Afghanistan Withdrawal Was Only Going To End This Way
I did not want to write this article on the Afghanistan withdrawal as I thought the American public had learned their lesson from the boondoggles in the Middle East over the past twenty years. Alas, we are still a society largely driven by media cycles so I am going to reluctantly write this.
The bottom line is people who support withdrawal but don’t like how it’s been done have no better option. In fact, it’s this attitude that leads to the forever wars people complain about. Why there is an expectation of competence when the entire lesson of these wars is the US is not competent when it comes to nation building is beyond me.
Richard Hanania does an excellent job of explaining why, no matter what you are being told by media, this is the way the Afghanistan withdrawal was always going to end. Richard is a Research Fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University whose academic interests include nuclear policy, American grand strategy, political psychology, the politics of the Middle East, and international law. What’s most interesting to me is that he also uses statistical modeling and text analysis in order to investigate the behavior of international organizations.
I will not review the entire history of our presence in Afghanistan as there are whole books describing that calamity. To give you some idea of how “secure” Afghanistan was under U.S occupation, as of 2018, the US could not even secure the two-mile road between the embassy and the airport. They had to travel by helicopter meaning comparisons here to the Fall of Saigon are asinine for at least then we had the major cities pacified.
Any withdrawal was going to end up with a lot of Afghans wanting to leave. Even if the US took 100% of those who helped it, many more would have tried to come. The last days of the regime were going to be ugly, no matter how long the wait or what the plan was. Those complaining about the withdrawal are arguing that the US, who literally hasn’t done much of anything in Afghanistan in the past 20 years, was suddenly going to competently run the Kabul airport, which they can’t get to but by helicopter, under the most desperate conditions possible, if they only had a few more months. Who actually believes that other than proponents of keeping troops there indefinitely in the first place?
Mind you, all of this failure happened before the Afghan government had fallen apart. As soon as withdrawal was certain and U.S. airpower stopped, the Afghan army collapsed. The US was then supposed to become super competent in a few months without any partner on the ground after proving to be inept over the course of 20 years? Come on.
The Afghan People
The Covid-19 pandemic presented a unique challenge for survey research and inspired The Asia Foundation’s office in Afghanistan to pivot from the long-running annual Survey of the Afghan People to a series of three Afghanistan Flash Surveys conducted by telephone from September 2020 to February 2021. The Flash Surveys actively track public sentiment over time on a set of topics to support policymakers as they navigate a country in transition. Unique from other surveys, it is the Foundation’s first panel survey in Afghanistan, meaning a set of respondents were interviewed multiple times over the six-month period. The results:
- Fewer than half say now peace is achievable within the next two years.
- A majority are unwilling to accept a peace agreement that results in women and girls no longer being able to attend school.
- Strong support for women in leadership roles remains.
- A majority of Afghans report they received adequate news and information on the pandemic, but most also said the government has not provided enough support.
- About three quarters have said employment opportunities have declined in the past year
- More than half believed the Afghan Army can provide adequate security without foreign defense
After 20 years in Afghanistan, the majority of Afghans don’t see achievable peace in the near term, do not feel supported by government, see no economic gains, and want security without foreign interference. As a feminist, the only material gains I see from our presence in Afghanistan is the increase in desire for women’s equality. Indeed we saw this in action with the presence of women at the table negotiating peace with the Taliban.
The Afghanistan Papers Explains This
This was all explained in the Afghanistan papers which cover the abject failure of the Bush and Obama years. If, for example, the US tried to open virtually any western enterprise in Afghanistan, it’d cost billions of dollars with forces spending a lot of time trying to get local acceptance of women in management. No matter how poorly it was run, generals would say it was running competently and efficiently. It was a debacle.
President Biden had already delayed withdrawal as the original Trump deal was supposed to have everyone out by May 1. Biden delayed it by months for logistical reasons, arguing the previous administration had no plan. The whole point of the last few months was to prepare.
Could they have better used those few months? Maybe. But the problem runs deep, it’s the US system, which has screwed this up forever, not the Biden Administration.
While Trump was castigated for hurting the feelings of the generals in Afghanistan, it was they who pressured Obama to surge in Afghanistan, enlisting David Brooks to challenge his manhood. This was over 10 years ago, which was already 8 years after the war began.
You will find no bigger fan of President Obama than I, but even his former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, Ben Rhodes, admits generals manipulated Obama into the troop surge in Afghanistan. Bob Gates, who unlike Rhodes, believed in the Afghanistan mission, tells a similar story with generals leading a full-scale propaganda campaign to box Obama in through sympathetic journalists and selective (and illegal) leaks.
In fact, Obama became depressed, telling the generals how much he valued their opinions and asking why they didn’t like and respect him, before giving in. Bob Gates told Obama there couldn’t have been a plan to box him in, because it would be too obvious, and the generals were too ethical.
What we know is that Obama wanted an exit from the beginning General Stanley McChrystal was appointed, specifying “no more troops”. There were many meetings with officials demanding more troops to ensure a successful long term outcome. In the end, going to the press actually undermined Obama, but he had no choice.
When Trump came into office, the generals did a victory lap because they not only got him to surge, he didn’t even set a date for withdrawal like Obama did (of course, Obama ended up finding it too hard to leave anyway so it didn’t matter). After Trump’s Taliban deal, they were hard at work sabotaging the idea meaning publicly contradicting the administration in public and leaking unflattering stories to the press. This is the strategy that has worked for 20 years. Do you think they were suddenly going to cooperate with Biden?
Throughout the war, both generals and the Afghan government have strategically gone out of their way to make leaving as difficult as possible. Afghan President Ghani refused to negotiate with the Taliban the whole time. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Afghans refused to believe the US was leaving and adjust their presence nor tactics.
It’s important to realize how complaining about conditions for withdrawal is a way for the pro-war crowd to stay forever as evidenced by Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying the Trump deal was “conditions based.” People have said this for years, and it means we aren’t going anywhere. Conditions are never good unless good means indefinite military presence.
The Afghanistan Withdrawal Reflects Our Afghanistan Effectiveness
We cannot do anything well in Afghanistan. Obama surged and the violence got worse. Trump increased the bombing campaign and casualties, yet the Taliban kept gaining. We are now supposed to believe that instead of massive incompetence being a reason to leave, it’s an excuse to stay. If only we had a few more months.
There’s nothing new about the arguments made by the pro-war crowd or their tactics. The only thing changing was conditions kept getting worse, which was a further excuse to stay. As ugly as it looks, an administration finally ended the cycle of failure and lies.