America’s Original Sin in Post-9/11 Afghanistan

The collapse of Kabul was certainly inevitable but not because U.S.-trained Afghan forces woke up on the morning of August 15 and were suddenly struck with an overwhelming desire to surrender. In fact, a direct line can be drawn from the present moment back to the United States’ decision two decades ago to prevent the Afghans from deciding their own destiny after the Taliban were ousted.

The tragedy begins at the now infamous 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga in Kabul where three-fourths of delegates voted in favor of bringing King Zahir Shah back from exile to serve as Afghanistan’s interim head of state. The strategy to unify the fractured country around this symbolic figurehead made sense given Afghanistan saw 40 consecutive years of relative peace and stability during the king’s reign before a coup exiled him to Rome in 1973.

The vote that emanated from the jirga, a council of elders then still deemed a sacred vehicle for expressing the will of the Afghan people, astonishingly cut across the country’s deep ethnosectarian and tribal lines. Moreover, the plan reportedly was supported by some senior Pakistani military leaders and even key figures within the just-ousted Taliban movement.

So, hopes were high that the king – supposedly still seen as a beloved figure by most Afghans – could temporarily keep the country together until a legitimate and inclusive political solution was formed.

However, this window of opportunity to unite the country for the first time since the 1970s was slammed shut in a painful twist of historical irony. Back at the jirga meeting in 2002, the very same U.S. envoy who helped negotiate the Doha deal with the Taliban in 2020, strong-armed the king into withdrawing so Washington could install Hamid Karzai as president. In addition, the U.S. handed out ministry posts to warlords for their role in helping to overthrow the Taliban.

Former EU political adviser Lucy Morgan Edwards said she witnessed the incident firsthand and how the United States gave the warlords political legitimacy.

“The US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, sidelined the popular former king and made a Faustian bargain with the warlords to allow them into the meeting,” Edwards wrote in a 2013 piece for The Guardian. “This paved the way for them to hijack the state-building process.”

The move instantaneously transformed Karzai into a Western puppet in the eyes of most Afghans. The Karzai government turned out to be rampantly corrupt and incompetent – and to such an extent that the Taliban soon began to look like an appealing alternative. The Ghani administration, of course, would continue this pattern and, as many predicted, the dysfunction and unabashed graft culminated in the Taliban lightning seizure of power.

U.S. Army War College professor M. Chris Mason, who served as a political officer on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, told this author that the jirga was a stage play rigged by the CIA to “put our man Karzai in office.”

In a piece for The Military Review, the U.S. army’s think tank, he and co-author Professor Thomas Johnson argued that “even a ceremonial monarchy would have provided the critically needed source of traditional legitimacy necessary to stabilize the new government and constitution.”

Instead, the opportunity to save Afghanistan was lost.

“The elimination of the monarchy under the new Afghan constitution was very likely the single greatest mistake made by the United States and the United Nations after 2001 – admittedly a high bar in a full field of contestants,” Mason and Johnson wrote in 2009. “As an unrecoverable strategic error, it is the Afghan equivalent of the CIA-inspired coup against Diem in Vietnam in November 1963.”

One could argue that the U.S. decision to install Karzai against the will of the Afghan people, in addition to empowering warlords, planted the seeds that guaranteed a Taliban comeback.

In fact, in a new report – issued two days after the collapse of Kabul – the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) blasted the United States for “legitimizing” Afghan warlords with political and financial support and underscored the damage rendered by this strategy.

“The United States helped to lay a foundation for continued impunity of malign actors, weak rule of law, and the growth of corruption,” the report, published on August 17, said.

Although Afghanistan’s fate may have been sealed by America’s original sin, the United States in the ensuing two decades only exacerbated the situation.  Washington continued to fuel corruption with excessive spending, lack of oversight, and unrealistic timelines, according to SIGAR.

SIGAR chief John Sopko has for years warned that such endemic corruption posed the greatest “existential threat” to the Afghan government – an admonition that now seems quite prescient. And one cannot emphasize enough that the roots of this threat can be directly traced and found in the tragic decisions and actions the United States took in June of 2002, which seem to have been long forgotten by anyone in Washington.

Meanwhile, despite all of this, U.S. President Joe Biden – rather than acknowledging any role the United States might have played in the entire fiasco – has so far chosen to point the finger at the Afghan army’s lack of willingness to fight.

In other words, the United States is blaming Afghan troops for refusing to risk their lives defending a predatory regime the United States helped create in the first place.

Michael Hughes is a DC-based journalist with a Master's in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently conducting research for a book on ontology and International Relations (IR) theory. Contact: Read other articles by Michael.