THE ANGRY ARAB: The Lessons of the Taliban

The U.S. humiliation in Afghanistan shows that the empire can’t impose its will, no matter how much violence it inflicts, writes As`ad AbuKhalil.

Zalmay Khalilzad, left, the U.S. chief envoy, signs off on peace deal with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban leader, in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020. (State Department)

By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News

It was quite a spectacle for this century.  If Western media were not all tied to the war establishment, they would have commented on the symbolism: a U.S. envoy signing a peace agreement with an official representatives of the Taliban movement.

Had Osama bin Laden been alive, he may have been invited to the signing ceremony.  Younger readers did not live through the massive propaganda campaign by all Western governments against the Taliban back in 2001.  The U.S. war on Afghanistan was very popular then: at least 90 percent of Americans supported it in 2001. 

Conservatives and liberals united to convince public opinion that the removal of the Taliban from power was an American national priority.  The liberal organization, the Feminist Majority, aided the White House in its propaganda effort by releasing information on the Taliban’s war on women.  

But when U.S. bombs started to kill women and children on a regular basis, the Feminist Majority and other liberals were silent. (Among women’s rights activists — including some in Afghanistan — the Feminist Majority’s pro-military position on Afghanistan was controversial at the time.) 

George W. Bush and his wife briefly posed as feminist in an effort to persuade the public that the American invasion of Afghanistan is a humanitarian effort.

Disinformation About US Pretexts

First Lady Laura Bush meets with members of the State Department’s U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, June 15, 2004. (The White House, Tina Hager)

Much of the history of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is yet to be written.  So much disinformation surrounded the U.S. pretexts.  The U.S. said that it was invading Afghanistan because the Taliban government did not surrender bin Laden to the U.S.  In reality, the Taliban government said at the time that it would consider a U.S. request to surrender bin Laden if the U.S. would show evidence of his complicity in Sept. 11 (and the Taliban government reached the decision after holding a national tribal conference).  But the U.S. was not going to negotiate with the Taliban once the decision to invade was taken.

What is curious about the case of the Taliban is that the U.S. did not object to the Taliban’s seizure of power back in 1996.  By 2001, only three governments in the world recognized the Taliban’s government and all were close clients of the U.S. (UAE, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia).  Prince Turki Faisal (the head of Saudi foreign intelligence until days after Sept. 11) was one of the few officials in the region who had met with the Taliban-founder and leader Mullah Omar and who had longstanding relations with bin Laden.  In the summer before Sept. 11, the U.S. had praised the Taliban’s war on opium.

All this now seem to read like a conspiracy theory with no basis in reality, but the long U.S. history in Afghanistan stretches to the time when the U.S. decided that its war against the Soviets in Afghanistan would be more important than the welfare of the Afghan people.  When the Soviet Union was supporting secularism, feminism and modernity in Afghanistan, the U.S. was on the side of fundamentalism, obscurantism and reactionary organizations wishing to bring back the Middle Ages.  The U.S., after all, was in the same trench with bin Laden.

Taliban Gained Popularity

The U.S. quickly dislodged the Taliban government but never really took over the country.  The popularity of the Taliban (especially among the Pashtuns) was never in doubt; and the government that the U.S. set up in Afghanistan even increased the popularity of the Taliban further.

The Taliban, while reactionary, repressive, and misogynistic, never engaged in the corruption that has plagued Afghanistan ever since the U.S. set up a government there.  And the U.S. fought the war with reckless disregard for the lives of the Afghan people: year after year, the UN was chronicling the number of civilian casualties caused by U.S. bombing (and by the bombing of the Taliban although there are years when U.S. bombs caused more civilian casualties than Taliban bombs).   In the first year of the war, the U.S. Central Command was bragging about the pin-point accuracy of its bombs, that “only” 25 percent of its bombs and missiles had missed their targets.

“The U.S. will draw the same lessons it drew from Vietnam: that not enough force was used against the natives, and that the U.S. press was not committed enough to the occupation project.”

