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A disastrous war ended far too late


Anand Gopal’s piece about the Afghanistan war from the perspective of rural women in Afghanistan is an astounding piece of journalism. To take just one of many possible examples:

One night in 2003, Shakira was jolted awake by the voices of strange men. She rushed to cover herself. When she ran to the living room, she saw, with panic, the muzzles of rifles being pointed at her. The men were larger than she’d ever seen, and they were in uniform. These are the Americans, she realized, in awe. Some Afghans were with them, scrawny men with Kalashnikovs and checkered scarves. A man with an enormous beard was barking orders: Amir Dado.

The U.S. had swiftly toppled the Taliban following its invasion, installing in Kabul the government of Hamid Karzai. Dado, who had befriended American Special Forces, became the chief of intelligence for Helmand Province. One of his brothers was the governor of the Sangin district, and another brother became Sangin’s chief of police. In Helmand, the first year of the American occupation had been peaceful, and the fields once again burst with poppies. Shakira now had two small children, Nilofar and Ahmed. Her husband had returned from Pakistan and found work ferrying bags of opium resin to the Sangin market. But now, with Dado back in charge—rescued from exile by the Americans—life regressed to the days of civil war.

Nearly every person Shakira knew had a story about Dado. Once, his fighters demanded that two young men either pay a tax or join his private militia, which he maintained despite holding his official post. When they refused, his fighters beat them to death, stringing their bodies up from a tree. A villager recalled, “We went to cut them down, and they had been sliced open, their stomachs coming out.” In another village, Dado’s forces went from house to house, executing people suspected of being Taliban; an elderly scholar who’d never belonged to the movement was shot dead.

Shakira was bewildered by the Americans’ choice of allies. “Was this their plan?” she asked me. “Did they come to bring peace, or did they have other aims?” She insisted that her husband stop taking resin to the Sangin market, so he shifted his trade south, to Gereshk. But he returned one afternoon with the news that this, too, had become impossible. Astonishingly, the United States had resuscitated the Ninety-third Division—and made it its closest partner in the province. The Division’s gunmen again began stopping travellers on the bridge and plundering what they could. Now, however, their most profitable endeavor was collecting bounties offered by the U.S.; according to Mike Martin, a former British officer who wrote a history of Helmand, they earned up to two thousand dollars per Taliban commander captured.

This posed a challenge, though, because there were hardly any active Taliban to catch. “We knew who were the Taliban in our village,” Shakira said, and they weren’t engaged in guerrilla warfare: “They were all sitting at home, doing nothing.” A lieutenant colonel with U.S. Special Forces, Stuart Farris, who was deployed to the area at that time, told a U.S. Army historian, “There was virtually no resistance on this rotation.” So militias like the Ninety-third Division began accusing innocent people. In February, 2003, they branded Hajji Bismillah—the Karzai government’s transportation director for Gereshk, responsible for collecting tolls in the city—a terrorist, prompting the Americans to ship him to Guantánamo. With Bismillah eliminated, the Ninety-third Division monopolized the toll revenue.

Meet the newer boss, same as the old boss except with more credentials:

There’s a reason that arguments for continuing the war — whether presented honestly or behind a veil of fake-procedural objections — focus on the potential for minimizing American casualties. The toll of the war on the people of Afghanistan was always brutal, while accomplishing nothing. Biden was right to want to end it when he was vice president and he’s still right now.

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