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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

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The U.S. is repeating its failed 1990s Afghanistan policies


Wednesday marked the first anniversary of the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The longest foreign war in U.S. history came to a close with a chaotic withdrawal that left the country in the hands of the Taliban and confronting a brewing humanitarian crisis. Despite militarily withdrawing, the United States continues to pursue a policy of financially starving Afghanistan of desperately needed funds in an attempt to force the Taliban to reduce its repression — especially of women — as well as its support for terrorism.

This approach resurrects the American policy toward the Taliban between the late 1990s and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 — and early signs indicate it will have the same consequences now as it did then. Starving the regime of funding won’t improve its behavior. Instead, it will only lead to prolonged suffering for Afghans.

The Taliban emerged in the wake of the U.S.-Soviet proxy war during the Cold War and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and occupation from 1979 to 1989. The withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 left a power vacuum that plunged Afghanistan into chaos as former mujahideen commanders — who had received support from the United States during the war — and regional power brokers vied for dominion. Corruption and civil strife were rampant.

A conservative faction of the former mujahideen, who had built a power base in the rural parts of the country, entered the fray ostensibly to address the chaos and conflict. They promised stability and drew support from young madrassa students and displaced refugees. This power and its regional base enabled the Taliban to lead an insurgency, which caught the other political players by surprise. Within a few years, the Taliban had seized sizable portions of Afghanistan, including the capital city.

Though it promised stability, the Taliban never hid their eventual vision of establishing order through brutal repression. Almost immediately after wresting control of Afghanistan, the regime began restricting the movement of women, policing access to education and carrying out violent reprisals against political opponents.

Even so, the United States welcomed the Taliban as a potential partner in the region. Leading figures in the State Department hoped the new regime would usher in stability and end infighting. American policymakers were also enticed by a partnership that could result in economic rewards.

Afghanistan was ideally located for a major gas pipeline, which policymakers estimated would be profitable for Western companies and lower prices for Western consumers. The petroleum company Unocal began courting the Taliban soon after they seized control of the country. In 1995, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, joined the project as a key player for finalizing an agreement between the United States and the new regime in Kabul. Alongside him was Zalmay Khalilzad, a former Bush administration official who had joined the RAND Corporation, and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who would serve as a special consultant — demonstrating bipartisan support for the project.

The Unocal-Taliban deal promised economic rewards, and Democrats and Republicans alike also saw it as potentially offering a direct foothold in the region after the proxy war of the 1980s. Such a relationship would offer a counterbalance in the region to the hostile Iranian regime.

Critically, Unocal would go on to funnel nearly 1 million dollars through the University of Nebraska to Kandahar to establish a training school for future pipeline workers as it pushed for the completion of a deal. The Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline promised to flood the region with tens of millions of dollars in profits, something particularly attractive to the cash-starved Taliban.

In 1997, as part of their charm offensive, Unocal invited the Taliban to Texas with the approval of the Clinton State Department. Company executives warmly welcomed Taliban officials — despite the regime’s brutality and well-known human rights violations — and both parties eagerly pursued a deal.

It all fell apart in 1998 after Osama bin Laden organized and directed the U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. With the Taliban backing Bin Laden and the U.S. launching cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan, the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline deal was dead. By all accounts, the Taliban was neither directly involved nor aware of what Bin Laden was planning. Yet they remained committed to their partnership with the al-Qaeda leader — even at the cost of the potential influx of American money, and their hopes for a relationship with the United States.

The eagerness to establish business dealings between the United States and the Taliban gave way to a new period of isolation and American sanctions.

Afghans paid the price for the regime’s support of terrorism. Food and water scarcities led to famine, and lack of access to medical supplies increased infant mortality and death from readily curable diseases. Decades of proxy wars and civil strife had left the country with no infrastructure to speak of — making it ill-equipped to deal with a humanitarian crisis. Plus, the Taliban closed down schools. And the soured relationship with the United States shattered international support and cut off trade.

In 2001, however, a Swedish foreign delegation along with UNESCO visited the Buddhas of Bamiyan and offered funding to potentially buy and preserve the centuries-old historical statues. The Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar, in an interview with journalist Mohammad Shehzad, claimed that when the regime asked that the money go to food for starving children instead of preserving the statues, they were rebuffed. In retaliation for what they deemed the international community’s indifference to Afghan suffering, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas. Speaking to journalist Barbara Crossette, Taliban envoy Rahmatullah Hashemi said, “The scholars told them that instead of spending money on statues, why didn’t they help our children who are dying of malnutrition? They rejected that, saying, ‘This money is only for statues.’ ” While the regime had earlier intervened to prevent a local commander from damaging the statues, it decided that “if you are destroying our future with economic sanctions, you can’t care about our heritage.”

Destroying the statues was an act of defiance — one that epitomized the reaction to the imposition of sanctions. The regime thumbed its nose at demands from the United States and its allies, even as ordinary Afghans suffered. Where there had once been centuries-old Buddhas, now there were empty alcoves — markers of the failed policy toward the Taliban. In the years that followed, the Taliban became even more repressive, destroying music cassettes, carrying out public executions and using physical violence to maintain their hold over major cities.

Yet despite the failure of sanctions to alter the Taliban’s behavior in the 1990s, the situation in 2022 appears to be remarkably similar.

Under the Trump administration, Khalilzad, who served in the George W. Bush administration after his efforts on behalf of the Unocal deal, returned to a position of power and hammered out the withdrawal deal between the United States and the Taliban. Last year, the Taliban unexpectedly seized Kabul forcing the United States into a hasty, chaotic and internationally humiliating withdrawal.

In retaliation, the United States has once more economically cut off Afghanistan from the world. While ostensibly aiming to punish the Taliban — especially after it reneged on promises to treat women better than it had during its initial reign — as before, ordinary Afghans are bearing the cost.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports that 18.9 million Afghans face “extreme levels of hunger” and “near famine conditions.” Yet the United States continues a policy of icy indifference toward the unfolding humanitarian crisis. The inability of the United States to navigate the delicate balance of addressing the crisis at the human level, while simultaneously refusing to politically recognize the Taliban, once more sets the conditions for disaster.

The experience of the late 1990s suggests that not only will the policy drive vast suffering in Afghanistan, but it won’t curb the brutality of the Taliban — or its support for terrorism. Instead, international sanctions probably will worsen the regime’s extremist policies. The empty alcoves where once the Buddhas of Bamian stood are a testament to the failures of the policies past and a warning to the continuation of those policies today.

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