American forces flee the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan (left) and Saigon, South Vietnam (right) in nearly identical helicopters.

The Taliban is not the south — the North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.

US President Joe Biden

Despite briefly confusing South and North Vietnam, President Joe Biden may have a point. The fall of Kabul and the fall of Saigon differ in at least one important way. Following the withdrawal of US occupation forces in Vietnam, the southern puppet state lasted for two years before national liberation forces entered Saigon. Kabul held out for barely a month against the Taliban.

Having swept through the majority of provincial capitals in the last few weeks, the Taliban faced little to no resistance seizing the country. As the Taliban approached the capital, desperate Afghans attempted to board planes bound for international destinations. Some died (or were murdered by US forces) in the process, and many more hid in their homes.

Here enters Western media, which not only largely ignored the Taliban’s successful campaign over the last month, but also the horrific toll of the 20 year American war.

Across the globe images of desperate Afghans attempting to flee the advancing Taliban have rightfully shocked and horrified. To some extent, this is bizarre.

At the time of the American invasion of the country in 2001, nearly 90 percent of Americans, and the majority of Europeans in countries such as France and the United Kingdom, supported the American onslaught. Now that the grim reality is not being hidden, they appear to have buyer’s remorse. 

Nearly ten people are killed as Afghans attempt to flee the advancing Taliban at Kabul airport. 

This sentiment was expressed clearly by a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and House Armed Services Committee, Jim Langevin. Langevin. The representative for the state of Rhode Island wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, “I’m a Democrat Who Opposed the Withdrawal. This Catastrophe is Why.” 

“The consequences of our decision to abandon Afghanistan are now on full display for the world to see. It didn’t have to be this way,” Langevin wrote. Yes, Langevin, it did have to be this way.

What is happening in Afghanistan is not the consequence of the American withdrawal; this is an obfuscation. It is the consequence of nearly half a century of American covert actions against the country, and two decades of open imperialist war. 

Why are members of the American government so perturbed by the Taliban’s advance? The Taliban, now claiming to be reformed and defenders of women’s rights, are only emulating the US’s closest allies. Other than the lack of oil wealth, what separates the Taliban from America’s friends ruling Saudi Arabia and Pakistan?

In fact, prior to the US invasion of 2001, the Taliban government of Afghanistan was recognized by three countries: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, all three US allies boasting generous weapon deals. 

Having reduced the country to cinders over the course of the last 20 years, the American shock at the rise (again) of the Taliban is, itself, surprising. As is tradition among imperial powers, the Americans decided their Afghan collaborators were to blame for the defeat.

“The president didn’t think it was inevitable the Taliban would take control. He thought the Afghan forces could fight,” said national security advisor Jake Sullivan on ABC’s Good Morning America. “We spent 20 years, tens of billions of dollars training them, giving them equipment, giving them support of U.S. forces for 20 years. When push came to shove, they decided to not fight for their country.”

“They decided not to fight.” As explanations go, this seems unlikely. This was one US armed and trained force colliding against another. The suffering now in Afghanistan is not the result of the US exit, but rather, the US entrance. While most place America’s entrance into Afghanistan in 2001, the Americans had already penetrated Afghan society as early as 1979. 

The Afghanistan That Could Have Been

One of the more highly circulated sets of photographs following the collapse of Kabul shows a series of women wearing skirts and revealing their hair, usually labelled “Women in Afghanistan in the 80s [or 70s] BEFORE the Taliban.”

American public officials, including former President Donald Trump, view these pictures as a window to a potential “Westernized” Afghanistan, one which the United States could recreate, using military force.

The critical context which the caption of the pictures and American officials both lack is that these pictures do not show a “Westernized” Afghanistan. Rather, they largely show the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a Marxist-Leninist socialist republic (or the monarchy just before).

While members of the US government may now share those pictures nostalgically, at the time, under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the US intelligence and war machine worked tirelessly to destroy one of the most progressive states in Afghanistan’s history. Unfortunately, they were successful.

