Twenty years ago the Taliban were in Kabul and controlled almost all of Afghanistan. There was some semblance of order after years of civil war and its attendant chaos. They also had a guest, who had chosen to make Afghanistan his base, an honored guest as he had helped the Taliban get rid of the Soviets and the Soviet backed regime. The man’s name was Osama bin Laden.
Having hit the Russians hard, he turned his attention to the other great power. The subsequent loaded passenger jet attacks in Washington and New York on 9/11 have scarred American memories since then. President George Bush demanded the immediate surrender of bin Laden from the Afghan government.
At this point, a word about Pashtun culture. A guest is honored and a guest has protection, a tradition that has helped warring tribes to come to peace. Surrendering Osama bin Laden would have been the ultimate ignominy and a permanent stain on their honor; the Afghan government categorically refused. The inevitability has the makings of a Greek tragedy.
Had the Bush government understood Pashtun culture, they might not have given a public ultimatum. It tied both sides. In the event a full scale attack on Afghanistan led to the ouster of the Afghan government and the disappearance of Osama bin Laden. It is arguable that a small special forces raid would have surprised and captured him without harming Afghans, particularly as they had no part in the 9/11 attack on the US.
The cost of the war is estimated now at $2 trillion, which averages out to something like $300 million a day for 20 years. The war cost the lives of 2443 soldiers and the toll was considerably worse for Afghans. According to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, total Afghan deaths, direct and indirect, due to the war are 241,000 as of April 2021. Because of unexploded ordnance scattered across the country, the deaths are expected to continue. Add to this the consequences of environmental degradation made worse by the war, and the disrupting effects to occupations like farming, cultivation of trees, even the innocuous activities of day-to-day living, and it is not difficult to see why the natural death rate has also risen.
Before the war, it used to be said that a single mulberry tree could sustain an Afghan family for a year. The country was also renowned for nuts, particularly almonds and walnuts. However, the trees have been destroyed in the war and it takes many years for a newly planted tree to yield its bounty. Hence the move towards cash crops that can be harvested within months, especially opium despite its negative impact on society.
The U.S. has much to answer for in its wars of choice when the result is that the Afghan people are ranked last in the latest (2020) World Happiness Report and with the Taliban now in control we are back where we started. As Yogi Berra once put it, “It’s deja vu all over again.”