“Never fight a land war in Asia”. A prophetic quote, attributed to military figures throughout history such as Bernard Montgomery and Douglas MacArthur, and popularized in the 1987 movie The Princess Bride by the Scillian criminal Vizzini; “You’ve fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia”.
This oracular quote has been further exemplified by events in Afghanistan in the last 10 days. After the full withdrawal of US troops from the country by the Biden administration in June, the Taliban, an Islamist movement and military organization, swept through the country, seizing the first provincial capital on 6 August, and seizing the capital, Kabul, within nine days. A 20-year military operation, globally coordinated, at the cost of billions of dollars, collapsed in the blink of an eye (in terms of the wide, sweeping nature of historical chronology).
The Taliban began planning a nationwide offensive in May, coinciding with the US departure, and made their first moves on 9 July, laying the groundwork for the capture of Kabul, the final piece of the jigsaw. Taliban fighters captured land surrounding the western city of Herat, home to over 500,000, before completely surrounding the city within three days.
By 23 July, government, US-backed forces reclaimed land in the centre of the country, but between 5-11 August the Taliban had squeezed the city of Kandahar from the east and west, and made movements towards the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The 13-15 August were the crucial days – huge swathes of northern and central land were easily seized by Taliban fighters, before Kabul was conquered fully by 16 August. Taliban fighters encircled the city, proclaiming a transfer of power would be peaceful and orderly. Fighting and looting soon broke out in the city, and the Taliban arrived not as invaders, but as policemen, to restore order as official statesmen.
It was revealed President Ashraf Ghani had fled to neighboring Tajikistan – with the country rapidly falling into lawlessness and anarchy. Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar subsequently declared himself President of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ – a partially recognized state between 1996 and 2001 before the US-led invasion.
The images of Afghani’s desperately clinging to a departing US Air Force jet are harrowing. The UN Refugee Agency estimates over 2,500,000 refugees have fled the country – this is an accumulative figure from over two decades of intermittent fighting. The Taliban appear poised to reinstate their governance of the nation in the late 1990s – a repressive, theocratic state based on ‘Sharia’ law – with little to no rights afforded to women and religious minorities.
This has prompted a crisis for the Afghani people, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes with only the clothes on their backs, and in a geopolitical sense for American and European leaders. How will the Taliban interact with NATO, what will their relationship be like with Iran and China, could fighting spill over into neighboring Pakistan? It is a worrying and highly disconcerting situation.
These events provoke many damning questions. Was the US war in Afghanistan pointless? Is the country really doomed? Can any campaign of military interventionism be successful?
Firstly, let’s look at the immense cost of the ‘War on Terror’. According to estimates from the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the US has spent over $2trillion in Afghanistan alone. This includes direct funding of over $800billion towards the invasion and fighting itself, plus an additional $83billion towards training the Afghan army. Brown University has also predicted this war debt will rise to an astonishing $6.5trillion by 2050 – equating to a cost of roughly $20,000 for every US citizen.
The loss of life has been huge too. The US lost 2,448 servicemen as of April 2021, as well as almost 4,000 civilian contractors. In terms of Afghan costs, more than 66,000 military and police personnel have lost their lives since 2001. In addition to this, 47,245 civilians have died in the country, as well as 51,191 Taliban (and other opposition) fighters.
Was this really all for nothing? On the face of it, this 20 year campaign appears to be in vain – the country has collapsed in a matter of weeks, the Taliban turning back the clock to 2000 with relative ease, to the horror and bewilderment of the international community.
However, it is worth noting certain interests have benefitted from the War in Afghanistan. Lockheed Martin, a US-based arms and defense company, have seen their profits and revenue consistently increase since this was first measured in 2005.
In 2005, the company’s total annual revenue amounted to $37.21billion. By 2012, this figure rose to $47.18billion, as US troop presence in the country rose in the same time from 19,000 to 76,000. By 2020, Lockheed Martin’s revenue rose to an all-time high of $65.39billion – the company is evidently benefiting financially from America’s military involvement in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries by selling equipment via lucrative contracts.
The ‘military-industrial complex’ is a term that has been bandied about throughout history – outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the threats of such a complex in his farewell address: “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” Surely now this disastrous rise of misplaced power has reared its ugly head, to the cost of the Afghan people and thousands of US (and other nations) soldiers.
Lockheed Martin also spends considerable sums of money “lobbying” – endorsing political candidates and funding campaigns to continue and increase their embeddedness in the political process. After spending just over $7,000,000 in 2001 on all lobbying-related activities, this sum grew to nearly $15,000,000 in 2008.
Despite decreasing to $13,000,000 in 2020, this is still a gargantuan amount directly channeled into promoting political candidates that have no interest in fully ending the War on Terror, and instead seek to continue the military operations due to purely financial interests.
This brings me to the next point; the bipartisanship of the Afghan War. Republican, Democract, it doesn’t really matter, the vested interests at the heart of the American executive process remain firmly submerged underneath the surface, churning out troops into Afghanistan, selling more military equipment, until the original goal of interventionism is almost forgotten and unknown.
President Obama was elected as a fairly ‘dovish’ President in terms of military interventionism. He pledged to close Guantanamo Bay (which didn’t happen), refused to engage Gaddafi’s government in Libya militarily (he sent NATO bombers in instead), and pledged to end the US involvement in Afghanistan. Instead, troop levels in the country rose rapidly – from 30,000 in 2008 to 110,000 in 2011. Republicans and Democrats claim to vary on foreign policy and military interventionism – in reality, the aforementioned vested interests ensure this is merely an illusion.
Perhaps it is also worth musing upon the inevitability of history to repeat itself – in the words of philosopher George Santayana, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. In 1919, after the Emirate of Afghanistan invaded British India, British troops were deployed to the country to assist their Indian allies.
Despite outnumbering Afghan forces and possessing far greater military equipment, the British troops ran into various problems in their battles with the Afghans, under the command of Amanullah Khan. The 5,000 mile distance to London created a considerable delay in communications, and British troops severely struggled with the tough terrain, which the Afghans were accustomed to. After just 3 months and 2 days, the British Empire signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi, recognising Afghan independence, after a loss of 236 men, and a further 1,500 injuries. A diplomat of the era, Sir Hamilton Grant, described the affair as “the most meaningless, crazy and unnecessary war in history”.
It would be interesting to know what Grant thinks of the events of the last month in Afghanistan. Interventionism as a doctrine promotes freedom – freedom from oppression and totalitarianism, giving help and assistance to civilians in countries across the world unable to dislodge their dictatorial governments.
In reality, interventionism is nearly always futile. Billions are spent, lives are lost, progress is reverted, all in the blink of an eye. At the same time, the vested interests and lobbyist culture in America ensures the sliding doors continue to open and close, regardless of who is President, and regardless of what lessons history tries in vain to teach us.