Coming to power in the 1978 Saur Revolution, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan embarked on an ambitious series of reforms. Within the first years after the revolution, they broke up large estates for the benefit of the rural poor, banned child marriage, declared the sexes equal, and expanded access to education

Before the revolution’s land reform program, less than five percent of the population owned nearly half of all arable land.

Much of the American hand-wringing over this withdrawal allegedly concerns the status of women in the country, though their focus is invariably clothing. Looking at the actual advances of women in Afghanistan, one inevitably comes to Anahita Ratebzad, the founder of the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW).

Following the revolution, and partially under Ratebzad’s leadership, Afghanistan underwent a social revolution: Thousands of women fought against reactionary forces in Afghanistan, 85,000 women joined schools, and the overall literacy rate of Afghanistan jumped 20 percentage points in just a few years.

As Ratebzad memorably wrote in the Kabul Times (28 May 1978): ”Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country….Educating and enlightening women is now the subject of close government attention.”

The socialist government of Afghanistan would last nearly 14 years, though the time proved too short to fully implement many of these reforms. This is because less than a year after the People’s Democratic Party seized the state, the United States, via the CIA, launched a vicious campaign against them, and in the process, empowered the most reactionary ideologues in the country. 

J is for Jihad

Hoping to end the socialist experiment in Afghanistan, the CIA found itself in need of willing Afghan allies. The logical path was to sponsor militant religious extremists, a choice the United States has made repeatedly.

The CIA’s other ally was, as always, their Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). 

Clearly seeking to further a fundamentalist agenda, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the University of Omaha, Nebraska’s Centre of Afghanistan Studies, partnered to produce a series of textbooks for children. These books bore titles such as “The Alphabet for Jihad Literacy” and instructed their youthful readers that communists and Soviets were nonbelievers who needed to be purged from the country. 

The CIA and ISI smuggled more than four million of these textbooks into Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, and spent more than 50 million dollars doing so. The Taliban continued reprinting the series after their rise to power, as their interests (namely the repression and the elimination of socialists) aligned with America’s.

The violent content of the books attempted to “stimulate resistance against invasion,” explained Yaquib Roshan of Nebraska’s Afghanistan center. “Even in January, the books were absolutely the same… pictures of bullets and Kalashnikovs and you name it.”

A USAID textbook smuggled into Afghanistan for use by the Mujahideen, now the Taliban.  

As these textbooks rolled into Afghanistan, as well as funding for hard-line religious schools to oppose the Soviets, then-Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto issued a warning to President George H. W. Bush: “You are creating a Frankenstein.”

Of course, she would be proven right. 

USAID’s textbook operation was but one tendril of US involvement in Afghanistan during the 70s and 80s. The CIA and ISI smuggled far more than reading material into the country, as part of a larger war against the Afghan people. 

We Put You In A Movie, Now Can We Please Have Our Missiles Back?

For the revolutionaries of Afghanistan, the textbooks were the least of their worries.

In 1979, alongside USAID’s campaign, the CIA (and, again, the ISI) launched Operation Cyclone. Operation Cyclone would become one of the CIA’s most expensive and longest lasting secret operations. For ten years, between 1979 and 89, the CIA provided jihadist fighters, the Afghan Mujahideen, with billions of dollars of both weaponry and direct financing.

In what has been described as the “biggest bequest to any Third World insurgency,” the CIA was funneling more than 600 million dollars per year to the mujahideen by 1987. Recipients of this aid included Osama bin Laden, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Osama bin Laden is of course the Saudi perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks, and a member of the bin Laden family, which enjoyed a close relationship with the Bush family.

Abdul Ghani Baradar is one of the founders of the Taliban, who is now potentially set to be the next Taliban president. He was previously captured by the CIA and ISI in 2010, but was conveniently released in 2018 at the request of the United States, and returned to his work with the Taliban. 

