By Paolo von Schirach –
WASHINGTON – The historic news is buried in short articles inside major newspapers. If you did not pay attention, you probably would not even notice that the American war in Afghanistan –the longest American war– is finally coming to an (unhappy) end. America is negotiating its departure from Afghanistan. A draft deal sketching a timeline for US troops withdrawal and subsequent Afghan Government-Taliban negotiations has been hammered by US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban.
Good news? Not really. This is a U.S. withdrawal following defeat, not victory. Let’s be clear. America has not come to this point after negotiations from a position of strength with a badly bruised, demoralized Taliban. America negotiated an exit from a war that it could not win against a relentless enemy. Make no mistake, whatever the wording of the final agreement, in essence this is a U.S. surrender.
Indeed, it is clear to all observers that America is negotiating with the Taliban from a position of extreme weakness. The other side, the Taliban, is winning on the ground, and we simply cannot take this nightmare of daily attacks followed by feeble and ineffective Afghan responses anymore.
Sadly, this is the inglorious end to a terribly ill-advised October 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, followed by an ill-conceived military occupation, and an even worse economic development strategy concocted under the assumption (bordering on lunacy) that America and its NATO Allies had the resources, the will and the skills to transform an extremely backward, war-torn Afghanistan into an at least passable modern, working democracy.
A bad idea
Sadly, this negotiation with the Taliban is the end of the American poorly planned and poorly executed adventure in Afghanistan. The occupation of Afghanistan was and is a bad idea doggedly pursued for almost 20 years by national leaders who should have known better; or who at least, after a few years of failures, could have paused and thought the whole thing over again.
Foreign policy mistakes unfortunately happen. But Afghanistan is much worse. This is about hatching a completely unrealistic plan and then clinging to its mistaken assumptions and failed policies, year after year, in the vain hope that –maybe—someday things will improve, without any evidence whatsoever that the situation on the ground was getting any better.
It all started after 9/11
Let’s go back to the beginning of this sad story, and that is 9/11. After it became clear that this major terror attack against the US homeland had been directed by Osama bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda who had found sanctuary in Afghanistan, the Bush administration decided “to go get him”. However, Washington almost immediately decided also on a much more ambitious agenda. Indeed, the Bush administration decided that it had to punish not just the al Qaeda leadership, but also its Afghan willing hosts, that is the Taliban government.
Therefore the more narrowly focused “punitive expedition against Osama and al Qaeda” almost immediately morphed into “regime change” for Afghanistan. This rather grandiose objective was in fact an act of vainglorious superficiality. In so doing, Washington, while trying to get Osama who was hiding somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan, (without any success, by the way!), at the same time declared to the world that it needed to “fix” Afghanistan once and for all, so that in the future this sorry country would become a responsible, modern democracy, and no longer the friendly home of terrorists.
In principle, this may sound sensible: “Clean up the place and engage in a bottom up make-over” so that in the future Afghanistan will not be used as a base for Islamic terrorists. In practice, anybody with a brain at the time would have been able to see that this –“fixing Afghanistan”– was a next to impossible task, at least within any reasonable time frame.
Anybody with an even scant knowledge of decades of failure in trying to promote sustainable development in Africa and other underdeveloped regions of the world through large amounts of outside assistance could have pointed out that this was mission impossible.
Indeed, if promoting development in Africa is extremely challenging even under “normal” circumstances, it should have been clear to all top decision-makers in Washington that engaging in a development effort in an extremely poor, and completely ruined post-conflict Afghanistan would take extraordinary resources, and many, many decades.
A dauntingly tall agenda, by the way, even assuming peace and a cooperative society willing to buy into this rapid modernization strategy hatched and dished out by outside experts.
