Afghanistan – damned if we do, damned if we don’t
If you follow my blog, you know that I don’t normally write about politics and geopolitical issues, even though I spent many years as a diplomat dealing with just that. But what’s unfolding in Afghanistan right now has compelled me to make a comment. I’ve also had numerous people ask me for my humble opinion. I’ve read a plethora of articles and analyses on the subject, including articles from Foreign Policy, Politico, The Long War Journal and National Geographic, among others. NatGeo had the most comprehensive breakdown on Afghanistan and its problems I’ve read. I’ve also spoken with colleagues (military and diplomat) who were there. Most of the history and some of the statistics in this post are from NatGeo. I’m not an expert on Afghanistan, and I didn’t serve there as a soldier or a diplomat. I was asked by the State Department, however, to go to Mazar-e Sharif when Sweden took over the Provincial Reconstruction Team there.
Sorry, not right now
I turned them down because I had just arrived in New Zealand; I had just returned from Iraq; my wife has just become pregnant; And I needed to serve a Consular tour to get tenure and be promoted. I did volunteer for Afghanistan toward the end of my career but was told I didn’t have enough time to learn Pashto and complete a tour before mandatory retirement at 65. I’m going to attempt to be as balanced as possible in this post. Still, I’m aware that I’m going to offend someone, somewhere – most likely either my former military brothers-in-arms, my former diplomatic colleagues or both. That’s part and parcel of trying to make sense of what’s happening. I’m also going to write this from the point of view of a Vietnam-era veteran and an Iraq/Afghanistan-era diplomat. Whew! I hope I can pull this off because the situation presents a colossal conundrum for me. And if you’re like me, you’re struggling to make sense of it all.
Saigon versus Kabul
At first glance, it looks as if the same old story is unfolding. Social media is filled with iconic photos of helicopters evacuating Americans and South Vietnamese from Embassy Saigon and helicopters evacuating Americans and Afghans from Kabul. By the time the last helicopter left Embassy Saigon, some 135,000 South Vietnamese had been evacuated just hours before the first North Vietnamese division entered downtown Saigon. There is a significant difference, however. Kabul is not Saigon because the evacuation is beginning with the Taliban already in control of the capital. The Afghan military and police units have offered little resistance (more on that point later). The Taliban seem to just drive from city to city waving their flags and guns, paying off people not to fight in some cases and offering “peace and stability,” albeit under their conditions – something the average Afghan has seen little of in two decades. Some in rural areas see the fundamentalists’ return as inevitable and maybe even preferable.
No one should be left behind
No matter how hard we try to evacuate American citizens (some 11,000 believed to be in the country) and Afghans (at least 30,000) who helped us and worked with us (and many will say we’re not trying hard enough), many, many more will be left behind to whatever fate awaits them at the hands of “the new, improved” Taliban 2.0 (ha, ha), who have claimed they will offer amnesty, permit freedom of speech and respect women’s rights as long as this complies with Sharia law (spoiler alert: the Taliban doesn’t believe it does). As a veteran, I believe the men and women who served there (military and civilian) did all they could to help the war succeed. I commend them and thank them for their efforts and service. I feel shame for leaving our friends behind. No one should be left behind. I believe we owe much more to the brave Afghans who risked their lives to help us. I worked very hard to arrange a visa for my interpreter in Iraq, who is now a US citizen.
Diplomats, like the military, must also deal with a mind-crippling array of constraints and considerations that are often different from the ones faced by the military. I know from my own experience in Iraq (embedded first with the Marines and then the Army on an FOB in south-central Iraq) that diplomats “on the ground” often send DC early warnings about impending disasters and crises. Unfortunately, these warnings often go unheeded back in DC due to analysis-paralysis and other similar conditions. Life inside the Beltway is a jungle of conflicting priorities, agendas and constituencies. Let’s face it, this was a conflict defined by shifting missions and politics. Some say we should have pulled out earlier, while others say we should have stayed long-term. I can see both sides, but if I’m honest with myself, I think we’ve been flogging a dead horse for quite some time. Let’s take a look to see what we accomplished and if it was worth the cost.
What did we accomplish?
