This Week: Lessons of Afghanistan


What the U.S. called its “mission” in Afghanistan was doomed from the start. People around the world saw that, and said that. This issue of Nygaard Notes is the first in a short series of issues aimed at helping readers to see the same thing. And, hopefully, to begin to help building a different future, one without Empires.

The issue you are reading at the moment focuses on the lessons we could (should?) learn from Afghanistan and how most of the world disagreed from Day One with the U.S. decision to attack that country. I suspect that a lot of people still don’t know that.

Issue #676 will be a reprint—in its entirety—of NN #445. I’ve never done this before! But the past 20 years has offered an unprecedented opportunity to understand the nature of Imperialism. So I’m taking the unprecedented step of re-publishing an issue that discusses The Empire and Afghanistan. I think it spells things out quite plainly, and I hope it might make more sense to people now, 11 years later.

#677 will, I think, be a collection of quotes and previously-published comments about a few select aspects of the just-ended U.S. occupation. Propaganda, the Taliban, Humanitarian concerns, etc.

After those three issues—they’ll come in quick succession—I’ll get off the subject of Afghanistan and move on to something else. No shortage of ideas!

I’m sorry about the long delay in getting you this issue of Nygaard Notes. I went on a brief vacation, after which a number of unexpected things happened that pulled me away from the Notes. But I’m back, with lots of ideas for upcoming issues.

Welcome to the new subscribers! Feel free to drop me a note with your thoughts.


As always, if you want to download a printable PDF version of this issue of Nygaard Notes, just click HERE.

“Quote” of the Week: “It was never going to work.”

On August 11th Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! The subject was the situation in Afghanistan. Here are the first words out of her mouth:

I think it’s important that we recognize that this kind of a crisis [i.e. the rapid Taliban rise to power in Afghanistan] was inevitable whenever the U.S. pulled out, whether it had been 10 years ago, 19 years ago or 10 years from now, the reason being that this was rooted in the nature of the U.S. occupation that began in 2001. There was not at that time—there is now not—a military solution to terrorism, which was ostensibly the reason for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. There is no military solution to the ‘problems of Afghanistan.’

And the notion that the U.S. could create a military force in Afghanistan that was going to be prepared to defend the country against an indigenous opposition force, the Taliban, was never going to be possible, because it was based on the idea that this would be a military that was supporting a government shaped and imposed by the United States in a Western model that had no bearing on the reality of politics and culture in Afghanistan, specifically the question of imposing a nationally based government with power centralized in the capital—something that was completely opposite of the long-standing, eons-long culture and history of Afghanistan, that was always based on local and tribal and family and clan-based power rather than national power. It was never going to work.

Lessons of Afghanistan

After 20 years, the United States has finally withdrawn from Afghanistan. What are some things we have learned—or should learn—about the United States experience in Afghanistan over the past 20 years? I offer here four basic lessons that I think we might take from the experience.

Lesson #1: The whole idea of a Global War on Terror was, and is, a tragic mistake.

In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S., the first and greatest tragedy was the decision to declare “war” on terror. As Phyllis Bennis states in this week’s “Quote” of the Week, there is no military solution to the phenomenon of terror. This was as clear in 2001 as it is in 2021. To declare “war” against an idea set the stage for a number of horrible outcomes, with perhaps the worst outcome being that it put the richest and most powerful nation in the world—officially and unabashedly—on a permanent war footing.

Of course, the U.S. had been on a war footing for decades, a stance that had previously been justified by the so-called Cold War. This is what I was referring to in February of 2002 when I suggested to readers of Nygaard Notes that, when they see the phrase “War on Terror,” they “simply translate it as ‘The So-called War Against Certain Limited Types of Terror Which is Really A Revival of The Cold War That Was So Useful To Maintaining The Permanent War-Based Economy of The United States That We Had to Replace It With Something And That Something Seems To Have Been Delivered To Us On September 11th.’”

Was there an alternative to a military response to the terror attacks of September 11? Indeed there was, and that alternative was to mount a judicial response, consisting of an international police action aimed at bringing the perpetrators to justice.

LESSON #2. It hasn’t been 20 years of war. It’s been 20 years of occupation.

I wrote in 2014 about the U.S. role in Afghanistan, pointing out that “it has not been a ‘war’ since at least December 21, 2001, when the post-invasion Afghan government was sworn in.” Maybe it was never a war. Here is Hamid Dabashi, who is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, writing in Al Jazeera a couple of weeks ago (August 23rd): “Twenty years ago, the United States pretended it was going to Afghanistan to dismantle the Taliban, destroy al-Qaeda, and bring Afghans peace, prosperity, liberal democracy and rule of law. Above all, it acted as if it was invading Afghanistan to liberate Afghan women from their burqas and make them all look just like American women. Predictably, it did not turn out that way. The US had no such intentions or capacities. Its intentions in Afghanistan, in fact, were purely military and strategic. It needed to flex its military, security and intelligence muscles near Russia, China, and Iran. For those purposes, the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has been a spectacular success. That it was a calamity for Afghanistan and its people is entirely irrelevant to American military strategists.”

