February 9th marked the first time in nearly two decades that the U.S. military went one full year without a trooper killed in Afghanistan action. Now, with newly minted President Biden weighing his Afghan options – and under immense bipartisan insider pressure to stay-put or even ramp-up – a simple question leaps forth: Does Amtrak Joe really wish to be the guy to needlessly bury the streak along with some poor kid from Wilmington or Scranton?
Look, despite his 40-plus years of experience – spent more engaged than most – on foreign affairs, Biden’s hardly been an expert-sophisticate. By mostly his own admission, Joe’s generally a gut-player, prone to the "feels," and ever-susceptible to emotional arguments. This has its limits, obviously – but isn’t always all bad. Especially when the issue at hand – not squandering another soldier’s life in a futile, and long ago lost, crusade – is actually simpler than Washington’s winless expert class hopes to confuse us into believing. These jargon-jugglers play buzzword-bingo – resurrecting long-passed pro-war platitudes – to gaslight an increasing Afghan adventure-skeptical American public.
Conversely, the current president proudly pledges simplicity in speech and a commitment to communicating with common citizens. Assuming it’s even half genuine, the vow – like so much else human beings profess – probably says as much about Joe as any philosophical fidelity. Thus, what the Washington Post described – in the lead-up to his 2020 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech – as Biden’s oratorical trademark, likely mirrors his personal persuasion love-language:
"Biden’s approach is to draw on his emotions and telegraph empathy, to be granular and simple, to tell a story. He strains to connect with the crowd, unafraid to come to the verge of tears in front of an audience."
In other words, if activists, average Americans, or fed-up combat veterans – some 73 percent of whom "support a full withdrawal of US troops" – want to end the Afghan fiasco, they’ll have to force it from the ground-up. Given the for now entrenched power of America’s "imperial presidency," that might mean – emotionally and granularly argued – grassroots pressure targeted at a tearful president, whose own ex-soldier son succumbed to a cancer likely caused by exposure to the ubiquitous "burn-pits" of the US bases dotting Iraq.
The Hawks Advising Biden’s Hawks
Surely, salvation shan’t spring from Biden’s appointed bunch of bureaucratic knife-fighters and war industry shills. One shudders at just what sort of Afghan-adventurism the White House’s expected in-house Jafar – National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan – whispers in Sultan Joe’s ear. Remember, Sullivan strolled into Pennsylvania Avenue’s halls of power by way of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – a peculiar label for a think tank funded by ten separate military agencies and defense contractors – and the (ex-British-spy-chief-led) strategic consultancy firm, Macro Advisory Partners. Jake’s also married to Margaret Goodlander, a onetime advisor to hyper-hawkish Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, who’s worked for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) – the nation’s second-largest think-tank recipient of government and defense industry largesse.
Sullivan’s seemingly anecdotal backstory matters, once you realize the establishment’s latest top-tier team of stay-the-course-or-else alarmists – the Afghanistan Study Group – is full of folks affiliated with Jake’s former employers, or closely linked to these hawkish outlets. So, if personnel is indeed policy, then Biden’s archetypal appointees – tainted by war industry and consultancy cash – are being advised by their own doppelgängers to advise Biden to keep fighting a hopeless Afghan War that profits only their shared former employers.
For example, in November the Carnegie crew posted pro-Afghan War testimony from Iraq surge-ambassador Ryan Crocker – arguing that avoiding "a return of Taliban rule…will require continued US engagement, including military presence." Another Iraq surge mastermind in the George W. Bush administration, Stephen Hadley, has been a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment – he’s also a core member of the Afghan Study Group. Additionally, one of the study group’s senior advisors, Dr. Frances Brown, holds a senior fellowship at Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program.
As for Sullivan’s other old stomping grounds, Macro Advisory Partners: that firm constitutes "a step up from the military-industrial complex" – according to a source familiar with the consultancy’s work – "It’s the information-industrial complex." Which is to say, Macro’s services include peddling foreign policy forecasts to the sort of multinational corporations – say, mining companies in developing countries and sovereign wealth funds – that stand to profit from such insider knowledge.
The firm’s "global advisory board" includes former Ambassador William Burns. As fate would have it, Burns doubles as the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – where (still with me?) Jake served as a senior fellow. Also on Macro’s advisory board is Vali Nasr, a scholar-insider who just so happens to be a senior adviser on the Afghanistan Study Group. Furthermore, the prominent former British politician David Miliband also double dips at Macro Advisory and the Afghan Study Group.
This past September, one young analyst came to Macro Advisory straight from a stint as former National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster’s research analyst at the hawkish Hoover Institution. In that capacity, she conducted "research on chapters relating to the war in Afghanistan and the effects of terrorism on American foreign policy and military doctrine." She presumably helped McMaster on his new book, Battlegrounds – in which H.R.’s oh so novel suggested solution amounted to devoting more resources to Afghanistan.
Furthermore, recall that Sullivan’s spouse did a bid with recent runner-up in the think tank blood-money olympics – CNAS. That crew was co-founded by Afghan Study Group member Michèle Flournoy, and posted not one, but two, stay-the-course standards – the latter titled "Walk Away from the Taliban, Not Afghanistan" – from failed Iraq surge architect, former CIA director (and criminally-convicted mishandler of classified material), retired General David Petraeus.
Rebranded Shades of Soviet Withdrawal
This whole mess coincides with another Afghan-absurdity anniversary – the 32nd since the withdrawal of Soviet troops from their own failed and bloody bid in the imperial graveyard. That was Sunday, when – in a farcical demonstration of Kabul’s cynical collusion with Washington’s war-hawks – President Ashraf Ghani’s commemorative video message treated Afghans to a full-blown rewrite of their storied national history. See, it turns out it wasn’t exactly Moscow’s invasion of Ghani’s beloved country, nor the Red Army’s withdrawal, that caused Afghanistan’s three decades-plus civil war – but rather the Soviet’s poor planning for an "inadequate" exit-strategy.
Surely Ghani’s unsubtle subtext was that the US military should stay put, American taxpayer cash ought persist, and, presumably – if paradoxically – that even the hated Soviets should’ve stayed longer. Naturally, Ghani has the precise pulse of his people’s past trauma, seeing as he missed the entire Soviet invasion, occupation, post-withdrawal warlordism, and rise of the Taliban, during a 24-year stint in Western academia. Oh, wait…
Know who else is suddenly open to Uncle Sam sticking around in Afghanistan? You guessed it: Pakistan – America’s BFF (best-frenemy-forever, obviously). That may seem sort of strange, since Islamabad and its intel agents have – depending on the day – either ignored or facilitated the Taliban’s trusty (and indispensable) safe haven on Pakistani soil. But a paper written by the – how soon some forget – Bin Laden-host-nation’s own leading diplomats, retired generals and other experts admits that what they’re really open to is an encore of burden-shifting and bleeding America, by playing both sides against the middle. In other words, "that Pakistan neither wants an absolute victory of the Taliban nor the insurgents to be totally marginalized."
The more things change, am I right?
So, new rule: When it comes to Afghanistan, if K-Street or Kabul, Petraeus or Pakistan, are for it: Americans should be against it. Now, somebody package that pearl in some feels – and badger Biden whenever Sullivan hits the restroom!
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen