Around the year 2000, I was sitting in a high school history / social studies class taught by my father.
We were in the middle of a couple-week stint in which he was focusing on the events in Afghanistan during the 1980’s. (Some of you may be wondering what happened in Afghanistan during the 1980’s. We will get to that.)
A student raised their hand and asked how these events could possibly matter to us. This was the proverbial “Why should we care?” statement.
A couple months later we were all shocked by the events of September 11th, 2001.
To this day, this series of events continues to intrigue me.
I admit to being rather proud that my dad is knowledgeable enough about the world to have accurately narrowed in upon some of the salient issues of our age in his teaching.
Also, this highlighted the general sentiment that whatever doesn’t seem to directly affect you does not matter. Prior to his classes, and even during them, students were seriously questioning the relevance of some of what we were learning to their own lives. The attacks of 9/11 brought some of these issues into the public eye. I expected that the knowledge that my dad had been teaching would become widely known in the US and Canada.
And yet that is not what happened. As far as I know, very few people, even among the very educated, are aware of what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.
Hopefully this post will help a bit with that.
Afghanistan in the 1980’s
This story is rather well-told in the excellent movie Charlie Wilson’s War (starring Tom Hanks – my respect for his work continues to grow).
At the height of the cold war, the Soviet union invaded Afghanistan. The invasion lasted from 1979 until 1989.
Fearing a Soviet victory, the United States began covert funding of freedom fighters in Afghanistan early in the conflict. Early on in the program, the budget was $5 million dollars.
A number of Americans, including Congressman Charlie Wilson, pushed hard for more extensive funding of the mujahideen forces. They knew that the Soviet helicopters were heavily armored against weapons of the sort that the Afghans were using on them.
The US struck a deal with Saudi Arabia such that any funds sent by the US to support the mujahideen would be matched by the Saudis. The freedom fighters were eventually supplied with surface-to-air rockets that could destroy Soviet helicopters. The tide of the battle began to turn.
Funding was increased, and then increased again. It eventually reached $500 million from the US alone. This was matched by the Saudis. This was the biggest covert war in history. A billion dollars was pumped into weaponry that would be used against the invading Soviet army.
The Soviets lost appalling numbers of helicopters and tanks. They were forced to retreat from Afghanistan.
This is recognized as one of the more major conflicts of the cold war, and is thought by many to have been instrumental in the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.
Once the war was over, the US immediately stopped sending money to the Afghans. With no military incentive, the funds went from $500 million to zero. The Afghans were left with an utterly destroyed country and a spectacular amount of weaponry and guerrilla warfare knowledge. Their country descended into chaos for a number of years, eventually coming to be ruled by the Taliban.
Fast forward to the 2001-present Afghanistan war.
Is it surprising that the war in Afghanistan still smolders now in its tenth year? Is it surprising that the Afghans have managed to destroy large amounts of military hardware. Is it in any way surprising that they are incredibly effective guerrilla fighters?
Is it surprising that they do not thank the US for the help against the Soviet invasion? At this point it is worth noting for clarity that the US’s help was covert, that is, it was hidden. It was hidden by funneling the armaments and money through third parties. It is reasonably likely that many Afghans did not know how much the US helped them in the 80’s. Even if they do know, that is not the whole story. After the Soviets left, the US simply stopped funding anything. They did not even send token support for building roads, schools and infrastructure.
In my opinion, this demonstrated tremendous disregard by the US. The Afghans were, after all, the ones who fought and beat the Soviets in an incredibly bloody and destructive war. The Afghans had served essentially as front-line soldiers in a conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. One would think that they deserved some humanitarian support to rebuild their shattered society after they had served their purpose.
This story must be known more widely. By paying no attention to the humanitarian crisis of the Afghans, the US is complicit in the eventual rise to power of the Taliban. By buying so many weapons for the Afghans, the US is partially responsible for the immense amount of violence that has taken place since the Soviet army left Afghanistan.
Humanitarian action must become one of the primary elements of foreign policy.
Neglect of the world’s humanitarian problems, when we could easily solve them, will cause us continual global grief for decades to come.