Former President Trump, President Biden and their partisans are rushing to blame each other for the debacle unfolding now in Afghanistan. The “National Unity Government” and its military and police forces have completely evaporated in the face of the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the entire country in the last few weeks. This culminated in President Ashraf Ghani’s fleeing the capital of Kabul on Sunday as the Taliban walked right in and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar seemed to have assumed power.
But Trump and Biden shouldn’t blame one another. It was George W. Bush who refused to negotiate al Qaeda’s extradition. Bush then let Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri escape to Pakistan while he chose instead to focus on regime change in Kabul and later Baghdad. It was Bush who decided on the strategy of building and training up an Afghan National Army to secure the new regime in power and take the fight to its rivals. American officers, with no one to fight, found and made enemies where there were none before. By 2004, the Taliban, whose surrender Bush had refused to accept, returned to insurgency against the occupation. Of course, the more the U.S. built up a new government and army, the more the people hated and resisted it. As they say about their enemies, the Americans only understand one thing, force, and when confronted with this resistance they only escalated again and again, killing more innocents and combatants alike, and driving even more people into the insurgency.
They routinely slaughtered civilians and wrote it off as “collateral damage.”
They essentially built a government and army of the northern Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara tribes against the plurality population of the country, the Pashtuns. Where Pashtuns did have power in the government, it in no way enhanced the representation of the people. It just meant the people had to deal with the same old corrupt drug dealer, child rapist, murderer warlords, like Pacha Khan Zardari (“PKZ”), President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother Wali Karzai, and Abdul Razik, only now empowered by the corrupt central government in Kabul and U.S. military and intelligence forces. This was never a sustainable project. Even the Great American Fraud, Gen. David Petraeus, admitted that the Taliban’s process for civil and criminal disputes among the people was far preferable to the local population compared to the corrupt court and police systems the Americans had set up to replace them.
Early in the occupation, Bush spurned repeated offers of surrender from former CIA favorite Jalaluddin Haqqani and former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, only to send American GIs off to get blown up by their men for years afterwards.
Our allies the Pakistanis, with Saudi money, have backed the Afghan Taliban since at least 2005, giving them safe-haven and helping to pay their way. This has been to further Pakistan’s goal of limiting Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Americans’ solution? Ask the Indians to intervene even more in support of anti-Taliban efforts there. This of course has only motivated increased Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban in turn.
When Obama ran for president in 2007 and 2008, he called Afghanistan the “right” war in contrast to the massive error of Iraq War II. But he really only promised a small escalation of a couple brigades. The military, however, had other plans. His Bush-holdover secretary of defense, Robert Gates, and Central Command Chief, Gen. Petraeus, demanded that Obama send the general in charge of the Afghan war, Gen. David McKiernan home and replace him with the supposed strategic genius and push-up and jogging super-hero Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The trio then spent the better part of 2009 teaming up with hawkish senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the think tanks, especially the Democrats’ new Center for a New American Security, and the news media to pressure Obama into sending a total of 70,000 reinforcements in a so-called “surge.” The added troops were to implement Petraeus and marine General James Mattis’s rewritten counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) which they sold as a magic potion that would guarantee “success” at winning over the hearts and minds of the good people of the southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Though Vice President Joe Biden urged Obama to go with a much smaller escalation and a narrowing of the strategy to counterterrorism, that is, hunting down the last mythical Arab terrorists still hiding in Afghanistan, while abandoning the fight against the Taliban, Obama gave in to the generals and tripled forces there. Not that Biden resigned over it or anything.
Gen. Petraeus swore he would have the Taliban bleeding from the nose and ready to sign whatever he demanded of them by July 2011. That never happened. McChrystal abandoned COIN after its very first test case in the town of Marjah in the Helmand Province. After the heroic independent journalist Michael Hastings’ journalism got McChrystal removed, Obama insisted that the man himself, Gen. Supposed Bigshot, David Petraeus take command of the war himself. They would lose the war together. And they did. But not before getting more than another thousand Americans killed, tens of thousands of Afghans with them, and sending over all those trucks, rifles and helicopters to the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces that the Taliban have seized in the last few weeks.
As predicted, Obama’s Afghan “surge” only drove more people into supporting and joining the insurgency. McChrystal’s “insurgent math” explained why: for everyone they killed, they were recruiting 10 more into the ranks of the enemy.
