US Marines observe an area from a school building in the Golestan district of Farah province, Afghanistan, May 1, 2009. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)
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Will the US still be meddling in Afghanistan thirty years from now? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.
Since the 1950s, the US has been trying to mold that remote land to its own desires, first through an aid “war” in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; then, starting as the 1970s ended, an increasingly bitter and brutally hot proxy war with the Soviets meant to pay them back for supporting America’s enemies during the war in Vietnam. One bad war leads to another.
From then until the early 1990s, Washington put weapons in the hands of Islamic fundamentalist extremists of all sorts—thought to be natural, devoutly religious allies in the war against “godless communism”—gloated over the Red Army’s defeat and the surprising implosion of the Soviet empire, and then experienced its own catastrophic blowback from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. After fifty years of scheming behind the scenes, the US put boots on the ground in 2001 and now, twelve years later, is still fighting there—against some Afghans on behalf of other Afghans while training Afghan troops to take over and fight their countrymen, and others, on their own.
Through it all, the US has always claimed to have the best interests of Afghans at heart—waving at various opportune moments the bright flags of modernization, democracy, education, or the rights of women. Yet today, how many Afghans would choose to roll back the clock to 1950, before the Americans ever dropped in? After twelve years of direct combat, after thirty-five years of arming and funding one faction or another, after sixty years of trying to remake Afghanistan to serve American aims, what has it all meant? If we ever knew, we’ve forgotten. Weary of official reports of progress, Americans tuned out long ago.
Back in 1991, as Steve Coll reports in Ghost Wars, an unnamed CIA agent mentioned the war in Afghanistan to President George H.W. Bush. Not long before, he had okayed the shipment of Iraqi weaponry captured in the first Gulf War—worth $30 million—to multiple factions of Islamist extremists then battling each other and probably using those secondhand Iraqi arms to destroy Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Still, Bush seemed puzzled by the CIA man’s question about the war. He reportedly asked, “Is that thing still going on?”