The Un-Strategy of the US in Afghanistan

By Thea Halo

There’s an old saying by Mark Twain, “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”

That can be reworked to: Better not invade a country and appear weak, than invade a country and remove all doubt when you fail.  

Then there’s this one by Frank Herbert, author of Dune. “Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect any who seek it.” 

However, it’s these quotes by Joe Biden that stand out under the circumstances:

“Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It’s self-defense. It’s patriotism.” 

“Corruption is a cancer, a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy, diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity.” 

So if President Biden knew corruption was so devastating, why didn’t he make sure the corruption in the Afghan government and its military didn’t insure Afghanistan’s defeat by the Taliban? 

As early as 2016, a 23-year-old 1st Lt. Hayatullah Frotan met with US troops in Kandahar and told them that “Some generals pocketed pay meant for soldiers. Others were supposed to buy the best rice for their troops. Instead they bought the cheapest and lowest quality possible and pocketed the difference. Still others sold government-issued firewood meant to keep the troops warm. Frotan said the system was marked by cronyism, with not enough loyalty to the troops. The military leaders were not only corrupt, some of them were illiterate.” Some couldn’t even count.1

“The lack of education led to basic problems with tasks such as maintaining equipment, from rifles to vehicles, to ordering spare parts. …not knowing how to write meant these leaders couldn’t even read the maps properly. NPR was with an Afghan army unit six years ago when it was shooting artillery rounds at the Taliban. It was off by a kilometer because it couldn’t figure out the proper grid coordinates. Not only that, but Frotan says commanders often had trouble filing simple paperwork to give soldiers time off.”2 Without being afforded leave, meant troops were exhausted. 

“Ahmadi, 27, a member of a logistics battalion, complained that: If someone calls me and tells me to go somewhere, I can’t read the street signs.” To overcome the problem of illiteracy for the Afghan army, a private company, Pulau Electronics of Orlando, Fla., was hired to run a program that aims to make 50 percent of the troops “functionally literate,” within the first year of the program. The target is for them to be able to write their name and their weapon’s serial number.”3

Not sure that’s even worth a response. Why not simply give them all a rubber stamp with their particular information on it?

In a more recent report: “After weeks of fighting, one cardboard box full of slimy potatoes was supposed to pass as a police unit’s daily rations. They hadn’t received anything other than spuds in various forms in several days, and their hunger and fatigue were wearing them down.”4 Ammunition to fight the Taliban was also in short supply. They didn’t even have enough bullets for the machine guns,5 which makes US secretary of state, Antony Blinken’s blaming of the Afghan security forces “for not defending their country despite all the money the US has provided” all the more ridiculous and insulting.6 Blinken apparently forgot to mention that the Biden Administration had removed key military equipment needed by the Afghan troops to actually fight off the Taliban.7

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that when you treat your fighting forces like animals, not even feeding them properly, keeping them warm, or supplying them with enough ammunition and key equipment to actual fight the enemy, because you’re too busy robbing them of their wages, food rations, and ammunition, loyalty to that corrupt government or those military officials is not usually the outcome. Perhaps the Afghani troops, who had already lost 66,000 national military and police, and 47,245 Afghan civilians,8 thought the Taliban would treat them better. One news source reported that officials were even stealing the soldiers Sims cards so they couldn’t call their families.9 

Why didn’t the US know the government it helped set up in Afghanistan was so corrupt? And why didn’t the US correct the infractions and thefts? Nobel Prize laureate, Rigoberta Menchú wrote: “Without strong watchdog institutions, impunity becomes the very foundation upon which systems of corruption are built. And if impunity is not demolished, all efforts to bring an end to corruption are in vain.” 

Perhaps he would have added if considering the Afghan debacle: Don’t expect to win a war if the government and military corruption goes unchecked. 

