In August of 1981, almost 40 years to the day, Drew Middleton wrote this analysis in the New York Times: “American intelligence analysts, modifying earlier public assessments, now say they believe that the Soviet military forces in Afghanistan are in serious trouble and that their predicament will worsen over the next six months.”
The Russians would ignore the warnings and continue losing young men in battle and spending millions of rubles for the next eight years before they left Afghanistan like many armies before them: with their tail between their legs. Afghanistan became Russia’s Vietnam. More than 14,000 Russian troops would be killed. Civilian casualties were estimated from a half million to two million. The war created two to five million refugees.
Was it worth it? Of course not.
Today, as the Taliban take over Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani flees the country, perhaps with suitcases of American hundred-dollar bills, I’ve read countless op-eds and carefully crafted spins on what went wrong and who is to blame for this 20-year, $100 billion, failed attempt by the United States at regime change.
To our courageous soldiers, the ones who did lose comrades and/or limbs in the never-ending war, the ones sitting at home paralyzed by post-traumatic stress disorder, I ask the same question: Was it all worth it?
And what did your commanders tell you to say you were fighting for? Revenge for 9/11? An attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden, who was hiding over in Pakistan? Did you think you would bring American-style democracy to a country where many did not desire it? Certainly, it was never to preserve my own democratic way of life in the US of A, no matter what the halftime football flyovers, the hometown parades and the wounded warrior rollouts would have us believe. I know better.
You were played, first by “President de facto” Dick Cheney and his sidekick George W. Bush, and then by drone-happy Barack “I’m never to blame” Obama and finally by President “bone spur” Donald Trump himself, who used you like props in a reality show. Thank you for your service, indeed.
I’ve seen this act before. 2021 Kabul is Saigon circa 1975. Afghanistan is Vietnam 2.0, another war that was fought (and lost) not to preserve the American way of life but, instead, to flex our imperialistic muscles and keep those bomb factories back home a-humming. The more than 50,000 young men and women lost to that excursion? Cannon fodder for the corpulent rich.
In the wake of the Afghanistan debacle come the mea culpas and CYAs from our allegedly brilliant military and political leaders. Here’s Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who served in the Afghan war, quoted in the Washington Post this week: “We assumed the rest of the world saw us as we saw ourselves, and we believed that we could shape the world in our image using our guns and our money.”
Also from the Washington Post is this quote by Michèle Flournoy, an Obama administration alum and “one of the architects” of the 2010 troop surge: “In retrospect, the United States and its allies got it really wrong from the very beginning. The bar was set based on our democratic ideals, not on what was sustainable or workable in an Afghan context.” Oh gee, thanks for that special retrospective wisdom. When does your book come out?
Now, I admit, I only have a land-grant university education, I don’t live in a tony townhouse in Washington, D.C. and I have never appeared on a Sunday cable news show, but I think I could have told you the same in 2001 before you needlessly wasted all those lives and all of our taxpayer money. Democracy is not one-size-fits-all. Wasn’t it pure hubris to believe that all nations need our Yankee style of capitalistic freedom? Give ‘em a Starbucks and an Amazon Prime account and all will be well.
So here’s some future food for thought for you fearless leaders — that is, when you are not signing bloated Netflix deals, penning lucrative book contracts for books no one will actually read, leading insurrections or attempting to reshape your tarnished image by becoming a mediocre portrait artist. Next time you feel the impulse to invade a country such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Grenada or whatever comes next (Iran? Greenland?), do take note that the majority of the residents will not welcome you with flowers or the keys to their kingdom. They will, as we would, despise you as occupiers and invaders, and some will even try to blow your collective heads off. Keep this in mind: time will always be on their side.
And here’s a final thought. You might as well go ahead and study the history of said invaded country as well as all the foolish wars that preceded your “new” invasion before you once again send our precious young men and women there to die. Just try it. You might learn something.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of five books of essays and journalism. His newest book is “West of East” published by Finishing Line Press.