From the second year of the war at least, the U.S. knew that its puppet government would stand no chance of surviving without direct U.S. occupation of the country.  The Taliban quickly regrouped and mounted a fierce insurgency against the U.S. occupation force and the puppet government. 

Western media helped to cover up U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan (and the war crimes by its clients in the Afghan government and the so-called Northern Alliance before the ouster of the Taliban).  Instead of paying attention to civilian casualties, U.S. media were filled with stories on how women were now “liberated,” although little difference was made by the U.S. presence given the U.S. alliance with reactionary forces in society.

The U.S. lost the war in Afghanistan just as it lost the war in Iraq, and just as the U.S. and its allies have lost the war in Yemen.  Those three cases should be a lessons for the U.S. empire: that no matter how much massive violence the U.S. inflicts on a population, it can’t bring about its surrender.

Attendees at the Taliban-U.S. peace signing ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 29, 2020. (State Department/Ron Przysucha)

Avoiding a Vietnam Spectacle

The lesson of the three wars is that, while the military apparatus of empire has achieved tremendous development and advancement, the military capabilities of the enemies of the empire have also advanced a great deal.  The U.S. did not leave Iraq willingly and it won’t be leaving Afghanistan willingly.  The U.S. is leaving Afghanistan defeated, but the patriotic media won’t admit the obvious. The U.S. had long lost the war in Afghanistan, but has only stayed to avoid the spectacle of defeat in a nation still suffering from the humiliation of the Vietnam War.

Since the U.S. knew that the puppet government it set up in Kabul wouldn’t last for weeks after the withdrawal of the U.S. troops, scenes of Hanoi had to be avoided at all cost.  The process of negotiations with the Taliban started under the Obama administration and reached its culmination under President Donald Trump. Perhaps Obama did not have the political courage to withdraw and probably left the problem for his successor; the Qatari government hosted the Taliban’s office at U.S. behest, and it introduced both sides to each other.

“The U.S. had long lost the war in Afghanistan, but has only stayed to avoid the spectacle of defeat in a nation still suffering from the humiliation of the Vietnam War.”

The significance of the Afghanistan humiliation is the clear evidence that the U.S. can’t impose its will, no matter how much violence it inflicts.  Trump arrogantly declared that the war could have been won had the U.S. abandoned a reluctance to kill a million people.  But that was tried in Iraq (where a million Iraqis were killed), and the U.S. still could not win there.  The debates over the defeat in Afghanistan will go on for decades but the U.S. is unlikely to admit defeat, and the U.S. will try (as it did after Vietnam and after Iraq) to blame technical reasons or bad press for its inability to achieve success.

Ironically, despite the debacles of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. empire won’t retreat. If anything, the U.S. will draw the same lessons it drew from Vietnam: that not enough force was used against the natives, and that the U.S. press was not committed enough to the occupation project.

But the U.S. press could not have been more supportive. From the start — in both Iraq and Afghanistan — much of the press strove to provide pretexts and false evidence to justify the invasion of both countries.  In the case of Afghanistan, they pretended the Taliban were themselves behind Sept. 11 (when no evidence was ever presented and it is unlikely the Taliban knew about the plot). Later they pretended that Saddam Husayn himself was behind Sept. 11.

A staggering 70 percent of the American public believed in 2003 that Saddam had a role in Sept. 11, when in fact, Al-Qa`idah had no presence in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion of the country and the dismantling of Saddam’s security apparatus. The public only linked Saddam to Sept. 11 because the government and the media obfuscated the truth for political reasons.

The U.S. may leave Afghanistan but the U.S. will maintain a military presence (in various forms in 800 bases around the world).  The U.S. may retreat from Afghanistan, and even Iraq when the pretext of fighting ISIS withers away, but the war empire is as entrenched as ever.  The Democratic presidential debates have demonstrated that the war empire enjoys bipartisan support. 

But just as the U.S. is determined to impose its hegemony on a global scale, foes of the empire are as determined to reject U.S. dictates by all means necessary.

