Sunday, August 15, 2021

Inevitable Defeat?

I posted this at my LinkedIn account earlier today.

Even as I write the Taliban are entering the outskirts of Kabul, almost twenty years since Ahmad Shah Massoud's assassination in Takhar Province and the assault on the World Trade Center two days later. In the immediate aftermath, certainly in 2001 and even in 2003, I would have counted myself a fellow traveller with those Neoconservatives who pressed for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not least because those who talked most loftily of respecting international law were also those who fell strangely silent when the talk of human rights abuses switched to Cuba or Venezuela and who seemed unfazed by the willingness of the United Nations to include representatives of notoriously brutal regimes on the Human Rights Council. In the case of Afghanistan, the hosting of Al Qaeda and the Taliban's refusal to expel it after 9/11 certainly seemed reasonable grounds for intervention. In the case of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I could never understand why this was not couched in terms of the simple fact that for over a decade the Iraqi regime remained in breach of many aspects of the UN resolutions to which it had committed itself in the ceasefire agreement in 1990 (the enduring complaints about the cost of maintaining the no-fly zone were a staple of the 1990s). Recalling further the betrayal of the Shia community, who were encouraged to rise against Saddam Hussein only to be then left unprotected by the Coalition (in contrast with the Kurds), there seemed ample justification both for the removal of the regime and the promotion of a multi-ethnic state in the Fertile Crescent.

The devil, of course, is in the detail. The vignette of the forty-third president's victory address on board the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath the banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" in retrospect proved symbolic of the shambles that characterised so much of the peacekeeping and 'nation-building' of the next twenty years. Ironically, for a nation that has long recognized the importance of subsidiarity and federalism, all too many of the 'experts' failed to recognise the enduring importance of the local community (which, after all, helped sustain Kurdish resistance to the Baa'thist regime, Mujahidin opposition to Russian occupation and, indeed, the Taliban themselves). A sustained commitment to a federal model from the outset might have kept in check the Sunni resentment that ultimately gave rise to ISIS and empowered local ethnic communities in Afghanistan to resist the Taliban (of course, it might also have given rise to a resurgence of warlordism, but the evident bankruptcy of the Kabul regime and the Afghan National Army today suggests that this would hardly have been worse than the present situation).

I was only five years old when South Vietnam fell, so for me it has always been a historical debate, rather than a process through which I Iived. There are many issues on which I disagree with the current president, but it seems incredibly hypocritical of some of his political opponents to condemn him for following through on a process that his predecessor set in motion. Bob Dole's acid comment in the 1976 vice-presidential debate about the deaths in "Democrat wars" in the twentieth century hardly holds true for the twenty-first (though the death toll - of Americans at least - is far less). Even if the Republican Party has now repudiated nation-building, it was a Republican president who brought us to this pass. I must confess that I better understand the old midwestern isolationists (many of whose views on economic - though not cultural - issues would suggest them to be men of the Left). They viewed the priorities of the Old World - including colonialism - as incompatible with those of the New World, but they did not offer up the United States as the embodiment of the perfect society but rather as the nation most predisposed to strive for that goal. For them it was a model that could only be adopted, never imposed.

The hubris with which the wars of the early 2000s were launched has brought us to where we are today. The sacrifices of military personnel - American and otherwise - and of those Afghan and Iraqi citizens who struggled to build a civil society would appear to have been thrown away on a cause which few politicians - on the Left or the Right - have shown much interest in promoting. What more can one say?


Alto en chamade said...

Most of the criticism of Biden from the American right has not been about the withdrawal itself, but about how Biden managed it. Most I have spoken with about it agree that Biden had all the intelligence he needed to understand that the Taliban's intentions were to take over complete control of the Afghan government, not negotiate with the government for a paticipatory role as the agreement with the Trump administration specified. In addition, by the time he ordered Bagram evacuated on July 6 the Taliban had been on a march through the country, making progress and taking over province after province for about a month and a half, while the Afgan "military" simply folded and went home.

Biden's problem was not that he didn't know what was going on in Afghanistan, it was that he didn't care. The logical course, realizing that the Taliban was interested only in complete control, which I have all confidence is what the Pentagon was telling him, was to evacuate American civilians (and other coalition nationalities, too) and Afghans who had helped the cause over the years who wanted to leave, all before the military was evacuated. In evacuating the military first he intentionally left American and other civilians and Afghani allies to fend for themselves, as the six or seven hundred GIs were never going to be enough to secure our embassy and the airport.

What's even more bothersome is that Biden did all this without consulting with any coalition partners, which has led some longtime allies to question, for good reason, American resolve and fitness as a partner they can count on in the future. To wit, within two or three days of the fall of Kabul there was open condemnation of the Biden administration, and Biden himself, in the House of Commons and German parliament. I also remember hearing about similar talk in Canberra. The talk was all about these allies putting together coalitions of their own which will not include the US because they no longer see us as an ally they can count on.

That our withdrawal would lead to an increasing presence of al Qaeda was understood, but now an especially rabid brand of ISIS has established itself, too. Knowing that there are still more than a hundred Americans and who knows how many thousands of Afghans who still want out I fear that too many will instead end up dead. Joe already has blood on his hands and the word around DC is that his presidency is in peril already; more innocent blood could well bring his house crashing down around him. He has no one but himself to blame for it and will not be honest with anyone about what all has happened.

Jeremy Bonner said...

While I agree with much of what you say, I must confess I still have reservations.

Given that the withdrawal date proposed by the previous administration was even earlier than the date on which it actually occurred, it seems reasonable to assume that Pentagon planners must have had a contingency plan in place before Biden took office. It seems highly unlikely that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden concerned themselves with the details of the withdrawal; when facts on the ground change from day to day, much must be left to the best judgment of theatre commanders.

I also question whether the Trump administration honestly believed that the Doha Agreement would - in the long-term (or even the short-term) - be observed as regards the Taliban's internal governance. Like Biden, Trump wanted an exit strategy.

If the military had more time to plan under Biden than they would have done under Trump and matters still went awry, then the problem of failed military intelligence (in terms of the speed of the Taliban's advance) went far deeper than poor presidential judgment.

Alto en chamade said...

I am convinced that from his first day in office Biden had all the intelligence he needed to make informed decisions about how best to conduct the withdrawal. I'm also convinced that the generals, informed with that intelligence, gave Biden good advice on how to conduct the withdrawal. I'm even more convinced, given Biden's denials, obfuscation, blaming Trump, and now outright silence (not to mention the silence of the entirety of the Democrat Party) that the military's abandonment of Bagram -- and the viability of the American presence -- was the result of orders issued by Joe himself, orders the generals were obligated to follow without question.

That the Taliban had reneged on the agreement it made with the Trump administration should have sent up red flags at the White House -- intelligence would have made it impossible to ignore. But ignore it all is exactly what Joe did, and now he's not human being enough to own it.

Geoff Peckham