Finally, some honesty about Afghanistan

Biden’s announcement ends not just to our war in Afghanistan, but 20 years of fantasies about what “six more months” can accomplish there.

Wednesday, President Biden announced that our troops (and those of our NATO allies) will leave Afghanistan by September 11. Unlike previous dates for withdrawal, this one isn’t based on achieving some kind of stability or other goals first; we’re just getting out.

That announcement touched off a lot of comment, both pro and con. Pro: Leaving saves American lives and resources, and gives our military more flexibility to confront challenges more central to our well-being, as may come from Russia (in Ukraine) or China (in Taiwan). Con: Without us, the Afghan government will probably fall to the Taliban. That will definitely be bad for the Afghan people, and could also harm us if the Taliban starts sheltering terrorist groups like Al Qaeda again.

But one argument has been conspicuous by its absence: If we stay for six more months, or a year, or three years, Afghan democracy will stabilize, the Afghan Army will finally have enough training, and the government we leave behind in Kabul will be able to sustain itself.

The generals and their media allies have been making that argument for almost 20 years, and I was pleased to hear Biden blow it up:

So when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year, two more years, ten more years? Ten, twenty, thirty billion dollars more above the trillion we’ve already spent? …

“Not now” — that’s how we got here. And in this moment, there’s a significant downside risk to staying beyond May 1st without a clear timetable for departure.

If we instead pursue the approach where [the US] exit is tied to conditions on the ground, we have to have clear answers to the following questions: Just what conditions [will] be required to allow us to depart? By what means and how long would it take to achieve them, if they could be achieved at all? And at what additional cost in lives and treasure?

I’m not hearing any good answers to these questions. And if you can’t answer them, in my view, we should not stay.

Biden acknowledges the possibility of a terrorist resurgence in Afghanistan, but plans to deal with that if and when it happens.

We’ll not take our eye off the terrorist threat. We’ll reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent reemergence of terrorists — of the threat to our homeland from over the horizon. We’ll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil.

I think of The Washington Post as the hometown paper of the defense and foreign-policy establishment, and it has been playing that role this week. The Post’s editorial board responded to Biden’s plan by predicting that “the likely result will be disaster”. But even they acknowledged that their alternative path offers no exit.

A strategy of leaving troops in the country in an effort to force the Taliban to compromise could extend the U.S. commitment for years without achieving a durable peace.

And WaPo columnist Max Boot offered a much-scaled-down version of the usual rosy scenario:

To avert such a dire contingency, Biden would not have to wage a “forever war.” He would merely have to keep a relatively small number of U.S. forces to advise and assist the Afghans who already undertake almost all of the fighting.

So: a forever skirmish, not a forever war. We’ve recently gone a whole year without a combat death in Afghanistan. Maybe that happy circumstance will continue, and the price of freezing the status quo will be low enough to tolerate indefinitely.

Or maybe not. Maybe the Taliban will tire of trying to wait us out, and will go back to trying to drive us out. And if combat deaths go back up, that will be its own reason to stay, so that the troops we are losing will not have died in vain.

But notice: This disagreement is between two sides that each have at least one foot in reality. Maybe the cost of staying in Afghanistan forever will be tolerable, or maybe we’ll find some better way of dealing with the increased terrorism threat of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But nobody is counting on the Freedom Fairy to sprinkle her dust over Kandahar.

So whether you agree with Biden on this or not, you should at least thank him for bringing some honesty into the conversation.

Having written more-or-less even-handedly up to this point, I’ll take a side: I’m with Biden on this.

Way back in 2005, I expressed very similar ideas (about Iraq) in a 2005 essay I provocatively titled “Cut and Run“. At the time, “serious” foreign-policy experts were finally admitting that the 2003 Iraq invasion had been a mistake and we needed to get our troops out. But they always paired that concession with some sort of “after we fix what we’ve broken” caveat. (This became known as the Pottery Barn rule.) Typically, the sages thought our troops needed six more months to “stabilize the country” or “establish democracy” or achieve some other worthy but nebulous goal. (NYT columnist Thomas Friedman rolled his six-more-months projections forward with such regularity that six months became known as a Friedman unit.)

In “Cut and Run” I demanded a measurable answer to the question “What are we fixing?” Because in my opinion our military presence wasn’t fixing anything. After six more months, Iraq would still need “stabilizing”, and our troops would have to stay longer.

We can leave Iraq now, or we can leave after our losses have grown. That is the only choice we have.

I feel the same about Afghanistan today, after nearly 20 years of war. Whatever our original intentions might have been, by now it’s clear that we’re not building a secular, democratic, pro-Western government that will someday be strong enough to stand on its own.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s the same lesson we should have learned from Vietnam: In order to install a new form of government in a country, people on the ground have to be buying what you’re selling. As The Boston Globe’s H. D. S. Greenway puts it: In both Vietnam and Afghanistan

our clients could never shake the impression that they were puppets fighting for foreigners, while the Viet Cong and the Taliban were able to present themselves as the true patriots fighting to rid their country of colonialism.

In South Vietnam, all we had to work with was the remnant of the old French colonial administration, which local people joined for the sake of power and profit, not because they believed in the French Empire or anti-Communism or some other idealistic notion. In Afghanistan, we have a corrupt government in Kabul supported (up to a point) by a patchwork of warlords in the countryside. The Afghan people don’t believe in it, because they shouldn’t believe in it.

Over the last two decades, hundreds of thousands of American troops have served in Afghanistan — most of them honorably and some heroically. It is a shame that their effort and sacrifice has not produced a lasting result that our nation can point to with pride. But more effort and sacrifice will not redeem what bad policy has already wasted. We need to leave.