As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the “Historical Dictionary of Lebanon” (1998), “Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and “The Battle for Saudi Arabia” (2004). He tweets as @asadabukhalil

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15 comments for “THE ANGRY ARAB: The Lessons of the Taliban

  1. Zhu
    March 6, 2020 at 23:28

    Societal blood lust is why we do all our war crimes. Our third wars are much like our Indian wars. They let us rape, rob, torture and murder yin an industrial scale. When we run out of money to attack others, we’ll turn on each other.

  2. Hopeless
    March 6, 2020 at 10:28

    Shut down the arms mfg corporations and then watch the U.S. GDP. The purpose is served by periodic wars only. God help the people in the next country in the queu.

  3. Ma Laoshi
    March 6, 2020 at 01:50

    The Angry Arab gets the need for, and the widespread practice of, Imperial narrative management, as well as the imperative to avoid a “Saigon moment”. But at the same time, he exemplifies the brutal efficiency of the propaganda machine. In the past decade, the Dark Throne has had two, literal Saigon moments: in both Libya and Yemen, embassies or consular buildings were evacuated in a panic, before the unruly locals stormed the places and tore down the pirate flag flying over them. In the latter case, the US had to rely on the pesky Russkies to get their citizens out; maybe the worst was that Washington didn’t seem to care about their own people one way or another.

    But because none of it was on CNN it never registered, not even with Prof. AbuKhalil. I think a Kill Bill quote says it best about the Empire of Illusions: “If you were a moron, you could almost admire it.”

  4. Daniel Rafferty
    March 4, 2020 at 15:36

    THE ANGRY ARAB: The Lessons of the Taliban
    March 4, 2020


    • Peter Dahu
      March 5, 2020 at 16:13

      You need more Caps in your post.

      Also Angry Arab is a name given to the author who once ran the Angry Arab News Service blog.

      Please get informed and take your hand off the all Caps button.

    • Tim
      March 5, 2020 at 16:36

      You misunderstand: “The Angry Arab” is the title of Prof. As’ad AbuKhalil’s column (who is, of course, an Arab), and “The Lessons of the Taliban” is the title of this particular article.

    • Asad Abukhalil
      March 6, 2020 at 00:08

      The Angry Arab is not the title: it is my blog name.

  5. JS
    March 4, 2020 at 13:42

    Already seeing headlines about a US drone strike against Taliban forces attacking the Afghanistan security forces.

    So I guess whatever deal was just struck was immediately tossed in the trash.

  6. Jeff Harrison
    March 4, 2020 at 13:41

    Bravo, Angry Arab. The US has not learned the lesson that Rome could have taught it – leave a consul to keep an eye on things, leave the government and religion of the conquered alone, collect a decent tribute. Worked for Rome for centuries.

    • March 5, 2020 at 07:08

      And crucify those who resist.

  7. Kevin
    March 4, 2020 at 12:52

    The NeoCons get us into War. Then the ‘woke NeoLiberals’ legitimize the Wars; whether in the name of our Zionist “ally” or in name of “Muticulturalism & women’s rights

  8. rgl
    March 4, 2020 at 12:19

    The US has no desire to ‘win’ in Afghanistan. Without the need to replenish million dollar munitions, the arms manufacturers in the US would lose the golden goose. Both the Iraq war and the Global War of Terror are strictly and solely for economic reasons. Dictators? The US has supported many of them. Humanitarian Responsibility to Protect (R2P)? The US has killed exponentially more citizens of foreign countries than any home-grown despot ever did. The only thing the US wants to protect is the profits these wars generate for companies in individual states that US senators rely upon for constituents employment, and the votes they garner for keeping the them working.

    Afghanistan was to be a major oil transit hub. That largely did not benefit the US. That would not do for the US establishment.

    No. The US goal in Afghanistan is not to win, rather to keep the US in, others out, and turn a profit – but only for the arms industry. How much treasure has the US expended? Trillions, I’d wager. What has the American people really paid for this militarism? Dead sons, daughters, moms and dads, and the bankrupting all others. And this isn’t even touching upon the corruption of the 4th estate, which, apparently, wouldn’t know truth if it bit them on the ass.