Again, everybody knew or should have known that at the end of 2001 Afghanistan was an incredibly backward, tribal country that lacked almost all the underpinnings necessary to even start moving on a development agenda. And the basic underpinnings would include: some meaningful productive activities, (no, poppy cultivation and heroin should not be on this list), at least some basic infrastructure, a modicum of electricity generation capacity and transmission lines, at least some reasonably modern health care facilities, some functioning schools, a somewhat educated middle class, and a reasonably competent government and public administration.
Sadly, at the end of 2001 Afghanistan had almost none of these prerequisites. On top of that, the country was exhausted. it had suffered for years under a communist dictatorship, then it had to endure the Soviet invasion which was followed by a bloody war against the Soviets, and then civil strife, followed by the truly medieval Taliban regime.
A record of failure
Anyway, in the end the whole US-led Afghanistan enterprise that began at the end of 2001 failed –miserably. This is well documented. A key feature of this systemic failure is that, to this day, the US government has no idea of what happened to billions of dollars targeted for development in Afghanistan. The money simply vanished.
The biggest failure was and is in the strong resurgence of the Taliban and the utter inability of the US-trained and equipped Afghan military and police to even hold their ground –let alone go after the Taliban insurgents and defeat them.
Right now, the Kabul government is unable to guarantee even a modicum of security almost anywhere in the country. Up to the signing of the recent preliminary agreement and semi-ceasefire that should lead to the finalization of the final peace agreement, The Taliban could hit almost any city, including well defended targets in Kabul itself.
On top of that, in the last few years, other extremists and terror groups have found fertile ground in Afghanistan. On a daily basis, there are attacks, bombs, suicide missions, and what not. And this is happening after 19 years of American and NATO military assistance to the Afghan Government, combined with gigantic development packages aimed at building a modern government, and eventually new prosperity.
The negotiations with the Taliban
I guess this is why the Trump administration FINALLY decided to cut America’s losses and get the residual US troops home. The fig leaf here are the almost concluded bilateral “peace negotiations” with the Taliban. Through this charade hosted by Qatar, Washington would like to convey to the world that this is no “cut and run”. On the contrary, Washington will implement an orderly and careful incremental drawdown of US forces –but only if and when the Taliban will meet certain non-negotiable conditions.
The public message is: “This is no unilateral withdrawal. We are negotiating an honorable and sound peace agreement. We Americans shall make sure that the interests of the Afghan people are protected. We shall also make sure that the new (and still fragile) Afghan democratic institutions will be safeguarded and will continue to define the country long after the last American soldier has departed”.
Of course, this is pure fiction.
Whatever they may say now, the Taliban leaders deep down do not believe in either democracy or power sharing. The notion of a well-functioning future coalition government featuring the current (extremely fractured, by the way) Afghan leadership and the Taliban –all working together for the benefit of the Afghan people– is ridiculous. Which is to say that these US-Taliban negotiations are only about saving face. Whatever you may want to call this process, in essence this is an American surrender. America failed –in a spectacular way– and now we are finally leaving an impossible situation that cost US taxpayers hundreds of billions, not to mention the dead and the wounded U.S. troops. No more good money after bad.
What do we make of all this?
So, what do we make of this absurd tragedy?
Sadly, the only plausible conclusion is that in the highly charged, emotional days after 9/11 our national leaders literally lost their minds. There is no doubt that the terror attack America suffered on September 11, 2001 was unprecedented in scale and loss of American lives.
But 9/11 was not the end of the world. The notion that America, in order to prevent future attacks and be safe, had to “redo Afghanistan” was megalomaniac, vainglorious and stupid. Going after the bad guys, the masterminds of 9/11, was absolutely justified. But the notion that creating a new country in Afghanistan was necessary in order to guarantee future US security was fatally flawed.
And, by the way, let’s not forget: even the more focused mission of capturing or killing the al Qaeda senior leadership responsible for 9/11 FAILED, TOTALLY. The US forces were there, on the ground in Afghanistan. Osama and his cohorts were on the run. And still we failed to capture Osama, for more than a decade.
