18 Years Ago the Endless War in Afghanistan Began

October 7, 2019

Author and combat veteran Maj. Danny Sjursen and Afghan women's rights activist Fahima Gaheez speak on the tragedy of the longest war, what the past has wrought, and what the future portends.

Author and combat veteran Maj. Danny Sjursen and Afghan women's rights activist Fahima Gaheez speak on the tragedy of the longest war, what the past has wrought, and what the future portends.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

The war in Afghanistan is entering its 19th year with no end in sight. Afghanistan’s recent election appears that maybe 20% or less of the voters came out, fearing violence from the Taliban for one thing. And then, so far, neither Abdullah Abdullah nor the sitting prime minister, Ashraf Ghani, can really be declared the winner of that election. The United States has spent almost a trillion dollars on this war. 2,349 American soldiers have been killed, 320 soldiers have traumatic brain injury, 1,000 of those have severe injuries, and at least 1,600 have lost limbs. The cost of that over the next 40 years will exceed a trillion dollars. And that doesn’t even touch the devastation of Afghanistan itself, with between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians killed, depending on which study and whose statistics you believe, along with 45,000 Afghan soldiers.

The country’s infrastructure is in shambles and ruins. Control of different portions of that country is divided between the Kabul government and allied forces, and the Taliban, and in some senses, also the various ethnic warlords. And with all of that, we have to ask, “To what end?” We have to ask ourselves, “With no end in sight–forget about victory, whatever that means–does the Taliban … Now it’s going to regain power? What about all the women and others who fought for the rights and other things, and a decent world for that country?” We went after Osama bin Laden after 9/11, but in the process, destroyed an entire nation and added to the destabilization of the world and that country.

To tackle this very difficult anniversary, to work through all this, we talk with two guests; Retired United States Major, Danny Sjursen, who wrote “Americans Enable Unspeakable Atrocities Every Day.” That appeared in Truthdig where he’s a regular contributor. He’s also a former history instructor at West Point who served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. His memoir, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, is a critical analysis of the Iraq War; and co-host of the podcast, Fortress on a Hill, with another veteran. And Fahima Gaheez, who is an Afghan-American woman who is Director of the Afghan Women’s Fund, working for women’s empowerment and women’s rights in Afghanistan, and has been a long-time women’s rights and peace activist here and in Afghanistan. And Danny and Fahima, welcome. Good to have you both with us.

FAHIMA GAHEEZ: Thank you, Marc.

DANNY SJURSEN: Thanks very much.

MARC STEINER: So let me ask you both to start here, just as we reflect on this anniversary. And we’ll get to some more really intimate details in a moment. But let me start with you, Fahima, and then go to you, Danny. And just reflect on what this day means. I mean, Fahima, this is the country you were born in, this is the country you were raised in before you came here. So talk about what this anniversary says to you of the beginning of this war.

FAHIMA GAHEEZ: The invasion of Afghanistan may be the only U.S. war that the friends of the U.S., including the majority of Afghan people, welcomed it. At least there were not much objection to it. But that means that gave the U.S. legitimacy and justified the war in Afghanistan. Afghans, at the beginning, thought that, because Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Mujahideen, and the terrorists were supported by the U.S. in the Cold War, although it was a big mistake, maybe after 9/11, U.S. learned their lesson. And maybe the U.S. will change their policy toward Afghanistan to support the people of Afghanistan against terrorism and against fundamentalism and extremism.

But unfortunately, the U.S. brought back the warlords–the violators of human rights and women’s rights–to power and gave them legitimacy. So that means we are back in square one. And since then, U.S. made many, many mistakes to derail them from the goal that they were claiming to attack Afghanistan or invade Afghanistan. They derailed from that. And not only that the support for the Afghan people were not there, but the support for those who killed and tortured and destroyed Afghanistan, that is going on actually for 18, 19 years. So now that we are remembering 18 years of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Once again, you heard that a few weeks ago U.S. talked to the Taliban, and supposedly, there was a peace, whatever, agreement with the Taliban, without the Afghan people participation and without the legitimate Afghan government participation. It just seems like whatever is peace for them, they will do it. But they don’t care what the country, what the people of Afghanistan are going through. So it is a sad reminder that Afghanistan is being treated as a colony of the U.S. And the sovereignty of Afghanistan is not respected, and neither are the wish and the will of the people of Afghanistan.

MARC STEINER: So let me turn to Danny for a moment. Danny, how many tours did you do in Afghanistan and Iraq?

DANNY SJURSEN: I was only in Afghanistan once. I was also in Iraq for a long tour. When I look at this 19th year that we’re entering of the Afghan war, there is no other way for me to look at it but with sorrow. This war has been much longer for the Afghan people. Actually, the war has been going on about 46 years, since the toppling of the King, really without any end. And so, the tragedy is the Afghan peoples’. But the direction or the platform that I come from is a soldier who was in the occupying army treating Afghanistan like a colony. And here’s what I can think of is… You mentioned square one earlier, and that’s right where we are. Except, actually, we’ve taken steps backward.

