbo-charge Afghanistan’s collapse into narco-statehood.

Perhaps the Taliban’s promise to ban opium, like their promise to keep girls in school, will amount to little more than lip service. Or perhaps, like the Taliban’s largely successful ban on poppy from 2000 to 2001, we will witness a last ditch effort by the regime to rescue itself from pariah status on the global stage.

In spite of a formal end to armed conflict in the country, Commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., speaking to the House Armed Services Committee Hearing on Afghanistan Withdrawal in late September 2021, declared that the US is “always going to reserve the right to go in and to go after ISIS and Al Qaeda targets as they present themselves.”41 President Biden made good on this threat in next to no time.

In the early morning hours of July 31, 2022, the Central Intelligence Agency fired two Hellfire missiles on a lone house in downtown Kabul. The victim of the drone strike was the emir of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s protégé, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was living in the city, officially unbeknownst to Taliban leadership, waiting to be reunited with his family. His assassination made headlines and garnered a lot of press coverage. Yet beyond a superficial interest, remarkably few Americans paid much attention to the killing at all. There were no celebrations of the type that occurred when bin Laden was dispatched by Navy SEALs in 2011, no tense photo from the Situation Room, no pomp. Al-Zawahiri was not a figure of comparable status as bin Laden, of course: he did not inspire anything approaching the level of loathing his Saudi predecessor did. Though al-Zawahiri ranked as one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists, there appears to have been other forces at play in the decision to kill him and publicize the effort.

For one, political expediency may have played a role, with Biden no doubt looking to boost his sagging approval ratings. Six days before the assassination, FiveThirtyEight found that an astonishing 57.1 percent of Americans did not approve of Biden’s performance: a higher disapproval rating than any president since Harry Truman has had at the same point in their presidency.42 For another, there was likely a focus on this particular drone strike for a simpler, more fundamental reason: amid dozens of reports of military debacles, this one was an unequivocal success.

The assassination of al-Zawahiri was clean, almost surgical in its precision. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of many other US airstrikes in Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East, which are marked by a conspicuous absence of due care and attention. In a New York Times investigation into how the US has conducted itself in its overseas wars, reporter Azmat Khan uncovered a years-long pattern of gross malfeasance, undiluted contempt for foreign civilians, and a rock-ribbed refusal to admit wrongdoing in the way the military conducts its air wars.43 She found that “customers” (those tasked with selecting the targets of an airstrike, be they C.I.A., a ground force commander, or a classified Special Operations unit) often viewed the ordinary goings-on of Afghans—as well as Pakistanis and Syrians—through the most incriminating light possible. Their every move became suspicious, evidence of terrorist ties. “Evidence” quickly transformed into “proof,” as those under surveillance were summarily placed in line for execution. Data were selectively chosen—or selectively ignored—to best confirm the “customer’s” wishes and meet their demands. The presence of children in the vicinity of a strike, in some cases, did not stop the drone teams from pulling the proverbial trigger on a target. Neither did first responders rushing to tend to the wounded.44 They were killed, too—as the military determined this behavior to be typical of ISIS fighters and not of medics. This tendency to search for or interpret data in a way that confirms one’s already-held beliefs is what scholars in the social sciences call “confirmation bias.” It is the hallmark of sloppy, slapdash analysis. The habit, however, proved especially difficult to uproot in the high-stakes situations of US war-making, and no major shifts in procedure were implemented despite the growing chorus of concerns over civilian casualties.

This is of a piece with the military’s general attitude, for a disregard of human life is baked into its culture. Institutional norms encourage reckless violence for the sake of careerism. In his reporting, journalist Andrew Cockburn found that the calculus was as clinical as it was blunt: if you want to climb the ranks, the more strikes the better. As one US officer explained to Cockburn, “if you call in an airstrike, not only do you get a combat ribbon and possibly an award for valor, but it also makes your report a combat report. When you have multiple combat reports and others do not, you’re more competitive for promotion and assignment to prestigious billets.”45 Matters of personal career advancement and job security, thus, overrode the stated goal of winning hearts and minds with alarming regularity.

