The international press corps at Tora Bora in December 2001.

Agent Provocateur is Global Insights op-ed column.

America entered Afghanistan in November 2001 to avenge the 9/11 attacks on the United States. However, there was never any real attempt to finish off the Taliban. The US media, government and military never really cared to go after them.

In November 2001, I offered the New York Times the only known photo of the enigmatic leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar. Their reporter in Pakistan, John Burns, wrote a story about the photo, but the newspaper’s editor, Howell Raines, killed the story. (The Times never ran the photo, but published many wrong ones of Omar over the years. It took the US government up to five years to finally put the correct photo on their wanted posters.

In November 2001, Hamid Karzai, who was already backed by the Americans as their man on the ground and who later became president of Afghanistan, allowed Omar to escape from Kandahar. As a Pushtun himself, Karzai probably did not want to upset Afghanistan’s significant tribal population. (The Pushtuns, who are tribal rather than ethnic, provide the Taliban with their main support base and represent the country’s largest group alongside the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others.

I was at Tora Bora at the time when Afghan troops were trying to capture Osama Bin Laden. General Tommy Franks, who was commander of US forces in Afghanistan, refused to deploy his 800-strong Army Rangers to close off Bin Laden’s escape route into Pakistan. (Franks was probably already thinking of Iraq). The Afghan troops left the battle field each afternoon, to go back and break their Ramada fast. Osama slipped away. By the end of November 2001, the Taliban had moved out of Kandahar into the neighboring provinces of Helmans and Farah, but no one went after them.

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Re-opening of the U.S. embassy in Kabul in December 2001. (Photo: Ed Grazda)

The US mission in Afghanistan was designed more as a military exercise that was never actually intended to succeed. Its purpose was more to make money for military suppliers, contractors and mercenaries. It was a convenient way to recruit American youths who had no hope for a job at home (except at McDonalds), but could join the military and become a “Hero”. As soon as the Taliban left, many ex-US military operatives headed up to Kabul to make money as “security advisors”. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others never had any real interest in Afghanistan. For them, it was all about Iraq, leaving Afghanistan on the sidelines.

Both the Generals and Congress went along with the show. There was plenty of money to be made and the generals always like a never ending war. More money, more promotions, more medals. The soldiers who served in Afghanistan were sold a bill of goods. The American people were sold a bill of goods. It was all lies. I was at the reopening of the US Embassy in Kabul on 17 December 2001. Almost 20 years later with billions of dollars spent, we can now expect the US Embassy to close again. What have we achieved?

New York-born Edward Grazda has photographed in the USA, Latin America and Asia. His published books include: Afghanistan Diary (1992-2000), NY Masjid: The Mosques of New York (2002), A Last Glance: Trading Posts of the Four Corners (2015), Mean Streets: NYC 1970-1985, (2017), On The Bowery: NYC 1971 (2019), all with PowerHouse Books. His works are also in the collections of MOMA, The Met, NYPL and SFMOMA. He has taught at Harvard, The Boston Museum School and the International Center of Photography.

Grazda’s most recent publications include ‘Disasters of War: Portraits by Khalid Hadi’ (edited and designed by Grazda) and a ‘Visual History Afghanistan 1980-2004’, both published by Fraglich publishing. In September, 2021, PowerHouse will publish: ‘Asia Calling: A photographers Notebook 1980-1997’.

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