Remembering 9/11 and looking to the future: Faculty perspectives on Afghanistan

The United States Armed Forces completed withdrawal efforts from Afghanistan on Monday, August 30, ending an occupation that lasted over twenty years and cost over $2 trillion and over 170,000 lives. The withdrawal, enacted by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration, was forced to hastily end as the Taliban — the Islamist militant group under which Al Qaeda was allowed to operate — rapidly began to take control of Afghanistan. 

Last week, students Marvellous Ogudoro and Rachel Shaw shared their perspectives on the heavy topic. This week, the Anchor sat down with international advisor Habeeb Awad and history professor Dr. Fred Johnson in hopes of gaining insight from individuals at Hope College with more contextual experience. 

Awad began by explaining the harm the United States has brought to Afghanistan under the guise of humanitarian aid. “For over 40 years the U.S. has come to Afghanistan not to sit over tea, not to share stories or trade, but [to bring] guns and [impose] its own political agenda at the expense of Afghan people and traditions,” he said. “Billions of dollars in armaments, promises of reconstruction, and a surge in U.S. troops have not improved the quality of life for most Afghans.” He believes that “U.S. policy should have been based on encouraging development in Afghanistan;” this process, combined with the withdrawal, would have undermined support for the Taliban and other insurgent forces. Awad said that that didn’t happen, however, and instead, “the U.S. government has armed and supported some of the most brutal, corrupt warlords in Afghanistan, for example, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Osama bin Laden… In addition, the U.S. was using humanitarian aid in Afghanistan as a political weapon to enhance its military action. For example, as the US seeks to expand civil-military cooperation through Pentagon-directed provincial reconstruction teams, it puts aid workers at risk who are then seen as working in support of the U.S. and the corrupt Kabul government.”

Habeeb Awad, international advisor at Hope College

The consequences of this war hit close to home for Awad, who is Palestinian. “Palestine has been under the Israeli occupation since 1947 and continues until this present day,” he explained. “The hit to the U.S. standing in the region will be worrying for its moderate Arab allies. This includes Egypt and Jordan. For both, with their own versions of the Taliban lurking in the shadows, events in Afghanistan are not good news. America will no doubt pull back from all but its most pressing Middle East commitments.” 

Johnson also touched on concerns about the Afghan withdrawal, noting that while “the general American public was agreeing that we’d been there long enough and that it was time to get out,” it is important to think about “the consequences of leaving [a place that’s been steeped in war for so long].” Ultimately, Johnson believes it was a good decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, but warns that we should be very careful about what consequences may follow. 

Dr. Fred Johnson, history professor at Hope College

Like Awad, Johnson also holds a more global perspective, having spent the first half of his childhood in the Philippines, and finds that his early years impacted his interest in geopolitics. He also credits his close proximity to a military base growing up, as well as his time spent in the Marine Corps as an officer, as reasons for his focus on “issues of a global nature.” Growing up during the Cold War, too, taught him that “when world powers find that there is a major unit of power — a large power such as the United States — that makes other people nervous. It isn’t long before other combatants, or should we say antagonists, start coming out of the woodwork. They make themselves quite known very quickly.”

Because the war in Afghanistan continued for over two decades, its beginnings actually pre-date most Hope College students. Therefore, our understanding of the “War on Terror” and the events surrounding it are heavily impacted by the people whose stories and experiences we look up to. Awad points to the reaction of the Bush administration to the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 as something that has largely impacted the ideologies of the American public. “[Bush] called the assault the ‘global war on terror’ — an expanding war without borders, without limits, and without end,” he said. “It was an illusion driven by fear that would soon find and bring to justice Osama bin Laden and top Taliban figures. Somehow the war was also going to result in a peaceful, unified, secular Afghan democracy, where all children went to school, farmers grew wheat instead of opium poppies, women were equal, pro-Western governments were peacefully elected and US troops were welcomed as liberators.” Of course, Awad says that “the attacks on September 11 were a horrific crime,” but states that the U.S. should have responded by “engag[ing] the world in a cooperative effort to find those who had committed the crime and bring them to face international justice, empowering organizations such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. would have made sure that its response did not result in greater suffering and more deaths.” According to Awad, this was not what occurred. Instead, he says, the nation launched a war against Afghanistan that “failed to bring justice to make anyone safer.”  

Johnson encourages young people to look at the United States’ involvement in Vietnam for greater context surrounding the recently ended war in Afghanistan. “One of the things we learned from Vietnam,” he said, “is [the importance of] an exit strategy. With Vietnam, we got into some places and there was no plan to get out. The very fundamental question is: at what point are you winning the conflict? Because if you’re winning, at some point you will need to draw it down, wind down, and leave. Then the question becomes, as in the case of World War II, do you leave and leave a policing force there? At the end of WWII, we left major numbers of troops overseas in Germany, in Spain, and in different parts of Asia because it was the Cold War and we wanted monitoring forces to act as deterrents against the Russians and the Chinese communists.” Johnson noted that that doesn’t seem to be happening right now in Afghanistan, although it’s possible much information is classified. “If we don’t leave anybody there, we have to figure out how we’re going to contain the situation, if it is in fact containable.”

In conversations on campus, Johnson said it seems that people are “irritated that America was [in Afghanistan] so long to begin with,” “worried about what’s going to happen in the future,” and “unsatisfied with what appeared to be a rather helter-skelter, chaotic withdrawal.” He admitted that the withdrawal could have gone much smoother, but pointed out the difficulty of leaving under the watchful eye of a dangerous militant group like the Taliban. “While it is tragic that we could not get out every Afghan citizen who wanted to leave, we did get thousands out who did want to leave,” he remarked. Johnson did specify that his conversations about Afghanistan have been mostly limited to his colleagues and that he has witnessed very few students discussing the withdrawal. Awad agreed, saying that “The hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, on which [America] had squandered $1 trillion in the past few years during its occupation of Afghanistan and caused many civilian deaths, has not been a public conversation around campus,” and wondered whether the discussions have been limited mainly to political science classrooms. 

What’s next? “There are people out there for whom chaos is the objective. For them, chaos and warfare are good things,” Johnson said, and pointed to a scene from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” in which Batman’s butler, Alfred, explains to the brooding superhero that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” “It seems to me,” Johnson stated, “that the Taliban is full of people who are like that, and that they want to bring that kind of chaos and confusion to the United States. We need to stand by and be ready for that. Right now the threat may be minimized, but it is not over.” 

He also touched on the services that must be provided for veterans, “economically, spiritually, mentally, physically, for rehab, and so on. We have a history in the United States and throughout human history where it’s always easy to send other people’s children to war. If we’re going to ask people to fight in these wars, the first thing we should do is make sure we have the resources in place to support them.”

Looking to the future, Awad states that although “direct engagement with the Taliban may be politically difficult… it must be sought,” and must be done so with the voices of everyone in mind. “That means ensuring a voice of local and provincial as well as national leaders, women and men, religious and secular,” he said, “who actually have far more influence on the lives of Afghan people than any of the US-backed government officials.” Additionally, Awad proposes developing a U.S. policy that was needed twenty years ago. This means “investing in real development that benefits the people of Afghanistan, not funding and relying on U.S.-based corporate contractors, foreign suppliers, and mercenaries, ‘security experts,’ and others whose profit [from] most of the aid funds remaining in the U.S. with only small proportions going directly [to] the Afghanistanis.”

If you’d like to learn more, spend some time watching this recording of “What When Wrong in Afghanistan?” In it, Hope Professor Joel Toppen (Political Science, Global Studies) breaks down and analyzes the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan and explains the implications of the Taliban’s return to power.



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