Bad intel and problematic incentives invariably accelerate civilian death, despoliation of cities, and, in the end, the evisceration of societies.46 Iraq counts between 220,637 and 248,845 dead—civilians and opposition fighters alike–as a result of US intervention in the country.47 Commenting on these figures, scholars at Brown University write that “the US invasion,” dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom by Bush, “turned the country into a laboratory in which militant groups such as Islamic State have been able to hone their techniques of recruitment and violence.” Syria, for its part, lies in almost total ruin. Likewise the bodies of many of its citizens: 30,000 are maimed each month as its brutal civil war drags on.48 Without a functional justice system, alleged war crimes go unpunished. In Raqqa alone, a city on the north bank of the Euphrates, the US-led coalition is implicated in the deaths of over 1,600 civilians.49 The toll in Afghanistan hovers around 184,400 people. On top of this staggering figure, experts believe that ten million landmines stud the country’s landscape, periodically maiming innocents. In fact, Afghanistan holds the dubious distinction of being the third most mined country in the world.50

Impunity magnifies the worst aspects of the already gruesome enterprise of war. Its constitutive parts, say the United States’s “kill chain,” only serve to belabor the point. All wars rely on death-dealing bureaucracies tasked with deciding who lives and who dies in so many far-flung corners on Earth. For the United States, attention has for the last few decades been focused in particular on the Greater Middle East. Yet for all their power and influence, key players inside these shadowy bureaucracies seem to answer to no one. And they are steadfastly resistant to change, no matter how horrific their actions: sixty children killed in a 2008 US airstrike in Azizabad, Herat Province; the murder of at least eighty-six women and children in an airstrike in Granai Village to the northwest of Kandahar in 2009; the 2015 airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, killing forty-two civilians; forty partygoers killed at a wedding in Helmand Province in 2019; a family of ten, including seven children, all killed by a Reaper drone in Kabul in one of the Biden administration’s last moves before the withdrawal.51 Accountability is everywhere conspicuously absent; business continues as usual.

Indeed, in many cases, the rules of war appear to exist not as protection for foreign civilians, but as armor against claims of US war crimes. The guidelines associated with America’s air wars “seemed to function,” as Khan discovered in her reporting, “almost by design to not only mask the true toll of American airstrikes but also legitimize their expanded use” in part by providing “psychological comfort to those who must make the decisions.”52 Military officials and politicians alike consequently grow complacent with unconscionable civilian death, inured to the mounting casualty counts across the Greater Middle East. And all the while, nothing is said to be done.

Does the United States care about the victims of its air wars?

Zemari Ahmadi was killed by a US drone strike eleven months ago in Kabul.53 He was an aid worker, a long-time employee of a California-based nonprofit, Nutrition and Education International, and was, that August afternoon, on his way home from work. His car was loaded with plastic jerry cans that US intelligence misidentified as explosives acquired from an ISIS safe house. The containers, it turns out, were filled with water, and Ahmadi was carting them home to his family in Khwaja Burgha, a residential neighborhood then suffering a mean, protracted drought. (Afghanistan is one of the most water-stressed regions on Earth.) His family would have no water that day. They wouldn’t need any. For a Reaper drone would kill them all.

Just over three months later, the New York Times reported that “No U.S. Troops Will Be Punished for Deadly Kabul Strike.”54

The killing of al-Zawahiri suggests that, much as the government and the press may wish, the history of Afghanistan and of the United States’s global air wars cannot simply be tipped into oblivion. Afghanistan today is facing what Mona Juul, Norway’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, designates “one of the world’s most rapidly growing humanitarian crises.”55 The country is indeed in dire straits. Its starving millions exemplify the struggles of many disposable populations in an increasingly ungovernable world-system. Afghans vacillate between identities as ethnic minorities, undocumented refugees, victims of kleptocracy, the poverty-stricken, the dispossessed. They are stuck in limbo as a once-unipolar world led exclusively by the United States, their occupier, dissolves into multi-polarity. It remains to be seen who will come out on top. What is clear, though, is the fact that Afghanistan represents only one gigantic failure in the US’s ongoing attempt to maximize its dominion over global affairs. This latest failure reinforces claims that American power is dwindling. There are lessons to be learned here, but if the current political landscape in American is representative, it seems doubtful US leaders will put these lessons to work.

