Let’s go back twenty years [to] 9/11. It’s important to recognize first that the United States didn’t know who was responsible for 9/11. In fact, eight months later, the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, had his first major press conference. He was asked, “Who was responsible for 9/11?” This is now after the most intensive multinational investigation, probably, in human history. He said, “We presume that the perpetrators were al-Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden, but we haven’t been able to establish it.” That’s eight months after the invasion.
What was the motivation for the invasion itself? I think the best answer to this was given by the leading figure in the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance, Abdul Haq, a highly respected Afghan leader [who was] leading the resistance to the Taliban from within. He had an interview in October 2001, right after the bombing started, with a leading Central Asia scholar, Anatol Lieven, who asked him, “What do you think about the invasion?”
[Abdul Haq] said, “The invasion will kill many Afghans, [and] it will undermine our efforts to overthrow the Taliban-regime from within.” He laid out those efforts and thought they were promising. This [the invasion] will undermine them. “But the Americans don’t care about the Afghans, and they don’t care about overthrowing the Taliban. What they want to do is show their muscle and intimidate everyone in the world.”
That was pretty much repeated, in different words, by the American secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was one of the main agents of the invasion. The Taliban very quickly offered to surrender. They would just go back to their villages and be left alone, and the United States could take over. Of course, [the United States] could then have Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in their hands.
Rumsfeld’s response to this offer was “We do not negotiate surrenders.” It was then seconded by the president, George W. Bush, who said the same thing: “We do not negotiate surrenders, we just use force.” He was asked questions about al-Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden. He said, “I don’t know anything about them. We don’t really care about them. We have a bigger game in mind.”
The “bigger game in mind” was, of course, outlined publicly. It was not a secret. They wanted to go after Iraq — that’s the real prize. Afghanistan is nothing. [They wanted to] go after Iraq, the major prize, and then use that as a base for going on to other countries in the region. That was the plan.
In fact, if the United States had wanted to capture [Osama] bin Laden — who was then a suspect, remember, not guilty — it wouldn’t have been very difficult. [They] could have done it with a small police action, which probably would have been supported by the Taliban. They would have been happy to get rid of him. He was a nuisance for them. [The Taliban] couldn’t just throw him out because of tribal rules — you don’t throw out somebody who’s taken refuge. That’s important for the Pashtun conception of proper behavior. But they wouldn’t have offered any opposition if the United States wanted to send in a police action.
[But] that’s no good. We have to show our muscle and intimidate everyone.
What happened after that is, the Taliban went back to their villages. The United States came in, its allies came in. There are very good reporters who have been following this on the ground from the beginning. The best is Anand Gopal. [He] has a recent article about it in the New Yorker repeating it. Others have reported the same thing. A recent report in the Washington Post is saying basically the same thing, from another one of the few reporters who was actually in the rural areas — that’s where Afghanistan is.
They all say the same thing: at the beginning, the Afghan rural population was relieved that the fighting was over. They could have some peace. And they had this idea — they didn’t know much of the United States — that many people in the world have: “Here’s this superrich country, which can do all kinds of good things for us.” They hoped that the United States would somehow come in and deal with their problems with poverty and so on.
That didn’t last very long. As soon as the US forces came in, they started attacking Afghans. A bomb could be aiming at somebody they thought was Taliban, but it could hit a wedding party and kill forty people. So now [the Taliban] could recruit the relatives. [US] Special Forces break into people’s houses during the night, humiliate them, send them to a torture chamber. You have created more Taliban. This continued to go on until you had a substantial resistance in the countryside.
How did the United States deal with it? Intensifying the violence. Either itself or the Afghan army that had mobilized, which used the same tactics [as the United States]. What they say now, the same reporters, is “everyone hated the Americans, including the Afghan army.” For pretty good reasons.
Meanwhile, something else was happening. The United States, when it came in, didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. So they looked for people who could carry out their orders. Who were they? The warlords. The monsters who were running the place. There, the ones who were savvy could put themselves forth, saying, “I’ll work for you.” But they’re not stupid. One warlord could approach the Americans and say, “In this village over here, there’s some Taliban” — namely, one of his enemies. Then the Americans would come in and smash up that village and create more Taliban recruits.
This went on through twenty years. By the end, there was a huge resistance. A popular resistance. Actually, the Taliban originally were based in the Pashtun — it’s the largest of the ethnic groups [in Afghanistan] — but it’s extended. One of the few surprises, very few surprises, in the last few weeks was that the warlords in the Tajik and Uzbek areas immediately moved to the Taliban. That was unexpected. Everything else was perfectly well expected.
