“I am embarrassed to be an American,” a US Air Force veteran, who had served two tours in Afghanistan, told CNN news crews during a protest outside the White House on Tuesday.
Coming from a former service member with two tours in Afghanistan under her belt, that was a damning statement. But not as damning as the news footage broadcast from the Afghan capital – footage which recalled America’s worst post-World War II foreign policy disasters.
In 1975 Saigon and Phnom Penh, US helicopters were shown flying from embassy roofs, while crowds of desperate and abandoned US allies were shown mobbing departing US aircraft.
And it was not only in the air. US hardware was embarrassingly visible in the streets of the fallen capitals.
In downtown Kabul, the Taliban patrolled the streets hefting not only the usual battered AK-47s, but state-of-the-art US Armalite rifles, complete with attached optics and underslung grenade launchers.
After thousands of lives lost and trillions spent, how did the world’s most powerful military, and those of its allies, fail to prevail?
Their defeat is due to a misreading of recent Afghan history, a misunderstanding of broader post-war US foreign-policy success cases – and a failure to understand that fighting a low-intensity “forever war” might, in fact, have been a success in and of itself.
Game over in the Great Game
The US conducted a brilliantly economical victory in 2001 but forgot that while it may be easy to conquer Afghanistan, it is very, very difficult to hold it. Bogged down in the “graveyard of empires,” the US and its allies spent the next 20 years failing to define what an end-game should look like.
Now, it’s game over – and there is no question that this version of the Great Game has ended in the West’s utter defeat.
It is hardly the first time the US has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Afghanistan.
An earlier, brilliantly economical mission – sponsoring the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union from 1979-1989 – ended with the Red Army’s retreat from the country and contributed to the implosion of the USSR. Then, instead of filling the resultant Afghan vacuum with sound, far-sighted policy and support, Washington took its eye off the ball.
The result? Elements of the mujahideen mutated into a global force that turned on its former sponsors and became the backbone of today’s multi-faceted Islamic terrorism.
All this points to a wider problem: The failure of major, Western foreign-policy initiatives with earth-shaking impacts. The credibility of the US and its Western allies – including such prominent and prosperous democracies as Australia, France, Germany and the UK, all of which contributed to the mission – as a force in the world is in tatters.
Around the world, the West’s allies and enemies will draw the appropriate conclusions.
The roots of the failure were revealed – albeit, unwittingly – by United States President Joe Biden in his press conference, hastily called to address the catastrophe unfolding in Kabul.
“After 20 years,” he said, “I learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”
If there was, indeed, never a good time to withdraw US forces, how about “never?”
If a “forever war” seems a dubious proposition, take a look at the success cases of US foreign policy in recent history. While some wars have ended and some have not, all are united by long-term engagement – far longer-term engagement than the two-decade Afghan adventure.
World War II ended in 1945 with unequivocal victory, but there are still US boots on the ground in Germany, Italy and Japan. The post-war successes of these nations were underwritten by a dense web of political, diplomatic, commercial, cultural and social linkages with the US.
The Korean War ended in 1950 without victory. Despite millions of dead, the enemy state remained intact, and the two Koreas remained bisected along roughly the same lines along which the war had commenced.
Yet to this day, there are still US troops in South Korea – a nation which, thanks to post-conflict US engagement, has emerged as one of the 20th century’s greatest national success stories in all spheres: economic, political and social.
It is not only the US. For junior partner the UK, the same lessons apply. Its post-war, overseas military successes – Malaya, Oman, the Falklands, Sierra Leonne – were followed by long-term, ongoing engagement to assure stability.
Compare and contrast the cited success cases with Washington’s abandonment of the South Vietnamese, Cambodians, Somalis, Libyans, Kurds and now the Afghans.
Why did the mighty US Armed Forces and its allies fail to prevail in a 20-year war against an enemy lacking air support, armor or satellite intelligence, that fought clothed in robes and sandals while equipped with IEDs and small arms, mounted on scooters and communicating by cellphone?
US President Biden himself made clear that in Afghanistan, there was no strategy. The mission was about combating terrorism, not about nation-building. Such a kinetic, tactical approach is odd for two reasons.
One: War is “politics by other means,” so defeating terrorism requires removing the inequalities and injustices and related prejudices and perceptions that give rise to it. That cannot be done in a day, or indeed a decade. Failure in that mission dooms the combatant to an endless game of whack-a-mole, as old terrorists are killed and new ones spring up.