By the time Petraeus got there, he’d forgotten all about his own counterinsurgency doctrine and simply escalated special operations night raids and air strikes instead. As the great Gareth Porter proved, they were mostly killing and imprisoning innocent people. The Drone Papers leaked by Daniel Hale further confirmed Porter’s reporting.
The Taliban figured out very quickly that if the U.S. strategy was centered on training up the Afghan National Army, they could thwart that by sending in sleeper agents to commit “insider” or “green on blue” attacks against their American trainers. That was it. The game was over. The distance created between the U.S. soldiers and the local charges by these attacks amounted to the ultimate sabotage of their plans to create an effective force—if that were ever possible.
The ANA was mostly a bunch of “ghost soldiers,” who existed only on paper for the financial gain of the officers in charge. The actual men who showed up were mostly looking for a pair of boots, a rifle and a decent meal. At no time did the largely Tajik and Uzbek army have the Taliban’s sense of morale in fighting for their country. They were fighting at the behest of a foreign power to try to subjugate the population of part of their country, not really in self-defense at all.
Former marine captain-turned State Department official Matthew Hoh broke ranks to blow the whistle and try to stop Obama’s “surge” in the summer of 2009. Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis did much the same in 2012 to tell the people that Gen. Petraeus and the rest of the military were lying and that the “surge” was a counter-productive disaster. Not enough listened to these honest men.
Obama had tried to overthrow the corrupt Hamid Karzai in 2009, but Karzai was able to stuff enough ballot boxes to remain in power for another term. In the farcical election of 2014, Ashraf Ghani and his major competitor Abdullah Abdullah fought it out for weeks until Secretary of State John Kerry came to town to force them to concede to a completely ad-hoc and unconstitutional “co-presidency” instead. The same spectacle took place last year with both refusing to concede and even holding competing, simultaneous swearing in ceremonies.
Obama pretended to end the war in 2014, but he actually did no such thing. He left office with about 8,000 troops still there, mostly fighting Afghan ISIS, so-called ISIS-K for “Khorasan Province,” at its core a group of Pakistani Taliban refugees from America’s war there in the early Obama years.
According to Gen. Mattis, Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, President Donald Trump ordered the troops out of Afghanistan in March of 2017. But then he apparently just forgot about it. Subjected to a season-long pressure campaign by his generals, Trump eventually gave in, just as Obama had done before him, though to a lesser extent, ordering another 5,000 troops to the country and a massive escalation of the air war there. “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like to follow my instincts. I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” he explained.
It was four days after I published my first book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, which was four years ago Monday. In it I wrote:
“The major question seems to be when, not if, the ‘National Unity Government’ will unravel, which leaves them in a very weak position from which to negotiate, if they ever get the chance. If the ‘co-presidents’ cannot figure out how to get along, how can they be expected to negotiate peace with a broad-based insurgency?
“American hawks argue that since the Taliban-led insurgency will not negotiate, and especially considering they currently control more of the countryside than at any time since the turn of the century, the only option is to escalate militarily again, and forever. There is another choice: just forget the whole thing. If the United States withdraws the last fifteen thousand troops, airmen, spies and mercenaries, there is little doubt the insurgency could seize control of at least the predominantly Pashtun areas in the south and east of the country along the border with Pakistan in relatively short order. It is even possible, perhaps likely, that the capital city of Kabul could be lost soon thereafter. The Taliban’s shadow government — the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — already has the run of much of the Pashtun tribal lands as it is. The National Unity Government can meet in their parliament all day long, but without the U.S. there to fund their entire operation, it would cease to exist in no time.
“Yes, the next phase of the Afghan civil war will probably be a bloody disaster, but that is in great measure due to the distortions of power the U.S. has created. Whether the U.S. government throws in the towel now or years from now, the result will be the same: the Pashtun population will throw off whatever degree of rule the national government attempts to maintain over them, and then, in all probability, they will be right back where they were in the 1990s, with a bloody civil war, possibly leading to Taliban dominance in all but the far north of the country.”
If we had left back then, the Kabul government would have at least been in a somewhat stronger position to defend itself, and the Taliban would have had a bigger incentive to negotiate with them. By taking so long to leave, the U.S. allowed the Taliban to make further gains in usurping government authority across the country, preparing for their current successful coup de main.
Trump also continued to allow the Pentagon to send military equipment to the ANA, most of which is falling into the hands of the Taliban now. Really, the Taliban have been buying American weapons from the ANA all along with American cash paid directly to them in the form of protection fees, or taxes, for allowing U.S. convoys through their territory and “reconstruction” money given to them by the duffle bag full. So it makes little difference.
