NATO’s twenty year debacle in Afghanistan

NATO bombing, such as on this village, slaughtered many Afghan civilians

By Steve Bell

The decision of the US government to withdraw from Afghanistan is greatly to be welcomed. However the horrors that have come from the twenty year war must neither be hidden, nor forgotten. British politicians need to seriously examine what went wrong with the policy of successive governments. Failure to do so will create new tragedies.

Where the war came from

In April 1978 a new regime came to power in Afghanistan. It overthrew the hated regime of Mohammed Daud, a hangover from the old monarchy. In a country where the majority of the population were engaged in agriculture, less than 20 per cent of the population had sufficient land for family subsistence. Life expectancy was 35 years, with infant mortality at 269 per thousand. Literacy was between 5 to 10 per cent, almost completely a male preserve. Employment of women, outside of agriculture, was confined to teaching.(1)

The new regime promoted a platform including land reform; emancipation for women; equal rights for different nationalities/ethnic groups; and development. Such a bold programme was ambitious for a poor, undeveloped country. Yet far from being welcomed by the “international community”, the new regime was denounced as it was led by a communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The US government, under President Carter, and its local allies, the Shah of Iran, and Zia ul Haq’s military dictatorship in Pakistan, immediately began a campaign to undermine the PDPA government.

Inside Afghanistan, the US and allies supported reactionary forces involving landlords, tribal chiefs and conservative religious leaders. Armed and assisted by the US, an insurgency ground on, limiting the new regime’s ability to raise living standards. Under considerable pressure, in December 1979 the PDPA invited the USSR to send military forces to assist in the war. Thus began a decade of military intervention by the USSR, until February 1989. The US stepped up its intervention arming forces who were antagonistic to all talk of equality, democracy, liberalism or socialism – yet presented by the US government as “freedom fighters”.

The thoroughly cynical nature of the operation was explained by Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Carter from 1977 to 1981. What follows is part of an interview he gave with a French magazine, in January 1998(2):

Brzezinski: …According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahiddin began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Question: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against secret US involvement in Afghanistan, nobody believed them. However, there was an element of truth in this. You don’t regret any of this today?

Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”…

Question: And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?

Brzezinski: What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Question: “Some agitated Moslems”? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

Brzezinski: Nonsense! It is said that the West has a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid: There isn’t a global Islam…

The creation of the networks which sustained the various tribal warlords and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was a conscious product of US foreign policy. Trained, armed and aided by the US, the protege later turned on the master. An experience repeated by later US governments in Iraq and Syria, creating ISIS and Al Nusrah. “World history” was to exercise its revenge on the US.

Dealing with the Taliban

The war resulted in around a million Afghani deaths, and 15,000 Soviet dead. With the fall of the PDPA regime, the governance of Afghanistan no longer held an interest for the US government. After the April 1992 overthrow, the US effectively disengaged with the mujahideen. The terrible atrocities committed by the new regime did not draw US attention, nor the ensuing civil war. The new regime overturned the progressive social programmes. One and a half million Afghans died in the ensuing civil war, and around seven million were displaced.

In the words of one Afghan woman: “The US and western governments wanted the complete defeat of the Soviet Union and not the liberation of Afghanistan. In fact they sacrificed Afghanistan for their own agenda. They did not strengthen the positions of nationalists and the seculars in Afghanistan; they strengthened the Islamic fanatics and anarchy, including the coming to power of Bin Laden, Al Qaida and later the Taliban. The West was responsible for the civil war.”(3)

Nor did the victory of the Taliban in 1996 renew US interest. Based on the Pashtun people, the largest ethnic minority, the Taliban secured nearly ninety per cent of the country. After the horrors of the civil war, they posed themselves as a purifying movement in Afghan society. They aimed to end the lawlessness with their own conservative interpretation of religious doctrine.

None of which prevented the US government from seeking business opportunities with the Taliban. In her book, Malalai Joya explains: “Since they came to power, the Taliban had – like the fundamentalist warlords before them – been offering sanctuary and support to the Saudi Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahari and their foreign al-Qaeda followers. For years the United States had courted the Taliban, ignoring their cruelties while trying to make deals with them on behalf of the oil company UNOCAL, for an energy pipeline project through Afghanistan. The United States also encouraged the regime to crack down on opium production. (As recently as May 2001 the Taliban were given 43 million dollars as a reward for controlling the poppy crop.) At the same time, the United States turned a blind eye to what was happening in the terrorist training camps along the Pakistan border.”(4)

Doubtless there were concerns among ruling circles in the US about the character of the Taliban, and its Al-Qaeda guests. Yet these were former “assets”, surely they were manageable? The horror and tragedy of 9/11 demonstrated otherwise.

