Joe Biden last week gave his maiden foreign policy speech as president. There was a stunning omission: No mention of Afghanistan.
The Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban provides for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by May 1. Is the president prepared to violate this pact even as he prepares to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran?
He is getting substantial pressure from the usual suspects to stick with endless war in Afghanistan. Indeed, during the Trump presidency there was only one foreign policy position that won bipartisan support in Washington: insisting that the US not leave a single war, especially in Afghanistan. The legendary Hotel California must have been in Afghanistan – Americans can check out, but never leave. Democrats and Republicans alike were determined to preserve the Afghan forever war.
Now the US Institute of Peace, which routinely promotes intervention and conflict, is taking up the task with the Biden administration. USIP hosted the Afghanistan Study Group, which predictably recommended that the US maintain a permanent presence – at least in effect if not intent. Washington should stay until the Taliban lion lies down with the Kabul government lamb, which could be never.
After nearly 20 years of war only the most serious arguments could justify continuing America’s participation in the conflict. Instead, participants in the forum introducing the ASG report offered vaporous assurances that everything now is finally different, there is a grand, never before seen, new opportunity to be taken advantage of, everyone in the region finally, really, truly wants what we want, the goal is not endless war but concluding the war on America’s terms, and having a few thousand troops stick around for a few more months, years, decades, or whatever it takes, is no big deal. What could be more obvious?
How likely is all this to work? During the USIP webinar announcing release of the report, ASG co-chair and retired general Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., onetime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained "If we take advantage of the opportunity we have right now then there is at least a prospect of achieving that end state [a U.S.-friendly outcome] even as we recognize how difficult it will be."
Ponder that for a minute. "There is at least a prospect" of success, said the man who topped the military hierarchy during most of the Trump presidency, when the Pentagon tenaciously battled the president to keep American forces at war in Afghanistan. Dunford insisted that the US maintain an open-ended commitment to stay in Afghanistan until conditions are right, meaning the lion and lamb do their thing. "There is at least a prospect of achieving" Washington’s ends, he assured the American people. After two decades of fighting. In a country about as far from American national interests as any other on the planet. A "prospect." Ain’t that reassuring?
That is no convincing reason to stay in Afghanistan. Especially since we’ve heard such promises before. The American people should reflect on two decades of experience rather rely on another slick, government-backed propaganda report. The pro-war lobby simply cannot be trusted. Advocates of continuing the war have misled and lied to the American people for two decades. Consistently and on a bipartisan basis. Year in and year out. Before congressional hearings and in press interviews. At every moment of every day. Everything is going great. We are winning. Victory is right around the corner. The bad guys are losing. Never mind lost lives and wasted money. The American people should trust their betters, just give them more time and resources. As long as the professionals believe necessary.
In late December 2019 the Washington Post published what it entitled "The Afghanistan Papers." The report received less attention than the famed Pentagon Papers mostly because the Vietnam War resulted in a far greater death toll, of and by Americans. However, the story told is sadly similar.
Wrote Craig Whitlock: "A confidential trove of government documents obtained by the Washington Post reveals that senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable."
None of this will surprise anyone who visited Afghanistan and kept his or her eyes open. Always most interesting on my two trips were the unofficial conversations, the unguarded remarks, the comments made after meetings had concluded, the soft asides from the lower ranks not invited to the meetings, the informal chats with participants who didn’t know who I was or why I was there. One of my favorite moments was when a Marine Corps captain came up to me and asked if I "was the Cato guy." After I responded yes, he said: "Everyone here is selling something." Which was sadly true.
The Afghanistan Papers came out of a federal history project. Unsurprisingly, Washington fought exceptionally hard to keep the results secret from the American people, who paid for the research. Wrote Whitlock: "The US tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle."
There is something both outrageous and shameful in Uncle Sam’s attempt to prevent Americans from learning the truth about what was done in their name. The bottom line is shocking. In Whitlock’s words "three presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump – and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan." The public deserves to know why.
The project was informative. "With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting," wrote Whitlock. The papers quoted Douglas Lute, a general who oversaw the war from the White House: "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing. What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking."
