Never Forget the War in Afghanistan

Let’s remember: the only reason U.S. troops are dying in Afghanistan is because they are deployed to Afghanistan

by: Sonali Kolhatka

Afghan children look on as a US soldier from the Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT) Steel Warriors patrols in the mountains of Nuristan Province on December 19, 2009. (Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan children look on as a US soldier from the Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT) Steel Warriors patrols in the mountains of Nuristan Province on December 19, 2009. (Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)

When President Donald Trump announced this week that a highly anticipated peace deal with the Taliban was dead, Afghans braced for more violence. Their fears were realized as fresh fighting broke out immediately between Taliban forces and U.S.-backed Afghan government forces. With little remaining incentive to taper off the violent attacks, the Taliban have once more unleashed the full force of their ferocity in order to take over Afghanistan. Nearly 18 years after the U.S. began its war, Afghanistan remains mired in unending violence.

Taliban forces had been marking their participation in peace talks with a relentless series of deadly attacks all along while their representatives were meeting with U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar. Presumably the militant organization was leveraging its capability for violence as a negotiating tactic with U.S. officials.

But they hadn’t counted on the fickle nature of an unpredictable U.S. president whose seat-of-the-pants foreign policy is driven more by ego and whim than by facts. Trump cited the killing of a U.S. soldier during a recent Taliban attack as a reason for ending the peace talks. He went as far as announcing on Twitter last Saturday that he had planned to host on Sunday Taliban representatives and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David, but that after the Taliban’s attack, he “immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations.”

While many politicians and media pundits fixated on the audacity of inviting the Taliban onto U.S. soil—and days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at no less a sacrosanct space than Camp David—the real question was why Trump felt that this latest troop casualty was a deal-breaker. Thirty-four-year-old Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, a Puerto Rican service member of the U.S. military, was the 16th American soldier to be killed in Afghanistan this year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview on Sunday, “It’s not appropriate [the Taliban] killed an American. And it made no sense for the Taliban to be rewarded for that kind of bad behavior.”

Except that the Taliban had been engaging in such behavior for months now. In late June two U.S. soldiers were killed in a firefight with Taliban forces in Uruzgan province just a few days before a round of peace talks took place. Soon after those talks, another U.S. soldier was killed in a Taliban attack in Wardak Province. That event also did not dampen U.S. officials’ hopes for a deal, as special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad continued his plans days later to travel to Afghanistan and then Doha to resume talks with the Taliban.

So what changed? Did Ortiz’s life mean so much to President Trump that he suddenly began caring about the violence facing American soldiers in Afghanistan and decided not to reward the Taliban with a peace deal? Such logic is hardly likely, not just because Trump has revealed himself to be utterly lacking in empathy (especially toward Puerto Ricans), but because if the president wanted to safeguard the lives of U.S. soldiers, withdrawing them from Afghanistan would be the most direct way forward.

Simply put, the reason American troops are dying in Afghanistan is because they are deployed to Afghanistan. Therefore, the best way to immunize soldiers from a violent death at the hands of the Taliban is to withdraw them from Afghanistan altogether. Reports suggest that his former national security adviser John Bolton tried to dissuade Trump by planting negative stories in the press over his opposition to signing a deal with the Taliban. Some commentators have expressed relief that the ultra-hawkish Bolton was ousted from the White House before be could start a war. But it appears as though, when it came to Afghanistan, he succeeded in keeping an existing war going.

The Afghan war has been going on for so long that perhaps we have forgotten why U.S. troops were deployed in the first place. With the commemoration this week of the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans may assume that we launched a war in Afghanistan to retaliate against the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Broadly speaking, that sentiment is correct—it was essentially a war of revenge. By that measure, have we punished Afghan civilians enough? More than 30,000 Afghan civilians—none of whom had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks and who were themselves being held hostage by the Pakistani-backed Taliban—have been killed since the first bombs dropped on Oct. 7, 2001.

The rate of death has not tapered over the years. In fact, 2018 was the worst year on record for Afghan civilian deaths since 2001, with 3,804 people being killed, 927 of them children. And this year, civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. forces and their Afghan allies surpassed the number killed by the Taliban.

Our war has cost the Afghan people more than ten times the number of deaths than al-Qaida cost the U.S. on 9/11. While politicians and others blithely claim to #NeverForget the deaths of thousands of innocent American lives, we have not only forgotten about the Afghan lives lost at our hands, but we have rarely, if ever, allowed their deaths to enter into our collective public consciousness.

Trump has declared the Afghan peace deal “dead.” Given the unpredictability of this president, that may not be the last word on the matter, as we have seen in other foreign policy hot zones such as North Korea.

But had the deal gone through, would it have actually led to peace for the people of Afghanistan? Sadly, that aspect of the war has been of the least importance to negotiating parties. Some Afghans were even relieved the deal was over. One survivor of the same Taliban bombing that killed Ortiz told The New York Times: “It’s always the poor people who are stepped on and killed. … Nobody cares about us—not Trump, not our own government.”

Had the deal gone through, it would have left military power and political control of large parts of the country in the hands of a violent, fundamentalist faction that knows nothing about running a society (except in the image of a misogynist form of Sharia law) and everything about guerrilla warfare. Just as the U.S. was never truly interested in the welfare of civilians in wartime, it has shown no interest in civilian safety under the auspices of a peace deal. The fight for real peace is and always will be left in the hands of the beleaguered Afghan civilian population.

Had U.S. troops begun withdrawing, we would have seen an end to direct American participation in a brutal and deadly war, but the legacy of U.S. violence would have remained intact in the country. For now, Afghans will continue to face attacks from both the Taliban and the American war machine.

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