The 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan ended with a bang in August as a terrorist attack killed thirteen Marines at the Kabul airport. For almost 20 years, The Future of Freedom Foundation has been one of the few organizations that stalwartly criticized the Afghanistan war. FFF President Jacob Hornberger helped set the gold standard for uncompromising honesty about the folly of U.S. intervention.
I wrote numerous articles for FFF on the Afghan war. My first article, “Drug Laws: Terrorists’ Best Friends,” in February 2002, attacked the Bush administration for perpetuating the war on drugs while promising to rid the world of terror. That article noted:
Afghanistan produces about 70 percent of the world’s opium. Revenue from opium production helped finance both the Taliban government (until production was banned) and the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Because narcotics are illegal, they tend to attract violent, ruthless people and organizations to carry out their production and marketing. The only reason that opium is more profitable for terrorists than beer is that governments criminalize the possession and distribution of opium while tolerating the possession and distribution of beer.
As soon as the U.S. military toppled the Taliban, opium production skyrocketed. The Washington Post reported in late December 2001 that “top Bush administration officials are now advocating that the U.S. government use tax dollars to buy opium directly from the farmers, a one-time buy-back to help farmers make the transition to other crops.” But unless the U.S. government could drive the price of wheat to $500 a bushel, crop substitution made no sense for Afghan farmers.
At the time, President Bush was receiving glowing press coverage each time he announced the seizure and shutdown of Muslim charities accused of assisting terrorists. President Bush declared that one dime funnelled into a terrorist activity was one dime too much. Terrorists and the Taliban quickly began massively profiting from the revival of opium growing in Afghanistan. My article concluded, “Unless President Bush can guarantee that none of the profits from illicit drugs will seep back into terrorist organizations, he should do the honorable thing and end the war on drugs.”
Bush’s debacle in Afghanistan was overshadowed by his Iraq war catastrophe for most of his presidency. In my 2004 book The Bush Betrayal (St. Martin’s Press), I included a chapter on “Afghan Absurdities,” recounting some of the propaganda scams that followed the U.S. invasion. “George W. Bush is the first president of the United States to attack and overthrow a foreign regime because of its elementary school policies. Actually, this was not the justification for the war against the Taliban at the time U.S. troops charged in. But in the months after the war, Bush constantly contorted the war into a tale that would thrill soccer moms and political illiterates” by boasting of rising school attendance numbers by girls.
Bush exploited the Afghan war to boost his 2004 reelection campaign, claiming that “Afghanistan has now got a constitution which talks about freedom of religion and talks about women’s rights…. Democracy is flourishing.” Bush neglected to mention that U.S. government officials openly bribed the attendees of the Afghan constitutional convention to sway them to include flowery language about women’s rights. President Hamid Karzai, the U.S. government’s hand-picked ruler, later approved a law entitling husbands to starve their wives to death if they denied them sex.
The Bush Betrayal scoffed at how Bush contorted the “victory over the Taliban to make himself appear as not only a great military conqueror but also a savior of part of humanity.”
Like a knight in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Bush continually inflates the size of the dragons he supposedly slayed. In a speech in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 2, 2002, Bush bragged, “We went in to liberate people from the clutches of the most barbaric regime in history.” But the Taliban’s grisly record did not compare with the ravages of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China.
In 2007, I told the New York Times that Bush appointing a “war czar” for Afghanistan was “the same old scam that politicians have used for a long time whenever there is a failing policy.” At that point, details were leaking about the torture regime at the U.S. government’s Bagram Air Force Base, where innocent detainees had been beaten to death. The Los Angeles Times reported allegations that Afghan soldiers detained by the U.S. government had suffered “repeated beatings, immersion in cold water, electric shocks, being hung upside down and toenails being torn off.” A Senate Intelligence Committee report later revealed that detainees at a CIA site north of Kabul “were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste. Lack of heat at the facility likely contributed to the death of a detainee.” Detainees were “walked around naked or were shackled with their hands above their heads for extended periods of time. Other times, the detainees … were subjected to what was described as a ‘rough takedown,’ in which approximately five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him outside of his cell, cut his clothes off, and secure him with Mylar tape. The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.” The CIA torture center was not classified as part of the billion dollars that the U.S. government spent in Afghanistan to help promote “the rule of law.”