Confusion in objectives was exacerbated by expansion of the mission from the destruction of al-Qaeda, which was backed by virtually everyone in the US, to something else. "Once [the former] had been largely accomplished, officials said the mission grew muddled as they began adopting contradictory strategies and unattainable goals," wrote Whitlock and two colleagues, Leslie Shapiro and Armand Emamdjomeh. Another problem was setting objectives. What did it mean to win?
Moreover, the US repeated mistakes of the past, most obviously from Vietnam. Observed Whitlock, et al.: "Dozens of US and Afghan officials told interviewers that many of the US policies and initiatives – from training Afghan forces to fighting the thriving opium trade – were destined to fail because they were based on flawed assumptions about a country they didn’t understand."
Corruption stood out. In Kabul I passed scores of large, garishly colored homes, commonly called "poppy palaces." Drug wealth pervaded Afghan society. Eradication was a largely hopeless enterprise that pushed farmers to back the Taliban. Washington also fueled corruption, which became a civic cancer, in other ways. Explained Whitlock, et al.: "Despite promises to the contrary, the United States engaged in a huge nation-building effort in Afghanistan, drenching the destitute country with more money than it could absorb. There was so much excess that opportunities for bribery, fraud and corruption became limitless."
There is much about the Taliban for Afghans to hate. However, the U.S.-backed government also is an object of disdain. The only Afghans I came across with anything good to say about the Kabul authorities were those who worked for an official agency or ministry.
What have Americans gotten in return for the enormous human and financial costs of the conflict? During years of war. In which tens of thousands of American and allied forces were casualties. And hundreds of billions of dollars were spent. With more outlays to come to care for veterans of that war. Two decades of killing and being killed. Years of wreaking death and destruction on another land and people. Nothing of enduring value.
Yet US officials, from the president on down, consistently refused to level with the American people, who are providing the cash and corpses. Explained Whitlock: "Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the US government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul – and at the White House – to distort statistics to make to appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case."
Onetime counterinsurgency adviser Bob Crowley observed: "The strategy came self-validating. Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible." At issue was not just manipulation and exaggeration. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said simply: "the American people have constantly been lied to."
But never mind. Trust the study group and its leaders. Not just the retired general. Another CO-chair is Kelly Ayotte. During her mercifully short time in the Senate, one term, she played uber hawk, palling around with John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who never found a war they didn’t want the American people to fight. During the same webinar she argued that members of the study group – who evinced no dissent – "believe that if we do withdraw we are going to end up in a position where there will be a civil war, where our national interests will not be met, and where the peace process itself will be undermined."
Apparently she was unaware that there already is a civil war, one that has been raging in Afghanistan for almost 43 years. The peace process is a means, not an end to be protected by a US military presence. That process either delivers peace or it doesn’t.
Which leaves the issue of US interests. There are none worth fighting over in Afghanistan. Central Asia is as distant from the US as most any spot on the planet. It also is about as hostile terrain as that exists: Islamic, fundamentalist, and traditional, amid a gaggle of authoritarian former Soviet republics, and surrounded by serious, potentially hostile states: Iran, Russia, India, Pakistan, and China. Repeat after me, Americans have no significant interests – that is, worth fighting for – in attempting to maintain a military outpost, let alone trying to create a liberal democracy, deep in Central Asia.
Washington got heavily involved in backing the Mujahedeen during the Reagan presidency as a Cold War tactic. No one was overly concerned about the nature of the regime Moscow was supporting or that the victorious insurgents might establish. The objective was simple: drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and humiliate the Soviet regime. That was achieved. Complaints that Americans did not stick around and remake the country were nonsensical. The Mujahedeen, many radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden, were not interested in tutelage from Washington. They would have responded to a US presence as they did to Soviet intervention.
The Bush administration returned for limited reasons: to destroy al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban for hosting al-Qaeda. Although the Neoconservatives’ bizarre fixation on Iraq hampered the first objective, easing bin Laden’s escape (to America’s "ally," Pakistan), Washington quickly achieved the second. Unfortunately, the US expanded the mission, to create a unified, democratic, and powerful central government in a traditional tribal society ruled at the village and valley. This campaign would never go well and remained out of reach even with an American garrison peaking at around 100,000 (plus another 40,000 from allied states), a commitment of resources far beyond any possible interests advanced.