Of course, this cannot be blamed solely on President Biden. George W. Bush started this debacle in 2001 after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers planned by Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was later found and killed in Pakistan during the Obama administration. President Obama then picked up the fight in Afghanistan and carried on for another eight years, apparently doing little or nothing to control the corruption. As the documentary film: Afghanistan—Land of endless war illustrates, the Afghan government the United States spent two decades trying to prop up was said to be corrupt in all aspects during its time in power.10

Then came President Donald Trump, who actually bypassed the Afghan government to negotiate directly with the Taliban to release 5,000 Taliban fighters. Those fighters would undoubtedly later help overthrow the Afghan government the US alleges it supports. Trump also promised to pull all U.S. troops out by May 1, 2021.11 In so doing, the US indicated that the Afghan government is irrelevant. The Donald, true to form, apparently wanted the Taliban, and the rest of us, to know he was running the show, and only he could get things done. Were they the right things seems to have been irrelevant to the Donald. As we’ve seen in the past, he seems to love dictators and strong men. A video reveals that Donald Trump actually discussed how he empowered the Taliban to take over Afghanistan after America’s departure.12 This rendered the last 20 years, the tens of thousands of lives lost, and the trillions spent, simply thrown to the wind. So, shouldn’t we give most of the blame for this disaster to the Disaster Artist himself?  

President Joe Biden was left to clean up the last 20 years of the mismanagement of his predecessors. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave President Biden off the hook. The Biden administration also went directly to the Taliban, bypassing the Afghan government. And there is still the matter of the cart and horse analogy. Is it too much of a stretch to expect our leaders to know that if one expects the horse to pull the cart, one never puts the cart before the horse? In other words, one doesn’t withdraw troops before evacuating those who need to be evacuated if one expects to get them out without danger. Yet even that simple rule was apparently ignored. To make matters even more ridiculous, even the Taliban thinks the US withdrawal plan was absurd: “The Taliban rejects responsibility for the Kabul airport chaos, saying the West could have had a better evacuation plan.”13 Indeed. 

The US is one of the most powerful nations in the world. At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves, because our military arsenal seems to prove that premise. We also have a vast amount of brave men and women who are willing to give their lives for a just cause. However, without viable leaders and strategies, none of that really matters in the end. The US lost 2,443 American troops, and spent more than $2 trillion, on the war effort.14 We also have the US invasions and destruction of Iraq and Libya, and the destruction of parts of Syria and elsewhere to account for.

So now what? Initially, the invasion of Afghanistan by US forces gave hope to Afghani women and girls. Now it will most likely be taken away again. One has to wonder, what’s worse? Having a taste of freedom and education, and discovering what one is capable of, or having it yanked away again after accomplishing so much? 

Can the US and other nations hold the Taliban to their sketchy promise to allow girls and women to continue education and other freedoms? What about the saying: Money talks, the old carrot and stick metaphor? Is that the key to holding the Taliban’s feet to the fire, so to speak? Western bank accounts can be frozen and no outside financial aid will be forthcoming. Other sanctions can also be imposed if the Taliban doesn’t keep their promises. Perhaps a promise that the Taliban won’t force girls and women to go around covered up like ghosts should also be included, as well as freedom of movement without a constant chaperone. 

When Afghanistan becomes so poverty stricken and unable to function, perhaps that would do the trick. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned from past experience, it’s the general public who actually suffer the most, not the leadership. And China and Russia have already sided with the Taliban. 

So what’s left? The US must learn that invasions are not the answer to every problem in the Middle East. Nor is the way the US has conducted the so-called ‘war on terror’ the answer. How many Middle Eastern countries must the US destroy in the name of its ‘war on terror’ before we realize that it often creates more terror and terrorists where none previously existed. Think of the Taliban, al-Quaeda, and ISIS. All sprung up during ME wars, al-Quaeda and the Taliban during the war with Russia, and ISIS after the US invasions in the ME. When will we learn?

In fact, according to documentary evidence, the fanatical, fundamentalist members of the Taliban regime came to their extreme views and even their violence, because of the traumas and violence many of them suffered from early childhood, helplessly watching their own families destroyed.15

Perhaps in the end, if the US is actually serious about nation building, we would realize that education is the real equalizer, and that’s not just the education of girls and women. It includes education in general. Illiteracy is rampant in Afghanistan as the reports of illiteracy among military personal and government officials demonstrate. Islam itself is not the problem. Other Muslim countries have educated both girls and boys, men and women. Iraq was said to be one of the most educated nations in the Middle East, as is Syria. Even under Gaddafi, literacy improved dramatically. “In spite of Gaddafi’s infamous legacy, his reign was also marked by irrefutable gains in the educational system. Libya’s citizens enjoyed unparalleled access to education and the literacy rate increased from 25 percent to 87 percent.”16

Afghanistan’s own past demonstrates how vibrant the nation and her people could be, and actually was, before the wars and chaos.17 So education for all Afghanis, including the Taliban and other men, is probably the most important solution to bring Afghanistan back into the 21 Century, with a society of which all can be proud. 

