An American Fiasco

American troops in Afghanistan, 2019.

[Hi fellas. Over the last week, we’ve seen the fall of Kabul and the American-supported Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It went, as in Rommel’s words, “like greased lightning”. In light of the current situation, which most everybody seems to find quite confusing, and the fact that I am currently a tad behind on my article (coming soon, and worth the wait, I promise), I’m reissuing an article I originally sent in as a guest writer on my friend’s personal blog. Hopefully, this will clear things up a bit, telling us how we got here and what we must learn from this disaster.]

[Originally published on Incandescent, April 19th, 2021]

Last week, President Biden announced a withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan, pledging to draw-down troop numbers to zero by September 11th, 2021. This move, long overdue, is the only logical conclusion to what amounts to one of the single largest fiascos in modern American foreign policy, rivalled only by the fall of Saigon and the Arab Winter.

America and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan in December of 2001 to oust the Taliban, who had taken in Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda as “guests”. The strategic goals were simple- get rid of the terrorist-sponsoring Taliban and set up a stable new government over Afghanistan, preferably one friendly to American interests.

The first part of that plan worked spectacularly well. Within a few months, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were sent fleeing to Pakistan, and America and its local allies, the Northern Alliance, were in control. All this was done at minimal cost, using American airpower and special forces teams in conjunction with the Northern Alliance to swiftly boot the Taliban from Afghanistan.

So far so good. But it was fairly obvious that the second part of that plan, forming a stable government in Kabul, was going to be far more difficult.

It’s instructive to take a brief look at the modern history of Afghanistan. Since 1978, the country has been in a constant state of civil war, as a communist coup d’etat overthrew President Daoud Khan’s regime, and the communists themselves were crushed by the invading Soviet Union. The Soviets then fought a losing decade-long war for control against various regional warlords, many of them formed out of and backed by different ethnic groups, after which another civil war followed between the remaining warlords (who became the Northern Alliance) and a new group of religious fanatics, the Taliban.

Given this very lengthy history of violence and warlordism, it should have been fairly obvious that the only real way to keep order in Afghanistan and repulse a low-level Taliban insurgency was to establish an authoritarian state with enough force to forcibly impose order on the rest of the country. After all, this strategy worked for the Taliban during their rule over Afghanistan, forcing the Northern Alliance to the brink of defeat before the American intervention of 2001. Indeed, it would appear that military dictatorship-style governance would be the only plausible form of restoring order after a sustained period of warlordism, following the examples of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Maoist dictatorship after the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War.

The best case scenario would therefore seem to be setting up a dictatorship in Kabul supplied with enough money and matériel to restore order and repulse the Taliban, run on local cultural lines. But instead, what Washington decided was hybris, pure and simple. In the glow of Cold War victory, the Bush administration proceeded to create the ultimate case of mission creep: to Americanize Afghanistan, promoting democracy, women’s rights, and ending the heroin trade, all imposed by way of an international garrison to last until 2014.

On a tactical level, this should have sounded incredibly foolish from the get-go. There was no way democracy would function well in a country so divided for decades. Women’s rights were anathema to a country which had created the Taliban movement just a decade ago. Destroying the traditional poppy-growing industry would cut many rural farmers from their only livelihood. Furthermore, the mere presence of foreign troops would stoke discontent and resentment in a country long known for close-knit tribal bonds and an accompanying distrust of outsiders, especially foreigners.

And that was exactly what came to pass. The Karzai government, instead of being able to impose its will on the warlords, found itself in a cesspool of pork-barrel politics in an effort to pay them off (the warlords more or less continued to do their own thing), while the democratic process became an orgy of vote-stuffing and voter intimidation, triggering regular political crises in 2009, 2014, and 2019. Women’s rights and foreign garrisons stoked popular discontent, as did American attempts to remove the poppy fields.

The predictable result was a massive boon for the Taliban. Popular discontent with democratic corruption, Westernization, and foreign occupation drove popular support up, while the poppy growers sought Taliban protection, who in turn took a cut of drug profits. In short, America had revived an insurgency and upgraded it into a narco-insurgency. Meanwhile, the Kabul government, bereft of public support, suffered from low morale and low combat effectiveness in its forces, essentially rendering it permanently dependent on foreign troops to provide security.