Afghanistan is a tragedy. There are many good and decent people there who desperately want to live in a liberal society. However, it is not the American purpose to go to war to give that to them. Nor is it in America’s power, at least at an affordable price, to do so.
Of course, study group leaders assure us that only a few troops – they refused to specify how many – would be necessary. Alas, these forces would be busy, very busy, tasked to keep the Taliban at bay, force insurgents to make abundant concessions to the incompetent and divided Kabul authorities, hold the Taliban leadership to its word, ensure enforcement of the final peace accord, and shepherd the war-ravaged society to democratic bliss and everlasting happiness. And whatever else comes up while patrolling a hostile land half a world away in the years and decades ahead.
Alas, 140,000 allied troops were unable to force peace. The handful left certainly can’t do so. By almost every metric the Afghan government’s position in the conflict has been deteriorating. The SIGAR reports are a succession of tales of theft, waste, incompetence, and ineffectiveness. Taliban urban attacks are up, total area contested by the Taliban is up, casualties and attrition rates among Afghan security personnel are up. Back in mid-2019 the New York Times reported that "in most major battlegrounds, the bulk of the regular Afghan forces are still holed up in fortified bases and outposts. Most offensive operations have been left to small numbers of Afghan and American Special Operations soldiers, backed by both countries’ air forces."
Afghan politics remains dismal and divided. Politicians battle each other rather than develop a civic ethos and institutions that people find worth defending. A striking example of the regime’s incompetence is the security decline in Kabul. The US embassy, a fortified building on a fortified street in a fortified zone, no longer sends employees to the airport by road. It employs a helicopter as a taxi. This after more than 19 years of war.
Violence against US troops is down – there were no combat deaths in the last 12 months – but only because of the peace negotiations. The force will end up more target than guardian if Washington breaks its pact with the Taliban and insists on sticking around. Warned the Quincy Institute’s Adam Weinstein, preserving the garrison would pull "US troops back into a violent counterinsurgency."
Moreover, any long-term military involvement would keep America entangled in a dangerous region of far greater interest to potentially hostile powers. Russia is the old great power rival; China is the new potential hegemonic competitor. Iran is Washington’s bete noire du jour, with the Saudi and Israeli lobbies constantly pushing for confrontation and war. Pakistan is an often hostile and always dangerous frenemy. India is a nominal friend, but both intolerant and unstable. Instead of fighting a war in their midst, American forces should be as far away from potential hostilities there as possible.
Why should American forces stay in Afghanistan? Forget the rhetoric about a temporary presence. The study group is proposing a permanent force. The conditions will never be right for an American departure because any end to the civil war based on a US presence will be artificial and require continuation of that presence. Indeed, tossing out the agreement and unilaterally extending an American role based on Washington’s assessment of "conditions" is an invitation for the Taliban to dump the peace process as well as accord and reignite operations.
If that happens, how likely are the Pentagon and the larger Washington war party, led by the likes of Dunford and Ayotte, to support a minimal garrison of a few thousand? The Biden administration would be forced to choose between withdrawing or escalating – and moving America’s military commitment into its third decade. The political cost of either could be high.
The best way to decide would be to forget the fact that US forces already are there. The past is irrelevant. The costs are "sunk," in economist-speak, and gone. A succession of irresponsible politicians have wantonly sacrificed thousands of American lives, of service members and contractors alike. What is done is done and cannot be redeemed.
Instead, when looking ahead, the question should be: would any sane American support sending a garrison to support the fractured, incompetent, corrupt, and dissolute Kabul government in the midst of a seemingly endless war? As then candidate Joe Biden observed on Face the Nation last year: "there’s a thousand places we could go to deal with injustice. I can think of ten countries where women and/or children and/or people are being, are being persecuted or being hurt. But the idea of us going to be able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists throughout the world is not within our capacity."