That said, the Afghanistan operation was the beginning of the “War on Terror”, an ill-defined, grandiose strategy that created what was ultimately an unreachable goal: identifying, pursuing and neutralizing all terror organizations around the world.
“War on Terror” does not mean anything
Terrorism is not“a place” you can attack and conquer or a clearly identifiable enemy located in one place. Terrorism is a modus operandi that can be and is adopted by several small groups, or even isolated individuals all over the world. Terrorism is about dramatic violent actions that will gain a great deal of publicity. It can spring almost anywhere, without any notice.
If you call this fight “a war”, how do you “win” this war? How can you ensure that all the bad guys, and the would-be bad guys, have been apprehended or killed? This is impossible. You can and should do your best to monitor and infiltrate terror cells. You should prevent possible acts of terror, and go after the bad guys when something bad tragically happened.
But this is mostly about doing your best to manage an elusive threat using intelligence services and special forces. You cannot “win” this conflict once and for all; just as police forces, even the best ones, cannot inflict a final defeat on all criminals and all criminal activities.
There are more than 7 and half billion people on this planet. Even if the smallest fraction of this large world population engages in terror plots, you still have a terror problem. And yet this open-ended, grandiose goal –Fighting and Winning the War on Terror— became the fundamental pillar of U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush. America was committed to fight this Global War on Terror to the very end, and we would not rest until the last terrorist had been killed or apprehended. This was and is an impractical, in fact fatuous goal.
No doubt, terrorism is serious business, to be treated seriously. And this is why we have sophisticated intelligence services and trained Special Forces. But terrorism is not an existential threat that justifies making it into our number one national security priority, engaging in a global war in which the entire world, by the way, had to actively participate in order to show that they are with us.
Wrong policies continued under Obama
But here is the thing. The stupidity of this Bush administration policy did not disappear when President Bush left office. What is bizarre and unexplainable is that, even though George W. Bush left the stage in January 2009, and no one talked about his War on Terror anymore, the failed Afghanistan project that was an integral part of the initial War on Terror strategy kept going, and going.
Indeed, President Obama declared that the war in Afghanistan was the “good war” of necessity that had to be fought, as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq that was discretionary and ill-advised. And so Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, kept going and going in Afghanistan even though, based on years of failures, he and his national security team should have known better.
After all, they were not bound to justify and continue on the basis of a flawed commitment created by the previous Republican administration. And it took Trump, the president elected with the open pledge to end all the stupid “endless wars” started and continued by his predecessors, more than two years to finally come to grips with the need to end this madness.
So, here is the balance sheet. It took more than 18 years to finally recognize a colossal foreign and security policy mistake. How could America be so wrong for such a long time without any serious debate on this record of failure followed by more failure? How could this happen?I am not entirely sure. Still, as a minimum we need to recognize that there is a nefarious inertia, combined with mental laziness, enveloping the upper layers of the analytical and decision-making centers of this nation.
Alright, we can allow for mistakes. But bad policy judgment and errors could explain only the beginning of the problem. However, after a few years, how can we explain and justify that Washington, despite a solid record of failure in Afghanistan, kept going and going, year after year, without anybody in a position of power and responsibility pausing and asking the most elementary question: “Is this really working as intended?”American policy-makers lost the ability to reflect
In Afghanistan, America started something big and expensive with all the wrong assumptions regarding the size and scope of the undertaking and without a realistic time frame to achieve the stated goals.
Here is my conclusion. As a nation, notwithstanding hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on intelligence gathering, scenario planning, and war games, not to mention the largest defense budget in the world, we seem to have lost even a modicum of self-reflection ability.
An outside observer looking into this mess might find this record of systemic failure by the leaders of the most advanced country on Earth, and the attendant epic waste of resources stemming from totally misguided policies, quite funny.But it is in fact tragic. In the end, finally getting out of an untenable situation in Afghanistan is a good thing. But I am not sure that America’s leaders learnt any enduring lessons.