By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
Recently a book was published in Germany by Michael Lüders Hybris am Hindukusch – Wie der Westen in Afghanistan scheiterte (Hybris at the Hindu kush. How the West failed in Afghanistan, Verlag C.H.Beck, 2022). The author, Michael Lüders, is one of the best informed German Mideast experts. He is chairman of the German – Arab Society, succeeding the former well-known Mideast expert and book author Peter Scholl Latour. Lüders’ books have become bestsellers, including books about the Arab spring and Iran. The book offers in depth a lot of facts for the attentive observer to draw relevant parallels to the actual war in Ukraine and the positioning of the West, in particular the US and Great Britain.
The focus of Lüders’ book is to describe the total “failure” of the 20 years of war in Afghanistan. A war that ended in a debacle, when August 15th 2021 the US and its NATO allies hastily withdrew their troops. This was preceded by almost two years of secret negotiations, that had started under President Trump in 2018, between US representatives (for example Khalilzad) and the Taliban, which by August 2021 had de facto conquered back the entire territory of Afghanistan.
No lessons learned from the failed Afghanistan war
No lessons seem to have been learned from the “Great Game” wars that were fought in the 19th century by Great Britain in Afghanistan against Tsarist Russia, Lüders writes in his foreword. At the time Great Britain was obsessed about Russia’s growing influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which led to several wars in Afghanistan. December1979 on orders of then Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev, the Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan. The war lasted for ten years and ended in total defeat, which was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. From 2001 to 2021 in the name of “War against terrorism” (Enduring freedom) the US and its NATO allies on the basis of Article Five of the NATO Statutes, decided to launch war against Afghanistan, as a revenge for the Terrorist 9/ 11 attacks in New York, killing 3000 civilians; according to Lüders the US and its NATO allies fought this 20 year long war “without clearly defined strategic aims.” They financed a corrupt regime in Kabul, while thousands of civilians died as result of drone attacks and nightly bombing raids. The result of this war is that Afghanistan today stands at the verge of a devastating famine – while drug cultivation has tremendously increased.
How the war ended
On 15th of August 2021 the Taliban moved into the presidential palace in Kabul – 20 years after the war had been initiated by the US and its NATO allies. It was Washington’s and NATO’s longest war. It all had started 9/11 2001 after the bloody terrorist attacks in New York. Even if no single terrorist murder had come from Afghanistan, as Lüders observes, the country Afghanistan was considered by the US as an “ideal” site, since the Taliban was in power there. Fighters that had given Osama bin Laden refuge. “Rather than attacking Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the US, where 15 out of 19 Terrorists originated from, or bombard Hamburg where a terrorist cell around Mohamed Atta had prepared the 9/ 11 attacks, the US chose to declare war against Afghanistan.” A few weeks after September 11 “the Taliban got overthrown in Kabul, but 20 years later they had an incredible comeback and marched into the capital Kabul in 2021, without facing any resistance.” Latest since 2005 the defeat at the Hindu kush seemed probable, but no politician or military saw any reason to change course. The West failed in Afghanistan as did the British Empire and the Soviet Union before. The plan up to the last minute followed by Washington and NATO to get “law and order” installed with a puppet government in Kabul and Western trained security forces, could not and did not work, Lüders states.
When NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg stated after the taking of power of the Taliban, that they did not expect this (August 17 2021), what does that say about the capacity of the military alliance? What does such a grave misestimation say about NATO and its dealing with Russia and China? the author asks.
He points to the tremendous “gap” between moral self-exaltation of western actors and the “reality of the war conduct” in Afghanistan, that was declared as a war in defense of humanitarian aims and democracy, which in reality it cost the life of thousands of civilians, while drug barons and corrupt warlords were courted.
Lüders starts with a short review of the history of wars in Afghanistan, focusing on the British instigated war – known as “Great Game” against Tsarist Russia, which the colonial Great Britain obsessively feared as great rival in Central Asia. This “Great Game” dominated the entire 19th century. “Britain was obsessed”, according to Lüders, that “Russia on the traces of Turk- Mongolian conquerors could via Afghanistan invade British India and fight against London’s predominance in its crown colony (India).” Hence there were three senseless Afghanistan wars – the first 1839 till 1842; the second 1878 till 1880; after the end of the 1. World War 1919, there was a third.
In December 1979 the soviet General Secretary Brezhnev decided to invade Afghanistan. 1979 there was also a revolution in Iran overthrowing Shah Reza Pahlavi who had been installed with the help of the US. Osama bin Laden had at that time a recruitment office for “freedom fighters” in Peshawar (Pakistan), later becoming Al Qaida. In 1986 he returned to Afghanistan to build up his own guerrilla group. They got American money and instructors and weapons; the Arab Afghans made the “Jihad” a task of life. Osama wanted to carry Jihad into the Arab world and overthrow pro- western governments. He fled from Saudi Arabia via Sudan to Afghanistan. The war which the Soviets conducted in Afghanistan was disastrous. They became the victims of the Mujaheddin.