At the start of the Obama administration, I wrote a piece for FFF headlined, “Eight Years of Big Lies on Afghanistan.” That piece scoffed at Bush’s “bragging about having given ‘freedom and democracy’ to 25 million Afghans,” a charade that “helped Bush preen as the conqueror of the world.”
In 2009, the Obama administration admitted that the U.S. military intervention had effectively failed. Obama’s solution: send another hundred thousand more U.S. troops to turn that nation into a democracy and a paradise for women’s rights. My article noted, “For 8 years, the American people have been fed one big lie after another regarding Afghanistan,” including “four-star howlers” such as “claims that the U.S. is speedily building up the Afghan army.” That article concluded:
There is no reason to expect the U.S. government to ever become trustworthy on Afghanistan. At best, Washington will rotate its lies, the same way it rotates the National Guard units sent to the Afghan badlands. Americans need to recognize that, once their government commences warring, truth will be target number one.
The following year, FFF published a piece of mine sardonically titled, “Bringing Freedom and Prosperity to Afghanistan.” The flood of U.S. aid had helped turn Afghanistan into the second most corrupt nation on Earth. According to Transparency International, the only place in the world that was more corrupt was Somalia — a nation best known for its pirates.
U.S. government handouts have enabled the Afghan government to increase repression of the Afghan people. The U.S. government has poured billions of dollars into building up the Afghan army. But Afghan soldiers are often a pox on their countrymen who looted and raped their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, Afghans were receiving the same type of freedom that Bush created for Americans. The Afghan government created a National Security Court to try terrorist cases and other cases but did not disclose any details on how the court would actually function [similar to the trials at Guantanamo]. The new court provided the appearance of a judiciary while permitting maximum political manipulation of charges and verdicts. The Karzai government also expanded the number of judges on the Afghan Supreme Court from nine to 137. Even Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 scheme to pack the U.S. Supreme Court was timid in comparison.
To sanctify U.S. intervention, the Obama administration doubled down on pretending that Afghanistan had a democratic government. My article noted:
The election last summer in Afghanistan was one of the most corrupt in the world since the fall of the Soviet bloc. But after it became clear that Karzai was not going to budge from power, the Obama administration decided to treat him as if had won fair and square. That was the same folly that the Johnson administration fell into regarding its South Vietnamese lackeys in 1967. But in the same way that the Vietnamese people were not fooled, the Afghan people are increasingly bitter about both Karzai’s abuses and the fact that the United States is sanctioning their oppressor.
There will be no happy ending to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. By vesting himself in one of Bush’s greatest follies, Obama is destroying his credibility both with Americans and with the world. Who will be the last American soldier to die so that the U.S. president can continue denying his Afghan follies?
Even though the CIA warned Obama that a troop surge would fail, he sent another hundred thousand Americans to Afghanistan. The following year, FFF published my piece titled, “Dying to Corrupt Afghanistan.” My article noted:
American soldiers are dying so that Afghan politicians can continue looting U.S. tax dollars. Foreign aid has long been notorious for creating kleptocracies — governments of thieves. The $50+ billion foreign aid that the United States has dumped on Afghanistan over the past decade is a textbook case of how foreign handouts drag a nation down.
Corruption has been a huge issue ever since the United States installed a puppet government in Afghanistan. One Afghan truck driver bitterly told a reporter, “Every man in the government is his own king.” A United Nations study reported that 60 percent of Afghans identified corruption as the nation’s biggest problem — even worse than the war with the Taliban. The report estimated that Afghans must pay more than $2 billion in bribes to government officials and others each year — equivalent to almost a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. That would be akin to Americans’ paying more than $3 trillion in bribes each year.
In October 2009, when the U.S. government was still purportedly debating whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported that “one U.S. military official said discussions within the Obama administration are ongoing about whether it is even possible to ‘surge’ enough troops to overcome the corruption.” The fact that the U.S. foreign aid spurred the corruption was left out of that particular discussion.
