The Longest Armed Conflict in American History

Adriana Castagnoli
Historian of Economy, editorialist of the daily Il Sole-24 Ore, former teacher in Contemporary and Economic History at the University of Torino, member of the European Business History Association and Business History Conference (USA)

Carter Malkasian
The American War in Afghanistan: A History
Oxford University Press,Oxford, 2021 

In this book the historian Carter Malkasian makes a voyage of existential search through the longest war in American history, posing the crucial question why the United States remained in Afghanistan for twenty years. Malkasian has been political advisor and aide to American commanders in Afghanistan, a role that allowed him to visit the different regions of that country and meet the Afghan leaders; and also to participate in the peace talks in Qatar in 2018-2019.

He saw the war getting worse, up to thinking that ending it was unrealistic. Until, in February 2020, a USA-Taliban peace accord was reached. In November, Donald Trump, despite announcements and U-turns about a complete withdrawal, once his reelection to the White House was lost, left 2500 troops in Afghanistan. So Trump passed on to his successor Joseph Biden the poisoned fruit of the unenviable choice to either follow up on his agenda of integral demobilization of the US troops within May 1st, or get embroiled in an endless war. In April 2021, President Biden stated that the US troops withdrawal will be completed before September 11, 2021, as in fact happened. But The Wall Street Journal already at the end of 2019 had anticipated that the worst scenario would be produced if the American withdrawal had triggered the collapse of the Afghan government and a humanitarian tragedy. In addition, the resurgence of terrorism and the comeback of ISIS – according to The Economist – would cancel the good results of the struggle against the Islamic State obtained in Syria.

The wider meaning of this war is to be retraced back in the 1970s decade, when the Cold War ideologies came in contact with Islamic fundamentalism. In December 1979, soon after the birth of the Islamic Republic and the imposition of sharia in Iran, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, with the aim of supporting the communist government threatened by the mujaheddin. In those circumstances, the American President Jimmy Carter initiated a secret program with the CIA to help the mujaheddin. After 1983, President Ronald Reagan intensified those operations with the aim of turning Afghanistan into Moscow's Vietnam. That strategy required that the USA “maintain good relations with Pakistan”, although it was an anti-democratic military regime. In turn, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and some Western countries strengthened the mujaheddin, providing them with arms and money.

After the Soviet withdrawal and the USSR implosion, at the beginning of the 1990s, the USA showed little interest for Afghanistan: it ignored crucial investments for its reconstruction, economic development and democratic institutions, ending up with creating a void in which the conditions were set for the rise of Al-Qaida.

Following the attack to the Twin Towers in September 2001, President George W. Bush announced the “war on terror”, that will change America and the world. Disorder and violence brought about by the Soviet-Afghan war, civil war and the Taliban regime produced the favorable conditions for the Islamic extremism to take roots. Errors of judgment and lack of vision have in the course of time marked the decisions of many US Presidents, focused more on matters of domestic policy than on the sensitive balances of foreign politics. In Malkasian's opinion, excluding the Taliban from the negotiations for a peace accord after the American invasion has been George W. Bush's missed opportunity; in turn, President Obama decided in 2009 a new strategy of military tactical escalation in the region, “the surge”, which proved to be counter-productive, also because he had no chance to implement it as required, thus ending up in pushing the Americans towards a withdrawal.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit the USA, Afghanistan and the entire world a few days after the signing of the agreement with the Taliban, changing people's mindset and attitude towards that war. The American economy entered the worst crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s, worse than the recession of 2008-2009 that Obama dealt with. To rescue the economy, Trump and the Congress passed aid measures for billions of dollars.

Malkasian concedes that during the US presence in Afghanistan significant improvements have been obtained for its civil society, first of all in defending women rights which, in his opinion, constituted a strong and bipartisan motivation for the American presence.

Life expectancy increased by 10 years from 2001 to 2018. Urbanization introduced the biggest changes, favoring the formation of a generation of educated youngsters. Afghanistan saw the start of a process of parliamentary democracy although with many limits. In a country still divided between harshly competing factions, there has been a lack of power sharing aimed to combat corruption and tribalism. This produced a weak democracy in the cities, while in the rural areas the system remained Islamic.

In such a scenario, the Taliban, as fighters for the resistance against foreign occupation and for Islam, values deeply rooted in the Afghan identity, ended up exercising a strong attraction over a growing number of youngsters.

War went on transforming the USA too. The idea of exporting the democratic model and of changing regimes, according to Malkasian, faded away with Obama and Trump, who were leaning toward a more and more isolationist foreign policy. In the meantime, Russia and China, when America was absorbed by its war on terror, were becoming threatening and assertive. So Afghanistan in fact caused significant resources to be diverted, whereas they could have been used in the competition with those great powers.

And yet the majority of Americans paid little attention to this war. Afghanistan has not been the Vietnam, did not arouse demonstrations or counterculture or a significant political opposition. Washington fulfilled its goal by eliminating Osama Bin Laden and preventing terrorist attacks on American soil. But the USA has failed to prevail over the Taliban, remaining encaged in a long and costly war which caused enormous suffering in the population, and was concluded with peace and withdrawal practices hurried by domestic policy motives, which risk now to reopen the sanctuary of terrorism.

CESI
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