The real “game changer” of the Soviet war, were the “US Stinger missiles” given to the Mujahidin from 1986 on. In 1989 the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was completed. Lüders however makes a very important remark at one point, by referring to an interview that was given by former US NSC advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1998 to the French magazine “Nouvel Observateur” in which Brzezinski revealed what has remained a classical US Modus operandi up to this say. He was asked: “Former CIA director Robert Gates writes in his memoirs that the American Secret services had begun to assist the Afghan Mujaheddin half a year before the soviet invasion began. Were you part of that?”“
Brzezinski: “Yes. The official version was that the CIA would help Mujahidin in the course of the year 1980, i.e. after soviet invasion December 24 1979. In reality, and all this was kept secret, the reality was different. On the 3rd of July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive to give the adversaries of the pro- soviet regime in Kabul secret aid. The same day I wrote to the president and declared that this helps and would cause a soviet military invasion.”
Nouvel Observateur: “Did you have the intent that the Soviet could now start a war and did you look for means and ways to provoke them into this?”
Brzezinski: “Not exactly. We didn’t force the Russians to intervene, but we consciously increased the probability that it would happen this way.”(sic)
Nouvel Observateur: “When the Soviets started the invasion with the intent that they wanted to fight against the secret engagement of the USA in Afghanistan, nobody believed you. Yet this was not entirely wrong. Don’t you regret anything today?”
Brzezinski: “What should we regret? The secret operation was an excellent idea. The result was that the Russians went into the Afghan trap and you ask me that I regret this? The day when the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: ‘Now we have the chance to stick to the USSR their Vietnam War. And indeed for almost ten years Moscow was forced to conduct a war that surpassed the possibilities of the government. This caused a general demoralization and finally the collapse to the Soviet empire.”
Nouvel Observateur: “And you don’t regret to have supported Islamic fundamentalism by giving future terrorist weapons and knowhow?”
Brzezinski: “What is more important to world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some fanaticized Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US discovered the political and economic potential of the CIS states: the Caspian region, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan etc. Geostrategic analysts had the idea to use their resource via pipelines. At the time US was interested for example to build the UNOCAL pipeline to circumvent Teheran and Moscow.
The trigger for war in Afghanistan
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack “the US wanted revenge” and according to Lüders at that time the Bush government seriously reflected about the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan first” and Bush’s slogan “Who is not with us, is against us” became the key slogan to get the entire West mobilized for the war at the Hindukush, an ideal bomb throw terrain, that Trump later had called “shithole country.”
According to Lüders, what was decisive was however something else. “The war on terror” became the blank check for the “military industrial complex” not only in the US. It became an “alibi” to conduct in more than 80 states of the world, a covert or open war against resistant’s of the United States, in the name of anti- terrorism. This war from 2001 to 2021 according to the US Brown University has demanded more than 900.000 peoples’ life , most of them in Iraq and in Afghanistan and it cost more than 8 trillion (8000 billion !) US dollars. (Brown University: Costs of the 20-year war, pg. 202) According to unofficial estimate there were 1 million dead in Iraq alone. Domestically the ‘war against terror’ allowed an unprecedented battle in favor of a strong state that systematically began to undermine civilian rights. In the US the domestic policy was militarized by creating the ‘Homeland Security.’ The prisoner camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, where up to this day terrorism suspects are imprisoned without any accusation, became the incarnation of the ‘twisting of law’ ordered by the state; terms like “torture” were revived, which revived an Orwellian nightmare by using intensive questioning techniques. Last but not least the first theater of war, Afghanistan, gave the USA as well as NATO the possibility for military expansion in the CIS successor states such as Kirgizstan (USA used the air base Manas till 2014), and Uzbekistan (USA used the Air Base Temez till 2015) from where they flew reconnaissance flights, supply and battle deployments.
Latest in 2005 it became clear to the US and NATO military that they couldn’t control the rural areas of Afghanistan. Lüders referred to the so called “Afghanistan papers” which got in part published along the Freedom of Information Act in 2019 by the Washington Post. These papers, according to Lüders, reveal the tremendous “gap” between the attempt to “embellish” the Afghanistan war by the political media, especially in the US and the “true reality” of the war. In 2006 the Taliban began a spring offensive with thousands of fighters who despite constant aerial bombardment could consolidate their positions in several southern provinces.
Latest in 2006 Western intervention forces would have had the possibility to think about withdrawal, Lüders notes. Yet they feared a loss of credibility if they would give in to a “shithole country”. So Washington continued their so called “nation building” in Afghanistan with the help of warlords and other heavy criminals, all covered by “a democratic façade.”
According to the author enough people in responsible positions knew in the US and in Germany and elsewhere that the Afghanistan way led only in one direction – into the abyss. But who wanted to risk his career with unpleasant truths? Especially on the high levels of politics, military and secret services? The other troop suppliers, among them Germany, became inevitably victims of their own “compliance” towards the main playwriter in Washington. Berlin remained “loyal” till the horrible end.