It would be hard, but they could start small—with a short lesson in etymology. Scholars in the 1800s liked to refer to Afghanistan by a nickname: “The Graveyard of Empires.” Here, they told anyone who would listen, was where great powers were finally laid to rest, buried on the land of an indomitable people. The name stuck for good reason. No modern military power has managed to fully conquer the landlocked region: not the British Empire (1839–42; 1878–80; 1919), not the Soviet Union (1979–89), not the United States (2001–21). Though the nickname originates in the 19th and 20th centuries, more significance attaches to it with each passing decade. All three invaders, for example, knew about this name. It was shared in countless books, in lecture halls, on the radio, and on television. Yet each believed they could pull off a victory. In due time, the British, the Soviets, and the Americans all ended their wars with little to show for it, save for their own plot in Afghanistan’s graveyard.

Matthew Byrne is a writer and translator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared, or will soon, in Guernica, Current Affairs magazine, Gulf Coast, West Branch, and others.


  1. CNN. “Transcript of Bush Speech – Dec 14, 2005,” December 14, 2005.
  2. Brown University. “Human and Budgetary Costs to Date of the U.S. War in Afghanistan, 2001–2022 | Figures | Costs of War.” The Costs of War, August 2021. .
  3. Landler, Mark. “20 Years On, the War on Terror Grinds Along, With No End in Sight.” The New York Times, September 11, 2021.
  4. Bush, George W. “Remarks on the War on Terror in Norfolk, Virginia | The American Presidency Project.” The American Presidency Project, October 28, 2005.
  5. Whitlock, Craig. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War. The Washington Post Books, 2021.
  6. Ibid. 109, xv, 105, 110, 110.
  7. Kudo, Timothy. “Opinion | I Was a Marine in Afghanistan. We Sacrificed Lives for a Lie.” The New York Times, August 16, 2021.
  8. Agiesta, Jennifer. “Behind the Numbers - On Afghanistan, a Negative Shift.” The Washington Post, May 9, 2010. Phillips, Amber. “Analysis | When and How Americans Started Souring on the War in Afghanistan.” Washington Post, August 19, 2021. Steinhauser, Paul. “Poll: Support for Afghan War at All-Time Low - CNN.Com,” September 15, 2009.
  9. Intercepted. “The Long-Lasting Consequences of the War on Terror.” The Intercept, September 1, 2021.
  10. Scahill, Jeremy. “Empire Politician: A Half-Century of Joe Biden’s Stances on War, Militarism, and the CIA.” The Intercept, April 27, 2021. Al Jazeera. “US General Says Afghanistan Collapse Rooted in Trump-Taliban Deal.” Al Jazeera, September 30, 2021.
  11. Epstein, Reid J., and Catie Edmondson. “On Afghanistan, G.O.P. Assails the Pullout It Had Supported Under Trump.” The New York Times, September 1, 2021.
  12. Hartung, William D. “The Profits of War: Corporate Beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 Pentagon Spending Surge.” The Costs of War Project, September 13, 2019.
  13. Overaccumulation is a situation when, generally speaking, surplus capital searches for but cannot find a profitable place to go. Take cash savings as an (admittedly oversimplified) example. In the early 2000s, central banks faced a problem of excess liquidity: the fortunes of billionaires and multi-millionaires often just sat in the Federal Reserve gathering dust, rather than being used productively to, say, purchase commodities, pay an employee’s salary, invest in infrastructure projects, etc. This money (“money capital,” for Marxists) might not return to circulation and simply stay in a central bank, where all surplus liquidity stays. This is a problem because institutions will often look for ways to quickly offload the money (short-term government securities, stock buybacks, or dividends to shareholders), but new money can still pour in faster than it can ever be spent.
  14. Robinson, William I. Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2014,. 154. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador, 2008.
  15. Robinson, Global Capitalism, 123 (stagnation), 103 (“is not a departure…”), and 151–152 (“are themselves markets and investment opportunities). This is part of a larger pattern critical to understanding state-building in recent decades: even, perhaps especially, for those nominally opposed to “big government”—neocons, libertarians, and the like—actually make the state larger in the name of shrinking it. In fact, and regardless of party affiliation or rhetorical claims to the contrary, all politicians grow the parts of the state that they like (e.g. federal law enforcement agencies, the Armed Forces, the Department of Defense) and let the ones they don’t like (e.g. federal regulatory agencies, public infrastructure, public education, public housing, Social Security, welfare, Medicare) wither. (For full treatment, see Gilmore, Ruth Wilson, and Craig Gilmore. “Beyond Bratton.” In Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton. New York: Verso, 2016.)
  16. O’Hanlon, Michael E. “Defense Budgets and American Power.” Brookings (blog), December 3, 2010. Cypher, James M. “The Political Economy of Systemic U.S. Militarism.” Monthly Review (blog), April 1, 2022.
  17. Michel, Casey. “Opinion | America Turned a Blind Eye to Afghan Corruption. It Backfired Spectacularly.” NBC News, August 22, 2021.
  18. Cockburn, Andrew. The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine. Verso Books, 2021. Ahmed, Azam. “Tasked With Combating Opium, Afghan Officials Profit From It.” The New York Times, February 15, 2016. Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse. “Afghan President ‘Fled with Cars and Helicopter Full of Cash.’” South China Morning Post, August 17, 2021.
  19. For Olomi: Olomi, Ali A. “Perspective | The U.S. Replicated Crucial Flaws from the Past in Afghanistan.” Washington Post. Accessed August 14, 2022. For Fahim Khan: Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, passim. 115-127. For Dostum: Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, 115–116, and Mashal, Mujib. “‘No Shame’: Afghan General’s Victory Lap Stuns a Victim of Rape.” The New York Times, August 7, 2018,
  20. Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, 260.
  21. Shalizi, Hamid. “New Commander Takes on Corruption ‘Mess’ in Afghan Police.” Reuters, June 4, 2019.
  22. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2017: Cultivation and Production.” Type. Place: United Nations, November 2017.
  23. Danner, Chas. “Why Afghanistan’s Security Forces Suddenly Collapsed.” Intelligencer, August 17, 2021. Ehsanullah, Amiri, and Jessica Donati. “Taliban Fighters Infiltrate Afghan Army Base, Kill More Than 100.” WSJ, April 22, 2017. Nordland, Rod, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “Spies, Stealth and Threats: How Militants Infiltrated a Vital Army Base.” The New York Times, May 15, 2019. Shalizi, Hamid. “Afghan Army Says Taliban Infiltration Very Sophisticated.” Reuters, March 3, 2012.
  24. Bennhold, Katrin, Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Kaitlin Roberts, Larissa Anderson, and Mike Benoist. “Day X.” Day X. Accessed August 14, 2022.
  25. Jones, Seth G., and Catrina Doxsee. “The Military, Police, and the Rise of Terrorism in the United States,” April 12, 2021. U.S. Department of Justice. “Law Enforcement: Information on Drug-Related Police Corruption | Office of Justice Programs.” Office of Justice Programs - US Department of Justice, May 1998.
  26. Frankopan, Peter. “A Tale of Two Addictions.” The Spectator, August 2018.
  27. Lawal, Shola. “Why Africa Prints Money in Europe.” Deutsche Welle., March 24, 2022.
  28. Boghani, Priyanka. “How Frozen Assets & Foreign Aid Is Impacting Afghanistan.” FRONTLINE, October 12, 2021.
  29. United Nations. “To Avert ‘Irreversible’ Damage in Afghanistan, International Community Must Engage with Country’s De Facto Authorities, Mission Head Tells Security Council | UN Press.”, March 2, 2022.
  30. Weisbrot, Matt. “US Sanctions on Afghanistan Could Be Deadlier than 20 Years of War.” Center for Economic and Policy Research (blog), February 4, 2022.
  31. Stancati, Margherita Stancati. “The Cash Some Afghans Desperately Need Is Trapped in Their Bank Accounts.” The Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2022.
  32. Boghani. “How Frozen Assets & Foreign Aid Is Impacting Afghanistan.” 2021.
  33. McCarthy, Joe. “Biden to Use $3.5 Billion in Frozen Afghan Assets for Humanitarian Relief.” Global Citizen, February 11, 2022. Ahlman, Austin. “Biden’s Decision on Frozen Afghanistan Money Is Tantamount to Mass Murder.” The Intercept, February 22, 2022.
  34. Baker, Peter. “U.S. Will Not Release $3.5 Billion in Frozen Afghan Funds for Now, Citing Terror Fears.” The New York Times, August 15, 2022, sec. U.S.
