The Obama administration is taking positive steps to extricate us from a costly and tragic war in Iraq. On the other hand, it seems to be following a path very similar to the Bush administration’s policy when it comes to Afghanistan. Inasmuch as most of us know very little about either nation, a few words about Afghanistan might be helpful.

In 1980 when the United States intervened to stop a Soviet “invasion” of that country, our government was convinced that everything the Soviet Union did was automatically evil and wrong. When the Marxist-led coalition of national democratic forces came into office in 1978 led by poet-novelist Noor Mohammed Taraki, even the CIA did not blame the USSR for it.

The Taraki government was quite progressive. It worked to legalize labor unions, develop minimum wages, increase literacy and improve health care, and it even pursued a campaign begun earlier by the deposed king to emancipate women and provide public education for girls. In essence, the Taraki government was genuinely popular.

Opposition came from feudal landlords who opposed any land reform program that would infringe on their holdings and fundamentalist mullahs opposed the government’s programs for gender equality. These egalitarian policies also incurred the wrath of the CIA and others who lined up to support the ousted feudal lords, tribal chieftains, mullahs and opium traffickers which led to the overthrow and execution of Taraki. The new leaders tried to set up a fundamentalist Islamic state but were overthrown after two months, and aid was sought in late 1979 from Moscow.

At this stage the CIA helped transform tribal resistance into a holy war to expel the godless communists. Among those who were attracted to the call to expel the Soviets was the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. After years of fighting, the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 and the mujahideen, largely created and funded by the CIA, used looting, mass executions and rape to take over and reward their soldiers. In 1995 the Taliban, heavily funded by the CIA, promised an end to the banditry and were able to take over. They immediately imposed an even stricter interpretation of Muslim law.

The Taliban then instituted their own reign of terror requiring men to wear beards, requiring women to wear the burqa and again barring them from education. Lack of obedience led to stoning or being buried alive. During this time the U.S. paid the salary of every single Taliban government official up through 1999. In the following years of war, tens of thousands Afghanis have been killed by military ordinance, hunger, cold, or lack of shelter and water.

As in Iraq, the U.S. is attracted to Afghanistan because of its rich oil and gas reserves. This fascination increased after the USSR was removed as a major barrier. The 9/11 attacks helped stampede U.S. public support of military intervention, even though it has accomplished minimal positive results. A possible exception is that U.S. oil companies have acquired the rights to some 75 percent of new reserves in the area. But the Afghan economy is in ruins, the American supported Karzai government has little control beyond Kabul and foreign soldiers are dying at a rate higher than in Iraq.

One test of Obama’s declared intent to rely more on dialogue and diplomacy instead of military force will be in what happens in Afghanistan. To keep the U.S. from sinking deeper into another quagmire, it behooves all of us to learn more about this unfortunate area of the world.