9/11 and the prepared wars

After 9/11 Al Qaeda were quickly identified by the US as the perpetrators. The initial public approach to the Taliban was to persuade them to hand over Bin Laden. In reality other views were operating in the US political establishment. The decision to oust the Taliban regime was also taken quickly.

Whether he was in the loop or not, Tony Blair addressed the House of Commons on 8th October 2001. He said “We are in conflict with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime because the terrorists killed thousands of innocent people, including hundreds of Muslims and women and children; because the Taliban regime, in return for financial aid and other support, gave them succour”.

A war against the Taliban, who controlled most of Afghanistan, was a war of regime change, and went beyond the issue of 9/11. Whatever momentary alignment existed, in reality they were quite different political forces. In Syed Saleem Shahzed’s important book we read: “Al-Qaeda’s ultimate aim was to establish an Islamic system under a Caliphate, but it was not an Islamic enforcement movement. Al-Qaeda was a resistance movement against Western hegemony that expected Islamic movements and the Muslim liberation movements around the world to forge a common front instead of fighting independently. This was the basic disagreement between Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.”(5) By its nature, the Caliphate is an international, or pan-Islamist project. The Taliban were preoccupied with establishing, and maintaining, an Emirate in the physical boundaries of Afghanistan.

Overlooking this difference allowed the “War on Terror” to be indefinitely extended both in time and to other regimes which “provide succour” to the terrorists. This the people of Afghanistan were to discover at terrible cost, despite the effective destruction of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan within 2 months of the start of the war in October 2001, and even after the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.

US foreign policy rapidly spread the targets to George Bush’s newly discovered “Axis of Evil” in his January 29, 2002 speech. The targets now included Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Certainly this came as a shock to the Iranian government who had provided invaluable intelligence to the US government in the preceding weeks of the Afghan war.

But the “Axis” was merely a popularisation of the policy worked out prior to 9/11 in the “Project for a New American Century”. This involved a group of politicians in and around the Bush government. The aim was to forcibly remake US imperialism’s hegemony by a series of regime changing wars. Reporting on the investigations of US journalist Bob Woodward, John Pilger wrote: “On the morning of 12 September 2001, without any evidence of who the hijackers were, Rumsfeld demanded that the US attack Iraq. According to Woodward, Rumsfeld told a cabinet meeting that Iraq should be “a principal target of the first round of the war against terrorism”. Iraq was temporarily spared only because Colin Powell, the secretary of state, persuaded Bush that “public opinion had to be prepared before a move against Iraq is possible.” Afghanistan was chosen as the softer option.”(6)

Whatever qualifications Tony Blair utilised in promoting British involvement in the war on Afghanistan, the facts were that the US was following a policy which was neither proportionate to 9/11, nor simply arising from it. US imperialism was going to remake parts of the world through military means, and the British government was going to be entangled throughout. Or to use the words of Blair to Bush, in a note on July 28 2002, “I will be with you whatever”.

The ultimate failure of the war

Despite the relative ease of the initial victory over Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the occupying NATO forces were unable to turn victory into a popular and stable government. Nor were they able to initiate a serious process of reconstruction and development after the military victory.

The new presidential and parliamentary system merely integrated the dominant war lords from the Northern Alliance, and others who had supported the NATO intervention. Many of these were responsible for terrible massacres and war crimes in the civil war. Nor were they more popular and representative than the Taliban. In surveys carried out between 2002 and 2004, by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, most Afghans thought the mujahideen leaders were war criminals – with 75% believing they should be brought to justice, and 90% wanting them removed from public office.

The conditions of occupation meant that President Karzai, despite a serious history of involvement in Afghan politics, had trouble exerting authority, and had to live with the reputation of being “Mayor of Kabul”. He also failed to distance himself from his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a notorious figure in opium trafficking. The overlays between the new political class and the mesh of militias, corruption and criminality was a daily fact of life visible to the people, if not the occupying forces.

Meanwhile the actual authorities, NATO, took their orders from outside the country, and forcibly imposed their presence upon a population whose languages and life experiences they could not comprehend. Attempts to build up the Afghan National Security Forces continued to suffer from the fact that tribal militias were being rebadged rather than rendered uniform. The vast sums used allowed for ghost soldiers on commanders’ books, easy avenues for infiltration by the resistance, and a high turnover with access to wages and valuable arms to sell on.

