Does Anyone Remember That Our 'Enemies' in Afghanistan Were Once Friends and Allies of America?
This file photo shows US soldiers arriving at an airbase in Kandahar. The last of the 33,000 US soldiers that President Barack Obama sent to Afghanistan nearly three years ago as part of a military surge have left the country, US defense officials said.
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In 1948, George Orwell published his classic dystopian novel 1984, flipping the numbers in the publication year to speed us into a future that is now, of course, 18 years in our past. In that book, he imagined a three-superpower world of regularly shifting alliances in which war was a constant but its specific nature eternally forgotten. As he wrote, “To trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one.”
Of course, predicting the future is a perilous thing. Instead of three squabbling superpowers ruling the globe, we have one (in visible decline), and yet there are some eerie real-world parallels to Orwell’s fiction. By 1984, for instance, the U.S. and the Saudis were funneling huge sums of money and vast quantities of weaponry through Pakistan’s intelligence outfit, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorat, to support the most fundamentalist and extreme of the Afghan mujahedeen who were then fighting that other superpower, the Soviet Union, in their country. These included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (about as extreme as they came) and, as Anand Gopal has pointed out at TomDispatch, Jalaluddin Haqqani who received “millions of dollars, anti-aircraft missiles, and even tanks.” He was, at the time, so beloved by Washington officials “that former congressman Charlie Wilson once called him ‘goodness personified.’" Hekmatyar and Haqqani were among those President Ronald Reagan -- shades of Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” -- dubbed “freedom fighters.”
Jump forward nearly two decades, and the Haqqani network is perhaps Washington’s greatest bugabooin the present Afghan War, a group regularly denounced by the Obama administration for its attacks on U.S. troops; while Hekmatyar and his group Hizb-i-Islami, like the Haqqani’s, are allied with the Taliban. And let’s not forget one more “freedom fighter,” a rich young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, who, in 1984, founded the "Services Office" in Peshawar, Pakistan, to recruit, support, and fund those “freedom fighters,” and in 1988, formed a group called al-Qaeda (“The Base”) to further his vision.
The Soviets, of course, left Afghanistan in 1989 in defeat. For Washington, the freedom fighters, soon to be at each others’ throats in a horrific civil war that left yet more dead Afghans in its wake, became the forgettables. And in a sense, they are still forgotten.
These days, how often does anyone remember that a number of our present foes, the evil terrorists who must be destroyed, were our former pals and heroes. (Or that some of the warlords in or allied with the present Afghan government of Hamid Karzai were both mujahedeen and monsters of that civil war era.) Week in, week out, you can read the latest reports from the Afghan War filled with what should be a remarkably familiar cast of characters, and never find a single word about this past. All of this has gone down the memory hole no less easily than did the history of Eastasia, Oceania, and Eurasia in Winston Smith’s Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain).
If this is commonplace history, isn’t it Orwellian, 11 years into our second Afghan War in three decades, how seldom it’s ever mentioned? And toss this into the hopper: there’s an even stranger part of the story that Orwell didn’t imagine, and it concerns neighboring Pakistan, a country that seems eternally to be both ally and enemy (frenemy?), so much so that it’s almost impossible to sort out Washington’s two Pakistans, though Dilip Hiro, does a remarkable job in “The Alliance From Hell.” Meanwhile, we await a new Orwell to sort our this mess in a novel undoubtedly to be entitled 2021.