So how about going to Afghanistan to bring democracy? You’d be laughed out of the room. There are a long list of other nations which also lack basic democratic liberties. To promote sexual equality? A worthy goal, to be sure, but not a justification for war. Washington might as well start bombing Saudi Arabia and Iran. Because Afghanistan is somehow "vital" territory? That gelastic contention would cause your friends to urge you to try stand-up comedy. Until the Soviets invaded, most Americans only knew Afghanistan from history books. To secure access to Afghanistan’s abundant mineral resources? Just buy them. Because broader national security issues are at stake? No more so than in Guinea-Bissau, Bhutan, Paraguay, Eswatini, Suriname, or Papua New Guinea.
Because the ongoing civil war might get worse? Since when does Washington try to solve other nations’ internal conflicts? Because Afghanistan’s neighbors prefer that America handle their problems? That sounds like today’s NATO members which expect Washington to protect them so they don’t have to build up their own militaries. Washington already has too many hapless, shameless defense dependents. To prevent service personnel killed there from dying in vain? The proper way to honor those who sacrificed all is to stop sending more Americans to die without good reason.
To demonstrate resolve to the Chinese and Russians so they believe the US is prepared for war? Whenever a president considers abandoning a conflict that America should never have entered, Washington’s bipartisan War Party insists that to not bomb [fill in the blank country] will result in China seizing Taiwan, Russia overrunning the Baltic States, Iran seizing the Gulf, or something else dreadful. That is militaristic fantasy masquerading as policy analysis. It would be better to show judgment and discretion by limiting war to challenges worth fighting over. Anyway, Washington has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to act when serious interests are at stake, such as in World War II.
To prevent another terrorist attack? Among the sillier arguments is that if we are not fighting the Taliban for control of, say, Helmand, we will be stuck battling al-Qaeda for control of San Antonio’s Riverwalk or Minnesota’s Mall of America. This is frankly moronic. Afghanistan has no intrinsic connection to terrorism. Bin Laden went to that nation to fight the Soviets. US assistance, unfortunately transmitted through the Islamist Zia government in Pakistan, went primarily to Afghan forces, like al-Qaeda, hostile to the West as well as Soviets. Bin Laden misused Taliban hospitality to attack America.
The Taliban has never shown any interest in how others govern themselves (very different from attitudes in Washington!) and was unhappy that bin Laden brought America’s wrath down upon them in their otherwise isolated land. Although the groups have fought together against the US, al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self and no one imagines that after peace the Taliban would want to risk Washington’s return by allowing anyone to launch future terrorist operations against America. Nor, frankly, does anyone else nearby want Afghanistan to again become a terrorist base, especially the larger powers, which until now have been spared any responsibility for maintaining their region’s stability and peace by America’s involvement.
There are plenty of ungoverned and inadequately-governed spaces on earth open to terrorist operations: bin Laden was operating in Pakistan when killed and Yemen long hosted the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate. Washington can hardly hope to occupy every place on earth where a terrorist group might locate. Better to make clear that governments which fail to control their own territory should stay out of the way when the US responds or they will become former governments very quickly. Even more essential, Washington should stop its promiscuous war-making and unnecessarily making enemies.
Afghanistan is a tragedy. Almost everyone would prefer peace. But in that ravaged land no one under the age of 40 has known peace. Americans have been fighting there for almost 20 years, far longer than the Soviets. US personnel born after 9/11 are serving there. Children of those deployed to Afghanistan now are serving there. Americans have been fighting in Afghanistan for longer than the US was involved in the Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korean War combined.
What sort of madness has afflicted Washington?
The Biden administration should wrap up America’s misbegotten involvement in Afghanistan. As the war lobby pleads for a few more months or years there, Americans should remember that Washington officials have been lying about the conflict for almost 20 years. Their claims today are no more reliable than before.
For better reason, perhaps, the Afghan elite, too, is desperate to keep the US entangled. However, their arguments are no better. First Vice President Amrullah Saleh recently descended to hysteria, claiming that "the fate, reputation, and standing of the Western civilization" was at stake in his country. Actually, most people in the world, including in America, will proceed normally with their lives irrespective of what happens in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, peace is up to the Afghan people, as well as Afghanistan’s neighbors, which have much more at stake in that land’s future than does America. President Biden has an opportunity to begin afresh by ending this truly endless war, which has afflicted the last three presidents. Otherwise, in four or eight years he will have to explain to the American people why Americans are still dying in vain in Central Asia. And pass this apparently endless tragedy on to his successor.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.