The US spent a mind-boggling two trillion dollars in Afghanistan, including 83 billion dollars training, equipping and paying salaries to the Afghan security forces in 20 years. Some 2,000 American lives were lost in addition to some 175,000 Afghan lives, according to sources. Yet, despite all that aid, training and assistance, the last few days have proved that the Afghan military and police are incapable of protecting and securing the country. I’ll attempt to explain why later in this post. Today, the Taliban have recaptured nearly all the major cities, control most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and have proclaimed the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Very little progress has been made, despite our efforts. Many Afghans complain that nothing significant has been built since the Taliban were thrown out of power in 2001, perhaps with the exception of the Ring Road, which did improve travel around the country for everyone – including the Taliban and smugglers. The Ring Road is a major artery for the illegal poppy trade. Afghanistan’s opium poppy harvest, which is believed to supply more than 80 percent of the global heroin trade, puts some money in farmers’ pockets but vast amounts in the pockets of Taliban leaders and corrupt government officials.
Yes, there have been some gains in educating females, political participation, women’s rights and medical care. Yet only a small percentage of Afghans 25 and older have attended secondary school (males: 37 percent, females: 13.2 percent). I wonder how much of that will remain once the Taliban begins enforcing their strict version of Sharia law. “We’ve been there for two decades, and we don’t have an Afghan government that can protect itself and provide security,” according to former US diplomat Richard Boucher. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. It seems to me that we’re right back where we were in 2001, except that the Taliban has now been gifted loads of military equipment courtesy of the US (think hundreds of Humvees, artillery, other equipment and aircraft). Moreover, we’re now relying on the same Taliban we’ve battled for 20 years to make sure US citizens get to the airport safely. Seriously? I just can’t square that circle. If we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it.
The graveyard of empires
There’s a reason why Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires. War and diplomacy have figured prominently in the landlocked, mountainous country since the Afghan Empire was founded in 1747 and even before that. Some of the invaders in the history of Afghanistan include Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, various Persian empires, the Sikh Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and, of course, a coalition force of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, the majority from the US. Afghanistan’s national identity also has been shaped by resistance to foreign incursions, nearly all of them by non-Muslim powers. But there’s more at play here, for example, the urban-rural divide, which has only gotten larger in the past 20 years. Since the late 19th century, “we’ve had at least a dozen cycles of rural elites who came and captured power in Kabul, became rulers and then eventually became almost alien to their former bases,” said Tamim Asey, a former deputy minister of defense and founder of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think tank. It’s a “war of two worldviews and systems of values. On one side are people in major cities who are more liberal, moderate and educated but have grown out of touch with the rural population. On the other are conservative, rural Afghans who feel neglected by a centralized state run by elites.”
The urban-rural divide
A veritable deluge of foreign aid and military contracts made the urban-rural fault lines even greater. It’s a classic case of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” While cities became wealthier, most Afghans are still dirt poor, scraping by on subsistence agriculture, despite the $144 billion-plus that the US has invested in reconstruction since 2001. Some 75 percent of Afghans live in the countryside, far from the capital’s reach. Corruption, greediness, government ineffectiveness, poor infrastructure and even poorer services have enabled the Taliban to recruit in rural areas over the past 20 years. To make matters worse, reconstruction and security contracts were controlled by warlords and elites who distributed contracts and funds along ethnic, tribal and family lines. Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an anti-corruption nonprofit, reports that “nearly all major contracts still go to people with close ties to officials.” According to an October 2020 report by the US inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan, nearly one-third of $63 billion in reconstruction funds was “lost to waste, fraud and abuse.” Some of that money is flaunted in Kabul, but millions in cash have been spirited away to Dubai by officials and cronies, stashed in bank accounts and luxury condominiums, thus exacerbating the urban-rural divide, according to NatGeo.
What happened to the Afghan military and police?
It’s all about the training. It’s just not working. Our hearts are in the right place, but we’ve made some crucial mistakes. We failed to recognize that the Afghan troops we would be training live under very different political, social, cultural and religious conditions than we do. Put simply, their worldview is different. Things that we learn in school (hopefully), such as obeying the law, not accepting bribes and respecting human rights, are not always present in Afghanistan. We should stop trying to create foreign armies and polices forces in our image. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I experienced the same problems in Iraq.
“Ghost” police and vehicles
When we equipped the police with weapons, etc., most of them would be missing at the first inventory. Where did they go? They were sold in bazaars most of the time as the average policeman wasn’t getting his salary because high-ranking commanders were keeping salaries for themselves. And that’s not to mention the “ghost” policemen and “ghost” vehicles that I discovered. We were paying salaries for policemen who didn’t exist and providing funds for gas and maintenance on vehicles that either didn’t exist or were total, undrivable wrecks. And that’s not to mention the problems of training soldiers and police, many of whom are illiterate, or trying to bridge divisive ethnic, religious or tribal distinctions.
