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We Forgot How to Do Things Right (2) Retrieving Failure in Afghanistan

Afghanistan epitomizes how the United States so often fails to learn from its own success. President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan offers an opportunity to redress that weakness. In the 1940’s the Truman Doctrine allowed some very smart American Generals and diplomats to help Greece decisively defeat a communist insurgency with no boots on the ground. Then, from 1960 to 2020, the United States proceeded to fight similar insurgencies in several countries, most importantly Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and lose each time because, frankly, we failed to learn from our victory.

Truman took the United States into Greece for reasons that appear to bear no resemblance to how we got involved in Afghanistan. And yet there are certain eerie similarities. A financially exhausted Britain unexpectedly advised the American President in February 1947 that it could no longer sustain its support of an embattled Greek Government fighting an increasingly communist insurgency sustained by its communist-run neighbors, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria. Two weeks ago, President Biden unexpectedly told the American people, whom he described as tired of ‘forever wars’, that he would withdraw U.S. forces from an embattled Afghanistan fighting an Islamist insurgency sustained by its neighbor Pakistan. (Admittedly, there is one bizarre glaring difference: our communist adversaries supported insurgents; here our own ALLY sustains the insurgents!)

We need a brief recount of how we got to where we are in Afghanistan.

In 2001 we invaded that country seeking to bring to justice Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly three thousand Americans. Somehow, we got Al Qaeda confused with the Taliban, the governing brutal theocratic movement created by Pakistan that had misgoverned the country for the previous four years. The Taliban were, at worst, an “accomplice after the fact.” The Taliban had provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda because they needed al-Qaeda’s money; there is no evidence that they were privy to al-Qaeda’s plan for 9/11. Within a few weeks the Taliban threw in the towel; their leaders fled to Pakistan and their fighters all went home. We also thought we had defeated al-Qaeda, the real criminals of 9/11. We did kill some of their local leaders, but the organization fled Afghanistan, escaping our wrath and has now morphed into dozens of much more dangerous offspring, with names like ISIS, Islamic Jihad, Boko Haram, and Shabab, destabilizing countries across continents. Killing Osama bin Ladin, a-Qaeda’s founder, may have satisfied our demand for vengeance but has had no effect on the larger threats we face.

Instead, we conflated the Taliban with the 9/11 attacks and went after them with a vengeance. The Taliban fought back leveraging popular discontent as American warplanes and drones devastated their villages and American troops became the face of the foreign enemy. We also made a fatal mistake by contracting profit-making American private companies to take over running the country. Afghan politicians joined these companies in a toxic combination that corrupted all aspects of Afghan life, financed by American taxpayers. Doing so, we also failed to leverage the Afghan people’s desire for real representative and uncorrupted democracy. In the last few years, we tried to build an Afghan army to take over the war. Unfortunately, we did not give them the tools they needed, their own air power, artillery, and logistics, to fight on their own. The war still has an American face. Now the Taliban are winning, and we have thrown in the towel.

By this time next year, we should know if our withdrawal has led to a manageable run-of-the-mill humanitarian disaster or a catastrophe that destabilizes the region, fosters international terrorism, turns the country into a dreadful horror show for its people, and floods the world with refugees forcing us to go back in to keep the lid on.

How do we avoid the horror show that could follow withdrawal? We may think we are done with Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is not done with us. We cannot send combat troops back into that country; it will only pick up the endless war where we left off. American ‘boots on the ground’ fighting the Taliban are not the answer. Instead, we must begin with diplomacy supported by military force rather than the other way around. If we want to prevent the horror show, we must now crank up support in the form of more training, equipment, and intelligence to the Afghan Armed forces on a greater and more ambitious scale. We must expand their capacity to defeat the Taliban or at least force them to realize they cannot win. The Afghan Armed Forces must also assume primary responsibility to root out foreign terrorists. To make this work, America’s diplomats have to intervene with the Afghan government to ensure that corruption does not defeat us; a task that also requires the U.S. justice system to ensure that Americans do not play a role in the corruption. Finally, we need to reenlist our allies in this task, although the diplomats must first fix the damage of Trump’s unilateral deal with the Taliban that ignored their interests, compounded by Biden’s decision to withdraw. 

You may properly ask why we failed to accomplish this over the last twenty years. The answer is simple: our hubris led to forget the lessons of our success in Greece in the 1940s. We did this most famously in Vietnam, we must not repeat that mistake in Afghanistan.

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