It was obvious that the government would collapse. The government is just a morass of corruption, [for] which there’s no support. The Afghan army — half of it was just on paper, ghost soldiers. Others were soldiers who didn’t get paid, didn’t have ammunition. The corrupt leaders and officials were stealing everything. They weren’t going to fight for the Americans, so they just disappeared.
All of that was plain. I wrote about it in advance, [and] others did [as well]. Now, the only people who didn’t seem to understand it were the people who had access to intelligence. Intelligence had a different story. That’s one of the ways in which intelligence gets distorted. But if you looked at the facts on the ground, it was plain what was going to happen. The surprise was the joining of the Taliban by their former enemies, the warlords in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and others — that’s how it was unexpected. So, now it’s apparently a multiethnic-ruled organization.
What about the withdrawal? This goes back to President Donald Trump. In February 2020, Trump made a deal with the Taliban. He didn’t even bother to inform the Afghan government, [because] they’re nothing. Afghan people, of course, don’t count at all. [Trump] made a deal with the Taliban that American troops would withdraw in May 2021 — the worst possible time. The onset of the fighting season. No opportunity to accommodate, to make local arrangements. “We will pull out, and you can do anything you like,” he said. He imposed no conditions. He just had one condition: “Don’t fire at American soldiers, which wouldn’t look good for me. But anything else is your business.”
It’s interesting to see the reaction of the Republican Party, which hailed this as a historic achievement by our great leader President Trump. It was featured on the Republican Party web page, and it stayed there, up until when the debacle began. Actually, Joe Biden slightly improved on Trump’s conditions: he delayed it a couple of months, so there was a little more time, [and he] added some conditions on the Taliban. [Joe Biden] carried out an improved version of what they were hailing as a marvelous historic achievement by the genius Trump.
As soon as the debacle began, they pulled it off their web page and turned to attacking the Democrats and the army for the disaster. You may have seen the Senate hearing, where General Mark Milley and others were called to account by Republicans who, a month earlier, were hailing the historic achievement, now denouncing the military for following what they had hailed. This carries shamelessness to a higher level — but that’s the Republican Party.
Now comes the next stage. Now, there’s a split in the international community about how to deal with the situation. One approach was advocated by the China-based regional powers — it’s basically the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] — China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, India, and Pakistan. Their approach is to accommodate somehow the Taliban regime. It’s a miserable situation in Afghanistan. A mass of people is starving, [and] the economy [has] collapsed, so their approach is, “Let’s give them some aid and support for the population, engage with them, and make an effort to make their government more inclusive, less repressive, and shift the economy from opium production to the export of minerals and their other resources.” That’s one approach.
There’s another approach, which is led by the United States and includes India, a US ally. In the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, India opposed this, preferring the US approach, which is to deprive Afghans of any aid and assistance. To hold their resources — [their] treasury resources happen to be in US banks — and pressure the IMF and the World Bank not to offer them assistance. Just punish the Afghans as much as possible. This doesn’t punish the leadership — sanctions hurt the population. They usually make the leader stronger, as the population has to huddle under the leader’s umbrella just to survive.
The United States is the only country that can impose sanctions. Others go along sometimes, but if they try to do it on their own, nobody would pay the slightest attention. When the United States imposes sanctions, everyone has to obey — even if you oppose them.
Take the sanctions against Cuba, the oldest ones. The entire world opposes them. The vote at the United Nations, the last one, was 184 to 2. Israel goes along with the United States — it’s a client state, so it has to. The rest of the world says no, but they all abide by the sanctions, because US sanctions are third-party sanctions. They tell others, “If you don’t abide by them, we throw you out of the international financial system.” And you have other punishments. The world is basically the mafia, and the Godfather gives the orders, and others obey, whether they like it or not. It’s reality, [it’s] not political science.
So, if the United States imposes sanctions, like on Afghanistan, like it or not, the rest of the world has to obey. Maybe not China. They won’t. That’s one of the reasons China is an enemy: they don’t just follow orders. It’s not tolerable. But maybe the Central Asian states will go along with China. In fact, they have been shifting — they have kicked out the American bases and are moving toward the China-based Eurasian system, the Belt and Road Initiative, the investment system that China’s been carrying out. So that seems to be the way it’s developing.