Poor morale, desertion, attrition, corruption, ethnic factionalism, bad logistics and an overreliance on backup from Afghan special operations forces were other contributing factors to this debacle, according to many military reports. Moreover, it was no secret that Afghan military units made deals with their supposed enemy, including warning the Taliban of forthcoming attacks, refusing to fight and selling their weapons and equipment to them. These guys are cutting deals with the Taliban or surrendering because they believe that’s their only option. And to make matters worse, the Taliban have already killed over 69,000 Afghan police and soldiers, according to some sources. As the Taliban offensive swept through Afghanistan without much visible support from the Afghan national army and police forces, many soldiers decided that it wasn’t worth fighting anymore, especially if the Taliban offered them safe passage home, as they usually did. They knew we were leaving. They knew the Taliban had won. I think they lost the will to continue fighting. What would you do when faced with that choice?
Where did we screw up?
To stay in the fight, you need to remember why you’re in the fight to begin with. We need to remind ourselves why we were in Afghanistan in the first place. It was to find and eliminate those who were responsible for the September 2001 attack on the US. We had a clear mission objective, in my opinion. It was to oust the Taliban, kill or capture bin Laden, dismantle al Qaeda and their supporters and deny them a safe haven from which they could plot and plan terrorist attacks against the US and other countries. I think that once we had removed the Taliban from power and bin Laden had escaped from Tora-Bora (thanks again, Pakistan), we should have admitted that we failed to accomplish the full objective, packed up and moved on. We failed to see the massive “shit storm” brewing on the horizon.
We failed to see that the Taliban had the home-field advantage from the get-go. They live there, and they’re not going anywhere – ever. Instead, the mission morphed into nation-building, something we don’t seem to do very well (think Iraq) except for some WWII success with Germany, Japan and later on with South Korea. It was doomed from the start. I concede, however, that many won’t agree with me on that point. If so, I respect your opinions. I ask that you respect mine. In the end, I think the US and other countries made loads of mistakes in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s fondness for the Taliban didn’t help, either. Still, the primary responsibility for this tragic end to two decades of futile nation-building efforts in Afghanistan lies primarily with the Afghan leadership. Hopefully, we’ve learned a valuable and cautionary lesson about the difficulties of stabilization: if we’re not prepared to practice tough love toward our supposed partners instead of closing our eyes to uncomfortable truths (think Pakistan) years of effort can go down the drain in days.
So, now we’re dealing with a FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Repair) “clusterfuck.” How will other countries view our chaotic withdrawal? Will our allies (think Taiwan) continue to trust that the US will protect and defend them? Here’s what the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organ, trumpeted in a headline. “Taliban’s rapid victory embarrasses the US, smashes image, arrogance.” A later edition published an editorial contrasting the US commitment to Afghanistan and its commitment to Taiwan, concluding that if the US “abandoned” Afghanistan, then the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan should “wake up from their dreams. From what happened in Afghanistan, they should perceive that once a war breaks out in the [Taiwan] Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the US military won’t come to help. As a result, the DPP authorities will quickly surrender, while some high-level officials may flee by plane.” Clearly, China is quite happy to further tarnish our already damaged image. And what about Russia, North Korea, Pakistan (the Pakistani intelligence services are believed to have assisted and cooperated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban) and Iran? Will this make them bolder? Will it be only a matter of time before Afghanistan turns into another extremist haven? Jihadis around the world are rejoicing, becoming inspired and getting fired up.
Jihadis without borders
“Twenty years ago, [George W.] Bush declared the end of the Taliban … but the Taliban were patient and did jihad,” So, men of Syria! Rely on God, unify your ranks and have the Taliban as your example,” Abdul Razzaq Mahdi, a prominent jihadi cleric based in Syria’s opposition areas, declared on his social media channel Monday. “Whether it’s Al Qaeda affiliates in Mali and Somalia, extremist factions operating in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, or so-called keyboard warriors cheering on from their homes in the West, the Taliban’s victory over Afghanistan’s Western-created government is the most significant boost to the global jihadist movement since Sept. 11,” said Rita Katz, the founder of SITE Intelligence, an extremist monitoring group. As for me, I don’t have the answers to those questions. Only time will tell. I’m just as confused as anyone. I just can’t wrap my head around it. But I do know one thing for sure. When it comes to Afghanistan, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.