New weapons -Drones
Lüders emphasizes that the “American power in Afghanistan was based in two pillars: the military and secret services. The first which the CIA established were torture centers. Not only Afghan people were interrogated or mistreated; from Central Asia the Mideast and Africa prisoners were flown in. The worst torture chamber was located at the US Airforce. (…) At the same time Afghanistan became a field of application as well as experimental field for new weapon technology and drones. Unmanned fighter jets from the US, often steered from the US airbase Ramstein in Rhineland Palatia, work horses of a new form of High Tech warfare, had their premiere after 9/11. A real boom occurred after President Obama took office in 2009. Under his government term, drones became a central weapon in the “war against terror” not only in Afghanistan but also at the invisible front in Asia and Africa. To deploy drones against rebellious movements means nothing but the death of civilians and accept that. Alone between 2015 and 2020 the US flew more than 13,000 drone attacks in Afghanistan. 10.000 people supposedly were killed. Drone attacks devastated villages, nightly NATO Razzia spread terror and in reaction to this,” according to Lüders, “thousands of Taliban joined the rebels.”
The US wanted above all a pro- Western government in Kabul and politicians like President Hamid Karzai, as well as his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai were serving as willful puppets. With the consent of the CIA Ahmed Wali Karzai in 2005 had become governor of Kandahar, using his position to bring the opium trade in the South East under his control. In order to illustrate the immense corruption of official government representatives, Lüders quotes from an article in the “New York Times” that was published in 2013. The article reported that “since more than a decade thick bundles of American dollars made their way into the offices of the afghan President. Month after month in suitcases, back packs and sometimes even plastic bags- with the friendly recommendation from the Central Intelligence Agency.” This included several million Dollar deliveries per day. As result: The afghan political apparatus, which was built up by the West, did not differ in any way from a “mafioso network”, that accepts any means, in order to maintain its own privileges. They didn’t promote democratic institutions, but in the first place kleptocracy, as an Afghan expert Emran Feroz in his book “The longest war” (Frankfurt 2021) had written. While according to Lüders under the Taliban opium trade had been prohibited successfully, it had a new boom during the war. “Under the eyes of the puppet government, Afghanistan covered 80% (!) of the world- wide demand of heroin, in 2020 on 224.000 hectares opium was cultivated.. 2010 this had been 123.000 hectares,” Lüders documents in his book.
With Obama coming to power 2009 the Afghanistan Strategy of the US changed on two levels. On the one side Obama decided to massively increase US troops in the country – called “surge.” Tens of thousands of additional soldiers were sent to a war area. On the other side the Obama government flooded Afghanistan with aid money and military expenditures – which brought corruption up to new dimension. According to the “Afghanistan Papers” from 2,2 trillion Dollar – almost 800 billion disappeared in dark channels, to the accounts of warlords, politicians, drug barons in some tax havens. A significant part of this generous alimentation fell into the period of Obama. In comparison the Afghan GDP was in 2020 was 20 billion Dollars.
Finally under President Trump for one year the US and Taliban negotiated in a Luxury Hotel in Doha and then concluded a deal in summer 2019. The US would withdraw 14000 soldiers, Taliban conclude a peace solution with the Afghan government and end contacts with Al Qaida. Discussions were continued and on February 29 2020 USA and Taliban signed an “agreement” to determine US and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was a 4 pages document. Within 14 months the USA and its allies were to withdraw completely from Afghanistan till May 2021.
One should remember that the US spent 2,2 trillion Dollars for their engagement in Afghanistan- of which 21 billion dollars went into civilian projects i.e. 1% (!).The federal Government of Germany spent 17,3 billion Euro. The development ministry sent 2,8 billion Euro. Furthermore – according to a World Bank report- end of October 2021 14 million Afghans, that is every third, was threatened by acute food insecurity, till March 2022 this was supposed to increase even further to 22 million, which is more than half of the population. According to the prognosis 2022, more people could die of hunger than there were civilian dead in the 20 years of war! And the FT spoke about an “economic meltdown” of Afghanistan with 3,6 Million refugees.
The lessons to be learned
One of the lessons which the author Michael Lüders wants to draw from the Afghanistan debacle, is to point out the huge gap between the “political media representation” of the war, which only spoke about the noble anti- terrorism aims, the fight for universal values and democracy, and the dirty reality of the war, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of widows, orphans, and invalids, as well as millions of hopeless people. At the end of his book he referred to a famous Dwight Eisenhower speech on April 16 1953, who in his speech “The Chance for Peace” in front of the American Society of Newspaper Editors had stated that “the war has many loser but also winners,” above all the “military – industrial complex.”
In this speech President Eisenhower warned that “the worst to be feared is atomic war.(…) Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms in not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60.000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8.000 people.”
Lüders ends his book by underlining that what is needed today is an “education for peace”- i.e. the kind of attitude that people like Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt had, who helped build a constructive East- West dialogue, but who today would be denounced as Russia or China “understanders.”