    China has a large high speed rail system. The US? Not so much. Actually, none. China builds bullet trains, whereas the US seem capable of building only bullets (and bombs). A Tomahawk cruise missile comes in at around a million USD apiece …

    No. The US doesn’t care about ‘winning’. Just keeping the money train going for the arms industry, and the politicians it bribes – pretty much every single one of them on the national stage.

  9. Brian James
    March 4, 2020 at 12:10

    January 26, 2019 CIA Was Aiding Jihadists Before Soviets Invaded Afghanistan

    Originally, there were four parties involved in the Afghan conflict which are mainly responsible for the debacle in the Af-Pak region. Firstly, the former Soviet Union which invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Secondly, Pakistan’s security agencies which nurtured the Afghan so-called “mujahideen” (freedom fighters) on the behest of Washington.


  10. Hide Behind
    March 4, 2020 at 11:27

    The author is quite right in describing how US military will portray how a victory over Taliban was taken from them by the press and weak spined civilian and political pacifist, just as they did after Vietnam fiasco.
    But the military excuses for loses of Viet era had a precedent, the Korean conflict; a conflict far more barbaric and genocidal by US and UN allies than was carried out by Japanese invaders of WWII.
    US military made the excuse of leaving a divided Korea was due to US political and civilian opposition to letting Mc Arthur use the nuclear weapons, both in Korea and China border areas.
    This excuse is still popular in military tactical mutterings but for years after the Korean cease fire up to and during Vietnam when US Generals wanted to use nukes so as to not make same mistake as was made in Korea.
    The unspoken in mainstream USbut known in military and political realms was that a large part that caused withdrawal from both Korea and Vietnam came about in both instances due to one factor, threats by allies to pull completely out of both conflicts.
    Allies could not condone the needless slaughtering by US tactics that killed more civilians than enemy combattants, gave no returns to their respective nations then and a future of Vietnam’s Hanoi looking like Nagasaki and Hiroshima would cause worldwide civil uprisings.
    This needless slaughter, slaughter for slaughter sake, in Afghanistan of both Afghan civilians and losses of NATO nations own troop plus expenses, when the overall goals of pipelines through Afghanistan from . multi nations in central Asia to Baltics was completed years ago, never attacked by Taliban and would remain in place even if Taliban took complete control, was finding more resistance among their own populace so they began to reluctantly and minimuly aid and succumb to US badgering to do more.
    Fast going away is the time when all of Europe dared not withstand US military/financial demands as they tried to rebuild after WWII and badly needed US dollars, in the case of Germany and Austria it was survival.
    Trump makes demands, as he talks of making America Great Again, and even threatens other nations and their elected leaders with dire consequences, consequences where even economics is a military weapon.
    The egotistical s.o.b. does not know, and cannot fathom anything towards reality outside his fantasy mindlessness, that without the aid by foreign governments there is no way US could afford its hundreds of foreign bases, supply his military from own resources, and that without placing US under full War Time conditions reminiscent of WWII, actions that would indeed bring about armed insurrection, the US foreign ranging Empire would crumble.would crumble.
    The Israelis will continue to feed his and US military egos for they know that without US they would soon be left as a struggling pariah nation all on own by rest of world.
    The mindset of both Israel and US military/political systems disdain towards anyone, and everything that disagrees with them are one and same.
    The problem that rest of world should be on guard against is that either/both will take down rest of planet if they fear their imminent decline.
    And both would lay blame for their actions as but reactions to world not recognizing their supremacy and as victims were just defending themselves.

  11. Nathan Mulcahy
    March 4, 2020 at 10:18

    Thanks for the analysis, most of which I agree with. However, I wonder if we can really say that USA lost in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. What if the creation of total chaos in those countries was part of the goal, even if not the best possible goal?

    Btw, proud to say that I was not among the 90% of Americans who had supported the illegal invasion of Afghanistan. Neither did I ever fall into the propaganda of freeing afghan women as our goal.

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