We’re in a position now where the Taliban controls, or contests more of the country than ever before during this war. The Afghan GDP cannot even support or pay its own police and army without foreign aid. Afghan security casualties are through the roof. So high are they now that America has classified it, so the American people can’t know how badly the war is going. And of course, the opium crop is having a bumper year, a record year. So there is no end in sight. And I’m increasingly persuaded that the United States military, and the United States government more generally, no longer has the legitimacy, if it ever did, and no longer has the efficacy to, ultimately, alter the outcome in Afghanistan, which makes me believe that whether we leave in one year or one millennia, the outcomes might be the same. And that’s a tragedy for the Afghan people that we all have to think about.

MARC STEINER: As I told you all before we started the conversation, that at the very beginning of the war, I had this interview with Hamid Karzai when he was hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. And from that moment, everything was kind of shaky, because the idea was, after 9/11, you were going after Osama bin Laden, which the majority of Americans supported as well at that point because of what happened on 9/11 in New York City and in Pennsylvania. And many of you, at least I did, lost friends in that attack. And that’s not a reason to go to war, but I remember that very intimately. And so, when you look at that and look where we are today, I mean, it does raise some questions.

I mean, and one of the questions before I talk about the election is where do you think we go from here? I mean, here you have a country that is torn apart, that women, whether it was when the King was in power, or when the socialist government was in power, and since, the battle against the Taliban, have been fighting for their rights and fighting for equality from the beginning. There was a time when I interviewed a lot of women from a group called RAWA, which is Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, that was very active for a number of years. And so, this was part of the battle. So where do you think we go from here? What happens now? What should happen now? How do you rectify a nation you’ve destroyed? Danny, why don’t you start, and then we’ll let Fahima pick up.

DANNY SJURSEN: Like I said, the tragedy is that I don’t think there is anywhere for the United States to go from here. I don’t think we control the outcomes there. Unfortunately, I think that the time for military occupation is over. And we should not fool ourselves. The outcomes will be bloody. I mean, civil war is going to be the result, a continuing civil war. I’m just questioning whether the United States is a force for good. I mean, this is the first year, or 2018 was the first year where U.S. and our allied Afghan forces killed more civilians than the Taliban. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Taliban is a force for good. What it does mean is we’ve really got to question our position.

And remember that this is our longest war. Most Americans aren’t paying any attention to it. Obviously, way more Afghans are dying than Americans, but American troops are still dying. And I’ll tell you, as an officer who had these conversations, I realized the war was over for me and that it was time to dissent when I realized I could no longer look a spouse or a mother in the eye and explain, what did their son or daughter die for in Afghanistan, or Iraq, for that matter?

MARC STEINER: So Fahima, where do you think we go from here? What’s your analysis tell you?

FAHIMA GAHEEZ: U.S. is talking about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. First of all, I don’t believe that will happen completely. I mean, of course the war changes, and with the drone attacks and very high technology, there are not many soldiers are needed on the ground. But let’s say that they withdraw, but this withdrawal should be very responsible. There should be a peace settlement among Afghans, not between the U.S. and the Taliban, not between the Pakistan and the Taliban. Another thing that the U.S. went to Afghanistan, this war on terror, that was one of the reasons. But U.S. knows very well that the sanctuaries are in Pakistan. The Pakistan government and the ISI and the Pakistan military are the supporters of terrorists. If really you want to fight terrorism, you should also go there and fight it there.

The Afghans are the victim of terrorism for the past 40-some years. So it does not seem like this is very genuine will from the U.S. part, that they really do not fight terrorism there. Of course, I mean, we never believed it from the beginning, and I don’t believe that this war in Afghanistan is war on terrorism. There are a lot of other issues there, with China being the superpower, India, and Russia, and Iran, and all these other issues there. So it is a power struggle there that the Afghans are becoming the victim, and Afghanistan is the battlefield there. So this war cost Afghans a lot, of course, in the past 45-plus years, and in the past 18 years, it cost Americans a lot too. Like you said, over 2,400 American got killed. And think about all the crippled, and the people with the PTSD, and the mentally ill, and all these family without the parents. The effect will be lasting for years and years to come.

Of course, the loss in Afghanistan side is much greater. And one of the things that I wanted to tell your listeners, your audience, that please do not take this as a passing story, just to hear it, that so many people got killed in the suicide bombing, and so many people got killed, and this is it. The next day it’s forgotten. And when you count them all, millions of people are affected. Thousands of people got killed, 150,000 Afghan soldiers got killed. And millions are affected, the poverty, and the lack of infrastructure, and the lack of education, and family, orphans and widows, and on and on and on. I mean, this is a human tragedy. Of course, every war has, but Afghanistan War has the biggest human tragedy because it has been going on for generations now.

MARC STEINER: So let me move to two other quick subjects here before we have to close. And I was thinking, Danny, I’m going to come back to to the election after this and close with that, but I was thinking, Danny, about the article you wrote for Truthdig, where you went through this history, as a history teacher at West Point, you went through the history of the war that we had with the Philippines in the early part of the 20th century, and the horror of that war. And you were making this connection between your experience and that war.

