Americans on right and left want this war to end, but will our imperial leaders ever learn the lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan?
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
George W. Bush: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Speaker 2: The United States military is doing a fantastic job.
Barack Obama: America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.
Donald Trump: It’s nice to know that you’re fighting for something that is doing well, as opposed to something that was not doing well just a number of years ago.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Yes, it’s been almost 20 years. And on Sunday, the United States signed what’s called a truce with the Taliban in Doha. But without the Afghan government involved, and seemingly at the request of the Taliban. Is this really a step forward to bringing an end to a war which has lasted almost 20 years? Part of the accord was the agreement calling for the release of Taliban and Afghan government prisoners of war. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said, “No.” And not long after, the Taliban attacked. And then after the signing of the truce, U.S. Troops and Afghan government forces attacked again as if the truce was never signed, claiming the lives of over 16 people. And this all happened over the course of the last few days. President Trump seems to be going after American public opinion that there’s going to be a retreat from Afghanistan. And as we can hear in his most recent Make America Great rally, he said this.
Donald Trump: Two days ago, the United States signed a deal with the Taliban, so that after 19 years of conflict and very close to 20, we can finally begin to bring our amazing troops back home. After years of rebuilding foreign nations, we are finally rebuilding our nation and taking care of our own American citizens. And all of the things that we’ve done. We’ve wiped out terrorists, we’ve done so much. And you know what? We’re 8,000 miles away. You got a lot of big countries surrounding Afghanistan. You’ve got Afghanistan, itself.
Marc Steiner: And Trump also spoke with a Taliban leader, who he thought was the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Saying as he would often say, “We actually had a very good talk with the leader of the Taliban.” Well, the madness of this war must end. The question is how, and will this do it? Retired U.S. Army Major, Danny Sjursen, wrote an article called Happy Afghanistan Surrender Day for Truthdig a few days ago. He served both in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s an author, speaker, podcaster, and activist. His latest book coming up is Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and joins us once again. Welcome back, Danny. Good to have you.
Danny Sjursen: Oh, thanks so much. Always a pleasure.
Marc Steiner: Mine too. So here we have the Taliban, refusing to negotiate with the Afghan government, saying the Afghan President’s of puppet. I think it’s more complex than that. Trump accepted this and negotiated on their behalf, but there were no representatives there. The question is, where does this really lead? Does this really lead to an end to a war? I mean, is the Afghan government really not part of this? How do you see this unfolding?
Danny Sjursen: Well you know, it’s really hard to predict how this unfolds. I will say that any principle, conceptually… I agree with the President’s idea that it is time to go. That a withdrawal has been long appropriate, right? We should have probably withdrawn long ago. What’s unclear is the sincerity of the American position, how long this will hold, if at all. And then there’s also this gap. This interesting dynamic where for the longest time, two presidential administrations, 16 years, the United States said, “Listen, Taliban. If you want to negotiate, you got to negotiate with the sovereign government in Kabul that we helped install.” And the Taliban said, “No, we won’t deal with them.” Well, in 2018, there was a major pivot in American policy under Trump, where we said, “Okay, we will have a bilateral negotiation with the Taliban.” And this is the output of that, or the initial output of that. But I think what’s lost is realizing… I was purposely being flippant when I said Afghan Surrender Day. I don’t think it’s all that simple. Right?
Marc Steiner: Right.
Danny Sjursen: But I think that this 2018 moment when we said we will talk just to the Taliban, and basically cut out the Afghan government. That was the moment really, where the United States first accepted, I would argue, some version of defeat. Just accepted that they had not, we had not achieved our goals, and something new had to be tried. I actually support that in principle. I do so cautiously, and understanding that there are limitations in maybe sincerity or practicality. And also, there are going to be victims on the Afghan side that I’m concerned about as well.
Marc Steiner: Well, let me pick up on that point. We’re going to jump after this to George Bush and talk about what he said many years ago, and where this leaves us today. But what you just said, I mean, some people look at the Afghan government as a total puppet of the United States. I think it’s much more nuanced than that. Ashraf Ghani saying, “No, I’m not going to participate in this. He’s part of that.” But they are a weak government. They’re in some of the urban areas. They don’t control a great deal of their own country.
But the question becomes, if the United States goes into a country like Afghanistan, like Iraq, tears it asunder, what is our responsibility after that to the people that we leave behind? By that, I mean the women I’ve interviewed as we talked with them on the air. I talked to a number of women from the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, RAWA, over the years. And one of their questions is, “You’re going to leave us to be burglarized all over again?” And not that they support the U.S. invasion, but there’s a complexity to this. It’s like Vietnam. We left tons people behind in Vietnam. Or the Iraqi interpreters we left behind. I mean, I think those questions, even if you oppose these wars as imperialistic interventions that shouldn’t happen, what about that aspect of it?
