Sten Hankewitz: An end of an era: the Afghanistan war is over, at a tremendous cost and no result

30 August 2021 marks the day when America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan, ended after the last US troops left the country; it’s an end of an era for both the US and its allies – including Estonia – who fought in the war that cost so much to all its participants, but ended in almost zero result – because the decision makers didn’t understand what they were fighting for and how the country should’ve been approached, the Executive Editor of Estonian World, Sten Hankewitz, writes.

11 September 2001. I was a young, 22-year-old online editor at Eesti Päevaleht, at the time a broadsheet newspaper in Estonia that somewhat exists to this day but not in its former glory. I remember that day vividly, as most people do. Four hijacked planes. Two of which hit the World Trade Center twin towers, killing close to 3,000 people. One of which hit the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, killing 125 people. And one that was brought down by the passengers of the plane. Killing 40 (not including the terrorists – their deaths don’t matter). Over 25,000 people were injured in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

We at the online department of Eesti Päevaleht worked tirelessly that day and the following days, weeks, months, to bring the news to the Estonian people in their native language. We didn’t have the time to feel. We didn’t even have the time to explore our emotions over the mass murder that had happened. We just worked, emotionlessly, trying to do our best to convey information. The feelings, the emotions, they came later.

Estonian soldier greeting a British soldier in Afghanistan.
Estonian soldier greeting a British soldier in Afghanistan.

When the US had established that the terror attacks had been perpetrated by al-Qaida, an infamous terrorist organisation led by Osama bin Laden, and when the US decided to go to war in Afghanistan – the country led by a fundamentalist Islamist regime called the Taliban who provided a safe haven to al-Qaida and bin Laden – I wholeheartedly supported it. Yes, I know, journalists are supposed to be impartial, but that only applies to when they present their work to the public. We’re still human beings, we still have our views, political or otherwise. I’d like to think I never expressed my personal views in my reporting and I still don’t, but, hey, even journalists vote and they have their positions regarding this or that.

What was the US supposed to do after being attacked?

Yes, I wholeheartedly supported the US war in Afghanistan, initially called Operation: Enduring Freedom. And I have a confession to make. I still do. I still think the US did the right thing.

What was the US supposed to do? Almost three thousand of its people murdered. Countless of lives destroyed. Just sit back and relax as if installing Windows? That wasn’t an option. The US had to retaliate, it had to go after al-Qaida and the Taliban, because what al-Qaida did was an act of war. It attacked the US, unprovoked, in its own soil. The Taliban was harbouring al-Qaida and refused to give it up. If the US hadn’t gone to war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, it would have sent a message to every terrorist, every rogue actor in the world – you can do anything to us, we’re okay with it. No self-respecting entity can be that apathetic.

Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid in Afghanistan in April 2021. Photo by the president's office.
Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid in Afghanistan in April 2021. Photo by the president’s office.

At the time, and during the years that followed, the US received a lot of criticism for the war in Afghanistan, but more about its declared aim – to export democracy. A ton of people said you cannot export democracy and they were proven right, especially now. But for a while it, indeed, seemed possible when Afghanistan was a functioning state with democratically elected leaders. The idea was, teach the Afghans how democracy works and they will embrace it. The idea was, teach the Afghans how to defend themselves against any enemy – foreign or domestic – and they will defend themselves. And that was where the US profoundly fucked up.

Should the US have been nation building in Afghanistan? Damn right it should have. America did everything in its power to help the Afghans build a nation, build a state, defend itself. America has the knowledge of how to build a nation. And we gave them everything we possibly could have. Weapons, hardware, knowhow. Endless training. We couldn’t even fathom the scope of the failure by the Afghans themselves after all these 20 years of war, nation building, assistance and aid, and the USD2.26 TRILLION we spent on it – including USD85 billion worth of equipment that we now left behind to the Taliban terrorists to use at their discretion.

Afghanistan is a made-up country – and should have been approached as such 

But where we fucked up was – as we do more often than not – the fact that we didn’t understand the country. We didn’t understand the people. While our intentions were definitely noble and righteous, we didn’t understand that we’re importing democracy and statehood to a country that shouldn’t be a country in the first place. We tried to unify a countless number of different peoples – people of different tribes, people of different languages, people of different cultures and people of different aims – under one umbrella that would function as a normal, Western state as we know it. Afghanistan – the graveyard of empires, a made-up country (kind of like Belgium, but way more diverse and way more unmanageable) – is anything but.

Estonian soldiers in Afghanistan.
Estonian soldiers in Afghanistan.

We approached the entire mission of nation building the wrong way. We should have engaged all the factions in Afghanistan. We should have tried to understand what these factions – the peoples from different tribes, languages, cultures – actually wanted. We shouldn’t have been building an Afghanistan as a nation – we should have been building a multitude of nations and/or helping the people of certain backgrounds to be absorbed by the other nations around the region where they historically belong to – with their lands in Afghanistan. We would have gotten rid of the Taliban and a made-up country that can potentially be a breeding ground for terrorist – not to mention the world’s most significant source of illegal opium – in no time if we had just understood history and what Afghanistan was.

But we didn’t. For 20 years we tried to build a nation that was unbuildable. We waged war, we spent money, we died – almost as many Americans were killed in Afghanistan as were in the 9/11 terrorist attacks; hundreds of service members from other nations, including nine Estonians. And at the end of the day, for what? When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban was in power. When the US left Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban is, again, in power. 

I do firmly believe that the US has the best intentions. We had the best intentions when we went to war in Vietnam. We had the best intentions when we went to war in Afghanistan – and later Iraq. But what we cannot comprehend is, we need to educate ourselves prior and during any war we’re waging about the people against whom and the place where we’re waging it. Too often we go to war without having even a slightest of strategies that would actually help us win, and that may just be because we think our military might is overwhelming and we don’t need to think and educate ourselves. We have the best military leaders in the world, but when it comes down to refining our strategies to suit a specific conflict, we’re still the same self-absorbed Americans who think one size fits all. And that is why we fuck up.

We can’t babysit a kindergarten that doesn’t want to be babysat 

President Joe Biden is right, though. Had we left Afghanistan five years ago or five years from now, we would’ve ended up with the same clusterfuck with a turd on top as we have now. That’s because four presidents – the first who started the war and the last who ended it – didn’t comprehend entirely what they were trying to do. It’s not their fault. It’s the experts’ who advised them without really being the experts.

The last American soldier to leave Afghanistan: Major General Chris Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, on 30 August 2021, ending the U.S. mission in Kabul. Photo by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The last American soldier to leave Afghanistan: Major General Chris Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, on 30 August 2021, ending the U.S. mission in Kabul. Photo by the U.S. Department of Defense.

That being said, president George W. Bush didn’t have a choice when he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. He presided over the 9/11 terror attacks and the immediate aftermath. President Barack Obama didn’t have a choice when he took over the war and had to deal with a faulty strategy that he, too, didn’t fully understand. But to Obama’s credit, Osama bin Laden – the culprit of the 9/11 attacks, was finally located and taken out. Good riddance.President Donald Trump, naturally, didn’t care about anyone else but himself, but even he saw the Afghanistan mission had become unwinnable. He now claims that what happened during the evacuation would’ve never happened on his watch, but, as always, he’s dead wrong. It would have. And president Joe Biden was bound by the Trump-era withdrawal deadline and, as he said, he didn’t want to pass the buck on to the next president – and that’s fair. We can’t forever babysit a kindergarten who doesn’t want to be looked after.

Cover: Civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 18. U.S. Marines are assisting the Department of State with an orderly drawdown of designated personnel in Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla)

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