Requiem for the Forever War
The Biden Administration, contrary to its partisans’ and detractors’ expectations that it would dither or outright renege on the previous Administration’s plans to exit Afghanistan (overtly), pulled the trigger on a ramshackle retreat that created incredibly bad optics and elicited negative reactions from around the world, especially from allies. The problem of whether to take in Afghan refugees and how many is already starting to rear its head in the domestic politics of Western countries, and will assume center stage once all of the countries have removed their nationals from Afghanistan. The latter is an incredible oversight given the transparent nature of the term for American retreat from Afghanistan, and illustrates both the incredulity, up until the last minute, that the Biden Administration would keep to the deal and the shocking nature of the Taliban’s series of victories over the Kabul Government.
The nature of the relationship of the global community with the future Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is also an issue. The Americans may have blocked the Central Bank’s foreign currency reserves (a pittance compared to the sunk costs of the US in the country), but the reception of the Taliban at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the undoubted discussions with other countries of the emerging anti-US front, such as Pakistan and Russia, combined with the attempted Taliban consultations with figures such as former President Hamid Karzai, make it likely that the new government will receive recognition from a critical mass of countries and may make a play for eventual UN recognition.
Nevertheless, the US retreat from Afghanistan was the right decision and was marred for coming at such a late hour and for its chaotic implementation, that saw significant amounts of US military equipment captured by the Taliban, no doubt to end up in Chinese and Russian laboratories for reverse engineering. We should not kid ourselves that any retreat, under the best possible circumstances, would not have been plagued by bad optics, especially by special interest media or partisan media in the West. The Afghan Government would still have been weakened by it given Taliban advance in recent years, but the speed of collapse of the Afghan institutions and leadership was stunning and confirms the futility of US efforts in the country, rather than affirming the need to stay on.
There are two ways that the US can play this debacle – either they turn it into a much-needed opportunity to recover, rearm and rethink their approaches and their priorities, with ultimately positive strategic outcomes for the country, and maybe its allies, and maybe the world, or the recriminations already rearing their head will further polarize the country politically and further neuter it on the world stage or, worse, make it adopt harmful or counter-productive policies and postures.
Biden’s America First moment
After the Biden electoral victory, the US media crowed about the amount of internal dissension the Trump Administration had faced, not just from political opponents, but from political allies and ostensibly neutral actors, such as the Pentagon’s leadership. One of these areas was the retreat from Afghanistan, one of Trump’s long promised but often delayed moves, which became expedient in the context of shoring up his previously high political support in pandemic-ravaged America. Ending the so-called “Forever War” (an optimistic Obama era description, before “the surge” took place) is undoubtedly popular with voters who have become fatigued with its financial and human costs, as well as its visible and symbolic position in the National Security State that has formed in the post-9/11 era, with its ubiquitous surveillance, airport pat-downs and encroachment on freedoms.
As media reports would have it, Trump’s attempts to extricate the US from various theaters such as Syria, Afghanistan, Germany (!) and Africa hit significant resistance from his own Party and from the national security apparatus. Trump, lacking well formed strategic views and personal familiarity with the details of the US presence in areas such as Afghanistan, was constantly brought back in check with (otherwise true) reports regarding threats to US interests and the weakness of the Afghan Government as a means of deferring the retreat indefinitely. One presumes that this is the same treatment all American Presidents get, including Obama and Biden.
It is to Biden’s credit that, for whatever reasons inside the Byzantine politics of Washington DC (possibly resource constraints to appease domestic interest groups such as the “woke welfare” crowd), he was able to resist these entreaties and put his foot down on the retreat. The state of US presence in Afghanistan suggests that no one had anticipated such obstinacy from Biden. Pushing back the Trump timeline for withdrawal served to not only give more time for a more orderly retreat (counter-factuals are hard to imagine, given the costs of the one so far), but also to divorce the policy from Trump himself, who would have sought to make political capital out of this accomplishment for his stated future presidential run. Given that the benefits will accrue to Biden, it is no wonder that both Trump and the Republicans, in typical opportunistic fashion, have defaulted to criticizing the Biden Administration for its handling of the retreat, indirectly also supporting the elements who would have wanted a more orderly retreat, which would have been a code phrase for indefinite remainder in the region.
What was surprising was the uncharacteristic scorn that even the mainstream media, long affiliated with the progressive/liberal movement, if not with the Democratic Party itself, heaped on Biden. It was not just Fox News, which would be expected to oppose a Democrat in the White House regardless of merit, but also outlets with a liberal bias. Ideology may be stronger than political bias in this regard, as well as the influence of the non-partisan interest groups in American society, such as the military industry lobby, or the liberal-interventionist groups which profit handsomely from NGO work in unstable areas.
