“The New and the Old in Afghanistan”


On August 31, 2021 the United States announced all military personnel had withdrawn from Afghanistan, ending a war which began almost twenty years ago. 

Andrew Bacevich, doctor of international history and West Point professor, recently spoke with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute on the Afghanistan situation. 

Certainly, the evacuation was mishandled and embarrassing. But the big story is what happened 20 years prior to the evacuation.”


From the 1950’s to the early 1970’s, Afghanistan saw a period of growth and liberalization, transitioning from a constitutional monarchy to a one-party democracy via a near-bloodless military coup in 1973. Under the supervision of Daoud Khan’s military government, hopes were high that Afghanistan might one day become a functioning, modern democracy. 

With significant funding from both sides of the Cold War, improvements in equality, education, and the economy allowed cities like Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, to begin to look more and more like modern western ones.

Though the Kahn-lead government received significant Soviet support, on the 28th of April 1978, a Marxist-Leninist revolution overthrew the ruling government. The Saur Revolution ignited 43 years of conflict in the country, including the involvement of the Soviet Union, US and NATO forces, and the rise of groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

From 1979-1989, the Soviet Union fought a protracted war to support the new government from an uprising of various insurgent groups and Islamist reactionaries – a war which now seems eerily similar to the one the United States has recently withdrawn from.

“We [the US] set out to do two things”, Bacevich described to Paul Simon presenter John Shaw. “We set out to create a legitimate government in Kabul [and] we set out to create security forces […] that would be able to provide for the security of the country. And the evidence shows that we failed drastically on both counts.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan  was abandoned to fight a prolonged civil war, leading to an estimated death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Following the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror”, Afghanistan included. On October 7, 2001, the US and its allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom, officially beginning the war with an invasion and occupation of most of Afghanistan.


Bacevich said , “We demonstrated the limits of our ability, the limits of our military capacity […] so the grand plan of the Bush administration never got past Iraq. And indeed, the grand plan ended up with us having a protracted war in Iraq, a protracted war in Afghanistan, that Bush passed on to his successor, [President Barack]Obama, and Obama passes on to his successor [President Donald] Trump.”

After more than 20  years of fighting, the United States followed the Soviet example. While the US evacuated over 120,000+ military and civilian personnel, the operation was marred by administrative fumbles, attacks on US troops, and the surprisingly quick collapse of the Afghan military. The debate on whether any of the US’s strategic objectives were achieved by the war rages on, but even more alarming is the thought that the country may once again collapse as it did after the end of the Soviet invasion.

Dire concerns have also been raised about what will happen to those left behind in the wake of the American withdrawal, and whether the new governing regime will seek retribution on those with connections to the West. 

Southern Illinois University (SIU-C) hosts a number of Afghan students, many of whom still have family in Afghanistan or other ties to their home country. While specific students could not be contacted due to privacy and security concerns, the SIU-C Center for International Education discussed what SIU is doing during the crisis.

We are deeply concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and its impact on both students and graduates who face an uncertain future”, Professor Andrew Carver, executive director for international affairs wrote. 

“SIU has a long history of supporting students and scholars from regions of conflict and instability. That experience is helping the university mount a rapid response to the crisis in Afghanistan,” Carver said.

When asked about programs SIU has put in place to assist students, Carver spoke in specifics.

“First, evacuation requests from students and scholars with ties to SIU are coordinated with staff members in the offices of the U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth and Congressman Mike Bost. Second, International Friends Club, a community volunteer organization affiliated with SIU’s Center for International Education, mobilized an emergency response team to offer assistance to students. Third, the Center for International Education is working successfully with the Institute of International Education (IIE) to secure additional financial support,” he said.

Carver noted the need for a continuing response to the upheaval, saying  “the crisis is not over and our efforts are ongoing.”

In the 1970’s, rights for women and other minority groups all seemed to have a chance for improvement. The adoption of a democratic constitution–even one which favored a near dictatorial one-party state–set Afghanistan on a new path. Growing economic prosperity, a strengthened secular education and administration, and friendlier relations with other nations all seemed to indicate the possibility for a brighter future. Whether any of these hopeful developments might be seen again remains, for the time being, unknown.

Consulting reporter Ryan Jurich can be reached at [email protected]. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.