Two: A “blow ’em away” approach ignores how very successfully the US had built up institutions, economies and trade relationships with the countries noted above, creating a global net of like-minded countries and allies.
Moreover, given the potential for disaster that follows in the wake of the Taliban victory, one could, reasonably, argue that the 20 years of prior conflict in Afghanistan were actually a success story.
Defeat from victories
Why would the sole global hyperpower not seek stability in a nation that is at the heart of a strategic region? That the Afghanistan-Pakistan area is also critical ground for the Belt and Road initiative being pursued by Washington’s arch-rival Beijing is a further argument for US focus.
Seen in this light, maintaining boots on the ground was very much in US interests.
Have too many young Americans died there? Perhaps. But in recent years, the blood price paid by casualty-averse America has been low by pretty well any standard. Take the most brutal metric of body bags returning home.
Only nine US servicepersons were killed in 2020. According to the same data set, in the last five years, that number totals only 77. In fact, the last time more than 100 US troops were killed in a single year in Afghanistan was in 2013.
Of the 1.4 million active-duty personnel, was that truly too high a price to pay?
Maintaining overall security and containing cross-border terrorism by supplying a “corset” to stiffen the spines of Afghan troops fighting an insurgency in a country that has been a petri dish for trans-national extremist threats could, in and of itself, be called a win.
Granted, nation-building efforts were massively funded, leaving the US Treasury $2 trillion poorer. But money does not solve problems alone. There must be an intelligent deployment of it.
Nation-building efforts were bedeviled by poor understanding of Afghanistan’s socio-political, tribal makeup, unclear objectives, arbitrary timelines and poor coordination between different arms of the US government.
Infamously, a turbine delivered in a major operation by British airborne troops to the strategic Kajaki Dam was never connected and the dam’s surrounding province never received electricity.
One cannot help but wonder if the same amount of thinking that had gone into killing the enemy had gone into building institutions, Afghanistan might not have been better off. In that light, the most depressing failure was the collapse of Afghan security forces.
But even that failure was not only sudden, it was very recent.
Combat significantly intensified – with an offensive by a rejuvenated Taliban – after the US announced that it, and its partners in ISAF, would depart in April. The UN noted that more Afghan civilians were killed since the Taliban offensive kicked off in May than in any year’s first half since records started in 2009.
Given that the Kabul government had survived for almost 20 years, who is to say that a small, smart ISAF military mission would not have maintained the status quo indefinitely?
Losing the ‘human terrain’
There are non-physical aspects to any nation-building endeavor.
An entire generation of young Afghans has grown up under the Western/ISAF umbrella. A new, more open-minded elite has arisen. Female education and emancipation was greatly advanced.
The traumatic scenes at Kabul Airport suggest there are many thousands, just within Kabul, who are desperate to leave a Taliban-run nation.
The very least that Western capitals who worked with such people can do is offer them sanctuary. But for the hapless bodies that make up today’s Western political establishment, even that has proved a bridge too far.
Granted, the current-generation Taliban may – just may – prove kinder, more just and more aligned with modern, global values than their predecessors. Peace may come to Afghanistan.
But the likelihood of disasters – harsh, old-school Islamic rule, a regional and global refugee crisis, the destabilization of borders, the return of global terrorist groups to a safe haven, a reignited civil war – is frightening to contemplate.
As a British commentator noted on television news on Tuesday: “What happens in Afghanistan does not stay there.”
Closer to home, the problem for the US and the wider democratic West is not simple casualty aversion. It is the failure of its peoples, its soldiers and its politicians to understand what a “win” actually is. For this metric to be defined, there needs to be wide-horizon, big-picture thinking.
Certainly, defeating an enemy on the field of battle and seizing its capital – as the US and its allies did in Afghanistan in 2001 – is a clear and satisfying kind of victory.
But obscured by the dust, bloodshed, corruption and lack of understanding of what the stakes were, the pluses of the US and ISAF mission became impossible for the Western public to perceive. Politicians – notably, Donald Trump and Joe Biden – were unwilling or unable to either perceive or explain them.
In the end, the victory of 2001, and the limited stability that was subsequently imposed, were fecund grounds for a long-term engagement. That engagement ended up being sacrificed on democracy’s mightiest alter and its greatest vulnerability.
It is a savage irony that “America’s longest war” was lost due to short-termism.