As the controversial U.S. occupation of Iraq moves to the forefront of current world issues and the looming 2004 presidential election, attention has again been completely deterred from America’s other militaristic blunder. Anti-war protesters find it easy to cry foul at the obviously illegal Iraq war, but rarely has there been public outrage at the tedious, seemingly never-ending conflict that is still going on in Afghanistan. When it comes to Iraq, excuses are many, solutions are few, and with opposition rising with the body counts of Iraqi and American soldiers, people are realizing Iraq is not a stage in the war on terror but a distraction from it.
The war in Afghanistan, however, despite its lack of attention, is equally troubling and uncertain.
It is an under-funded, under-manned and unsuccessful struggle against radical fundamentalism, and its injustices are being ignored. To put it bluntly, we are using one f–k-up to distract ourselves from the other f–k-up.
In the aftermath of the catastrophic terrorist attacks that have defined George W. Bush’s presidency, America was determined to respond with merciless aggression. Despite the president’s initial cowardice in response to the events in the early morning hours of 9/11 — fleeing to a bunker in Nebraska while leaving all major decision-making to the vice president in Washington — he showed bold resolve when taking immediate action in America’s quest for vengeance. The much-propagated “war on terror” began in the dark deserts and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda needed to be pursued and brought to justice.
The U.S. military forces went into Afghanistan not with the priority of finding al Qaeda but to overthrow the Taliban government. Yes, this regime was oppressive and brutal to its people. But what most people don’t know is that it was the American support of the Taliban from the late ’70s to the early ’90s that contributed not only to the growth of the violent regime but to the proliferation of terrorism. For 20 years, the CIA funded extremist factions in Afghanistan, sending weapons and cash to the Taliban, radical political groups and a rebel army known as the “Mujahedeen” warriors. It is estimated that during that period, the Mujahedeens killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians with American-supplied weapons. We played the mad scientist and Afghanistan was our Frankenstein, yet it was innocent civilians and U.S. soldiers who have had to pay the price for our foolish decisions.
And yes, the Taliban had a history of supporting radicals. After 9/11, however, the Taliban offered to hand over Osama bin Laden to Pakistani authorities under the condition that he be able to stand trial under Islamic law. This was approved by bin Laden himself, but the United States turned down the offer and invaded anyway; apparently the war on terror is not an international effort after all.
Despite the bold attempt to “liberate” the people of Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban has proved to be futile. With the regime gone, we only paved the way for the equally ruthless former Mujahedeen warlords to take over the country under the new name “Northern Alliance.” These rebels have been just as oppressive as their predecessors were; we have merely swapped one brutal regime for another. Today the Taliban is restructuring (many members were released by the Northern Alliance), and al Qaeda is resurfacing in Afghanistan. Radicals from both groups threaten to take back power and disrupt the democratic process in Afghanistan. The region is more unstable and unsafe than it was before America’s invasion, and the hunt for bin Laden has been all but called off. It’s difficult to determine the number of innocent lives lost in the war; the Department of Defense has refused to count civilian casualties accurately. Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire estimates that more than 3,000 Afghan civilians fell victim to U.S. bombs and bullets in just the first six months of the war alone. We have done little to destroy terrorists; in fact, terrorism has increased since the occupation began.
If we’re going to fight a war on terror, then we should be utilizing our resources in the pursuit of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, not on the occupation and restructuring of foreign countries. We should be pursuing and attacking al Qaeda in Afghanistan, not pursuing and attacking the people of Afghanistan. Severe mistakes have been made, yet Afghanistan has been forgotten and neglected. Where is the outrage against this “other” unjust war? Why are we so afraid to condemn it as we have so willingly condemned Iraq? Afghanistan has proven to be a catastrophic beginning to the war on terror, and its injustices eerily resemble those of the Iraq war.
We invaded a country with little international support, needlessly slaughtered innocent civilians, overthrew an oppressive regime that we once supported, disrupted a terrorist cell but failed to bring its leaders to justice, installed our own government without asking for input, elected our own chosen president, made the region more unstable and the world more dangerous than it was before and now, three years after the invasion, our troops are still there and we don’t know why or how to get them out.
Adam Lichtenheld ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in political science and international relations.