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  • On December 24th, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up the faltering

  • communist government they had helped install.

  • Smelling an opportunity to make its ideological enemy bleed, the United States covertly began

  • a process of funding and arming a resistance to the Soviet invasion.

  • The clandestine operation would prove crucial in defeating the Soviet Union's efforts in

  • Afghanistan, and as the Red Army pulled out of the nation in defeat in 1989, Americans

  • cheered their great success.

  • They had no idea that their 'victory' had planted the seeds of America's own defeat

  • just thirty years later.

  • To understand what went wrong in Afghanistan, first one has to understand recent Afghan

  • history.

  • In 1953, Afghanistan's king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, wished to modernize his country.

  • Zahir Shah recognized that he lacked the expertise to lead a major modernization effort, and

  • that his country needed an expanded government.

  • To that end, he relinquished some of his own power and made his cousin, General Mohammed

  • Daoud Khan, prime minister, with a focus of expanding government with the recruitment

  • of economic and policy experts, further relinquishing his own absolute power.

  • The move was a popular one with the Afghan people, who saw it as a selfless act.

  • Next though, the nation would need international aid, so the new Afghan government reached

  • out to both Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union and the United States.

  • Zahir Shah however did not wish to be a client state to either nation, and feared what had

  • happened to the eastern bloc nations as they were one by one swallowed up by the Soviet

  • Union.

  • Therefore he sought a careful balance of aid from both the Americans and Soviets, allowing

  • neither absolute influence.

  • The Americans provided great economic aid and expertise, but in what would prove to

  • be a disastrous move, Zahir Shah allowed Daoud Khan to seek Soviet aid in the training of

  • Afghanistan's military.

  • This meant that every year hundreds of senior Afghan officers left for the Soviet Union

  • to undergo months of training- and inevitable indoctrination into Stalin's version of communism.

  • The effect wasn't immediate, but gradually over time, these senior officers began spreading

  • their communist ideals throughout the military ranks, resulting in a military that had a

  • dramatically different vision for Afghanistan than Zahir Shah- who wished neither Soviet-style

  • socialism or cutthroat American capitalism.

  • Zahir Shah eventually forced Daoud Khan to resign from his post as Prime Minister as

  • his pro-communist ideals began to interfere with the king's own progressive agenda for

  • the nation.

  • By 1973, Zahir Shah was more popular than ever with the Afghan people, given his great

  • leaps forward in modernization and liberalization of Afghan society, including the equality

  • of women.

  • However, Khan had long been building support amongst the military elite, all indoctrinated

  • into communism thanks to the Soviet Union.

  • In 1973, as Zahir Shah was abroad on a trip to Italy, Daoud Khan staged a coup, forcing

  • the king into exile.

  • At first the coup was widely supported as Khan continued the king's liberalization of

  • women and other segments of Afghan society, however behind the scenes Khan was purging

  • potential opponents from positions of power, ensuring his own autocratic rule.

  • This caused major schisms within the communists, and the creation of multiple opposing communist

  • groups.

  • Inevitably, Khan is killed in a communist coup in 1978, leading to Nur Mohammad Taraki

  • being named president and Babrak Karmal as prime minister.

  • Growing rivalries between opposing communist groups however severely weaken Kabul's ability

  • to govern the countryside, and sensing an opportunity, Islamic fundamentalists, long

  • unhappy with liberal policies changing Afghan culture, begin their own uprising- the mujahideen

  • are born.

  • The struggle for power sparked bitter infighting between Taraki and Amin, splitting the Afghan

  • government at the highest level and further weakening its ability to fight the growing

  • insurgency.

  • Just a year after taking power, Amin supporters murdered Taraki, as Amin implemented more

  • and more brutal measures.

  • The Amin-led communist government was now a stain on the Soviet Union, who believed

  • that if Amin was left in power he would create a bad name for communism on the world stage.

  • The Soviets thus opt to remove Amin from power, and invade the nation in force on December

  • 24th, 1979.

  • They prop up Babrak Karmal as prime minister, but only succeed in painting the national

  • government as a puppet state controlled by the hostile Soviet invaders- exactly what

  • the Zahir Shah and the Afghan people had worked so hard to avoid.

  • The result is inevitable, and a massive insurgency begins.

  • This is where America begins to lay the groundwork for its own defeat.

  • Stinging from its loss in Vietnam, largely due to its own ineptitude but helped along

  • by Soviet support, America was looking for payback.

  • The invasion of Afghanistan was the perfect theater for extracting that payback, and not

  • long after the Red Army first crossed the border into Afghanistan, a major movement

  • to supply the Afghani insurgency began.

  • In order to facilitate the arming and financing of the mujahideen however, the US needed a

  • way into the nation.

  • With hostile Iran on one side, America was forced to work with Pakistan- yet the Pakistani

  • government was ill-equipped to handle the clandestine nature of the work that needed

  • to be done.

