Afghanistan: The United States’ longest war was founded on false pretences

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By Bulent Gokay

August 28, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The war in Afghanistan ended as it had started, with total ambiguity of its objectives as well as what it achieved. The official US narrative in 2001 was that “everything changed” on the day four airliners were hijacked and nearly 5,000 people murdered. The US intervention in Afghanistan, by this account, was hastily improvised in less than a month. However, the decisions shaping the US military campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 show a remarkable continuity based on an ongoing pre-September 11 evolution in the US foreign policy. As a matter of fact, the US operations in Afghanistan did not begin twenty years ago, but in 1978, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. In 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s former National Security Adviser, defended US intervention, in the form of secret support for Islamic extremists fighting in Afghanistan:

It was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention. … That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap. … We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. … What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war? [1]

It was this CIA-initiated move to unite the Muslims of the country against the occupying Soviet forces that can be considered the real start of the radical Islamisation of Afghanistan. The so-called ‘Reagan Doctrine’, after 1985, greatly increased the amount and quality of aid, especially in providing Stinger missiles, which proved so effective against Soviet aircraft, and altogether an estimated $3.5 billion was invested in helping the Islamic fighters of Afghanistan.[2] Although Washington stopped its arms supply to Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, it did not sever strategic links with the Islamic groups, including the Taliban, in Afghanistan. By propping up the Taliban, policy makers in Washington thought they could achieve some stable regime in Afghanistan with an anti-Shi’a movement in power, which could severely limit Iran’s influence in the region. 

US involvement in Afghanistan has been well documented in Taliban, a book written by Ahmed Rashid. Rashid, hardly a wide-eyed radical, has been the Pakistan-Afghanistan-and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Daily Telegraph in London. He argues that the US was desperately looking for allies and solid military bases in energy-rich central Eurasia but hindered by its own embargo of Iran that began in 1980 and was forced to look for other ways of entering the complex web of Eurasian politics and economics. Sometime in 1994, as Afghanistan tumbled into disarray in the wake of the civil war that followed the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, from the jolly bunch of anti-communist fighters in Afghanistan, a highly secretive and heavily armed group emerged, called the Taliban. Its declared purpose was to restore peace, to enforce traditional Islamic law, and to defend the Islamic character of Afghanistan. Rashid says, it was the key energy interests in using Afghanistan as a major oil transit route that led the US administration to support this young rebel movement in its search to bring stability to war-torn Afghanistan. Indeed, during the civil war, the Taliban seemed the only force capable of keeping the masses together in a fast disintegrating state. Once in power, the Taliban Movement put a lid on unending banditry, tribal quarrels and sectarian violence, and disarmed much of the countryside. Some US diplomats who had opened up contact with the Taliban saw them as messianic do-gooders—like born-again Christians from the US Bible Belt.[3] During the Soviet occupation, the US actively encouraged, even helped to recruit, the recruitment of non-Afghan Islamic mercenaries to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Taliban practiced the same approach, but the only difference this time around was that it was waged against the US and its western allies. 

The key task of the US administration in “volatile Eurasia”, as described by Zbigniew Brzezinski, was “to ensure that no state or combination of states gains the ability to expel the US or even diminish its decisive role”.[4] This was the case in the 1990s, and still the same in 2001. The causes for the war in Afghanistan cannot be found by looking only at September 11 terrorist attacks, without considering this long-term strategic goal. For reasons both of world strategy and control over natural resources, the US administration was determined to safeguard a dominant position in the Eurasian heartland.  Experts claimed that Afghanistan, with its strategic location, offered the most convenient route for pipelines to carry Central Asian and Caspian oil to Western locations. A 790-mile oil and gas pipeline across Afghanistan that would carry Caspian Sea basin’s oil and natural gas south to the Pakistani coast on the Arabian Sea would reduce US dependence on the volatile Gulf oil zone controlled by the OPEC. [5] In 1998, the US-based UNOCAL oil consortium started negotiations with the Taliban government to build the trans-Afghan pipeline; and the Enron corporation, a major contributor to the Bush administration, undertook a feasibility study for the project on behalf of the UNOCAL.[6] 

On 10 September 2001, Oil and Gas Journal, an US-based oil industry publication, reported that Central Asia represents one of the world’s last great frontiers for geological survey and analysis, “offering opportunities for investment in discovery, production, transport and refining of enormous quantities of oil and gas resources.”[7] A few days before the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US Energy Information Administration reported that "Afghanistan's significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from central Asia to the Arabian sea. This potential includes the possible construction of oil and natural gas export pipelines through Afghanistan".[8]

The hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon simply provided an additional rationale for the unilateral increase in US political and military control of Afghanistan and surrounding area. The so-called War on Terror allowed for US military penetration into areas of the world where it previously was absent. During initial stages of the war in Afghanistan, the US military was able to establish thirteen new military bases in bordering ex-Soviet states, with Uzbekistan as the first central Asian state to host a permanent military base in early 2002. Shortly thereafter, other bases appeared in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the attendant policy and praxis of common military exercises reached to included distant Kazakhstan. The establishment of these military bases in early 2000s in central Asia represented a major advance for the US and ready access to the rich oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea basin. At the same time, these military advances dampened and limited Russian influence in the area. All this also strengthened the position of the US in relation to China, a power identified since the end of the Cold War as a likely challenger to US hegemony in Eurasia. Within a week of the commencement of the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration discussed the shape of a post-Taliban Afghan government in reference to developing oil and gas pipelines. On 15 December 2001, the New York Times reported that “the State Department is exploring the potential for post-Taliban energy projects in the region…”.[9] 

When the initial fighting concluded, President Bush appointed a former aide to the American oil company UNOCAL, Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, as a special envoy to Afghanistan. This nomination underscored the importance of the economic and financial interests at stake in the US campaign in Afghanistan. Before his ambassadorial appointment, Khalilzad drew up a risk analysis for a proposed gas pipeline from the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.[10] So many business deals, so much oil and natural gas, all those giant multinational corporations with powerful connections to the US state. This is not a paranoid theory, but simply a convergence of political and economic interests travelling under the rubric of War on Terror. It is not a conspiracy; it is just business as usual. 

US economic interests, driven by oil, had for years taken precedence over any human rights agenda. It was only after 9/11 that the US First Lady Laura Bush emerged overnight as a progressive feminist concerned about the brutal repression of Afghan women under Taliban.[11] In fact, the US originally financed the Islamic Mujahedeen upon which the Taliban built its rule as it fought against the pro-Soviet Afghani government of the late 1970s. That war pitted the fundamentalist Mujahedeen against a government that allowed women access to education and employment. With the fall of this secular government, the Taliban dictatorship was free to support the exclusion of women from all public spaces and education. 

From the start, there had been fundamental disagreements on the objectives of the US operation in Afghanistan within the US administration. For some, it was turning Afghanistan into a democracy and bringing a cultural change in the country. For others, the main objective was clearing Afghanistan of any terrorist organisations that posed a direct threat to the US.  In fact, the presence of US and other Western forces has remained the basic cause of conflict in Afghanistan.  Arguably, more lives would have been saved if the US had left Afghanistan earlier.

The Afghanistan Papers are a set of assessments of the US war in Afghanistan prepared by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and were published by The Washington Post  in 2019, following a Freedom of Information Act request. According to the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers. A Secret History of the war, published on 9 December 2019, 2,300 U.S. troops killed and 20,000 wounded. The Afghans, of course, have suffered even more. Douglas Lute, a retired three-star Army general, advised both the Bush and Obama administrations, in his 2015 interview with the SIGAR: 

What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking. We never would have tolerated rosy-goal statements if we understood, and this didn’t really start happening until Obama. For example, the economy: we stated that our goal is to establish a “flourishing market economy”. I thought we should have specified a flourishing drug trade- this is the only part of the market that’s working. It’s really much worse than you think. There is a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.[12]

Indeed, US-led Western intervention resulted in Afghanistan becoming the world’s first true narco-state. Afghanistan’s opium production surged from around 180 tonnes in 2001 to more than 3,000 tonnes a year after the invasion, and to more than 8,000 by 2007, and 9,000 by 2018 (93% of the world’s illicit heroin supply).[13] 

Since the US and its allies withdrew its troops, “some stirred-up Muslims” are back in power again, and it is now up to Afghans to decide the fate of their country. 

Bulent Gokay is Professor of International Relations, Keele University.


[1] The Brzezinski Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (1998),  

[2] Charlotte Saikowski, “`Reagan Doctrine' impact questioned by left and right”, The Christian Science Monitor, 4 February 1988, 

[3] Ahmet Rashid, Taliban, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010 ed, p.182.

[4] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “A Geostrategy for Eurasia”, Foreign AffairsVol. 76, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1997), pp. 50-64. 

[5] A. Quader Chowdhury, “Western Oil Interests in Central Asia”, The Independent, 16 January 2002

[6] Online Asia Times, 6 October 2001.

[7] J. P. Dorian, “Oil, Gas in FSU Central Asia, Northwestern China, Oil and Gas Journal, 10 September 2001, pp. 20-32.

[8] Andy Rowell, “Route to Riches”, the Guardian, 24 October 2001,

[9] New York Times, 15 December 2001.

[10] V. Sridhar, “Bush & Co private limited”, Frontline, 14 March 2003, 

[11] Kim Berry, “The Symbolic Use of Afghan Women in The War on Terror”, Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, Vol. 27, No.2, 2003, pp.137-160,  

[12] The Afghanistan Papers A secret history of the war, Washington Post, 9 December 2019, 

[13] Alfred W McCoy, “How the heroin trade explains the US-UK failure in Afghanistan”, The Guardian, 9 January 2018,