On August 29, 2021, the longest war in US history culminated in an American drone strike killing ten members of a single family in Kabul. After making “peace” with and meekly handing Afghanistan back to the same Taliban against whom the so-called war on terror was waged for twenty years, Washington now claimed that the clandestine militant group known as the Islamic State (IS) was active on Afghan soil. The closing act of the US war in Afghanistan, then, was a microcosm of so many that preceded it — a depraved empire dropping bombs on hapless civilians under the guise of neutering a nebulous threat to US national security.
The US military-industrial-media complex will continue to devise enemies to sustain Washington’s imperial ambitions while blaming catastrophic fallouts on native collaborators.1 Indeed, soon after the Taliban’s largely bloodless reconquest of Kabul, corporate media “experts” were blaming the rapid demise of the US-backed Ashraf Ghani regime on the corruption of Afghan political elites. While the latter certainly proved to be unconcerned and out of touch with the majority of the country’s people, especially outside the comfortable environs of heavily fortified Kabul, the dramatic events of August 2021 reflected how the Pentagon’s relentless air war lent legitimacy to a Taliban-led insurgency that made gains across much of rural Afghanistan in direct proportion to the ever-weakening writ of the US-backed government in Kabul.
For the best part of two decades, the much-trumpeted “gains” of the American occupation were concentrated in urban areas, while millions of Afghans in the countryside suffered indiscriminate bombings and ground raids. This essay argues that the occupation exacerbated major social fault lines of class, geography, gender, and ethnicity in Afghanistan, thus creating the conditions for the Taliban to retake power.
The Taliban’s recovery from their initial defeat by US and NATO troops in 2001 was certainly assisted by external patrons, most notably Pakistan. Islamabad has in fact craved “strategic depth” in Afghanistan since the early 1970s — long before the Red Army entered the country.2 But neither Afghan militants who waged the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s nor the Taliban have ever functioned singularly as Pakistan’s pawns. Afghanistan’s recent history has been marked by highly uneven geographical development undergirded by the political economy of war. Lasting peace, dignity, and freedom from material want for a majority of Afghanistan’s brutalized people will remain a pipe dream without transformation of the material and ideological logics of war and development.