Danny Sjursen: I mean, I’m of two minds about this. I call it head and heart. Right? Heart says, I’m for female education. I’m for secular values in government. And I’m not for beheading. So certainly, I find the Taliban oftentimes to be abhorrent. I am concerned for those who worked with us, just like I was in Iraq. Now, the question is, here’s where the head comes in.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Danny Sjursen: Are we going to get caught in a trap? What I mean is, there is a sunken cost trap where you say, “Well, we can’t leave, because too many people have worked with us who will now be at risk. We can’t leave, because if we leave then the women in Kabul would be at risk if the Taliban takes over.” But the problem with that is… A, just logically, it’s a formula for potentially forever war since we have not shown the capacity to win. Because we’re in a worse position militarily than we have been ever in the war, just empirically. Right? Provincial control.
And then the second thing that comes from that is the question, do we even possess the capability to meaningfully alter the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan? I would submit, no. And that whether we leave today or 10 years from now, the general outcome is probably the same. So what can we do? Well, it’s very limited. Besides economic aid and actually opening our borders to these folks who did work for us or to political refugees. Short of doing that, there’s not a whole lot we can do. But you know what’s interesting is, we’re dealing with a government, and it’s not just Trump. I mean, there were immigration problems before him.
But you know, we’re dealing with an administration or a U.S. Government that will destroy these societies or contribute to destroying these societies, and then close our borders to the very same folks if they’re vaguely brown and/or Muslim. And it’s just the cynicism of that, I think. It’s ultimately counterproductive in the region. It makes us look bad. But I don’t want to get caught up in the women’s rights or the education trap, where we stay forever. I don’t think we can achieve much more than holding the major cities, especially with just 14,000 soldiers.
Marc Steiner: And I agree.
Danny Sjursen: And I-
Marc Steiner: Yeah. I’m sorry, go ahead. I didn’t mean to cut you off.
Danny Sjursen: No, that’s exactly it. I mean, I really don’t think that we have… I think we overestimate America’s ability in the world in general, but especially in Afghanistan, to meaningfully alter things or just matters on the ground. The agency really tends to belong to the Taliban and to a lesser extent, the Afghan government. You want a prediction, historical prediction? Najibullah, who was the communist leader of Afghanistan, who the Russians had helped keep in power… When they left in 1988, everyone expected that he would fall right away to the Mujahideen, which some of whom became the Taliban. He actually held on for I believe, like four years.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Danny Sjursen: With some Russian military aid and economic aid. And also, because there were people who legitimately believed in communism and reform, and modernization in gender relations in Afghanistan. He held on for about four years. Of course, he’s eventually hung after he hides out in an embassy. My prediction is that I don’t think the Taliban is going to take over tomorrow, but we’re going to see probably some version of another short bloody civil war. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the government in Kabul goes the way of Najibullah, unfortunately.
Marc Steiner: I think you’re not far wrong. I think actually, you’re right. Not far wrong, I think you’re right that the Fatwa could happen after this. And you know what? I think if you look at it historically, whether it’s the British in the 19th century, or whether it’s the Russians, or whether it’s us in this century, no one has ever been able to handle Afghanistan. I mean, you battle the Pashtuns at your own risk, and that’s always been the historical case. Look at this, this is what George Bush had to say in 2010. I really want to play this one moment to grapple with something.
George W. Bush: I said a long time ago, one of our objectives is to smoke them out and get them running, and bring them to justice. We’re smoking them out, they’re running. And now, we’re going to bring them to justice. I also said we’ll use whatever means necessary to achieve that objective, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. The American people must understand that we’ve got a long way to go in order to achieve our objective in this theater. But we’re patient, we’re resolved, and we will stay the course until we achieve our objective.
Marc Steiner: So as you and I both know, this war was BS from the very beginning. It made no sense, the way this war was fought. And as I think I told you in an email earlier as I was preparing for this program, I interviewed Karzai just when Efe was dropped off in a cave in Afghanistan at the very beginning. It was insane from that moment on. So I’m curious, you wrote it really eloquently in your piece about the soldiers, the men under your command, the officers who fought with you and what their responses were to this, even though they were further to the right. So talk a bit about that. I mean, what does this say to us in America and the men and women who fought there, and the men and women in the Afghan, men who were killed in this process, and just where we are now? How does that fit into the definition of this moment?
Danny Sjursen: Bush’s speech that you played is just like an exercise in simplification. Right? I mean, we’re going to smoke them out. All this kind of language. It just simplifies it into a morality tale. Right?
Marc Steiner: Right.
Danny Sjursen: The dichotomy, Manichean sort of thing. Actually, it’s really complex, and it’s a great American and a great Afghan tragedy. For the Afghans, it’s a tragedy that really starts in 1973. For the United States, it’s a tragedy that at least for our soldiers, starts in 2001.