Wednesday, Rachel Maddow brought up another good point about this war, illustrated by the experience of Taliban hostage David Rhode, the Pulitzer-winning NYT journalist who was held for seven months in 2008-2009. Rhode was actually only a prisoner in Afghanistan for a week; for the half-year beyond that, the Taliban kept him in parts of Pakistan where they had free rein.

Knocking the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan was one thing. Defeating them in some kind of larger war, preventing them from ever rising again in Afghanistan, that was something that a US military conflict in Afghanistan was never going to be able to do. Not when the Taliban wasn’t confined to Afghanistan and wasn’t really based there.

Pakistan, if you remember, was where Osama bin Laden had been hiding — not far from the Pakistani version of West Point.

In August 2010, a former Pakistani intelligence officer approached the U.S. embassy station chief in Islamabad and offered to reveal bin Laden’s location, in return for the $25 million reward, according to a retired senior U.S. intelligence official. This story was corroborated by two U.S. intelligence officials speaking to NBC News, and had been previously reported by intelligence analyst Raelynn Hillhouse. The Pakistani official informed U.S. intelligence that bin Laden had been located by the Pakistani intelligence service ISI in 2006, and held under house arrest near Pakistani intelligence and military centers ever since.

According to the retired senior U.S. intelligence official speaking to [journalist Seymour] Hersh, bin Laden was ill at this point, financially supported by some within Saudi Arabia, and kept by the ISI to better manage their complex relationship with Pakistani and Afghan Islamist groups.

So a fully military solution to the Afghan problem would mean, at a minimum, expanding the war into Pakistan, and taking down factions within the Pakistani government. Pakistan, you may recall, is a nuclear power.

I don’t think anybody wants to open that can of worms.

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  • Fred Rickson  On April 19, 2021 at 9:19 am

    The idea that if we leave “people would have died in vein” is a fool’s errand.

  • Michael Flanagan  On April 19, 2021 at 10:13 am

    Tracking back from Afghanistan and Viet Nam, there is a relationship with the (nebulous) outcome of the “Korean War,” too.

  • Renee c Fraser  On April 19, 2021 at 3:08 pm

    “our clients could never shake the impression that they were puppets fighting for foreigners, while the Viet Cong and the Taliban were able to present themselves as the true patriots fighting to rid their country of colonialism.” It was not just an impression, we fought to maintain American empire. And the Viet Cong and Taliban do not “present themselves” as true patriots, they actually represent more of the people than the elite puppet rulers backed by the US. We all knew this was a failed war from the beginning. I have a feeling that the military-industrial complex also knew the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable, and that was what they wanted. A twenty-year boom in sales and expansion of the military.

  • Daniel  On April 25, 2021 at 11:44 am

    The Afghan war was never about bin Laden or “terrorism,” but rather about the lucrative opportunities to be exploited for the purpose of cornering the heroin, organ, and arms markets, to not mention excluding Russia, China, and Iran from the region. For decades prior to 9/11 Afghanistan was known to hold untold trillions of dollars’ worth in rare earth metals, as well as the potential to serve as a transit point for the conveyance of energy from the Caspian basin to the West via Pakistan’s warm-water entrepôt. (Pakistan has always been a Western proxy.)

    For this reason the West provoked the proxy war with the USSR in Afghanistan by creating, financing, and arming the mujahideen (so-called “al-Qaida” and the Taliban) vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. By no means could the West allow an independent, patriotic government to control Afghanistan and deny the West access to the material riches of the region. The West adhered to British Imperial strategy, including Mackinder’s theory of the Eurasian heartland or “Earth-island,” according to which control of Central Asia would lead to mastery of the world.

    The West began this war as early as 1973, when it established camps for militants on Pakistani soil. Under President Carter the U.S. increased its support for the mujahideen as early as July 1978, well before the Soviet intervention, as confirmed by Brzezinski’s memoir(s). At that time the Shah of Iran worked with the U.S., U.K., Egypt, China, and Israel to back the mujahideen vs. the Taraki government in Afghanistan. Per declassified documents, the Afghans repeatedly requested Soviet support against the Western-backed feudalists, but were refused support until the situation became extremely dire.

    The Israelis even helped create several of the mujahideen units that later merged with the Taliban in 1994. These units were led by longtime members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) who were also longtime CIA/MI6 assets with ties to the Pakistani ISI and who were financed by the Saudis via Osama bin Laden. Israel, like the rest of the West, was using the Sunni MB to undermine both secular nationalists, particularly socialists and communists, and Shia Muslims, including those that led the Iranian Islamic Revolution under Imam Khomeini, which led to the ouster of the pro-Western Shah.

    Up until 9/11 the U.S. was covertly sponsoring the Islamists against Russian, Chinese, and Iranian influence in South-Central Asia. The Israeli government had also managed to infiltrate the Islamists, many of whom it covertly controlled, according to various Western media reports as of 2001. The massive 9/11 attacks also happened to dovetail with Anglo-American and Zionist strategy as outlined in the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in the late 1990s. The PNAC was tied to both wings/parties of the Anglophile U.S. Establishment as well as the British and Israeli elites.

    A report issued by PNAC exactly one year prior to 9/11 emphasised that only a Pearl Harbour-type catalyst could provide the impetus for the reforms needed to ensure American global hegemony throughout the twenty-first century. The 9/11 attacks also happened to coincide with the “predictions” of Masonic prophecy, as outlined in various millenarian sources, including the expectation of a civilisational clash between the West and the Muslim world. This outlook also underlined the “inevitability” of a major conflagration, or Third World War, involving the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.


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