Elsewhere others were celebrating. The US felt it had won a war without losing a single American soldier. For it was Afghans who had fought on their behalf. Hundreds of thousands had died and Afghanistan had been left with a shattered economy and government. Would the US take responsibility for Afghanistan in the future? Who were the Taliban that were featured in so much of the news?

Tom Twetten Covert Action Manager

The man who ran the CIA’s covert action in the latter part of the war now lives in rural Vermont. He’s never spoken publicly about Afghanistan before and I wanted to ask Tom Twetten about the American post-war plan.

Covert Action Manager Tom Twetten
Tom Twetten

Tom Twetten “We have this sort of piece of paper in our system, which is called “the finding”, that is signed by the President. Our finding on the Afghanistan said, “Push the Russians out, support the Afghans, give them all the support they need”. But, it didn’t say anything about what came next. I can remember being present at a congressional hearing in which one congressmen actually said, ‘So what party are you going to back?’ And we said, ‘Well, that’s not our problem, we don’t do that.’ We are a tool of foreign policy. That covert action tool worked, was successful in this case, and then over to you, diplomats. That was a problem of really bad timing, because ’88, ’89, the wall came down in Berlin. It was a major event of the 20th century, the end of the Cold War really, and Afghanistan fell off the bottom.”

Reconstruction of Afghanistan

There were no funds for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but what the Americans did leave was modern weaponry, some in the hands of Islamists increasingly connected to global terror networks.

Tom Twetten “There was one goal that trumped all others, help the Afghans defend their soil, kill the Russians. Who was there to do it? They were all Islamist’s, and we didn’t spend much time thinking about, you know, what degree of Islamist is it that we can’t tolerate.”

Twetten’s CIA had avoided the trap of outright occupation. But they had walked within a dangerously narrow and limited vision, funding brutal warlords, men linked to terrorists who would eventually kill thousands across the world. But the first to reap the consequences were not the Americans, but the Afghans themselves. 10 years of Soviet occupation had left Kabul largely intact. But when the Mujahideen seized the capital, they turned on each other, firing rockets from the ridgelines, destroying the very city and killing the very families they had fought to liberate. The Civil War, perhaps the very darkest period in Afghan history, lasted for five long years.

I asked these Afghan men about its impact on their lives and their city.

Taliban Extreme Islamists

It was out of this dark period that the Taliban emerged, believers in a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Many were the orphan children of the Soviet war, taught in fundamentalist schools. They captured 90% of the country in just 2 1/2 years. They’re infamous today for their brutality, but many Afghans were at first grateful that the Taliban had won, because they ended the rule of the warlords, the gangster militias and the Civil War.

Taliban Extreme Islamists

Villager “All these shops were looted and all the items stolen. All done by these militias, but during Taliban regime, none of this was happening. Now they don’t, now no one would steal, they would cut the thief’s hand and would hang it from that line. If someone would kill another one, they would immediately take the culprit to the Ghazi Stadium. They would take him there and would kill him. They would cut his neck since he had killed someone. Taliban’s government was a very good government. There was no fighting, no pick pocketing or stealing.”

I’m afraid many people in the centre of the old city of Kabul felt like that. After three years of seeing these great heroic leaders, the resistance against the Soviet Union, turned into these monsters of depravity, corruption, power and killing, the Taliban seemed a relief.

But for millions of Afghans, Taliban rule was hell. They banned girls from school, forced women to hide even their faces and they inflicted the most terrifying punishments. And yet, the West did not interfere. It wasn’t the Taliban’s cruelty that led to the next foreign invasion, it was this.

In the name of Islam

The attack on the twin towers in New York. The 9/11 event is etched in the memory of millions of people throughout the world.

9/11 Devastation
Twin Towers

The mastermind of 9/11 first came to Afghanistan to fight for Islam against the Soviet Union. He wasn’t an Afghan, nor were the 9/11 hijackers, but the Taliban government gave them refuge.

Once again, a superpower invaded and, this time, with good reason – to get Al Qaeda. The coalition brought many improvements to Afghanistan, particularly in the early days, but the US soon faced the almost irresistible temptations of Empire. Like the Soviets, they were tempted to reshape Afghanistan evermore in their own image.

Osama bin Laden al Qaeda
Al Qaeda

And, when the resistance began against them, like Britain and the Soviets before them, the coalition did not want to seem weak. Therefore, once again, another superpower and its allies were trapped into investing more and more into Afghanistan. Now, the Taliban has formed again and the country faces more people or even civil war.

We’re on our way to find Mullah Rocketi. He’s a Taliban commander who took the name Rocketi because used to fire a lot of rockets. The last time I met a Taliban commander, people pulled guns on me and, and threatened to kill me. This time, I’m really hoping for more of a political discussion.

Mullah Rocketi Taliban Commander

I found him in reflective mood thinking back on the invasion and the cycle of Afghan politics.

Taliban Warlord Mullah Rocketi
Mullah Rocketi

Mullah Rocketi “Taliban’s ruling was harsh and strict, especially on religious matters. But the fact that there was good security, everyone’s life and possessions were safe, was admired by people. With intervention of Westerners and Europeans, Afghans gained back some hope that they may rebuild and reconstruct their ruined Afghanistan. And on top of that there will be peace, security and political reforms. But then as time went by, with invasion of Europeans and Westerners, not only security wasn’t there, there wasn’t any peace. In past years in Afghanistan we have witnessed revolutions similar to the course of the one we see, rising in the dawn and declining back at sunset. One revolution swiftly followed by another one. And now when it is Karzai’s ruling, again we hear about the Taliban. So the rising is somewhat like, when one of them rises, the other one whistles from behind.”

Three mighty imperial powers; the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States, all came here, occupied and were trapped. For each, for the last 200 years, it was easy to enter Afghanistan, but proved very difficult to get out.

Helmand Restaurant, London with Tom Barfield

In Boston’s Helmand restaurant, owned by the sister of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, I reflected on these two centuries of Afghan history with my friend the historian Tom Barfield.

Afghan anthropology and history
Professor Tom Barfield

Tom Barfield “Foreigners always coming into Afghanistan think, ‘We have just what the Afghans need.’ and are surprised that the people aren’t buying it. And a little bit more knowledge would be there is nothing that has been tried militarily or civilian in Afghanistan that two empires before haven’t already succeeded or failed at doing. A little knowledge of that would be like, been there, done that. Or, you know, this road leads to a bad end.”

The price paid in these wars by the people of Afghanistan is unimaginable. A self-contained country targeted repeatedly by imperial powers, left with its own society shattered and over a million Afghan dead. This suffering and the intervention of all these foreigners, Victorian British and Soviet Russian, CIA and Bin Laden, and the current coalition of nations, has shaped modern Afghanistan. But, ultimately, this is a story that reveals, for me, less about Afghan itself and more about the foreigners.

There is something about invasion, particularly invasion of Afghanistan, which means that you go in very briefly and you get trapped because all these theories, your fear of Muslim terrorists, your fear of some other great superpower, your worries about your own private trap you in that country. And from that point on words, there’s nothing that you feel you can do other than to dig ever and more futilely deeper.

Afghanistan has been, for so many men, a place of heroism, self-sacrifice. And yet, in the end, all this energy, all this courage, was in pursuit of something which is simply wrong.

The perpetual war in Afghanistan has become known as The Great Game where vying countries call the bluff of each other.

External Links

Afghanistan Country Profile

The Story of the Afghan Warlords

I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad

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