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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, August 15th, 2021

The Taliban’s reascendance is regrettable, but there were no good options for concluding the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan

The Unit­ed States-backed gov­ern­ment of Afghanistan col­lapsed today, with Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani flee­ing the coun­try and Tal­iban fight­ers enter­ing the coun­try’s cap­i­tal city of Kab­ul after encoun­ter­ing scant resis­tance from Afghan forces.

The swift reas­cen­dance of the Tal­iban and the fall of the Islam­ic Repub­lic of Afghanistan (that’s the offi­cial name of the enti­ty that gov­erned those parts of Afghanistan that were under either its con­trol, or U.S./NATO/international con­trol for near­ly two decades) has been called stun­ning, shock­ing, and unex­pect­ed, but in fact, even the swift­ness of the Tal­iban’s vic­to­ry was entire­ly predictable.

Admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials, U.S. mil­i­tary lead­ers, and for­eign pol­i­cy “experts” who had pre­vi­ous­ly esti­mat­ed that Ghani’s gov­ern­ment could hold out for a few more months ought to have known bet­ter. It has been evi­dent to plen­ty of peo­ple who don’t have the ben­e­fit of access to intel­li­gence brief­in­gs or a degree from one of the Unit­ed States’ pres­ti­gious mil­i­tary col­leges that the Tal­iban was on a roll and that their entry into Kab­ul could hap­pen extreme­ly quick­ly. The Tal­iban had momen­tum and good orga­ni­za­tion, while gov­ern­ment forces were in disarray.

Pri­or to today’s recap­ture of Kab­ul by the Tal­iban, news about the goings-on in Afghanistan had rarely got­ten above-the-fold billing in nation­al media out­lets. That has now changed, of course. COVID-19 relat­ed news has been tem­porar­i­ly dis­placed, with pub­li­ca­tions like the New York Times run­ning head­lines in all caps and CNN offer­ing a fre­quent­ly updat­ed live­blog of devel­op­ments.

But for those of us who were keep­ing an eye on events in Afghanistan and read­ing front­line jour­nal­ists’ report­ing, the writ­ing was on the wall.

Provin­cial cap­i­tals have been falling to the Tal­iban for weeks. Ghani seemed to have no coher­ent response and no strat­e­gy for pre­vent­ing fur­ther ter­ri­to­r­i­al loss­es. A rud­der­less gov­ern­ment peo­ple don’t trust and aren’t will­ing to fight for just isn’t going to hold out for long against an oppo­nent like the Taliban.

The notion that this could have been pre­vent­ed if we’d only stayed in Afghanistan longer — which is what a bunch of Biden crit­ics are cur­rent­ly imply­ing — is utter­ly pre­pos­ter­ous. We have been in Afghanistan for near­ly two decades and spent enor­mous sums of mon­ey engaged in repeat­ed nation-build­ing exer­cis­es, all in the ser­vice of try­ing to secure a bet­ter future for Afghanistan.

There is no rea­son to believe that after all this time and mon­ey spent that anoth­er year or two — or even twen­ty — would result in a bet­ter out­come for the Unit­ed States, for NATO, or for the world’s democracies.

As John Nichols tweet­ed today: “I have some very dis­ap­point­ing news for the ‘for­eign pol­i­cy experts’: wars nev­er end well.”

You’ll notice above that I said “we have been in Afghanistan” as opposed to “we were”. I did­n’t use the past tense because we are still there! Yes… still!

As I type this, U.S. forces are now run­ning Hamid Karzai Inter­na­tion­al Air­port, and Pres­i­dent Biden has ordered addi­tion­al troops to the facil­i­ty to keep it out of the Tal­iban’s hands… for now. Those U.S. embassy staff who have not already left the coun­try are in a build­ing at the air­port, where they and peo­ple hop­ing to leave Afghanistan can enjoy the pro­tec­tion of U.S. troops.

Secur­ing Hamid Karzai Inter­na­tion­al Air­port to pro­tect peo­ple try­ing to get out of the coun­try and pre­vent Amer­i­can diplo­mats from being cap­tured or mis­treat­ed is at least a mis­sion that’s actu­al­ly appro­pri­ate for us to direct our mil­i­tary to take on, as opposed to con­tin­u­ing to try to cre­ate con­di­tions that would enable a favor­able out­come for what is fun­da­men­tal­ly a polit­i­cal and sec­tar­i­an conflict.

It was evi­dent all the way back in 2001 and 2002 that the Tal­iban was a resilient foe that was­n’t going to be erad­i­cat­ed with airstrikes and troop con­voys. But instead of with­draw­ing our forces then, we stayed. And stayed. And stayed.

Even after George W. Bush left office, we stayed.

Even after U.S. spe­cial forces killed Osama bin Laden, we stayed.

