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US Leaving Afghanistan Is About Politics, Not Geopolitics

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Here we go. After some debate within his administration, President Joe Biden declared that all US troops will leave Afghanistan before September 11, a symbolic anniversary. This is not a decision contingent on conditions on the ground. We are leaving because of domestic politics calculations. Biden thinks that he will gain points with US voters by finally ending the now 20 year old “forever war”.

Punish Al Qaeda

America invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to punish the Al Qaeda perpetrators and the Taliban government that willingly hosted them. 20 years later, the Taliban is undefeated and in fact dangerously close to seizing power. Back in 2001, almost immediately after US troops landed, this US retaliatory strike –by definition an operation that should have been limited in scope and time– was transformed into a long term and tragically ill-advised “Let’s redo Afghanistan” project. The goal was nothing less than remaking Afghanistan, an extremely poor and backward country defined by tribal allegiances, into a reasonably modern democracy that would never again host radical Islamist groups that would use their bases in the country to plot attacks against the US and its Allies.

Mission Futile and Impossible

Let’s be clear. This almost unchallenged assumption that America and its NATO Allies had to turn Afghanistan into a workable democracy in order to deny Islamic terrorists the sanctuary they enjoyed when the Taliban first controlled the country was and is silly. Suppose we succeeded. Then Afghanistan today would be a reasonably well functioning democracy. So what? Terrorist groups are flexible and agile. They can easily move and relocate elsewhere. The global viability of al Qaeda and other similar organizations was not and is not contingent on having training camps in Afghanistan. Nice to have them, of course. But they are not essential. Plenty of failed or semi-failed states offer similar sanctuary opportunities.

What is most amazing is that different American administrations insisted on pursuing this hopeless Afghanistan modernization policy, even when most of the evidence proved that this project had no chance of success, given the tragic backwardness of the country.

The Taliban quickly came back

Indeed, after the initial defeat, over time the Taliban regrouped and proved to be once again a formidable, relentless foe. Notwithstanding rivers of US money poured into the effort of arming and training the Afghan regular forces and police, (while at the same building capacity in all government institutions in Kabul and beyond), they have proven unable to contain, let alone defeat the Taliban.

Policy disaster

The invasion of Afghanistan was and is a policy disaster for Washington. Still, America could not easily leave. It was obvious that, lacking US material support, the pro-Western Kabul government would probably collapse.

Aware of the likely consequences of a US full withdrawal, nonetheless President Biden decided that he wants to close this sorry chapter of compounded failures. Hence the decision to remove all US troops and leave Afghanistan before September 11, 2021.

Washington is now trying to sweeten the bitter pill of defeat by selling the idea that the US will still be able to safeguard its national security interest, even after the departure of its military advisers and trainers. We are told that America will retain intelligence assets in Afghanistan even after all the US troops are gone. That should be enough to make sure that Afghanistan does not turn once more into a big Washington headache. I hope the Biden administration is right on this. But it is unlikely. My sense is that as soon as we are gone the Taliban will take over. May be not immediately. But it will happen. And this cannot be good for America.

Taking stock

And this is where we are now, more or less. With Washington pushing for an agreement, the Taliban and the pro-Western Afghans still in power in Kabul are negotiating some kind of power sharing deal, with the proviso that under no circumstances al Qaeda elements would be allowed into Afghanistan at any point in the future. Good luck with all that.

The point is that as soon as the Taliban become convinced that once gone the Americans are not coming back, they will fail to abide by whatever power-sharing agreement will be reached. So, expect an Islamist, anti-Western government to rule Afghanistan pretty soon.

For America, this debacle (twenty years of costly engagement, and almost nothing to show for it) should be an opportunity for rethinking its conceptually flawed anti-terror strategies.

The advantages of keeping a US military presence in Afghanistan

That said, even though the modernization process failed, the decision to leave now –for good—is not an enlightened one. Keeping a small force of about 2,000 US troops in Afghanistan, (along with other small contingents supplied by some NATO countries), does not represent an enormous burden for the US. Keeping them there would give confidence to the Kabul government in its ongoing struggle against the Taliban. This small US and NATO contingents are now and would continue to be in the future a Western bridge head in Afghanistan. They would keep US and NATO military and political options in the region.

The Biden decision to leave now, simply because we have been there too long and America is tired of all this, is an answer to domestic political pressures. It is perfectly understandable. But it is not smart.  

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




Can Washington Borrow and Spend Without Limit?

By Paolo von Schirach —

WASHINGTON – Parts of the US are still suffering from the devastating consequences of the economic freeze enforced because of the ongoing pandemic that began in January 2020. Millions of Americans are still out of work. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with Washington directing emergency funds to the millions of unemployed Americans who lost their jobs because of draconian restrictions caused by the Covid emergency. There is also nothing wrong in launching a major national infrastructure plan aimed at fixing America’s old and poorly maintained roads and bridges, while adding new ones. And, finally, there is nothing wrong in Washington’s pledge to substantially increase funding for basic R & D in order to buttress American innovation and ultimately competitiveness.

