As they say, hindsight is always 20-20. Afghanistan is in freefall, American troops in a dash for the door, Kabul near falling, fear in full control. Other outcomes were possible but fumbled by politicians. What will Kabul’s fall now mean? What lessons does this rout teach us?
First, what is happening now in Afghanistan – after the Biden Administration gave up on seeking a negotiated peace – was predictable. Gradual withdrawal, conditioned on enforceable peace, was always the goal. Biden lost the con.
Force remains decisive in post-war environments until a nation’s popular will gains the upper hand, directing civil and military power, bringing to life “rule of law.” While we almost got there in Afghanistan, it never happened.
Why? The easy answer is that Afghanistan is different, not easily governed, thousand-year history of tribal warfare, a culture of violence, indifference to life, endemic corruption, awash in heroin. These are true, but not the real answer.
The real answer is a shared failure, shared between Republicans and Democrats, Afghans and allies, American military and civilian leaders over 20 years.
After 9-11, the US moved against al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan. In October 2001, military operations commenced. Taliban was gone in two months; the international coalition installed Hamid Karzai as leader.
After much work – including training security forces – Karzai was elected in 2004, stayed through 2014. Throughout, the Taliban pushed an insurgency, whittling down resolve and expectations of stability.
As an Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, we initiated Afghan police training in seven provinces. Meeting Karzai in Kabul was notable, chiefly for atmospherics. His presidential palace was filled with bullet holes.
Clearly, Afghanistan was different.
During two terms of Bush-Cheney and two of Obama-Biden, countless opportunities to secure peace existed. Days turned to months, months to years, years to decades. Time was lost.
Second, the Bush national security team, especially a senior cadre of interventionists, none with combat experience, few legal experience – thought 2003 an opportune moment to convert public 9-11 outrage to combat in Iraq.
Sober minds counseled against it, but ire was high. Clearly, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a house of horrors. Once begun, the mission – equally fraught with tribal challenges – had to be completed.
Opportunity costs – regrettable consequences – flowed from committing young Americans to two wars. Separate wars became a “Global War on Terror.”
Missed by Bush’s national security team – and bipartisan Hill enthusiasts – were big issues. Iraq was not East Germany, Poland, or Soviet Union. This was not going to be easy, just topple some statues, declare peace, instant democracy.
Iraq, like Afghanistan, was tribally divided, emotionally damaged, vast human hurt. To imagine we could be in and out, replay of Eastern Europe, was folly.
Worse, diverting major combat resources – manpower, equipment, moral authority, international prestige – to Iraq from Afghanistan meant, with limited bandwidth, weakening our ability to bring Afghanistan to a swift close.
Combat and stability operations in Afghanistan were – another predictable opportunity cost – weakened, taper to peace lengthened, another error.
Third, when Obama-Biden took control in 2009, bad became far worse, again with limited expertise in the White House, no military experience at the top, bobbled diplomacy, little understanding of cut-and-run consequences.
By the time Obama-Biden left office in 2017, Iraq and Syria were largely owned by terrorist ISIS, Iran a major force. Fear held the upper hand. See, e.g., The Mess Obama Left Behind in Iraq.
Meantime, no peace deal in sight, Obama authorized a mass troop drawdown in 2014.
Any chance for peace was punted. That pullback betrayed indifference to securing a conditional peace, no gradual withdrawal, just eagerness to leave.
Genies, once out, are hard to put back in the bottle. When Trump appeared, he was an avowed non-interventionist. Still, he proved straight talk can get peace.
Fresh dialogue with China, Russia, North Korea, Europe, and Mexico turned pages. He inked peace deals between Israel and UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, made steps toward Oman, Saudi, Egypt. He changed the paradigm.
What he was unable to secure – was peace in Afghanistan. Would a second term have done it?
No knowing, as Trump threatened withdrawal to push the Taliban and Afghan government toward each other, but time ran out.
What we know is if you wish to stop a train, gradual beats train wreck every time.
Put differently, while peace was elusive for Trump – as for Bush and Obama – it is impossible with cut-and-run.
Biden chose the train wreck, cut-and-run. So, what comes next? Unfortunately, a lot of regional – likely fresh global – chaos and heartache.
Biden’s tail-between-legs scamper means Taliban win big. They will bring back al Qaeda, execute those loyal to us, use our equipment against us, seek legitimacy from China, Russia, and Iran. Biden’s move mocks peace promises.
Worse, images of the US fleeing Kabul – like a jackal in the night – will hearten China, Russia, Iran, and others. The notion that we cannot even conduct an orderly withdrawal, but abandon the battlefield in fright, invites future conflict.
Finally, the idea that we would do all this before the 20th anniversary of 9-11, which started with Taliban and al Qaeda control of Afghanistan – is stunning.
Net-net, this is a dark day – one that did not need to be this dark. Opportunities for peace for legitimate, professional, historically grounded peace among all parties in Afghanistan were possible.
This is a product of feckless fumbles.
Our task is not to forget, to understand the lessons. Peace when possible is worth every effort. Combat is engaged to suppress evil but secure equitable peace. Wars are easy to start and hard to end.
Democracy depends on conditions, not happy talk.
America is strong, but strength is challenged – and will be again. Amateur leadership, wishful thinking, overextension, expending the lives of others’ sons and daughters causes heartache.
Things did not need to end this way, but they have. We must brace for what comes next. We must learn from mistakes; remembering “peace through strength” beats war through weakness – every time.
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