The ultimate purpose of foreign aid is to buy allegiance and submission abroad. For politicians, buying allegiance isn’t corrupt — it is simply politics. There is no bureaucratic cure for the perverse incentives created by flooding foreign nations with U.S. tax dollars.
From 2001 onwards, American politicians talked as if they were bringing civilization and decency to a hopelessly backward nation. In August 2017, when he announced he was sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, President Trump declared, “In every generation, we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed.”
But such strutting could not survive a close examination of the sordid details of U.S. intervention. In 2018, FFF published my piece, “Your Tax Dollars Bankroll Afghan Child-Molesters.” By that point, the United States had spent more than $70 billion financing the Afghan military and police. Congress passed a law prohibiting the Pentagon from bankrolling any foreign military units if there is “credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” But congressional appropriations bills contained loopholes that specified that funds for Afghan Security Forces “shall be available to the Secretary of Defense, notwithstanding any other provision of the law.” This clause, which is referred to by Pentagon policymakers as the “notwithstanding authority,” removed all legal and moral limits on U.S. government spending in Afghanistan.
Afghan military commanders and police routinely kidnapped young boys and used them as sex slaves — a practice known as bacha bazi — boy play. After the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan in 1996, bacha bazi was punished with a death penalty, and the abuse became far less pervasive. But that prohibition ended after the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban. American troops complained of seeing boys chained to beds and hearing their screams at night as they were assaulted. Army captain Dan Quinn complained that “we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me.’’ Aaron MacLean, who served in Afghanistan with the Marines, observed that the “Taliban have long used reports of rapes committed by government agents as a recruiting tool.”
The Pentagon ignored U.S.-subsidized rapings until a 2015 New York Times exposé of American soldiers’ being punished for protesting atrocities against boys. The Times reported that U.S. troops were confounded that “instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages — and doing little when they began abusing children.” Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) complained to the Pentagon, “It is bad enough if the Pentagon is telling our soldiers to ignore this type of barbaric and savage behavior, but it’s even worse if we are punishing those who try to stop it.” As I wrote in a Hill article headlined, “Your Tax Dollars Fund Afghan Child Rape,”
A subsequent Pentagon Inspector General revealed that some U.S. troops were “told that nothing could be done about child sexual abuse because of Afghanistan’s status as a sovereign nation, that it was not a priority for the command, or that it was best to ignore the situation and to let the local police handle it.” Regarding pedophilia, the Navy gave its members training that “advises readers to control and overcome any frustration caused by cultural differences that they may experience during their deployments,” while Marines were told “to be mentally prepared to encounter this attitude, and to ‘move on,’” according to the report. A subsequent Inspector General report warned that “the full extent of child sexual assault committed by Afghan security forces may never be known.” But part of the reason that the “full extent” will never be known is that U.S. government agencies did not want to know.
Americans would never tolerate paying federal funds for a notorious child-rape regime in Cincinnati or Omaha. But your tax dollars are underwriting similar sordid abuses in Kandahar and Kabul. Doctors, teachers, and social workers can be jailed for failing to report child abuse here at home. But, 6,000 miles away, U.S. troops risk their career for protesting pederasty.
U.S. government interventions merely covered up evil which U.S. aid helped multiply. Americans have been encouraged to believe that U.S. foreign policy is on moral automatic pilot and that good things happen wherever the United States intervenes. But piety too easily obscures atrocities.
Americans finally recognize many of the lies that pervaded the success claims of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. The carnage was not “good intentions gone awry.” Instead, it was a generation of politicians, government officials, and Washington “experts” who reaped power and profits by perpetuating a quagmire that pointlessly killed and maimed thousands of American soldiers and an untold number of Afghans. No Washington pundit, politician, or “expert” who vouched for the success of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan should ever be trusted again.
Reprinted from the Future of Freedom Foundation
James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications. He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a frequent contributor to The Hill, and a contributing editor for American Conservative
Get notified of new articles from James Bovard and AIER.