(Editors note: Because of press deadlines and the fluidity of events, some information in this story may be dated.)
It sure wasn’t like this when the ‘big one’ came to an end eighty years ago. Not even close. When news broke that World War II ended after six long years there were tears of joy, celebrations in the street, confetti rained down. Our boys---no mention of girls---were coming home. That was then.
Today, after twenty years of war in Afghanistan---America’s longest war---there may have been sighs of relief across the land but no celebrations, no confetti rain. Why would there be? After two decades of war in a country most people couldn’t find on a map, the only ones paying attention were those with skin---sometimes literally---in the game.
“Americans, we don’t pay attention to foreign policy,” said Sheila Rucki, Political Scientist and Foreign Policy professor. If we did, said Metropolitan State University professor, the end of a two-decades long war would be cause for celebration. It might also prevent two-decades long wars. “Just stop and think how our disinterest in foreign policy enables this kind of foreign policy.”
With this war in its final days, standing out now more than almost anything else about this futile conflict are the thirteen young Marines, along with as many as a hundred Afghani citizens, killed when a suicide bomber strapped with explosives carried out his end-of-life mission at Kabul International Airport a week ago. Their remains were returned to Dover Air Base on Sunday, the President and family members were there to meet them.
The suicide bombing was carried out by a subset of al Qaeda known as Isis-K, a group almost unknown in the U.S. until last week. The Taliban will be left to deal with them.
But with the evacuation of Americans, allies and thousands of Afghanis who aided in the U.S. effort still funneling into Kabul airport, the final fatalities of this war may yet still be unrecorded.
This war began on October 7th, 2001. If nothing changes, its end came yesterday, August 31st. In between, nearly 2,500 Americans died; more than 20,000 Americans were injured or maimed; as many as 70,000 Afghani citizens, including young children, were killed. How many others whose lives were impacted will never be known.
Also, $2 trillion U.S. dollars were spent, much of it wastefully, foolishly, needlessly. Worse, the American government including Presidents, its chief architects, the generals; they all knew.
An Inspector General report on the war drafted a decade ago---the halfway mark of this war---concluded our leaders knew about the nearly absolute corruption of a feckless, inept Afghanistan government. We knew about $486 million spent on planes that couldn’t fly; $43 million to build a natural gas station that served no purpose and was never used; about millions to arm and train an Afghan military that essentially handed over the nation to the Taliban as the world watched, surprising even the Taliban.
With war’s end, also ending is what critics call the gravy train for American corporations, ranging from huge defense contractors who profited from the war to workers who managed fast food operations serving American troops. There were also less benign contractors, said Rucki. “We should call them mercenaries,” thousands, including many Americans, she said, all being paid by the U.S. “It was expedient and hiding costs of the Afghan war.”
Still, one good thing accomplished over the twenty years of war was the introduction of education to young girls who, before the war, had to go underground to learn to read and write. Their teachers, brave women, risked their freedom and, often, their lives to teach basic literacy.
But today Afghanistan is once again under the thumb of the Taliban, religious, tribal leaders whose rule blends 13th century tradition with a zealous desire to keep it that way. Women, it decrees, should be ‘chaste and dignified,’ wear burqas, body-concealing garments, at all times so as not to ‘corrupt the desires of men not related to them,’ and kept uneducated.
In an agreement hammered out between the Taliban and ex-President Trump, Taliban negotiators promised a more liberal attitude toward women that would allow them freedoms, including education, they did not have before the war. “I’d like to be optimistic,” said Rucki. “But what we’re seeing is the Taliban on its best behavior. As soon as the U.S. and its allies are gone, the Taliban will revert back.”
While many Americans are pleased about this war’s end, many, including Colorado Congressman and Afghanistan war veteran Jason Crow are not pleased with its ending. “It was heartbreaking, it was tragic,” he said. Seeing those scenes was terrible for all of us,” he said. “Had we started that evacuation over the last three to four months, we could have done it in an orderly way.”
With Americans all but gone in the country often called ‘the graveyard of empires,’ what is to become of Afghanistan, a nation with a government in name only? “They will need a lot of outside help,” said Rucki, guessing that one nation ready to step in for the cleanup and rebuilding is China.
“China talks about how they respect the sovereignty of states they go into,” she said. They sell themselves as friends, rebuilding roads, bridges and so much else. But sooner or later, Rucki believes, “the Chinese do intend to collect on all that money.” It’s a ruse China has used successfully in Africa and, more recently, South America where it has quietly moved in.
But, said Rucki, China “has its own issues with Uyghurs and Muslims.” For the past several years, Uyghurs, whose Islamic roots go back to the 10th century, have been routinely oppressed by the Chinese government with as many as a million being forced into reeducation camps.
After twenty years of war, spanning four American administrations, we are finally coming home. Sadly, for a country time zones away from America, it is mourning in Afghanistan.
NOTE: It is mourning in America.