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Where The U.S. Involvement In Afghanistan Went Wrong


The United States departure from Kabul after 20 years of fighting has been chaotic and is now almost over. The situation in the country remains fraught, though, after a terrorist attack on the airport being used for evacuations by the U.S. military. And that attack was followed by a retaliatory U.S. drone strike against the terrorist group ISIS-K. After over 200,000 lives lost and trillions of dollars spent, a lot of people are shocked by the inauspicious end to such a long and costly mission. Well, Azmat Khan says it shouldn't be surprising at all. She's an investigative reporter and a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

AZMAT KHAN: Thank you for having me.

KHALID: So, Azmat, you took a detailed look at the state of this war when U.S. and NATO forces formally ended combat missions in Afghanistan. That was 2014. What did you notice at that time?

KHAN: So at that time, the landscape of reporting largely treated this war as having been lost, right? This was just coming after these surges of troops. You know, the same kind of surge that had worked successfully, many believe, in Iraq they had attempted to do in Afghanistan. And they put forth more than 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan to try to defeat the Taliban and were unable to do so. But there was one thing that I was really curious about at the time that was treated largely positively, and that was education. One of the sort of legacies of the United States in Afghanistan that was viewed successfully was educating girls, educating children, opening up girls' schools, providing textbooks, you know, changing this young generation of would-be Taliban recruits, as the Americans like to frame it. And what I found was 1,100 ghost schools, schools that are open on the books and are getting money but are not, in fact, open on the ground.

KHALID: Meaning that there's no school there, Azmat, or that, you know, there were no students? Or just there was even no physical building there?

KHAN: They're not operating, and the money is still coming in.

KHALID: So, Azmat, is this a story of corruption? I mean, what went wrong here?

KHAN: So the United States was put in a position, you know, with massive reconstruction goals, all of this money pouring in. To make many of these things possible, they partnered with people that they had teamed up with for counterterrorism purposes. Often, these were incredibly corrupt warlords who maybe had a militia or an army that they said was willing to take on the Taliban or al-Qaida. Keep in mind that the majority of this war over the last 20 years has probably been fought in about 30% of the country, these incredibly rural areas that are hard to reach. It's not Kabul where we get most of our news from. It's not major urban centers where we hear most of progress from. It's in these incredibly rural areas where people never saw the progress.

KHALID: So, Azmat, I want to ask you then about what we are seeing now in the news with the Taliban takeover, again, of Afghanistan. I think to many of our listeners, this comes as a surprise - right? - that this is a force that was ousted when the U.S. first went into Afghanistan 20 years ago, and here we've come full circle to the Taliban ruling Afghanistan yet again. And I'm curious if you can explain to us how that exactly happened. I mean, I look back - I recall there was some reporting, actually, in The Nation magazine, back in November of 2009, talking about how U.S. military contractors were paying protection money for their supply routes, money that ostensibly then went to the Taliban. It even prompted a congressional investigation. And again, that was 2009.

KHAN: Yes, that Nation cover story by Aram Roston, "How The U.S. Funds The Taliban," is an incredible expose of what was happening on the ground at massive levels. If you look back in recent years, you know, what has been happening over the last decade, you'll actually see that the Taliban was running shadow governments in most provinces of Afghanistan. And the only reason that the Afghan government was able to maintain its tenuous hold was through massive U.S. aerial support.

Now, we know, through the Afghanistan papers, through the work of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, the number of Afghan forces that were claimed by U.S. officials were not true. But even then, something that's pretty undoubtable is that many Afghan forces were dying in this fight against the Taliban. So if that many Afghan forces have died with the support of U.S. airpower, once Afghan forces know that that U.S. air power is not going to be assisting them, it means certain death, right?

Even though probably U.S. attention on Afghanistan was at its lowest in 2019, the U.S. dropped more bombs in Afghanistan in 2019 than in any previous year of the war, and that was having incredible civilian tolls. And that not only created space for ordinary civilians to just really desire this war to be over, but among some, it also helped the Taliban gain recruits. Some of its most recent recruits were people who lost family members and loved ones in that very intense scale and pace of bombing.

KHALID: So, Azmat, what explains why a war that you say was lost long ago has continued on for so long? You know, even recent polling has shown this month that a majority of Americans feel like the Afghan war was not worth fighting.

KHAN: Everyone knows that there are going to be political costs to withdrawing from Afghanistan. And I think really it was, you know, the Obama administration that kind of chose this middle ground. Let's scale back sending combat troops. And instead, let's really focus more on air power. And what that means is that, you know, this war now recedes from the American spotlight because when there are fewer American soldiers on the ground, you know, the American public doesn't really care. Unless American soldiers are dying, the American public does not follow its wars very closely. And so when you shift to that air war, you can continue this war at record pace, and yet the American public is less aware of it than ever before. And I think that's a large part of how so many were so caught off guard and felt so wronged in the sort of chaos unfolding in Kabul right now.

KHALID: That's Azmat Khan. She's an investigative reporter who writes for The New York Times Magazine. Azmat, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KHAN: Thank you, Asma. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.