  • Only one agency was well suited to the effort, the Interservices Intelligence Agency, or

  • ISI.

  • Up to this point, the ISI had been a small organization struggling for legitimacy, but

  • the influx of American support was exactly the booster shot that it needed.

  • This would come back to haunt the US.

  • Facilitating the transfer of millions of dollars of equipment and funds to the mujahideen,

  • the ISI quickly grew in power and influence in the Pakistani government, eventually rivaling

  • that of the military itself.

  • Unknowingly, the US had just created its own worst enemy, as thirty years later the ISI

  • would actively double-cross the United States in its efforts against the Taliban.

  • Even worse, the US government didn't bother to vet who was receiving aid, allowing the

  • ISI to directly control who would rise to power in Afghanistan- largely religious fundamentalists

  • indoctrinated into extremist views by Saudi Arabian clerics.

  • The future Taliban.

  • Not long after the start of the war in 2001, it became clear that the ISI had its own agenda

  • concerning the Taliban.

  • For Pakistan, the Taliban could provide a strong buffer between itself and rival Iran,

  • and under its autocratic rule some semblance of border security with its shared Afghan

  • border could be achieved.

  • If America defeated the Taliban, this would completely undermine its own national security

  • strategy, as well as potentially give the US staging grounds for interference in Pakistan

  • itself.

  • It was no secret that the United States had stationed quick reaction forces in Afghanistan

  • not just to respond to Taliban aggression, but to cross the border into Pakistan to secure

  • Pakistani nuclear weapons in case of a national emergency.

  • With rampant corruption in Pakistan, including the discovery of several senior officials

  • tasked with securing Pakistan's nuclear weapons having ties to terror networks, there was

  • an ever-present threat of Pakistan being stripped of its nuclear arms by the US.

  • In order to ensure that the Taliban was not defeated, the ISI facilitated the covert funding,

  • training, and medical treatment of wounded Taliban fighters, even going so far as to

  • invite them into its northern border areas to use as sanctuary.

  • The agency also worked to spin American drone attacks on Taliban and other terror targets

  • in Pakistan's northern regions in order to put international pressure on the US to cease

  • such attacks.

  • For example, the Pakistani government forbade the US from verifying casualty reports from

  • drone attacks, and instead relied on the personal testimony of victims of said attack.

  • This allowed the ISI and Taliban to spin casualty figures in a way that favored them, greatly

  • exaggerating civilian casualty counts while diminishing the presence of legitimate military

  • targets- who often used civilians as willing human shields anyways.

  • But the ISI would go even further.

  • When American troops put pressure on Taliban forces, the ISI allowed them to cross the

  • border into Pakistan where US soldiers could not follow.

  • When senior Taliban and other insurgent or terrorist officials were targeted for destruction

  • or arrest, the ISI leaked America's plans in order to ensure their survival.

  • Lastly, while it was never proven, it's almost certain that the ISI had helped Osama Bin

  • Laden evade American efforts to capture him, even going so far as to permit him residency

  • in the heart of one of Pakistan's military enclaves- a place they never believed the

  • US would risk a raid into.

  • While 1980s America could not have known that the ISI would turn out to be one of its worst

  • enemies, it also made no effort to police where hundreds of millions in weapons and

  • funds were actually being channeled, leaving the effort almost entirely to the Pakistanis.

  • This directly led to the bulk of these weapons and money going straight into the hands of

  • groups with extremist ideologies, including displaced Afghans who had been indoctrinated

  • by Saudi clerics into fundamentalism.

  • Rather than carefully vet who could eventually be left in power after a Soviet withdrawal,

  • America simply turned on the money hose and let the chips fall where the ISI wanted them

  • to, possibly one of the worst policy mistakes ever made by the United States.

  • Had the US been directly involved in the dissemination of funds and equipment, it could have empowered

  • groups favorable to US interests in Afghanistan, avoiding the 2001 invasion altogether.

  • With the invasion well into its planning phases however, modern America continued to blunder

  • in critical ways.

  • First, the United States was warned by the Northern Alliance seeking to overthrow the

  • Taliban that it should wait on using military force.

  • By 2001, the Taliban was pulling itself apart at the seams, as internal struggles for power

  • and public dissatisfaction led to major infighting.

  • It was believed by Afghan insiders that given a few years, and international political and

  • economic pressure, the Taliban would simply implode.

  • However, President Bush and his administration was not interested in a political, long-term

  • strategy to defeat the Taliban.

  • America had been attacked by Al-Qaeda, which the Taliban directly supported and allowed

  • to operate in Afghanistan, and the US rightly wanted blood.

  • Military action was inevitable- but even here the US could have acted without sowing the

  • seeds of its own inevitable defeat.

  • Rather than an invasion of Afghanistan, America should have carried out punitive attacks against

  • Al Qaeda using its long range striking power.

  • While these would not have been enough to erode Al Qaeda's power completely, it could

  • have had a significant effect on the terror group.