To Trump’s great credit, he never believed in the mission of building a modern, democratic, centralized state in Afghanistan. He consistently railed against such a project for years before ever taking office. In 2018, he finally appointed neoconservative policy adviser Zalmay Khalilzad to make a withdrawal deal with the Taliban, and unbelievably, Khalilzad did so. On February 29, 2020, they signed the Doha Agreement to leave by May 1, 2021.
In fact, as of a year ago, during the cease-fire, U.S. JSOC forces were fighting with the Taliban against ISIS in Nangarhar Province, referring to themselves as the “Taliban Airforce.” Call it the Afghan Awakening.
At the start of this war the U.S. could have negotiated extradition. Or they could have focused on bin Laden and the guilty al Qaeda members there. Or they could have launched punitive air raids against the Taliban but not driven them completely out of power. Or they could have settled for seeing them overthrown and then simply left the country to its own people to sort out. But no. The Bush government wrote themselves a writ for a massive campaign to remake another society on the other side of the globe. The Obama government cashed that check and massively expanded the war and the nature of its failure. Trump initially gave in to the military but later pushed for a real bilateral withdrawal deal with the Taliban.
If it was not for the pathetic CIA stenographer Charlie Savage, whose ridiculous lies in the New York Times about Vladimir Putin paying bounties for Taliban murders of American soldiers in Afghanistan, which was debunked by the NSA, some CIA analysts, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the commander of CENTCOM and the general in charge of the war — but too late — Trump may have been able to follow through on his plan to pull them all out before last year’s election. Even after the election, he balked after initially approving plans for a full withdrawal by the new year.
Fortunately, Biden has long since given up on believing the generals that they know what they’re doing in Afghanistan or that the war to keep the Taliban out of power is one worth fighting. Though they have announced plans to try to leave CIA, JSOC and mercenary “counter-terrorism” forces in the region to continue to hunt down international terrorists there, that seems unlikely to continue very long or in very large measure, barring a new major and embarrassing al Qaeda presence there. The whole concept of Afghanistan as a safe haven is a myth. They don’t seem to mind fighting on the side of AQAP in Yemen against the Houthis or helping the Turks protect Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria’s Idlib Province.
Biden did the right thing by resisting the hawks’ calls to drag this out one more day. (Now it is up to us to prevent the Biden government from allying with the Taliban and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) against China in Xinjian like it was in old days.)
As embarrassing as the withdrawal is for the Americans, it could have been much worse. The Taliban took many military bases and provincial capitals while hardly firing a shot at all. Though there have been some brutal executions, the fighting has been kept to a minimum. As your author has suggested would be the case for years, when the day came, the Taliban just walked right into Kabul. The chances of a massive Black Hawk Down-type slaughter of U.S. personnel on the two-mile trip to the airport from the embassy seems slim, for the moment at least.
Much of the panic by the Americans and Afghan civilians attempting to flee from the airport may be based on fears that the Taliban would roll into town like the ISIS invasion of western Iraq in 2014 and start slaughtering people. The Taliban can of course be absolutely ruthless, but here they seem to have decided to allow foreign forces to leave in peace and have thus far announced no plans to bar civilians from leaving if they want. The final stages of the withdrawal have not been great, but the hype about the embarrassment is more likely cover for those who have failed us all along by perpetuating this war and want to pretend the failures started in this administration, or the last at the latest.
The ease of the Taliban’s victory over America’s installed puppet government in Afghanistan proves that the whole war was a fool’s errand all along. That regime never had the support of the population, and it never was going to. If all the hawks who already lost this war had their way, and the U.S. stayed another 20 years, that withdrawal would look much the same.
It’s 20 years late and not a moment too soon. Goodbye Afghanistan, sorry and good luck.
Scott Horton is editorial director of Antiwar.com, director of the Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from ScottHorton.org. He’s the author of the 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, the 2017 book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, and the editor of the 2019 book, The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019. He’s conducted more than 5,500 interviews since 2003. Scott’s articles have appeared at Antiwar.com, The American Conservative magazine, the History News Network, The Future of Freedom, The National Interest and the Christian Science Monitor. He also contributed a chapter to the 2019 book, The Impact of War. Scott lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, investigative reporter Larisa Alexandrovna Horton. He is a fan of, but no relation to the lawyer from Harper’s. Scott’s Twitter, YouTube, Patreon. View all posts by Scott Horton.