The West Ignores Afghanistan at Its Peril

With the recent passing of the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, it is essential to examine how Western neglect of Afghanistan contributed to that dreadful day.

The 1990s were a time of hope for many, with the Western press selectively focused on events that complemented the US’s Cold War victory: the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Good Friday agreement in 1998 which ended 30 years of ethnic and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, and the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. One of the most popular books of the decade was Francis Fukayama’s The End of History, which touted the final victory of liberal free-market democracy.

But a tragedy was unfolding in Afghanistan that would have far-reaching consequences for the US and its liberal democratic allies in the early 21st century.

The Afghan Civil War, ignited by the 1979 Soviet invasion, tore the nation apart as seven different mujahideen groups slugged it out for control of Kabul, laying the city to waste by 1996 and paving the way for the Taliban’s ascension to power.

Starting with the Carter Doctrine — which stated that the US defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf, and would use military force, if necessary — the US provided the mujahideen with over $600 million in annual aid by 1987. In what some historians argue was the largest covert action in US history, the CIA channeled funds and training through Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, which opened training camps and Islamic religious schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The Saudis, who found the holy war against godless communism in Afghanistan a convenient outlet for their own Islamic fundamentalists, matched US funds. The most famous Saudi “Afghan Arab” to join the jihad was Osama bin Laden. In 1988, bin Laden organized foreign mujahideen in Afghanistan into a terrorist organization called al-Qaeda, which would unleash a series of strikes on the West over the coming decades, including the September 11 attacks.

After the decade-long war in Afghanistan that left 1 million Afghans dead, by 1989, the US and its allies in Europe ignored the country. Much backslapping was going on in Western capitals with the defeat of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin selling off his nation to the highest Western bidders. This — not the continuing of a civil war that tore Afghanistan apart — was the overriding story as the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Bloc and former Soviet states adopted “economic shock therapy” that devastated local populations. Little discussed at the time or now was how Afghanistan was at the heart of the Soviet collapse and remains the origin of many of the West’s challenges with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of anti-immigrant populism in Europe and the US.

Ignoring the Afghan Civil War now limits any thorough understanding of how that conflict has impacted the West. In its most basic form, the Afghan Civil War led to the rise of the Taliban in 1996. Although the Taliban is reviled today, it is often forgotten that some Clinton administration officials welcomed the movement as a force that could stabilize a country torn apart by war since 1979. A 1996 New York Times article stated, “The Taliban have found favor with some American officials, who see in their implacable hostility toward Iran an important counterweight in the region.”

By 1998, the Taliban took control of 90 percent of Afghanistan. The last holdout was the United Front, commanded by the Tajik Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud, which held onto the Panjshir Valley in the north. Massoud’s United Front spokesman Haron Amin pleaded with Western governments for support. His pleas were ignored until September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda assassins, believed to be acting on orders from Osama bin Laden, killed Massoud on September 9, 2001, and Navy Seals assassinated bin Laden in 2011.

Nevertheless, since 2001, the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have been bogged down fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and have undertaken brutal campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Libya to “degrade and destroy” Islamic fundamentalists inspired by the Taliban’s Wahhabi Islam. Refugees from these wars continue to flood into Europe and bolster populist anti-immigration and anti-European Union policies.

The Taliban’s rise to power also had important repercussions for the newly independent states of former Soviet Central Asia. In 1998, two Uzbeks – Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani – teamed up to create the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose stated goal was to violently replace Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s regime with an Islamic caliphate. From bases in Afghanistan, the IMU nearly forced its way to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, in 1999 and 2000. This threat to regional stability was ignored by Western governments as the frenzy of self-congratulation of winning the Cold War and the potential riches of Central Asian oil and gas dominated discourse. Although Namangani was killed in a US airstrike in Afghanistan in 2001 and Yuldashev was killed by a US drone in Pakistan in 2009, Central Asian states – particularly Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – still face the threat of extremism due to Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, weak education and economic collapse.

With many of ISIS’s most radical members hailing from Central Asia, the Western press neglect the region at their peril. A brief look at recent high-profile attacks in Turkey, Europe and the US highlights this danger. For example, last year’s attacks in St. Petersburg, Stockholm and New York are believed to have been carried out by Central Asian fundamentalists. The Istanbul Raina Nightclub attack on New Year’s Eve 2017 was allegedly perpetrated by an Uzbek national, and two of the three suspects in the Ataturk Airport bombing in June 2016 were from Central Asia. Last year, the US military reportedly killed Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, a close associate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. US officials claimed that Uzbeki “had helped plot a deadly attack on a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Day” and that he “facilitated the movement of ISIS foreign terror fighters and funds.”

The Afghan Civil War, then, did not only play a significant role in the rise of the Taliban, the US’s war on terror, the plunging of the Middle East into sectarian conflict and Europe’s refugee crisis, but also the radicalization of young impoverished men in neighboring Central Asia. Thus, any serious discussion of events that led to September 11 and shaped Western politics today must include an understanding and analysis of the Afghan Civil War’s impact on Central Asia and the West.

Sadly, war-torn and forgotten Afghanistan appears to have become simply a US testing ground for weapons like the MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in history. Moreover, the fact that during the 2016 US presidential debates Afghanistan was hardly mentioned speaks volumes about the West’s unwillingness to address the root of many of the problems it faces today.

A re-examination of the West’s neglect of the Afghan Civil War and dismantling of the country after September 11 could help restore stability to the first nation the US unleashed its war on terror against. On the other hand, continuing to ignore the causes of Afghanistan’s descent into chaos restricts full understanding of why September 11 happened and why the US has been in perpetual war ever since.