  • Even more importantly, it would send a clear message to the Taliban- continue supporting

  • our enemies and you'll be next.

  • In 2001 there was already major friction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who had begun to

  • operate across parts of Afghanistan as if they were in control.

  • This was a continued source of friction between the Taliban factions, and a campaign of shock

  • and awe against Al Qaeda targets could have capitalized on that friction, spurring the

  • Taliban to end its support for the terror group- which was supposed to be the entire

  • point of the 2001 invasion in the first place.

  • If the Taliban had refused, then punitive actions could be taken, once more using long-range

  • striking power, against the Taliban itself, pummeling it into submission.

  • The mistake was trying to remove the Taliban from power altogether.

  • By attacking it, America only succeeded in causing the Taliban to join ranks in common

  • purpose, eliminating the chance of its inevitable collapse due to infighting.

  • Military power however may not have been necessary at all, and another option would have been

  • to use economic power.

  • Remember, the goal was to eliminate Al Qaeda's ability to launch attacks against the US.

  • A much simpler way to achieve this would have been to simply pay off the Taliban.

  • The Taliban itself was not inherently ideologically opposed to the US the way Al Qaeda was, and

  • by that time had already been receiving tens of millions of dollars from the US to curtail

  • the cultivation of poppies for heroin.

  • The US could have simply turned the cash hose on and bribed the Taliban to turn against

  • Al Qaeda entirely- cash has always spoken louder within the Taliban than ideology, and

  • there were numerous factions that would have gladly accepted American money in order to

  • strengthen themselves.

  • By making the Taliban, and the severely economically challenged Afghanistan, reliant on US aid,

  • it would have been even more compliant to US interests as time, and money, went on.

  • The best way to fight a battle after all is to have someone else fight it for you.

  • The influx of cash would have staved off an inevitable collapse of the Taliban, as the

  • Northern Alliance had warned would happen if the US simply waited, but the US should

  • never have invested itself in regime change in the first place.

  • It should have set off to achieve its one, singular goal of defeating Al Qaeda.

  • Instead, it allowed itself to get sucked into a quagmire of conflicting goals and strategies

  • that quickly had nothing to do with the defeat of the terror group that attacked America

  • on September 11th.

  • Once the invasion was underway however, even more blunders were to come.

  • First, the US became entirely too reliant on Pakistan in its efforts to plug up the

  • Pakistani-Afghan border.

  • As American troops fought and defeated the Taliban, the enemy would simply slip past

  • the border into safe areas that US troops couldn't follow.

  • With the ISI's treachery well-known by American military commanders early in the war, the

  • United States should have done more to put pressure on Pakistan to correct its bad-actor

  • attitude, even to the point of outright economic sanctions if necessary, leveraging global

  • partners to do the same.

  • Overly reliant on Pakistan to defeat insurgent and terror strongholds in the lawless border

  • regions however, the United States was fearful to put too much pressure on the nation.

  • Without Pakistan's full cooperation in the elimination of the Taliban, it could never

  • achieve victory, as the Taliban and allied insurgents always had a safe haven where to

  • recuperate and rearm in Pakistan.

  • In 2003, the US invaded Iraq for reasons that continue to be questioned today- and let's

  • be clear, the nation had no weapons of mass destruction.

  • Whatever the reason, the sham directly led to the inevitable defeat in Afghanistan, as

  • it split US forces between two insurgencies.

  • The dual wars also led to a loss of focus in both conflicts, inevitably leading to disaster

  • in both wars.

  • The thinning of manpower and resources however had perhaps the greatest effect, as modern

  • counterinsurgency doctrine states that friendly forces should outnumber insurgents ten to

  • one in order to establish a large enough security presence to make it difficult or impossible

  • for insurgents to operate.

  • In Afghanistan, at its height of US involvement that ratio was 5 to 1.

  • In order to achieve even that losing ratio however, the United States blundered yet again.

  • With the onset of the Iraq war, it was clear that the US did not have the manpower to secure

  • both Iraq and Afghanistan against national insurgencies, and America was left with two

  • choices: either institute a national draft, which would be political suicide for any administration,

  • or hire mercenaries.

  • The United States opted for the latter, single handedly resurrecting a career that had almost

  • completely died out in the modern Westphalian-order age.

  • Eventually the US had as many mercenaries in Afghanistan as it did its own troops, and

  • while mercenary use can be a very effective force multiplier, to the Afghan people it

  • simply looked like even more foreign invaders were taking over their country.

  • To make matters worse, most of these mercenaries quickly grew a bad reputation for treating

  • the Afghanis with great disrespect, either through outright hostility and abuse or cultural

  • insensitivity.

  • The US had so many mercenary outfits working in the region that it quickly lost the ability

  • to effectively police their behavior, seriously undermining its own 'hearts and minds' efforts.

  • Of course this lack of cultural sensitivity spread to US forces themselves, with many

  • of them treating the local Afghan population as potential adversaries at all times.

  • Simple things like not removing </