Even after Don­ald Trump was put into the White House by the Elec­toral Col­lege, hav­ing run in part on a plat­form of end­ing for­eign entan­gle­ments, we stayed.

As the clock ran out on his term, how­ev­er, Trump decid­ed to make a move. The stage for today’s events was set in motion the moment that Amer­i­can offi­cials — at Don­ald Trump’s behest! — set­tled on a timetable for con­clud­ing our open-end­ed “mis­sion” in Afghanistan, which, as I allud­ed to above, had been suf­fer­ing from scope creep and a lack of a mean­ing­ful strat­e­gy or objec­tive for years.

The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Susan­nah George explained yes­ter­day how the sim­ple act of set­tling on a time­frame for with­draw­al (some­thing inter­ven­tion­ists did­n’t want to do) caused a series of metaphor­i­cal domi­noes to log­i­cal­ly begin to fall:

The Tal­iban cap­i­tal­ized on the uncer­tain­ty caused by the Feb­ru­ary 2020 agree­ment reached in Doha, Qatar, between the mil­i­tant group and the Unit­ed States call­ing for a full Amer­i­can with­draw­al from Afghanistan. Some Afghan forces real­ized they would soon no longer be able to count on Amer­i­can air pow­er and oth­er cru­cial bat­tle­field sup­port and grew recep­tive to the Taliban’s approaches.

“Some just want­ed the mon­ey,” an Afghan spe­cial forces offi­cer said of those who first agreed to meet with the Taliban.

But oth­ers saw the U.S. com­mit­ment to a full with­draw­al as an “assur­ance” that the mil­i­tants would return to pow­er in Afghanistan and want­ed to secure their place on the win­ning side, he said. The offi­cer spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymi­ty because he, like oth­ers in this report, was not autho­rized to dis­close infor­ma­tion to the press.

The Doha agree­ment, designed to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, instead left many Afghan forces demor­al­ized, bring­ing into stark relief the cor­rupt impuls­es of many Afghan offi­cials and their ten­u­ous loy­al­ty to the country’s cen­tral government.

Some police offi­cers com­plained that they had not been paid in six months or more.

“They saw that doc­u­ment as the end,” the offi­cer said, refer­ring to the major­i­ty of Afghans aligned with the gov­ern­ment. “The day the deal was signed we saw the change. Every­one was just look­ing out for him­self. It was like [the Unit­ed States] left us to fail.”

George’s sto­ry nice­ly doc­u­ments the extent to which Ghani’s gov­ern­ment was being propped up by our pres­ence. It was­n’t going to suc­ceed on its own.

Pres­i­dent Biden inher­it­ed Trump’s depar­ture plan (if it could even be called a plan… it cer­tain­ly was not a thought­ful exit strat­e­gy) and had to decide whether to make the with­draw­al hap­pen or remain in Afghanistan, as many inter­ven­tion­ist-hun­gry for­eign pol­i­cy “experts” demand­ed we do, seem­ing­ly in perpetuity.

Biden chose to imple­ment the withdrawal.

He is being round­ly crit­i­cized now for hav­ing over­seen a messy depar­ture from Afghanistan by both arm­chair crit­ics as well as Repub­li­can mem­bers of Con­gress and reporters like The New York Times’ David Sanger, who wrote:

Mr. Biden will go down in his­to­ry, fair­ly or unfair­ly, as the pres­i­dent who presided over a long-brew­ing, humil­i­at­ing final act in the Amer­i­can exper­i­ment in Afghanistan.

After sev­en months in which his admin­is­tra­tion seemed to exude much-need­ed com­pe­tence — get­ting more than sev­en­ty per­cent of the country’s adults vac­ci­nat­ed, engi­neer­ing surg­ing job growth and mak­ing progress toward a bipar­ti­san infra­struc­ture bill — every­thing about America’s last days in Afghanistan shat­tered the imagery.

Even many of Mr. Biden’s allies who believe he made the right deci­sion to final­ly exit a war that the Unit­ed States could not win and that was no longer in its nation­al inter­est con­cede he made a series of major mis­takes in exe­cut­ing the withdrawal.

The only ques­tion is how polit­i­cal­ly dam­ag­ing those will prove to be, or whether Amer­i­cans who cheered at 2020 cam­paign ral­lies when both Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump and Mr. Biden promised to get out of Afghanistan will shrug their shoul­ders and say that it had to end, even if it end­ed badly.

I dis­agree with pret­ty much all of the above, and I think Sanger is using a bad lens with which to view these events. Giv­en his knowl­edge and exper­tise as a nation­al secu­ri­ty cor­re­spon­dent, it would have been nice to get a dis­cus­sion focused more on the impli­ca­tions for the Afghan peo­ple as opposed to whether the Tal­iban’s reas­cen­dance could be “polit­i­cal­ly dam­ag­ing” for Pres­i­dent Biden.