  35. For those who issued warnings, see Amis, Martin. “Fear and Loathing.” The Guardian, September 18, 2001.; Guardian Staff and Agencies. “Kabul at a Glance.” The Guardian, November 13, 2001.; Roy, Arundhati. “The Algebra of Infinite Justice.” The Guardian, September 29, 2001.; and Department for International Development. “Country Programme Evaluation Afghanistan,” May 2009. For scholarship and reporting on sanctions, see Mulder, Nicholas. The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2022; Pape, Robert A. “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work.” International Security 22, no. 2 (1997): 90–136.; and Henderson, David R. “Why Economic Sanctions Don’t Work.” Hoover Institution, October 30, 1998.
  36. The Associated Press. “Parents Selling Children Shows Desperation in Afghanistan.” NPR, December 31, 2021. Au, Bonnie. “Severe Starvation in Afghanistan.” South China Morning Post, September 24, 2021.
  37. Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Afghans ‘Marry off’ Girls, ‘Promise Babies’ for Dowries as Starvation Looms.” South China Morning Post, November 23, 2021. Barr, Heather. “Taliban Close Girls’ Secondary Schools in Afghanistan, Again.” Human Rights Watch (blog), March 23, 2022.
  38. Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, passim 129–141 and 253–262.
  39. Vorobyov, Niko. “Plant-Based Meth From Afghanistan Is Turning Up All Over the World.” Vice World News, June 16, 2021.
  40. Tugnoli, Lorenzo. “The Drug Trade Now Flourishing in Afghanistan: Meth.” Washington Post. Accessed August 14, 2022.
  41. “Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Afghanistan Withdrawal.” Washington, D.C: C-SPAN, September 28, 2021.
  42. Silver, Nate, Aaron Bycoffe, and Dhrumil Mehta. “How Popular Is Joe Biden?” FiveThirtyEight, August 14, 2022.
  43. Khan, Azmat. “The Civilian Casualty Files.” The New York Times, 2022 2021.
  44. Levenson, Michael. “What to Know About the Civilian Casualty Files.” The New York Times, December 18, 2021. Mazzarino, Andrea. “War Is a Form of Terrorism.” The Nation, June 2, 2022.
  45. Cockburn. The Spoils of War,. 189–190.
  46. Khan, Azmat. “Hidden Pentagon Records Reveal Patterns of Failure in Deadly Airstrikes.” The New York Times, December 18, 2021. Khan, Azmat, and Anand Gopal. “The Uncounted – The New York Times.” The New York Times, November 16, 2017.
  47. Brown University Costs of War Project. “Human Costs.” The Costs of War Project, August 2021.
  48. Shahabi, Saeed, Dimitrios Skempes, et al. “Nine Years of War and Internal Conflicts in Syria: A Call for Physical Rehabilitation Services.” Disability & Society 36, no. 3 (March 16, 2021): 508–12.
  49. Amnesty International, and Airwars. 2019. “Unprecedented Investigation Reveals US-Led Coalition Killed More than 1,600 Civilians in Raqqa ‘Death Trap.’” Amnesty International. April 25, 2019.
  50. “Facts about Landmines.” Accessed August 14, 2022.
  51. For Azizabad: Human Rights Watch. “Afghanistan: US Investigation of Airstrike Deaths ‘Deeply Flawed.’” Human Rights Watch (blog), January 15, 2009. Granai: Filkins, Dexter. “U.S. Tightens Airstrike Policy in Afghanistan.” The New York Times, June 22, 2009. For Kunduz: Médecins Sans Frontières. “On 3 October 2015, US Airstrikes Destroyed Our Trauma Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Killing 42 People.” Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International, N/A. For Helmand: Stanekzai, Mohammed, and Abdul Qadir Sediqi. “At Least 40 Civilians at Wedding Party Killed during Nearby U.S.-Backed Afghan Army Raid.” Reuters, September 23, 2019. For Kabul: The New York Times. How a U.S. Drone Strike Killed the Wrong Person in Afghanistan. Visual Investigations. New York, NY, 2021.
  52. Khan, Azmat. “The Human Toll of America’s Air Wars.” The New York Times, December 20, 2021.
  53. The New York Times. How a U.S. Drone Strike Killed the Wrong Person in Afghanistan.
  54. Schmitt, Eric. “No U.S. Troops Will Be Punished for Deadly Kabul Strike, Pentagon Chief Decides.” The New York Times, December 13, 2021.
  55. United Nations. “To Avert ‘Irreversible’ Damage in Afghanistan, ….” March 2, 2022.


Matthew Byrne

is a writer and translator based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

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