So on Sunday, the day that the news breaks of this truce or deal, I was just being a dad at a basketball tournament. On a whole other subject, on another research topic. I reached out via text, a mass text, to the nine lieutenants who worked for me in Afghanistan. And I made a joke, “Happy Afghan Surrender Day.” Which became the title of my article that I wrote hours later. And you know, it was remarkable that this group of guys who ranged from maybe one center-left guy, to mostly moderate Republicans and a lot of Libertarians, they were all in favor conceptually, of withdrawing from Afghanistan… To a man, and they’re all men, to a man. Which I thought was pretty remarkable, 19 years into the war. Because these are combat guys, most of whom have lost soldiers there.
So one might expect that they would see this deal as a betrayal, as a bad surrender. And I got some flippant jokes, responses. But all of them were of the vain that, “Look, whether I like Trump or I don’t, we got to go.” And you know, “Maybe we’re not so sure that this deal is going to hold. But in principle, we support it.” So I think that does speak to where we’re at in this great American and also mainly Afghan tragedy, is that the simplicity, the duality of good and evil that Bush laid down in practice, it’s just proven to be a mess. And I hope that that’s the lesson… I fear we won’t. But I hope that that’s the lesson moving forward that’s taken from this history, because something good… I have to believe something good comes of this war on terror absurdity. I’m not so sure, but I think that the polls that show that more veterans are against the war in Afghanistan than civilians, is a very instructive, rare, and unique moment in American history.
Marc Steiner: So let me conclude with this idea here. One of the things that just came out in the last day was that Fatou Bensouda, who is the head of the International Criminal Court, said there will be an investigation about war crimes against the U.S. and the Taliban in Afghanistan. You think this feeds into that at all? And what’s your response to that as someone who’s served?
Danny Sjursen: There are people within the military who distrust international institutions. And of course, like the ICC, like the United Nations. If you want to hear people bash international organizations, a good place to find that is in the military, particularly even in the officer ranks. But this is an American phenomenon, and it’s not just the Trump thing. This distrust, this unwillingness to play by international norms, many of which were initially founded under our auspices in the aftermath of World War II. But the problem was that once organizations like the ICC and the United nations started to be critical of American imperial policy, then we threw our hands up and said, “We are not playing.” I support a full investigation. I’m all about the truth. I believe that there is such a thing as universal human rights. Well, you know what’s interesting about all of this is… I think that it’s great that the ICC is looking at all three parties, because I believe the Afghan government is also under investigation.
Marc Steiner: Yes, they are.
Danny Sjursen: As they should be.
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Danny Sjursen: As someone who has witnessed war crimes, witnessed war crimes by Afghan soldiers. Okay? I think that all parties should be involved. One thing to remember is that legislation was passed not too long ago by the U.S. Congress, that basically said that we will go as far as up to military force to invade the Hague if necessary, to take an American soldier or an American citizen who is being held there. We are so far along the road, this is a true thing, that we are not willing to subject our citizens or our soldiers to the same laws that apply to the rest of the world.
Now one might look at that and say, “Hey, we’re not going to get a fair trial.” Or, “We’re exceptional. We’re great.” But here’s the thing. How do you think that plays on the Arab street, on the Afghan street, or anywhere in the world? It plays as American hypocrisy, and it builds anti-American sentiment. Or as we like to simplify, it grows terrorists. And so I think that America’s refusal to play ball, refusal to accept even an investigation for the most part into itself, it’s ultimately counterproductive. And oh, by the way, unethical.
Marc Steiner: I guess we can close with this. I mean, it makes me think of what you said a little bit ago, which is… What have we learned? When you think about what happened in Vietnam, and now Afghanistan and Iraq, we have not learned very much. And as you’re describing now, it’s in a sense gotten worse in terms of what our inability is to even be part of the international dialogue to create a more humane world. So I mean, I think this is a very telling and also very trying, and in many ways, frightening moment.
Danny Sjursen: Absolutely. Look, the United States is an imperial entity. And in history, they are defined by three things. Triumphalism, chauvinism. The thing is to keep in mind, this is not going to play well in the world. Right? Exceptionalism, triumphalism, chauvinism. This does not please the people that we’re trying to get on our side. And I fear that we are going to miss out on the lessons of this, just like we did in Vietnam. Who knows where the next theater of American war on a concept will be?
Marc Steiner: Danny Sjursen, thank you so much once again for joining us. I look forward to reading more of your work and having you back again with us soon.
Danny Sjursen: Always a pleasure, Marc. Talk soon.
Marc Steiner: You too, take care. And I’m Marc Steiner, here for the Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Let us know what you think, what you want to know about. Take care.
Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.