Desperate to defeat the communists in Afghanistan, the United States, in sparking the mujahideen movement, laid the groundwork for both Baradar’s founding of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s involvement in Al Qaeda. The spiraling jihadist violence in the country eventually triggered a Soviet invasion, to defend their socialist allies.

The dedication of Rambo III, which the Guinness Book of World Records deemed the most violent film ever made in 1990. There were 221 acts of violence, with at least 70 explosions, and over 108 characters killed. Imitating the bloody reality of Operation Cyclone, many of these deaths were caused stinger missiles. 

One of the critical and most famous pieces of equipment gifted by the CIA to their pre-Taliban allies was the Stinger missile system, a surface-to-air system which allowed the mujahideen to target Soviet aircraft. The CIA gave the mujahideen at least 250 stinger launchers, that we are aware of, and perhaps as many as 1,500 missiles.

In the American public imagination, the United States, via the stinger missile, helped a brave mujahideen resistance defend their homeland against Soviet aggression as a purely reactive measure.

Almost unbelievably, the 1988 film Rambo III was entirely centered around this narrative. Rambo goes to Afghanistan to help the brave mujahideen “liberate” their country from the communists and rescue his friend from the clutches of a sneering Soviet bureaucrat. 

Unsurprisingly, the makers of Rambo III had mistaken their history. The United States did not supply the mujahideen in response to the Soviet invasion. CIA assets purposefully supported the fighters against the local communist government in order to cause the Soviet invasion of the country. American-financed mujahideen arrived in Afghanistan long before the first Soviet helicopters. They had gotten it entirely backwards.

The CIA, the ISI, and their mujahideen foot soldiers successfully drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan and toppled the socialist government, ultimately seizing Kabul (for the first time) in 1992.

Two years later, the Taliban would be founded, and almost to a man, their leadership were former mujahideen who had been supplied by the Americans

Zbigniew Brzeziński, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, was asked in 2000 (as the world watched the outcome of the Taliban’s first reign in horror) whether he regretted his role in creating them via Project Cyclone.

He tellingly replied: “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into an Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?”

Despite Brzeziński’s insistence, some corners of Washington had certainly come to regret the level of American involvement in Afghanistan. Or, at least, they regretted that the mujahideen (after 1994, the Taliban) had held on to so many unused stinger missiles following the withdrawal of the Soviets. Now, in a bizarre reversal, the CIA sought to buy weapons from their former mujahideen.

Failing to convince their proxies to return the stinger missiles, the CIA launched Operation MIAS (Missing In Action Stingers) in an attempt to repurchase the stinger missiles in a world historic case of seller’s remorse. Congress allocated tens of millions of dollars to send individual CIA agents across weapons markets in Afghanistan and Pakistan to buy back the missiles one by one.

Former CIA agent Philip Agee, author of Inside the Company: CIA Diary, eloquently describes the debacle, which failed to buy back any serious number of the missing weapons:

The Taliban Commits A Fatal Error: They Became Bad For Business

Despite good early relations with the United States, the Taliban would soon encounter problems with their former benefactors (beyond the missile snafu).

Hopes were high at the outset of Taliban rule. As a US diplomat said in 1997, “the Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.” One can almost imagine a US diplomat saying this today. 

It seemed Unocal, the former pipeline company based out of California, would fulfill the role of Afghan Aramco. The company had big plans for Afghanistan, opening offices in Kabul through which to negotiate with the Taliban. Journalist Ahmed Rashid’s work Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Western Asia, makes the case that Unocal security forces, along with the CIA, continued supporting the Taliban into the mid-late 90s in an attempts to secure a pipeline deal.

Ronald Reagan sits with Mujahideen fighters in 1983, many of whom would go on to join the Taliban.

Unocal even returned to the University of Omaha’s Centre for Afghanistan Studies (which produced those marvelous textbooks), the oil giant donated $900,000 to the university so that they could open a school in Kandahar. The school’s purpose? To train pipe fitters and electricians for the coming oil line.

Unfortunately for Unocal and those hoping to build an Afghan Aramco generally, the “Frankenstein” Bhutto predicted a decade earlier made business difficult.