Equally, much of the supposed reconstruction and development was devolved to foreign NGOs who also took direction from outside the country. This separation from Afghan society, created waste from aid. Meanwhile cultural differences , underscored by difference in living standards, fuelled local resentment.

As one Afghan woman described the process: “Our history has shown that governments which are established by foreigners are not stable governments because Afghans do not accept them. If they read the history of Afghanistan they would understand that Afghans don’t let foreigners interfere in their country. One day they will understand that Afghans want freedom from them.”(7)

Inevitably opposition grew from daily friction to active resistance. The Taliban regrouped in the company of Pashtun kin in Pakistan, sheltered both by civil society and in the powerful apparatus of the security state. Together the internal and external processes merged. Tariq Ali, in a 2010 article, describes how concretely the insurgency was formed: “As the British and Russians discovered to their cost in the preceding two centuries, Afghans do not like being occupied. If a second-generation Taliban is now growing and creating new alliances it is not because its sectarian religious practices have become popular, but because it is the only available umbrella for national liberation. Initially, the middle-cadre Taliban who fled across the border in November 2002 and started low-level guerilla activity the following year attracted only a trickle of new recruits from madrasas and refugee camps. From 2004 onwards, increasing numbers of young Waziris were radicalised by Pakistani military and police incursions in the tribal areas, as well as devastating attacks on villages by unmanned US “drones”. At the same time, the movement was starting to win active support from village mullahs in Zabul, Helmand, Ghazni, Paktika, and Kanfdahar provinces, and then in the towns. By 2006 there were reports of Kabul mullahs who had previously supported Karzai’s allies but were now railing against the foreigners and the government; calls for jihad against the occupiers were heard in the north-east border provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan.”(8)

By 2006 the regrouped Taliban was able to launch offensives which shocked the NATO forces. Even as they increased their levels of military presence, the occupiers displayed their profound myopia as to the real situation. The British Foreign Secretary, John Reid, announced a doubling of the number of British troops in 2006. He said he hoped “they could return without firing a single shot”. Instead these troops faced continuous and serious action up to the point when they handed over their positions in Helmand province to the US army in 2014.

Reid and the British government were oblivious to the history they were entering. “Even though the British were supposedly the experts in counterinsurgency, there to show the Americans how it was done, journalist Jean MacKenzie had to clue them in to the fact that the locals absolutely hated them, even though they had just arrived. ‘The only place on the planet where the British army would be less welcome,’ she explained, ‘is the Bogside in Londonderry. You have a history here of four wars, this being the fourth, in each case you’ve been seen as rapacious invaders coming here for your own benefit. And furthermore, not 100 miles from here is where your worst defeat in Afghan eyes took place. You could not have come to a more hostile, anti-British environment than Helmand.’”(9) Not only the army, but also the British public were sheltered from such important facts.

The attempt by Obama in 2009/10 to create a breakthrough with a surge in troop numbers petered out under the conditions of a sustained and growing insurgency. For the occupiers victory and peace were necessary, for the resistance survival and endurance was sufficient. The extended nature of the conflict meant that politicians were increasingly operating without public support. In December 2009, a US opinion poll indicated 57% opposed the war. A similar poll in Britain in January 2010 indicated than 59% opposed sending more troops. The good sense of the electorate counted little for those determined to make reality conform to their pet schemes for the people of Afghanistan. Even Trump thought there might be some possibility of overturning reality, with his own limited troop surge in 2017.

All to no avail. The fact is that an unrepresentative and unpopular government inside Afghanistan could not make the occupation palatable. Nor could foreign intervention produce anything other than such a government.

The occupying powers could not commit the numbers of external forces necessary to subdue an indigenous insurgency which had vast experience of military action on its own terrain. The attempt at state building in the end was reduced to sustaining a huge body of Afghan soldiers and armed police whose discipline and effectiveness could not be made to match that of the Taliban led forces.

President Biden merely accepted the inevitable. On April 14th 2021, he said:” We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan – hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result.” On July 8th, announcing that troop withdrawal would be complete by the end of August, he said: “After 20 years – a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Security and defence Forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded, and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health – I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectancy of achieving a different outcome.”

The Afghanistan that has been left behind

Up to today, the war remains lethal for the people of Afghanistan. The united Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported 5,183 civilian casualties in the first six months of 2021, with 1,659 killed and 3,524 injured.

According to the “Costs of War” project at Brown University about 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. This figure covers deaths as a direct result of the war. It does not include deaths caused by disease, loss of access to food, water, infrastructure and other indirect consequences of the war.