Or, as professor Marc Herold put it more succinctly in 2008, “All the talk about democracy and girls’ schools is for public consumption in Euro-America. Indeed, the new so-called humanitarian interventions are merely a smokescreen to hide and sell larger geo-political agendas.”

Readers of the US media, in contrast, were presented with another perspective. In June of 2011, President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai made a speech in which he told a youth conference that the U.S.-led troops were there for their own national interests and that foreign troops “dishonor the people” of Afghanistan. This led U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry to make a public response the following day, saying to the Afghan President “When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost—in terms of lives and treasure—hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people … they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here. When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on. Let me be clear – America has never sought to occupy any nation in the world. Nor do we seek to do so here.”

(The power of propaganda is illustrated by the Ambassador’s comment about the U.S. being “compared with occupiers.” What the President was saying was that the U.S. IS the occupier!)

LESSON #3: The US occupation was never supported by people in other countries.

This point is so important, and so hard for many USAmericans to believe, that the article that follows this one is a reprint of Nygaard Notes #132, which reports on a global survey that was conducted in 2001 by the Gallup organization. They asked citizens in 37 countries what they thought about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The results were almost completely blacked out in this country.

LESSON #4: The larger story here is The Decline of the U.S. Empire.

It’s difficult for many people to think of the United States as an imperial power. And that’s because we’ve all been raised inside of The Empire, where there are all sorts of processes and systems hard at work teaching us to think of imperial behavior as “normal.” I have often written about this, referring to what I call The Imperial Mindset, or the Empire in our heads. An understanding of Empire is so important to understanding U.S. behavior in the world—and the various forms of resistance to our behavior—that I have decided that the next issue of the Notes will be a reprint of Nygaard Notes #445, which was devoted almost exclusively to explaining how the example of Afghanistan illustrates the thinking that makes Empire possible. That explanation bears repeating.

As the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, I suggest that you keep those four points in mind.

There is and will be much talk in this country of the “failure” of the US “mission” in Afghanistan. But we must remember that we are watching a declining imperial power, one that is attempting to avert a future in which The World’s Only Superpower is no longer the Only.

Seen through this lens, we move from lamenting the failure to win a war to celebrating the failure to strengthen the Empire. And such a change in perspective can help us be more effective agents of change.

Act of War? Or Crime Against Humanity? The World Weighs In

The following is a reprint of an article I published in Nygaard Notes Number 132 on November 16, 2001, six weeks after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan.

Last week’s Nygaard Notes “Quote” of the Week was the lead headline from the New York Times (“All the News That’s Fit to Print”) of November 6, 2001, which read: “U.S. Tries to Sway Worldwide Opinion in Favor of War.” Although I think it stands alone as a rather remarkable quotation, there is another story lurking just behind the headline that is worth looking at.

The lead paragraph of that story asserted that the Bush administration is “worried that public opinion abroad has turned against the American military campaign in Afghanistan.” Furthermore, the Times tells us, “reports that civilians have been bombed have led to a measurable drop in European support for the American-led campaign.

This was supposed to explain why the administration “is making a major effort to take its case to the foreign—and especially Islamic—news media.”

Leave aside for the moment the remarkable phenomenon of the government of one country openly trying to propagandize through the news media around the world. That’s hardly news, although its worth thinking about how and why our government might be going about such a task.

When we read about “public opinion abroad” that is now “turning against the military campaign” (similar statements can be found in various reports from early November), the implication is clear: that the people of the world have, up until recently, been in support of the U.S. war stance. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Propaganda (a.k.a. British Prime Minister) Tony Blair stated the official line quite plainly upon arriving in the U.S. on the day the bombing began, asserting that “international support for the campaign is undiminished,” according to press reports in the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!). While there was and likely remains worldwide support for a strong response of some sort to the terrorist attacks (“We have to do something!”), there has not been and does not appear to be much support at all for a military response, despite the “spin” that the Bush-Blair alliance has attempted to place on it.

The Secret Survey

Unbeknownst to most Americans, not having been reported in any of the daily newspapers of this great nation, the Gallup Organization actually did a survey of the citizens of 37 countries around the world at the end of September, asking the following straightforward question:

“In your opinion, once the identity of the terrorists is known, should the American government launch a military attack on the country or countries where the terrorists are based or should the American government seek to extradite the terrorists to stand trial?”

This extensive survey—the only significant attempt to gauge “public opinion abroad” that I know of—revealed that an overwhelming majority of the world’s citizens rejected the idea of a military response to the crimes of September 11th, preferring instead a judicial response. Remember, this survey was done at the end of September (survey results were released on September 25th), just days after the President had indicated that the United States was planning a military response.

The Gallup survey showed, for example, that 64 percent of the citizens of the Czech Republic were opposed to a military response to terror. And that was as good as it got for the Bush administration in Europe. The citizens of every other European country were opposed even more strongly to the favored U.S. strategy, by margins ranging from 67 percent in NATO ally France to 87 percent in Switzerland and 88 percent in Greece.