It was said that only Nixon could go to China. Perhaps, one day, we will say that only Biden could have pulled out of Afghanistan. Hot on the heels of his “honeymoon” in office, when he was lavished with positive attention by the media, the opprobrium against Biden now does not compare to the vitriol against Trump. Neither is there any sign of formal obstructionism, except for the now-traditional threats of impeachments from the opposition. Trump, as in the beginning of his Presidency, could have expected not just bad press, but judicial shenanigans, lawsuits filed in the US on behalf of the Afghan refugees and other forms of the lawfare which plagued his Presidency.
In previous articles, I predicted that, since Trump’s policies are widely popular with the American people (including opposition to illegal immigration and the China trade war), the incoming Administration would seek to divorce some of these policies from Trump in the minds of the citizens and pivot from attacking them to normalizing them as part of their agenda. This has already happened with the trade war against China, which has continued more or less unchanged from the previous Administration, and also, less overtly, when it comes to illegal immigration, though the Trump status quo was nothing to make immigration restrictionists happy.
Who is to blame?
The “blame game” is the great national sport of American society. The media is accusing Biden of betraying allies, of betraying the Afghans, of betraying the sacrifices of the American people and, surprisingly, his detractors also include Trump and other figures who had previously supported a withdrawal from Afghanistan. The naked opportunism on display is also a long tradition and is both unprincipled and also dangerous since, from the perspective of right-wing populists, scoring points off of Biden by criticizing his handling of the withdrawal would risk tarnishing the idea of withdrawal and non-interventionism in the minds of their supporters. Since the patriotic segment of the American population is hyper-aware of the blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan and associates the Afghanistan War with a “good war” (as opposed to the Iraq War), they are more easily mobilized for the neverending electioneering and political battles.
Certainly, many on the left are blaming Biden and circulating the Obama quote during the 2020 campaign – “don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up”. Arguably, both sides are incoherent and wildly out of sync with positions they held very deeply just a short while ago, especially the Republicans. But, in fact, the blame belongs to the entire class of American leadership, from politicians, generals, Hill staffers, policy analysts and so on who delivered this monumentally expensive and pointless Middle Eastern adventure which is hastening the decline of the US as a superpower and is to the advantage of its rivals. Over 20 years in which the political cooperation and even basic civility decreased daily, the only bipartisan consensus that could be relied on in Washington, especially behind closed doors, has been the support for the National Security Apparatus. And it has persisted across four Presidencies that saw “16 commanders of American or ISAF troops in Afghanistan, ten commanders of CENTCOM, six Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ten Secretaries of Defense, two special envoys to the region, seven administrators of USAID, 11 Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, seven Secretaries of State, nine Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, seven Directors of National Intelligence, ten National Security Advisors” come and go. American foreign policy specialist Tanner Greer wrote that:
Yet in this chronicle of shame the American intervention in Afghanistan stands exceptional. There is no partisan dodge that escapes it. There is no domestic rival to pin blame on. There is nothing to shield any of us from the sting of this defeat. Yes, events of this week reveal enormous and largely unnecessary failures in intelligence, logistics, operational planning, cross-government coordination, public communication, and broader strategy on the part of the sitting administration. Yet we must see these humiliations for what they are: the final chapter of a two-decade long disaster. The scale of these failures is too big, and they occur on a timeline too long, to be excused as the other side’s fault […] The war in Afghanistan is not the failure of a man, or even of a few men, but of an entire leadership class.
And, in a period that combines democratic populism (left and right) with distrust and even contempt for experts and technocrats as illegitimate and incompetent handlers of national affairs, the Afghanistan War is an indictment of the expert class. Imagine how many Think Tanks have labored over 20 years to analyze Afghanistan and formulate policy proposals, how many PhD theses have been written on the subject, how many of the world’s leading universities and experts have pored over these issues to formulate the American approach to Afghanistan and nation building. And an insurgency based in caves, with likely no PhDs among them (though the leadership of the Taliban is very well selected, with its top recruitment madrassa in Pakistan reportedly once having 15,000 applicants for 400 spots) managed to, without a doubt, defeat them. Liberal political scientist Richard Hahania wrote:
The American-led coalition had countless experts with backgrounds pertaining to every part of the mission on their side: people who had done their dissertations on topics like state building, terrorism, military-civilian relations, and gender in the military. General David Petraeus, who helped sell Obama on the troop surge that made everything in Afghanistan worse, earned a PhD from Princeton and was supposedly an expert in “counterinsurgency theory.” Ashraf Ghani, the just deposed president of the country, has a PhD in anthropology from Columbia and is the co-author of a book literally called Fixing Failed States. This was his territory. It’s as if Wernher von Braun had been given all the resources in the world to run a space program and had been beaten to the moon by an African witch doctor.