While we can’t know the future, I see no evi­dence that today’s events are going to mean­ing­ful­ly alter the tra­jec­to­ry of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. And Sanger does­n’t offer any. In fact, in almost the same breath, he offers an argu­ment to the contrary.

So far, there is no sign that the fall of Kab­ul is ril­ing up the Amer­i­can electorate.

“What I am feel­ing and think­ing about the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan, I can nev­er fit on Twit­ter,” U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ruben Gal­lego, an Iraqi con­flict vet­er­an, wrote. “But one thing that is def­i­nite­ly stick­ing out is that I haven’t got­ten one con­stituent call about it and my dis­trict has a large Vet­er­an population.”

As for how Biden will be judged with respect to imple­ment­ing the with­draw­al thus far: All pres­i­dents make mis­takes because all pres­i­dents are human.

Abra­ham Lin­coln made a huge num­ber of mis­takes dur­ing the insur­rec­tion of the 1860s, in which sev­er­al states tried to unlaw­ful­ly secede from the Union in order to keep mil­lions of Black peo­ple enslaved. How­ev­er, Lin­coln is remem­bered prin­ci­pal­ly not for his mis­takes, but for what he got right, and did well.

Lin­coln is con­sid­ered by all rep­utable his­to­ri­ans to be one of the great­est — if not the great­est — pres­i­dent in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. But, as we know, he made a lot of mis­takes, includ­ing with respect to who he picked to run the Army of the Potomac (that was the main Union Army) dur­ing much of the insurrection.

In hind­sight, it’s eas­i­er to see what we got wrong. That we know.

But we don’t know how Pres­i­dent Biden will be remem­bered twen­ty, fifty, or a hun­dred years from now, espe­cial­ly not when his pres­i­den­cy is still so young, and it is pre­sump­tu­ous to sug­gest that Biden will be remem­bered in any way by future gen­er­a­tions for hav­ing “presided over a long-brew­ing, humil­i­at­ing final act in the Amer­i­can exper­i­ment in Afghanistan.”

While it is admit­ted­ly com­mon for ana­lysts and observers to guess how some event may go down in his­to­ry as it’s hap­pen­ing — it is a temp­ta­tion that can be hard to resist — it’s use­ful to include a caveat or dis­claimer that the guess could be entire­ly wrong. Such humil­i­ty is unfor­tu­nate­ly miss­ing from Sanger’s piece.

And char­ac­ter­iz­ing our inter­ven­tion as an exper­i­ment!?

That’s a bewil­der­ing­ly bad choice of word. If our pres­ence in Afghanistan was ever an “exper­i­ment,” it ceased to be one a long time ago.

The truth is, there were no good options for con­clud­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Afghanistan, and con­tin­u­ing it would have been inde­fen­si­ble, as Pres­i­dent Biden him­self not­ed in his lengthy state­ment yesterday.

When there are no good options, pick­ing the least bad option is wide­ly con­sid­ered the most sen­si­ble thing to do, and I think that is what the Pres­i­dent did.

We can all wish that our with­draw­al had been smoother, bet­ter exe­cut­ed, and not so incon­sid­er­ate of the Afghans who risked so much to help us. But again, there’s no such thing as a war that ends well, and all wars are messy.

Pres­i­dent Biden and his team can’t change the past, but they can change the future. Mis­takes can be fol­lowed by recov­er­ies. The most impor­tant thing we can do now is try to deliv­er for the peo­ple that we promised to help. Right now, we’re still let­ting our Afghan allies down. That’s inex­cus­able. The “whole of gov­ern­ment response” that Pres­i­dent Biden talked about yes­ter­day sounds promis­ing, but it needs to be fol­lowed up with action so it does­n’t become emp­ty rhetoric.

We have dis­cov­ered that it’s not with­in our pow­er to trans­form Afghanistan into a demo­c­ra­t­ic repub­lic based on the same lofty prin­ci­ples that have guid­ed the Unit­ed States’ evo­lu­tion towards a more per­fect union. (We tried, even though wise peo­ple said twen­ty years ago it was an unachiev­able goal.)

But we can cer­tain­ly pro­vide those Afghans who chose to help us and under­stand­ably don’t want to live in a soci­ety ruled by the Tal­iban with a new home here in the Unit­ed States. Yes, even dur­ing a pandemic!

If we are real­ly a great nation, we ought to have the will and means to make this hap­pen. So let’s get it on and sal­vage what we can from this bad situation.

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One Comment

  1. Good job putting this togeth­er. Thank you for shar­ing your perspective. 

    # by Worden Peace :: August 22nd, 2021 at 1:53 AM
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