More than 71,000 of those killed have been civilians. Between 66-69,000 Afghan troops were killed. 2.7 million Afghans were forced abroad, mostly to Iran. 4 million Afghans are displaced within the country, whose total population is 36 million. The study also states: “Afghan land is contaminated with unexploded ordinance, which kills and injures tens of thousands Afghans, especially children, as they travel and go about their daily chores.

The study gives US war costs at $2.261 trillion. This does not include the cost of lifetime care for US veterans, nor does it include interest payments on money borrowed to fund the war.

For Britain the war resulted in 457 deaths, and 10,382 casualties. The actual impact on those who served with the armed forces was much greater. The Royal British Legion estimates that between three and six per cent of homeless people come from an armed forces background. But even the Legion acknowledges this is likely to underestimate the problem. Unemployment among veterans is estimated at 7 per cent compared to 5 per cent for non-veterans. Trauma studies indicate that for deployed personnel 4 per cent suffer PTSD, while this rises to 6 per cent among combat troops. Doubtless there are many complex problems that veterans face which are not captured in these figures.

As for the financial cost, in May 2021, the British government, in a written answer to Parliament, stated that the total cost of “Operation Herrick” from HM Treasury Special Reserve was £22.2 billion. This is only one source of funding for the intervention.

In a Ministry of Defence letter dated 13 July 2015, the total cost for the Afghan operation between 2001/2 to 2013/14 was given as £21.3 billion. Frank Ledwidge’s study “Investment in Blood” gives a figure of £37 billion by 2013, and an estimate of £40 billion by 2020. The National Army Museum website makes an estimate of £37 billion – meaning around £2,000 from every household in Britain. It’s probably best not to wait for an early clarification from the British government.

As for the general condition of Afghanistan after 20 years of NATO intervention, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published a Response Plan in January this year.(10) It states: “The trajectory of needs and scale of response over the life of this HRP paint a shocking picture of escalating suffering, hunger and danger”.

It reports, 18.4 million people in humanitarian need – half the population. Afghanistan now has the second highest number of people in emergency food insecurity in the world. Nearly one in two children will face acute malnutrition in 2021. 30.5 million people require social assistance from the government and development agencies to help them cope. Desperation is leading to families marrying off young daughters and sending children to work.

UNICEF reports: “The health system is struggling to absorb internally displaced persons, refugees and returnees, as well as additional caseloads related to COVID-19. Lack of health service coverage and capacities are limiting access to essential health care, particularly in hard to reach areas. Child immunization declined by 22 per cent in the second quarter of 2020…”(11) Inevitably, in situations of great social stress, the burden is most loaded on the vulnerable. 74 per cent of children experience violent discipline, including psychological aggression and/or physical punishment, in their homes. 67% of women are unable to access health services without a male escort.

As for the general economic situation, before the war Afghanistan already had a long term problem of stagnation. Between 1950 and 2003, its GDP grew just over three times, compared to the average of 29 other East Asian countries which grew an average of seven times. Per capita GDP was unchanged in Afghanistan between these years, while the 29 other East Asian countries experienced a per capita growth of two and a half times over. Afghanistan was neither receiving, nor generating any substantial capital investment.(12)

Any growth since 2003 has been distorted by the need to service the occupation and the continuing war. John Sopko, US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction asks “the big question” of “after all the money, $86 billion, and 20 years, why did we see such poor results?” His own report indicates that much of the billions on infrastructure went to waste, and that the lack of oversight led to much corruption. Although $86 billion seems a huge sum, the “poor result” is also linked to the $2.261 trillion spent on paying for the war. All these “regime change” wars bear the common trait of much vaster sums being spent destroying the country than those spent on rebuilding it.

According to the World Bank, the poverty rate was 47% in 2020, compared to 36% in 2007. Unemployment stood at 25%.

There is no relief in sight either. the World Bank reports a decline of GDP of 1.9% in 2020; and forecasts growth of 1% in 2021; 2.6% in 2022, and 3% for 2023. The anticipated growth is well below the forecast average for South Asia, which is 6.8% for 2021; 6.8% for 2022, and 5.2% for 2023.(13) Unless Afghanistan receives substantial capital inflows the prospects for the people are grim.

Facing the facts and the future

Some politicians who have supported the debacle are now refusing to face the facts. The enemy of the past twenty years, the Taliban, are now going to play a major, or dominant, role in the future governance of Afghanistan. Those who refuse to recognise the failure are obviously capable of repeating it.