More importantly, with its new mission, Washington had completely changed the strategic dynamics. After September 11, the US was 100% committed to stopping the next horrific terrorist attack, willing to do whatever it took to prevent the Taliban from re-taking Afghanistan and harboring terrorists once more. In contrast, the Taliban was not willing to fight forever against a superior American force (either US forces or well-supplied local proxies) to effect a mere change of government. In short, America had won even before the insurgency started in earnest. However, with this new change in mission, Washington created an Americanized vision of Afghanistan that the religious-fanatic Taliban was totally committed to destroying. Yet America proved unwilling to invest the necessary manpower and resources to sustain this vision, whose partial implementation left the Kabul government unable to support it without American aid.

If we put aside the tactical errors aforementioned, and further ones down the line such as the Obama administration’s 2011 troop surge, it is these strategic dynamics that really explain why America lost Afghanistan. If the Taliban distanced themselves from Al-Qaeda but the US maintained its new objectives, the Taliban was willing to fight it out to the end against a hostile vision of Afghanistan. The US, however, was not willing to invest the men and resources to withstand this assault against an Americanized Afghanistan, and would cede the field if it was confident the Taliban would no longer harbor terrorists, fulfilling its original, absolutely non-negotiable desire to prevent the next September 11. Kabul, America’s hapless partner in all of this, would be left to fend for itself, an impossibility given its detested role as the local agent for twenty years of failed Americanization.

Over the last two decades, the Taliban has played the long game. It has worked to reduce its links to Al-Qaeda, so much so that the US intelligence community no longer considers the Taliban to be a significant risk for harboring terrorists. In the meantime, it has not only continued the insurgency, but ramped it up since 2016. This combination of moves has not only made Washington realize it is not willing to pay the price for its vision of Afghanistan, but has fundamentally removed the original raison d’etre for its involvement there.

The Trump administration, for all its faults, was cleareyed enough to understand this strategic reality. Its 2019 cease-fire was essentially an excuse to get out of Afghanistan. All the Taliban has to do is wait until America withdraws completely, and then re-engage in full force, knowing that once America has withdrawn from Afghanistan, public opinion will not allow a second deployment. Kabul will fall, and the Taliban will be victorious.

As America withdraws completely, it becomes clear that twenty years of involvement has been a failure. After the successful early and relatively inexpensive ejection of the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001, America devoted huge amounts of men, money and matériel to a new mission snowballing far from its initial objectives, all for nothing. It has cost America dearly, not only in material terms, but immensely so in prestige, as another fall of Saigon moment awaits, one that only takes on this gravity because of the fruitless investment of lives and money into an unnecessary set of vainglorious objectives.

The saddest part of this sorry saga is that it took so long for this strategic reality to be realized. As the old economics adage goes, “sunk costs are sunk”. In Vietnam, it is arguable that the counterinsurgency was winnable until 1968, when the domestic reaction to the Tet Offensive made prolonged involvement impossible, a realization that immediately pushed the Nixon administration to seek an exit strategy, leading to a cease-fire by 1973. Yet despite nothing fundamental changing in the strategic situation from 2002/3 onwards, successive American administrations, both Democratic and Republican, tried their hand at winning in Afghanistan, using tactical measures to mask their lack of overall strategic coherence in a futile attempt to recoup sunk costs.

The lesson here is one of hybris and its consequences. In a unipolar post-Cold War world, administrations of both parties in Washington believed that it was not only a moral imperative to restructure foreign countries to Western standards, but that with America’s unequalled might, it was possible to do so at an acceptably low cost, regardless of local conditions or resistance. While American involvement in Afghanistan has led to concrete improvements in many lives compared to the Taliban’s sharia system, it is undeniable that the cost of doing so has been far higher than expected, that America’s strength is not as vast as imagined. And in the final analysis, it is precisely this hybris that led America to a fiasco in Afghanistan.

What this calls for, and what it should represent, is the final nail in the coffin of America’s post-Cold War belief in its own omnipotence. Despite the pervasive evidence against it, from the maelstrom of chaos that is Libya to the laughably ineffective “Operación Libertad” in Venezuela, America has continued to believe in its ability to change the world at will, a persistence illustrated by the willingness of three presidents to try “new strategies’’ in Afghanistan despite the strategic futility of it all. As the US confronts an array of serious threats to its geopolitical supremacy, from a near-peer rival in China to climate change, there has never been a time where the hybris of unlimited American might has been more removed from reality, nor more potentially catastrophic to US ambitions. As America faces the challenges of the 21st century, staring down the barrel of not only relative but absolute decline, it would be wise to let this lesson sink in.

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Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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Perry Aw

Perry Aw

Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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