The overwhelming majority of the surveyed population outside of Europe also rejected the military response to terror, by percentages along the lines of 94 percent in Mexico, 85 percent in Colombia, 75 percent in South Africa, and 84 percent in Zimbabwe.

In only two of the 37 countries did a strong majority of the citizens surveyed support a military response. One was India, with complex geopolitical realities in the region to consider. The other was Israel, the leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world and with its own long history of responding militarily to terror attacks. The third and final country in which a majority supported the U.S. government’s plans to go to war—and this by a small majority of 54 percent—was the United States itself.

In summary, then, just two weeks before the United States launched its ill-fated military attack on perhaps the weakest country in the world, somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the world’s population, as near as we can figure, opposed that attack. And now we read in the papers that the U.S. administration’s main concern is to maintain “international support” for its war. This is a major propaganda victory, and if it takes Nygaard Notes to tell you this, then consider how powerful that propaganda system must be.

Addendum: I said near the beginning of this essay that the results of this survey had not been reported in any of the daily newspapers in America. Not technically true. There was one exception, that being the Omaha World-Herald. True, their 166-word brief completely misrepresented the findings, claiming that the poll “indicates a heartening degree of support for the United States,” but at least they reported something. No other U.S. paper said a word, according to my search of the Lexis-Nexis database for the period.

The Real Afghan War Strategy

The following is a reprint of an article I published in Nygaard Notes Number 462 on September 2 2010. The article previous to this one discussed the then-recent release of thousands of WikiLeaks documents relating to Afghanistan, noting that the New York Times’ reporting on these documents—like most reporting in the daily news—relied on a set of internalized “rules” that I call “PR Points.” The article you see here picks up where that article left off.

One PR Point made in the NY Times’ coverage of the WikiLeaks documents story is sufficiently convoluted as to require a little explaining. Here are the words the Times wrote:

“The shifting tactics of the Americans can be seen as well in the reports, as the war strategy veered from freely using force to trying to minimize civilian casualties. But as the documents make clear, each approach has its frustrations for the American effort.”

This paragraph makes no sense at all as far as I can tell, but let’s take it apart to see if we can at least come up with a good guess as to what encoded message might be deciphered.

First of all, it appears that the reporter expects readers to accept that “minimizing civilian casualties” is a “war strategy.” It’s not, for a couple of reasons. First of all, what the U.S. military is doing in Afghanistan is not a “war.” A better word is “occupation,” although it’s a modified, 21st-Century kind of occupation. According to international law (The Hague Convention of 1907, Article 42) “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army.” Since Afghanistan is not directly under the authority of the U.S. army, it’s not a classic, by-the-book occupation.

So, who is the authority in Afghanistan? In an independent country, the population is under the authority of the police. Yet here’s what the Times says that the WikiLeaks documents tell us about the Afghan police:

“[T]he police have proved to be an especially risky investment and are often described as distrusted, even loathed, by Afghan civilians. The reports recount episodes of police brutality, corruption petty and large, extortion and kidnapping. Some police officers defect to the Taliban. Others are accused of collaborating with insurgents, arms smugglers and highway bandits. Afghan police officers defect with trucks or weapons, items captured during successful ambushes or raids.”

The first reason, then, that “minimizing civilian casualties” is not a “war strategy” is that it’s not a war. The second reason is that “minimizing civilian casualties” is not a “strategy.” The famous military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz said that “Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.” So the decision to rein in the troops so they don’t kill so many innocents is a tactic, not a strategy.

What is the strategy, then? What is the victory that the troops are being deployed to “win”? The answer was given by the Times, in the quote above about the “risky investment.” The strategy is for the United States to attempt to dominate this strategically-placed country without having to permanently occupy it. U.S. planners apparently think that this can be done by “investing” in local police, military, and intelligence forces with the understanding that they, as key institutions in a strategically important area, will accept U.S. authority while appearing to be accountable to the government of Afghanistan, and not to the Empire. (In an August 25th story, for example, the Times reported without comment that “From 2002 until just last year, the C.I.A. paid the entire budget of Afghanistan’s spy service, the National Directorate of Security.”)

What we have in Afghanistan is a hugely corrupt administration, supported by the United States, with laws enforced by a security infrastructure that is “distrusted, even loathed” by the population but is also supported by the United States. So I think we can see the real “war strategy”: To have a compliant client state in the region that accepts its role as a part of the U.S. world system.

To make the point that “the war strategy” is “to minimize civilian casualties” is so implausible—irrational, really—that it’s hard to believe the reporters came up with it on their own. The most positive interpretation here would be that the attempts to “minimize” the killing of innocents is a tactic in service of something that might really be understood to be a strategy. That is, military leaders can see that the mission—an ongoing occupation of a nation in the interests of creating a subservient client state in a strategically important part of the world—is hampered when innocent people are slaughtered and their deaths reveal a cavalier disregard for the victims (whose numbers are not even tallied by the occupying forces).

While tactics in Afghanistan may have to be changed “from freely using force to trying to minimize civilian casualties,” the “war strategy” remains what it has always been: To use the world’s most powerful military to maintain a global Empire.