The answer to the question of how one accomplishes educating the fanatical, fundamentalist members of the regime that’s in power, and the population it controls, is worth millions! Perhaps we should take a page from President John F. Kennedy’s initiative. The next time the US decides to wage a war on terror, perhaps it should send the Peace Corps, instead of military troops and bombs. Better yet, send the Peace Corps before any terror arises.

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  1. Tom Bowman and Monika Evstatieva, The Afghan Army Collapsed In Days. Here Are The Reasons Why. All Things Considered. NPR. August 20, 2021. 
  2. Ibid.
  3. Illiteracy Slows Afghan Army, U.S. Pullout. CBS News. September 14, 2009.
  4. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Fahim Abed and Sharif Hassan, The Afghan Military Was Built Over 20 Years. How Did It Collapse So Quickly? The New York Times. Aug. 13, 2021. Updated Aug. 18, 2021.
  5. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Fahim Abed and Sharif Hassan, The Afghan Military Was Built Over 20 Years. How Did It Collapse So Quickly? The New York Times. Aug. 13, 2021. Updated Aug. 18, 2021.
  6. Mary Kaldor, The main lesson from Afghanistan is that the ‘war on terror’ does not work. The Guardian. August 24, 2021.
  7. Sami Sadat, I Commanded Afghan Troops This Year. We Were Betrayed. The New York Times. August 25, 2021.
  8. Ellen Knickmeyer, Costs of the Afghanistan war, in lives and dollars. AP. August 17, 2021.
  9. Mary Louise Kelly, The Afghan Army Collapsed In Days. Here Are The Reasons Why. NPR. August 20, 2021. 
  10. Afghanistan—Land of endless war/DW Documentary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7e6tejlTNw
  11. Ron Elving, Withdrawing From Afghanistan May Be The One Thing Biden And Trump Agree On. NPR. August 18, 2021.
  12. FLASHBACK: In February 2020, Donald Trump discussed how he empowered the Taliban to take over Afghanistan after America’s departure. https://twitter.com/MeidasTouch/status/1427394730887811074
  13. Elizabeth Melimopoulos and Tamila Varshalomidze, US warns citizens to avoid Kabul airport over security: Live News. Aljazeera. August 21, 2021.
  14. Adela Suliman, Nearly 20 years of war, 10 days to fall: Afghanistan, by the numbers. The Washington Post. August 20, 2021.
  15. Afghanistan—Land of endless war/DW Documentary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7e6tejlTNw
  16. Eric Paulson, Education in Libya During and After Gaddafi. The Borgen Project.
  17. Afghanistan—Land of endless war/DW Documentary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7e6tejlTNw

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Thea Halo is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Not Even My Name, a former news correspondent for WBAI in NYC, and a former producer for public radio in upstate NY. Not Even My Name was instrumental in garnering the first state-level resolutions in the U.S. that recognized the genocide of the Pontian and other Asia Minor Greeks and Assyrians. She was a co-sponsor and driving force, along with Prof. Adam Jones, of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) resolution that affirmed the Ottoman Genocides of Pontian and other Asia Minor Greeks and Assyrians as comparable to the genocide of the Armenians. She has also published a collection of poetry, and a number of Thea’s historical papers on the Genocides of Greeks and Assyrians have been published in books on the Ottoman Genocides. In 2009, Thea, along with her mother, Sano Halo, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 105, were awarded honorary Greek citizenship by the Greek government. In 2002, Thea was awarded the AHEPA Homer Award and, in 2012, the Association of Greek American Professional Women honored Thea and Sano for their “Profound contribution to Literature and to Hellenic Cultural Heritage and History.” Thea has also won numerous awards for her poetry and literary essays.

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