So I mean, the important thing I want to hear at this moment from your article, and you, is what did we learn from this? What did we learn in terms of being able to speak to our fellow soldiers, to be able to speak to our American people, about what we need to learn from how we fight certain wars, and what we’ve done, to especially people of color, in those wars?

DANNY SJURSEN: I don’t think that we’ve learned quite as much as we ought to have learned. We don’t know our history particularly well in America. We certainly don’t know our military history. So I was writing about a massacre called the Bud Dajo Massacre, in 1906 in the Philippines. Of course, in the Philippines, we shattered a society too. And then we said we were there to save them. In reality, we’d killed one-sixth of the population. And this massacre made big headlines in 1906, unlike today. The soldiers took a trophy picture with men, women, and children dead beneath their feet like it was a big game hunt. And it caused outrage. And W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist, he said that he wanted to put that picture on the wall of his classroom, and every American teacher should.

Well, I started to think about this the second half of September, when we killed two wedding parties and 30 farmers. And there was plenty of tragic photographs, and Americans paid no attention. So we’ve come full circle. And even though we have a long history of massacres, my regiment had a long history of massacres, my soldiers didn’t know about that. The American people don’t know about that. We glorify the U.S. military and we forget the real victims, which is the Afghan people. I would like to see just as much to stress, just as much concern over civilian casualties that we are accidentally or irresponsibly causing in Afghanistan get the same sort of attention it did back during the Philippine war. And it’s a sad state of affairs when 113 years later, we haven’t made a whole lot of progress on empathy.

MARC STEINER: And to be clear, when you wrote the article, the regiment you served in was the same regiment that was descended from the men who served in the Philippines.

DANNY SJURSEN: That’s correct. I was in the 4th Calvary Regiment, and we proudly displayed a banner about that battle. And in fact, the volcano where it occurred is on our emblem forever. And we take pride as a unit in that, even though it was actually a massacre and not a battle.

MARC STEINER: So let me just close with this, because I think we would not do our journalistic duties without talking about the election for a moment here and what just occurred there. And as a full disclosure, I served with the Iraqi Prime Minister Ashraf Ghani on Afghans for a Civil Society here in Baltimore for a number of years in the early part of the century. And just to put that out of the way so people know that. But I have no partisanship in this election at all. I think they’re all not quite talking to the reality. But talk a bit about–and let’s start with you, Fahima–what this non-election means. Most people tend not to vote out of fear of violence, and for many other reasons. And so, what does this election mean? We cover it; but what’s the importance of it?

FAHIMA GAHEEZ: Well, although the election, the participants were only 25% to 30% of the voting population, but I think that it still was a big success, because the recent count shows that almost three million people voted. These three million people, they knew that there would be bombing, they knew that there would be attack, there are a lot of ultimatum from the Taliban, there would be finger cutting and everything, but their resilience shows that they had hunger for democracy. They wanted to vote for a government that would be legitimate, the government that they wanted to vote for. So to me, this was a success. Although, like I said, 25% to 30%, but still was a success. And think about the U.S. election. Under the best of circumstances, in the long history of voting and the highest technology and a lot of money to be spent and the security is almost perfect, it’s only 60% that participate in the election.

If you read some of the report, a 100-year-old man voted. And some people who were crippled, they couldn’t even walk, other family members or friends would be carrying them to go and vote. A 93-year-old woman who was also crippled, she voted. A man whose finger was cut the last time, he also came and voted. This really inspires me, and this gave me hope. But the problem is that the interference in the election, the interference from abroad, is very big. Even the U.S. interfere in the election, they did the last time. And the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, he keeps interfering in the election, sending kind of controversial tweets. And that is, I mean, they shouldn’t be stepping out of their boundary. They shouldn’t be stepping out of their diplomatic boundary. They should let people decide and respect the will of the people there. So yeah.

MARC STEINER: So we have to get ready to close. And I think what you said was really important. And just for our viewers, when you talked about the finger, because people have ink put on their finger if they voted, and people had their fingers cut off, or parts of fingers cut off when they voted, by people who opposed the election. So that’s just some clarity. And Danny Sjursen, can you close out for us here? I mean on this anniversary, and your closing thoughts about everything you’ve heard in this conversation today, and what you’re reflecting on?

DANNY SJURSEN: I think it showed an enormous amount of courage for Afghans to go out and vote. But I have a bit of a darker, more cynical view. I fear that the election will be so close, it’ll be contested. It might hurt the legitimacy of the government, ultimately. And I think as I reflect on this anniversary, I want to say that the people who worked for me, who I loved, put in an enormous amount of sacrifice. And I fear that it was unwinnable from the start, and that it will not end well. That being said, it is more important to me for the American people to think about the Afghan victims. Because, as she said, they truly are the victims of this tragic war, arguably the longest running war in the world today.

MARC STEINER: It’s been a pleasure to talk to you both. And I appreciate both your work that you’ve been doing over the years and your service. And Danny Sjursen and Fahima Gaheez, thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News today. We look forward to many more conversations. And again, thank you.

FAHIMA GAHEEZ: Thank you, Marc.

DANNY SJURSEN: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please go to our website and let us know what you think. Take care.

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