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Don Gale: Forty years of blame led to the tragedy of Afghanistan

The cost to America was enormous, and still the medieval Taliban survived.

(Jim Huylebroek | The New York Times) Hoping to flee the country, people gather outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, as a military cargo plane takes off. Since sweeping into Kabul last weekend, the Taliban have moved swiftly to cement their control over Afghanistan, dispersing protests with force and hunting down opponents despite pledges of amnesty, according to witnesses and a security assessment prepared for the United Nations.

Afghanistanism. Journalism professors taught me to avoid Afghanistanism. They meant do not write about subjects of little interest or relevance to your readers.

In the middle of the 20th century, Afghanistan was of little interest and largely irrelevant. It was a small, landlocked nation with few resources tucked between what was then the Soviet Union, Iran and Pakistan.

How things have changed.

Later, in the autumn of 1980, I was in Dushanbe, a charming city not far from the border between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. Soviet army trucks rumbled through the city, carrying reinforcements to Soviet military forces bogged down in Afghanistan. The Soviets had taken over much of the country and had installed a puppet government, but Afghan fighters waged guerrilla warfare, using weapons supplied by the United States, including shoulder-held Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet helicopters.

The Afghan fighters called themselves mujahideen. President Ronald Reagan welcomed mujahideen leaders to the White House. The battle waged for a decade until the muhajideen drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The conflict left an estimated million dead Afghans — mostly civilians — and 15,000 dead Soviet soldiers.

During the Soviet occupation, some muhajideen fighters learned to enjoy carrying rifles and abusing women. They split into two factions. Many joined a morally starved and disavowed offshoot of Islam called Taliban, while others sought to build a more modern nation. Both groups had abundant weapons — some supplied earlier by the United States, some abandoned by the departing Soviet military, and some provided by renegade Mideast nations.

A long civil war ensued, killing thousands more civilians and virtually destroying Kabul, the capital city. The fanatic Taliban faction emerged victorious. The uncivilized Taliban abused its newfound power by inflicting horrific punishments on those who disagreed — and upon women and girls.

In the late 1990s, evil Taliban believers welcomed into Afghanistan leaders of terrorist organizations, including Osama bin Laden. The United States put together an international coalition to punish Afghanistan for welcoming terrorists. When those same terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush sent troops to Afghanistan to control the Taliban.

For 20 years, U.S. military and civilian personnel helped train Afghan soldiers, helped rebuild the Afghan infrastructure and helped Afghans develop educational opportunities, especially for women and girls. Through all those years, American leaders tolerated widespread and obvious corruption among Afghan leaders.

The cost was enormous — 2,000 American lives, thousands of life-changing American casualties and $2 trillion of American taxpayers’ money. And still the medieval Taliban survived, even thrived in some parts of the nation, partly because we tolerated too much corruption, relied too much on military force and failed to provide sufficient education and information to Afghan citizens..

President Barack Obama said it was time to end the adventure. President Donald Trump set a deadline for U.S. withdrawal. President Joe Biden followed through by extending the deadline. Trump also opened direct negotiations with the Taliban, giving them a legitimacy they do not deserve. President Joe Biden took advantage of that opening to negotiate with the Taliban for delayed reprisals against Americans and others wanting to flee Taliban rule.

As noted earlier, things have changed. Or have they?

The point is that those who want to assign blame for today’s tragedy in Afghanistan should look back at least 40 years. There is plenty of blame to go around. And challenges created by Afghanistan’s inability to govern itself will continue for decades, with or without an American presence.

Our focus now should be on developing some sort of international organization to help the Afghan people. As witnessed at the Kabul airport, many Afghans are willing to risk their lives in search for education, economic survival and the benefits of civilized existence.

Afghanistanism may be dead, but the good human beings living in that once-forgotten nation are very much alive. They deserve a meaningful future.

Don Gale.

Don Gale, a long-time Utah journalist, watched tragedy unfold in Afghanistan over 40 years. He believes the answer is education, not weapons and dollars.