In the parliamentary debate on July 8th, the Commons debated the government’s statement on withdrawal. The government recognised that it was unable to continue its policy without US involvement, so British troops are being withdrawn within the US timescale.

Prime Minister Johnson had a serious problem of dressing up the failure as a success. He simply ignored the actual struggle against the Taliban. Instead he reduced the war to an anti-terrorist operation focusing solely on Al- Qaeda. He said: “On the morning after 11 September, few would have predicted that no more terrorist attacks on that scale would be launched from Afghanistan in the next 20 years”, He did not add that even fewer might have predicted that the Taliban would control the majority of the country twenty years later.

His only references to the Taliban was to excoriate their social policies, which NATO had changed. Apart from that, he gloried in the US agreement with the Taliban that they would not allow Afghanistan’s soil to be used to threaten the US and its allies. He did not explain why it took twenty years of terrible war to get such a simple result. Nor did he explain at which point the British government acknowledged that it could not prevent the Taliban returning to power.

On behalf of the Shadow Front Bench, Angela Rayner responded. Unlike Johnson, she made it explicit that the Taliban were going to achieve “wider control”. However, she appeared to suggest that there was an argument for remaining. She said: “…If we leave without putting a plan in place to ensure that Afghanistan does not go back to the conflict and violence of the past, we will have failed those who have given so much over the past 20 years.” To place “conflict and violence” in the past is actually to pretend that the war was somehow a lesser period of violence than Taliban rule. Simply untrue, and a failure of political nerve.

She asked Johnson whether he argued for or against US withdrawal. Johnson didn’t bother to reply – as if he would confront the US on such as issue! She asked him whether he offered an alternative, but gave no indication as to what the argument to remain might actually involve. Her preoccupation was to honour those in Britain who had sacrificed life and limb. Certainly it must be very painful for anyone who supported the war to address such people. Her sincerity was clear, as she reported her own brother had served, and she evidently must have experienced great anxiety and concern. But socialists must stare reality in the face, even when confronting such a tragic failure of British foreign policy.

Rayner also challenged Johnson on the budget cuts in aid to Afghanistan. Again Johnson ignored the edge. But, admirable though the challenge was, Afghanistan needs a great deal more than a little extra British aid after twenty years of war.

The NATO withdrawal offers Afghanistan the chance of a better future, one guided by the Afghan people themselves. The most appropriate support will come from the neighbouring countries who share not just boundaries, but kin across those boundaries. Afghanistan’s greater integration into the regional economic and political initiatives is the only way its untapped resources and human potential can be fully developed.

Already the patterns of this are emerging. The Chinese government has met a Taliban delegation to examine future co-operation. India, Iran and Pakistan are also realigning their political relations with the Taliban in the light of NATO’s withdrawal. The member and observer states of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will increase their engagement. Even Turkey has offered to run and protect Kabul airport. If much is yet unclear the obvious alternative path of development for Afghanstan is visible. Even Johnson recognised the option: “It will take combined efforts of many nations, including Afghan’s neighbours, to help the Afghan people to build their future …” A great pity this wasn’t recognised a couple of decades sooner.

For socialists in Britain it is essential to draw the conclusion on the need to end such grotesque displays of imperial arrogance. Immediately forcing the British government to end its support for the war and siege upon Yemen has to be the priority. The only country in the world with a greater problem of hunger than Afghanistan is Yemen. Britain’s involvement in worsening and prolonging a catastrophe for the Yemeni people. Action on this will be the first proof that people are learning the lessons of the debacle in Afghanistan.


(1) All figures from “Revolution in Afghanistan”, Fred Halliday, New Left Review 112 (Nov/Dec 1978).

(2) Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, translation at

(3) Elaheh Rostami-Povey “Afghan Women”, p.20

(4) Malalai Joya “Raising My Voice”, p.60

(5) Syed Saleem Shahzad “Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban”, p.116

(6) New Statesman 16 Dec 2002, “John Pilger reveals the American plan: a new Pearl Harbour”

(7) Elaheh Rostami-Povey ibid, p.72

(8) Tariq Ali “Mirage of the good war”, in “The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan”, Nick Turse (ed.), p.56

(9) Scott Horton “Fool’s Errand”, p.169

(10) OCHA “Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan 2018-2021 (January 2021 revision)

(11) UNICEF “Humanitarian Action for Children 2021 – Afghanistan (15 Dec 2020)

(12) All calculations based on Angus Maddison “Contours of the World Economy 1-2030”, ps 175-177

(13) World Bank “Global Economic Prospects”, June 2021

The above article was originally published here by Labour Outlook.