“Oil companies cannot build pipelines which are vulnerable to civil wars, fast-moving political changes and events, instability and an environment beset by Islamic fundamentalism, drugs and guns,” wrote Rashid. This is certainly true, and sounds even more grim on the realization that the civil war, instability, fundamentalism, drugs, and guns were brought by the very people now bringing the pipeline.

After decades of CIA and ISI destabilization, Afghanistan was no longer an ideal host for foreign capital. The Taliban were not destined to be the new Saudis, as they lacked the royal family’s iron grip on the country. Afghanistan was, however, still valuable to the Americans. A report from the US Department of Energy claimed:

“Afghanistan’s significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from central Asia to the Arabian sea. This potential includes the possible construction of oil and natural gas export pipelines through Afghanistan.”

If only the Americans could find a reason to get rid of the Taliban. This DoE report was published mere days before September 11, 2001.

An opening came about in the wake of America’s former mujahideen fighters (and personal associates of the Bush family) slamming aircrafts into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Within a month of the attack, the Taliban offered to turn Osama bin Laden over to the Americans if they would only stop the bombing of Afghanistan. Bush Jr. instantly rejected the offer, calling it “non-negotiable” and began the invasion of Afghanistan. 

The “End” Of A War For Profit And Control Was Always Going to Look Like This

The United States’ war against Afghanistan had been largely covert, until 2001. With the change in tactic to open invasion, American priorities also shifted. There was no more Soviet Union to defeat, and no more socialist government to dismantle.

Afghanistan, however, was still a “potential transit route for oil” and also held a massive deposit of valuable minerals. The American goal posts in Afghanistan moved from confronting communism to openly looting the country. 

More than 250,000 people were killed in the US invasion of Afghanistan. American special forces committed horrific war crimes, often deploying in nighttime raids where they would butcher civilians and hide the evidence.

The infrastructure was left totally crippled, with the Americans turning the entire country into a battlefield. Of all civilians killed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2019, nearly half were killed in American drone or air strikes

Despite any US “withdrawal” drones and special forces will remain in the country, haunting Afghans for years to come.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, they not only brought soldiers, but also geologists. Several years into the occupation the US announced the “discovery” of a vast array of lithium (used for batteries in electronics such as laptops and phones, as well as solar devices).

An internal Pentagon memo went as far as to dream that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Now-disgraced General David Petraeus, then commander of US Central Command, said, “There is stunning potential here. There are lots of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.” 

With Afghanistan sitting on more than one trillion dollars worth of minerals, it is unsurprising that the United States worked illegally with various militias to run mines across the country during its tenure as occupier of Afghanistan.

Many of these American sponsored mineral (copper, lithium, gold) mines used child labor, forcing children to harvest ore in cruel conditions. 

Even the Taliban’s recent return to power seems unlikely to interrupt this lucrative business:

“The only way to realistically economically reintegrate the Taliban back into Afghanistan’s economy is with mining,” said Emily Scott King, the former director of the Task Force for Stability and Business Operations’s natural resource group in 2019. “It can work within the hierarchy that the Taliban is used to, with commanders running small processing facilities or becoming the brokers for small miners.”

The fall of Kabul is far from a disaster for the United States. Whether it be through mining, bloated military contracts, or the stocks of weapons manufacturers, those who sought to make money in Afghanistan already have.

The tragedy and violence which has befallen the Afghan people for the last half-century is entirely irrelevant to that calculation. 

Terrified people fleeing would have been the image of US withdrawal in 2021, 2031, or 2041. This entire crisis was manufactured by the United States, and has been decades in the making.  Though the horror of the US occupation of Afghanistan has, perhaps, come to an end, the occupation of their studious pupils, the Taliban, may not be much of an improvement.

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Michael Avanzato is a Research Affiliate with the Palestine Land Studies Center in Beirut. He received his M.A. in Public Policy and International Affairs from the American University of Beirut.