"Farm boys with guns." That’s how then Captain Sjursen described average Taliban fighters while serving in Kandahar province. I was speaking to a Reuters reporter that shadowed me for a few days – since I was a New Yorker – to mark the then 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks way back in 2011. Much to the chagrin of my commanders, I was just frustrated enough, and had buried just enough troopers to give the reporter a real story. "When I see this place, I don’t see the [Twin] Towers," I’d said when asked about the connection between 9/11 and my own mission in Afghanistan during the Obama "surge." I was right then, but even now, eight more years into America’s longest war, the same old tired arguments are trotted out to justify perpetual military intervention.
Once upon a time, the Taliban regime had harbored Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. That much is certain. However, the myth that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are one and the same, and that U.S. military withdrawal would inevitably transform Afghanistan back into a transnational terrorist "safe haven" is problematic and easily discredited. Nonetheless, that very argument was, and still is, used as a cudgel by prominent civil and military leaders – from President Obama to General Petraeus – to vindicate what amounts to forever war.
For example, in an absurd stretch of the English language, Petraeus recently penned an editorial asserting that withdrawal from Afghanistan is still “premature.” If Trump pulls the troops out, so the failed general argued, Al Qaeda will return, a new Islamic State caliphate will rise, and terror attacks planned in Afghan caves will again strike the heart of America. Simple, uncomplicated, without nuance – it’s an argument fitting for what passes as strategic thinking in today’s military and the Washington beltway.
Problem is, there’s scant evidence that the rationalization holds any real water. It conflates the Taliban with Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda with Islamic State, and ignores some key realities about (the now deceased) Bin Laden’s historical relationship with the Taliban leadership. To begin with, even analysts at West Point’s Combating Terror Center – far from a bastion of antiwar thought – have noted that Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban was always "contentious," and characterized by "distrust and divergent ambitions." Bin Laden’s 9/11 scheme destroyed everything the Taliban movement had fought so long and hard for by causing a US military invasion, and it’s difficult to imagine a revitalized Taliban would want to precipitate a repeat performance.
Furthermore, while the (also now deceased) Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar did indeed push back at the U.S. demand to immediately turn over Bin Laden in 2001, Washington hardly gave Omar much time before unleashing the bombing, and never took seriously hints that Taliban leaders might actually be willing to negotiate. No, in the heated weeks after the shocking 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush would get his war, one way or the other. Too many Americans demanded revenge, and too many of the neoconservatives in the administration relished the opportunity to use the tragic attacks to unleash their existing plans for military intervention across the Greater Middle East.
There are plenty of other problems with the "safe haven" myth and its justification of endless war. The Taliban have always had a rather localized perspective focused primarily on ruling Afghanistan itself. Most of the fighters opposing my troops were indeed wildly provincial, unable even to write their names, identify other countries on a map, or recall what year they were born. And, in somewhat promising "peace talks" with the US – which Trump foolishly spiked – it seemed the Taliban demonstrated a willingness not to harbor transnational terrorists. Forgive me, but isn’t that the ostensible reason Washington sent us soldiers into the Afghan quagmire in the first place? Let’s be clear, no matter how many forever-war-hawks assert otherwise, America never really cared about women’s or minority rights in Afghanistan. If Washington had given a hoot about such concerns it would’ve backed the socialist state in the 1980s – which was rather progressive on women’s issues – rather than regressive mujahideen groups that later morphed into the Taliban. But no, Cold War calculus prevailed over faux feminism.
Finally, it’s far from clear that Al Qaeda would want to reestablish itself significantly in the landlocked Afghan backwater. It’s certainly hard to see how war torn, impoverished, Afghanistan would be any "safer" than its far more substantial and significant haven in Pakistan – or Yemen, or Africa, for that matter. That paradox has always baffled me, by the way. If the "war on terror" was really about destroying Al Qaeda, why has Washington countenanced the terror outfit’s longtime base in Pakistan? Because it was a strategically risky proposal to intervene militarily in an "allied" frenemy state with nuclear weapons, that’s why. Far easier to justify forever war in backward Afghanistan, a country Uncle Sam has counterproductively meddled in incessantly since at least 1979.
No, this particular war was about, first, revenge, and then regional hegemony, checking the Chinese, and potentially exploiting the country’s vast mineral resources. The fact that perpetual war fuels military-industrial complex profits and an exploding defense budget, or that unelected national security state officials are often themselves corporate arms industry lobbyists doesn’t hurt either.
So on the Afghan War will rage, out of sight and out of mind, for the most part. The bipartisan media-politician interventionist elites will rail against Trump’s latest withdrawal from Northern Syria, "liberals" will obsess about an impeachment that won’t amount to anything, and willfully ignore the real national scandal: that American soldiers as old as the war itself are now serving in Afghanistan. This year one of them, probably born after the 9/11 attacks, will certainly die there. Will anyone notice?
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen