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Hasty Foreign Policy Decisions Can Have Negative Effects for Decades
Richard H. Gross
Debate regarding the nature of American involvement in Afghanistan has been a constant since 9/11. I have watched with more than usual interest since making 3 trips to the Afghan-Pak border in the late 1980’s.
My purpose for making those trips was twofold. As a pediatric orthopaedist, I wished to help with the care of children in that region and wanted to increase my understanding of “what’s going on”.
My visits were in 1985, 1987, and 1990, so I observed the effect of Charlie Wilson’s war, as by 1990, the Soviets were gone. There were 7 mujahideen parties based in Peshawar at that time, I worked at hospitals associated with 3 of them – one Islamist, Jamait –Islami, the party of Rabbani, and two secular – National Liberation Front,the party of Mojadidi and NIFA, the party of Galiani. The Afghan surgeons at all hospitals with whom I worked were skilled and creative. What has struck me through the ensuing years is that all were aware that the bulk of US aid was filtered through ISI, the Pakistan intelligence agency, and received by Gulbideen Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was feared and despised by all 3 parties, as he frequently performed raids on them, taking weapons and supplies.
It was common for the mujahideen to leave their families in Peshawar while they went back to Afghanistan to fight. Although I did not recognize what was happening at the time, I observed the beginning of the Saudi funded madarassas, where many of the Afghan boys went to school.
During my last visit in 1990, I was escorted through the tribal areas into Afghanistan. I was struck by the devastation, virtually every building had been bombed at some point, even the orchards were bombed, and the roads were nearly impassible. It was not easy to make that trip, many journalists waited for months in Peshawar to arrange an escorted visit, as all knew it was near suicidal to attempt to traverse the tribal areas without an escort. NIFA arranged for the escorts, both in the tribal areas, which truly were the wildest place in the world, and in Afghanistan where the fighting against the still present communist government was in its early phase. While in Afghanistan, I saw a 14-year-old boy, whom was described as “the little mujahid”. I was told he had never been to school, not even one day, in his life. He had grown up with war, and that was all he knew.
I had planned to return in 1993, but the organization responsible for the program, Orthopaedics Overseas, had determined the situation was too dangerous and had discontinued the program. Media coverage of Afghanistan had dwindled to near invisibility, and there appeared to me to be little interest by our government after the Soviets left – and of course by that time there were no more Soviets.
During the 1990’s I often wondered what happened to those with whom I had worked. The secular parties basically disappeared, Rabbani’s party had become the major player in the so called Northern Alliance which still resisted the Taliban government. In 1993, I wrote a paper for the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics describing a surgical technique I had learned from an Afghan surgeon, placing his name first as an author. I do not think he has ever seen the paper, and I don’t know if he is still alive. I have feared the worst for most of those with whom I worked. During this time, the boys who attended the madrassas were growing into men; obviously what they had learned primed them to become Taliban, also during this time, there was essentially no interest among my friends and colleagues regarding what was going on in Afghanistan. The fact that they had did all the fighting against “the evil empire”, which in no small part contributed to the end of the Soviet Union, was soon forgotten.
All that changed on 9/11. The US, and allies, paired with the Northern Alliance to rout the Taliban, and for a short time I was encouraged about Afghanistan’s future. There were photographs of men shaving, and listening to music, both had been banned by the Taliban. But that potential golden moment was squandered by a couple of factors. If there was ever proof that all politics is local, it is Afghanistan, where Kabul could be London in the most remote areas. But local warlords sensed an opportunity to square old grudges by informing Americans that their adversaries were Taliban, with the result that many who did not deserve to be, were harshly interrogated and/or sent to Guantanamo. The most glaring example of this over reaction was the fact that 9 men were sent directly from Taliban prison to Guantanamo. Obviously, this created distrust of the Americans among family and friends of those suffering that fate. The second was the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, as resources for Afghanistan were drastically diminished., presenting an opportunity for the Taliban to regroup. 16 years later, neither war is over.
After having been an Army resident in orthopaedist surgery during the Vietnam war, I was very aware of the cost to our young men – and now women also – of decisions made by old men in Washington. Currently, I cannot see any reason to expect success with further troop commitments; there is a determined Taliban presence, fed by the Saudi sponsored madrassas, and the fight is on their terrain. Yet, I can also understand the problem with withdrawing, the uncertain outcome, and the implication that the sacrifices of those who did the fighting would be diminished. Whatever decision is ultimately made will have long-term consequences, just like the decision to precipitously withdraw in 1989.
Nowhere have I seen - or heard – any analysis of how the seeds of our current situation were planted in the 1980’s – allowing Pakistan intelligence to determine how US aid was distributed, with the worst possible outcome, totally disadvantaging the Afghans who were most aligned with US interests. Saudi Arabia, who basically sponsored the development of a generation of Taliban and was the home of many of the 9/11 terrorists, is still regarded as an ally. Am I alone in having difficulty in comprehending why there is not more awareness that decisions have consequences longer than the next election cycle, or more recently, the current news cycle?
Obviously, I am now what is euphemistically called “mature”. The ephemeral nature of 24-hour news cycles, coupled with what appear to be politically determined decision making unlike I have ever seen is deeply disturbing to me. Even in the worst days of the Vietnam era, legislators would cross the aisle to vote in accordance with their conscience on substantial issues; not the case now. The current acrimonious political divide in our country is exacerbated by the editorial policies of news outlets – one can choose the network, publication, or website that reinforces one’s beliefs. Unless one is inherently curious and makes the considerable effort to understand all sides of an issue, one’s position is hardened by the news outlet one chooses to believe. Our current legislators and unfortunately, the While House, also engage in selective assimilation of information, leading to less informed decision making. With the importance of global issues today, this is deeply disconcerting.
I want to believe that current decision makers understand the long-term implications of policies currently being considered, but it’s hard. I imagine there are many more like me, who are looking for reassurance that our grandchildren will not face the consequences of today’s decisions on troubled areas like Afghanistan, and that the grandchildren of today’s Afghans have a better life than I can currently envision.