The story of how nation building failed in Afghanistan belongs to another piece but it suffices to say that the failure to build key institutions necessary for state survival and centralized governance, despite the incredible resources invested, can also be laid at the feet of US adherence to its own ideology, to “making its own reality” as George Bush called it, to the detriment of the reality on the ground. What is worse is that, not only are the Taliban likely different and more pragmatic than their predecessors who were ousted by the Americans (certainly they have changed their tune with regards to drug running), but they are also better able to utilize what infrastructure, physical, governmental and military which the US bequeathed to Afghanistan. Kabul is a city of 4 million people now and Afghanistan’s population is double that of 20 years ago. This will either be a source of power for a competent Taliban Regime, or a humanitarian disaster, as Afghanistan loses its ability to import medicine or electricity.
What will happen now?
A lot depends on how the Taliban manage the traumatic adjustment period, especially as Afghanistan, a country which imports almost everything it needs to survive, loses access to its foreign reserves, to international aid and to direct US transfers. It also depends on who they will owe coming out of that period, as the reception of a Taliban delegation at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs undoubtedly also involved discussions of material, financial and development aid. Countries opposed to the US might even apply the North Korea playbook to Afghanistan, where the country becomes a perpetual regional issue that requires US engagement in multilateral negotiations with third parties such as Russia and China, thereby providing political capital to these countries or distracting the US from other issues. This is a far cry from the isolated Afghanistan before the American invasion, which was a thorn in the side of all of its neighbors except Pakistan.
The US might consider negotiating for the speed-up of the evacuation of American citizens by utilizing the trump card of aid and the blocked funds in New York, but not only will the American citizenry react badly to this, but also other fundamentalist Islamist groups, who could accuse the Taliban of corruption or impurity for treating with the foreign invaders. No amount of pious posturing and internal conservatism could spare the Saudi Royal Family of accusations of selling out to the Americans, precipitating the formation of groups such as Al-Qaeda and the conflicts between various jihadist groups are not just pragmatic, but also based on perceived purity.
Meanwhile, the West must steel its hearts against the progressive temptation to trigger another refugee wave through irresponsible messaging. Neither the West nor Afghanistan can afford it, politically, economically and from a human perspective, though the latter country would benefit in the short term by ridding itself of excess population, of dissidents and discontents, some of them educated and therefore a loss to any prospect of future modernization, moderation and reform.
A lot will also depend on the economic interaction with China, one of Afghanistan’s neighbors and a country with a propensity to mobilize significant resources for investment with strategic intent and longer time horizons, as well as tolerating higher risk of non-payment better than any individual firm or Western consortium ever could. The resources may or may not be economically sustainable to exploit, but Afghanistan can prove its worth to China’s strategic initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative, by resuming its ancient role as a trade route and hosting railways, roads and pipelines that would connect China to Iran and beyond. Again, these calculations are beyond short term economic realities and are therefore highly contingent on Chinese resources and strategy. Undoubtedly, we will know more in the coming months.
The consequences of the war in Afghanistan and its anticlimactic and bitter end will stay with us and the problems raised by this epochal shift in Central Asia will require special consideration to prevent a series of “preventable evils” such as a spread of radicalism, a new wave of refugees and, last, but not least, a superpower searching for another unipolar moment and for “monsters to slay” as George Washington put it.
The question on everybody’s lips is the following – après Biden, le deluge?
Will the withdrawal from Afghanistan be the beginning of a wider withdrawal of American might and security commitments in the world, as the Taiwanese, the Eastern Europeans and many more have hinted at? There is no sign of this yet, though the fear has taken hold after years of neglecting military matters and after experiencing the particular style of Trump’s discourse against allies free-riding on American security spending. This may be a situation where constantly repeating the concern out loud leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, as a new generation of Americans, left and right, looking to achieve prosperity at home, social justice or more generous welfare systems look in resentment towards the US role of “world policeman”. In such a case, a policy of steady disengagement is but one election away. Ideally, the withdrawal gives the US more breathing room to rest its troops, invest in its backlog of technology development and equipment acquisition, and allocate more to infrastructure and basic research in the US, so as to create the premise for a more sustainable US security presence in the world where it counts. Afghanistan is not such a place.
Editor’s note: In the period following the completion of this article, the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan Province staged bloody attacks against American troops in Kabul, in defiance of the deal that the Taliban have, so-far, respected. The group is made up of former Taliban who find the new regime in Afghanistan insufficiently radical. This seemingly confirms what was written in the article, about the threat of even more extreme groups out-competing the Taliban and that even token cooperation with outsiders delegitimizes the former insurgents.