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Columnists

Afghanistan: A Tragic Debacle

August 23, 2021

Events in Afghanistan have developed as experts predicted. The only surprise is how rapidly the Taliban has consolidated its power. This outcome was projected as early as the Obama administration. Vice-President Biden argued for a withdrawal then, but Obama rejected that counsel in favor of a renewed military commitment.

The military acknowledged the government we were supporting was marked by whole-sale corruption. This included but was not limited to allied warlords who attacked U.S. relief convoys to show that they had to be hired to discourage the Taliban from taking similar actions. The warlords often confiscated or charged outrageous commissions on the salaries of front-line Afghan soldiers, whose pay was subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. Obama was assured by the military that it would put an end to these practices and build a truly professional national army free of corruption.

When Donald Trump came to office, he found the situation had not improved. After acquiescing to many Taliban demands, he announced the withdrawal of all American forces within his term.  Biden has accepted the agreements in place. The Taliban, content to see the Unite States evacuating all its personnel and wishing to avoid any incident that could provoke military retaliation, has opted to not attack the airport that is essential for a rapid evacuation.

Political pundits are busy evaluating how well or poorly Biden has handled this matter. A predictable number of retired military leaders insist more troops and a delayed pullout would have been a better option. Considerable concern is expressed for the fate of Afghan women. Many will be forced to marry Taliban warriors. All will face strictly enforced sexual codes and denial of secular higher education. Mass media coverage also highlights the many thousands of Afghans working for the United States who will face the fierce vengeance of the Taliban. Only a fraction can be evacuated.

The mission in Afghanistan had started well. The Al-Qaeda organization that was responsible for 9-11 was largely dismantled in less than a year. But rather than withdrawing, the United States continued to attack the Taliban who had sheltered Al-Qaeda and worked to create a pro-American central government. These actions reflected the decision of George W. Bush to adopt a policy of nation-building in the Middle East.  Bush was greatly influenced by theory-driven neo-conservatives, who lacked an understanding of the region’s intense competing internal cultures. Cold War liberals who saw Russia, not Islamic extremists, as the major foe to be contained became the de facto partners of the neo-cons.

An early target was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. He was to be ousted by ‘shock and awe’ air power followed by a three-front invasion. The actual shock and awe experienced were that Iraqis strongly resisted the American invaders in what proved to be a costly war with significant American casualties Two decades later, Iraq is a failed state, rife with competing, well-armed internal forces. Nation-building efforts included replacing Bashar Al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria. Twenty years later, Assad has consolidated his power by allying with Russia while Iran has succeeded in creating support groups throughout the Middle East.

The Obama administration was confused about how to handle the region. Secretary of State Clinton would expend considerable effort to bring Georgia and Ukraine into a formal relationship with NATO.  Russia took vigorous military action to thwart that threat to its borders and reasserted its historic relations with Crimea. The tensions with Russia distracted Clinton from giving proper attention to the Arab Spring in North Africa or the rise of ISIS. Although dictators such as Libya’s Muamaar Gaddafi lost power, his governing style and anti-Americanism continue in numerous armed factions. North Africa’s most stable nation is again an Egypt ruled by a military clique.

When the United States got serious about defeating ISIS, it forged an alliance with the Kurds, the only regional force willing to fight ISIS. Backed by U.S. air power, the Kurds eventually prevailed, but their interests would be betrayed by the resolution in Syria arranged by Donald Trump. Moreover, ISIS had remained in power long enough to generate still-active anti-American guerilla groups.

Despite spending $6.2 trillion and suffering thousands of fatal casualties, America’s nation-building forays and massive military interventions have not altered the political culture of the Middle East. The U.S. executive branch of government has consistently disregarded or minimized the advice of its experienced diplomats, its intelligence agencies, and scholars who specialize in the region’s complexities. The U.S. military, superbly equipped and trained to fight conventional wars, has not developed a viable strategy for dealing with the variety of cultural and armed sects prevalent in the Middle East.

The American public needs to ask itself if the national security and international standing of the United State might have been better served if the resources squandered in the Middle East had been used to address the ills and shortcomings of our own society.

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