Enormous programs

These are common sense policy measures aimed at helping millions of fellow citizens, while strengthening the national innovation potential, as well as our transportation and logistics backbone. The problem is that President Joe Biden and his team attached all sorts of other important but less pressing issues to these urgent matters.

The result are two truly colossal programs and bills. We are looking at at least four trillions of dollars in additional new spending which must be added to the already expansionary policies adopted by the Trump administration (and passed by Congress with bipartisan support) resulting in large structural federal budget deficits –well before the Covid pandemic kicked in. Before any Covid-related emergency spending, the US was running a one trillion dollar federal budget deficit. Yes, one trillion deficit, at a time of good economic growth (above 2%) and historically low unemployment.

New taxes may help some

True, Biden proposes to pay for at least some of this new spending by increasing tax revenues. He proposes some income and corporate tax increases. But most of it is not paid for. (In any event, good luck in getting the Republicans in the Senate, and even a few Democrats, to go along with significant tax increases, whatever the justification. Remember that in the US Senate, unless the filibuster is abolished or substantially modified, you need 60 votes to pass laws, including tax reform. Even assuming unanimity among Democrats, they can muster only 51 votes.)

Swelling deficits and a ballooning US national debt

Whatever you may think about the justification for these new gigantic federal programs, this incredible spending increase means significantly more borrowing by Uncle Sam. And this new borrowing means colossal new annual deficits that will be piled on top of current deficits that are already extremely high. And all this borrowing ultimately means a larger and larger national debt eventually swelling to unprecedented proportions. We have to go back all the way to the need to finance the American war economy in WWII in order to find similar levels of federal borrowing.

No longer fiscal insanity

Until not too long ago, these stratospherically expensive proposals –good or bad as they may be on their merit– would have been dismissed by almost everybody as crazy and fiscally irresponsible; therefore not even thinkable, let alone feasible. But now the fiscal impact of these gigantic Washington spending programs (whatever your opinion on the merit of the various policy goals to be funded by such spending) is hardly mentioned at all.

Now the arguments and the criticism are only on the items included in the packages and the amount of “pork” attached, and on which constituencies President Joe Biden is trying to please by ladling hundreds of billions here, and more there.

Simply stated: there is no outcry on the actual size of the bill. Not much said about spending 4 trillion dollars or more we do not have, on top of the regular federal expenditures included in the approved budget which already includes historically huge deficits because of spending not matched by tax revenue.

Overspending is fine

This state of affairs reflects a new reality. Without much debate, a few years ago we entered a new world. In this new world, US public spending is no longer constrained by revenue. As noted above, the last pre Covid federal budget, a budget approved without too much controversy, contemplated a federal budget deficit of one trillion dollars.

Please remember that this enormous deficit was approved when everything was going very well. The US economy was expanding at more than 2%. Unemployment was historically low. The stock market was booming. There was no emergency. No recession. No pandemic.

And yet both parties agreed that it was perfectly normal to add another trillion to the national debt at a time of more than decent GDP growth and almost zero unemployment! How do you justify this level of government overspending when everything goes well in the American economy?

In the past, massive over spending (and borrowing) was justified only in emergencies. Usually it included measures to counter a bad recession with the goal of keeping or creating jobs. But nobody raised any concerns about the massive fiscal imbalance at the beginning of 2020, that is before we knew anything about the incoming pandemic.

Now the argument is that we need truly supersized spending in order to fight the negative economic impact of Covid; even though some argue that, as millions of Americans are getting vaccines, the economy will soon take care of itself because most people will be able to go back to work. Still, let us assume that new government spending measures are indeed needed, especially measures targeting the most vulnerable, low income Americans who are still out of work.

No limits on spending?

That said, even if we recognize the need to do something urgently to help the weakest members of our society, are there any limits on the amount of assistance that can be provided? Apparently not. The US Government is free to spend whatever it wants. Its borrowing capacity is unlimited. Swelling deficits, and an outsized and growing national debt are of no concern. Nobody is worried about how we shall pay for all of this: not President Biden. nor the Treasury, nor the Federal Reserve, and almost no one in Congress.

The “New Normal” is universally accepted

Combine this indifference with the widely accepted notion that the Federal Reserve can buy bonds and finance everything –indefinitely– without any negative consequences on interest rates and inflation, and you realize that we are now well into a “New Normal” when it comes to fiscal policies. This New Normal denies the truthfulness of everything we thought we knew about the serious dangers of protracted, large scale fiscal imbalances.

Now there are economists who publicly claim that, since the US dollar is still the world reserve currency and Washington controls it, almost any level of US federal spending and borrowing is fine, and essentially risk free.

I really hope this is true. Until yesterday this wave of spending would have been considered sheer madness, unthinkable fiscal irresponsibility. Now the argument (if any) is on how well or badly targeted such spending may be.

There is no serious challenge to the amount of money budgeted based on the old fundamentals that, if you keep spending money you do not have, sooner rather than later you will be in serious trouble.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.