Archive for August, 2021

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I can hardly differ from my friend Stathis, whose sentiments here are mine. Along with countless millions—including at least half of those I follow on Twitter and Facebook—I have been riveted to the breaking news from Afghanistan over the past ten days, and particularly this past weekend, not to mention stunned and so deeply saddened by the spectacle. One thing I am not going to do, however, is play the Washington/media pundit blame game as to Who Lost Afghanistan. Biden is going to take the hit, as he should, for the calamitous manner in which the US withdrawal was executed—with the prospect of tens of thousands of Afghans who collaborated with the Americans over the years being stranded and at the mercy of the Taliban—but the larger calamity of Afghanistan and the US role there is not on him, and while Afghanistan may be, for part of elite opinion, an indelible stain on his record, it is doubtful that it will affect his job approval rating—not after his forceful statement on Monday—or the Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2022, for the simple reason that the larger American public just doesn’t care about Afghanistan.

The editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone gets it right:

As for the impact of Afghanistan on US “credibility,” the smart political scientist Marc Lynch thus tweets:

The fall of Kabul and ignominious end to the US presence is naturally being compared to Saigon 1975. On this, the brilliant young historian (notably of modern Algeria), Andrew Bellisari, who teaches at Fulbright University Vietnam, posted a commentary on his Facebook page on Sunday, which I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting: 

A lot of comparisons to Vietnam will be made today. They’ve been made since the beginning of our involvement in Afghanistan. They’ll continue for a long time after. Vietnam comparisons are inevitable. They’re everyone’s favorite because “Vietnam” still remains the most evocative shorthand for tragedy and misadventure we have in our journalistic lexicon.

As we see images of Chinooks taking off from the roof of the US embassy in Kabul it’s hard not to make the direct link to Saigon. But the real tragedy is that our handling of Afghanistan is far worse than what occurred in April 1975. In Vietnam, we negotiated a ceasefire and troop withdrawal with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1973 that held for two years. When the DRV began its Spring Offensive in March 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam mobilized 270,000 troops and more than 300 tanks against the 1 million man Army of the Republic of Vietnam. As stunning at the RVN’s disintegration was, at least it occurred between the military forces of two well-equipped sovereign nations.

When North Vietnamese tanks carrying the flags of the southern revolutionary National Liberation Front rolled through the gates of the Dinh Độc Lập , Communist forces were barely two hours behind the last Marine helicopter out of the city. The fear and uncertainty that many South Vietnamese felt in the face of their city’s “liberation” was real. Acts of revenge did take place. Government employees and those who had worked with Americans were rounded up, certain families were blacklisted and relocated to “special economic zones” in undesirable parts of the countryside. “Re-education” (an imperfect translation of “học tập cải tạo“) took place at varying degrees of intensity as Communist forces struggled to win over “reactionary” elements and cement their authority, often in the face of small acts of protest and sabotage. Some were in camps for a few weeks of pro-forma political lessons. Others were held for years.

But the DRV and the Provisional Revolutionary Government had come to integrate the RVN into a unified nation under Communist rule. Proving they could rule competently and winning over the people was their most important goal. No massive violent retribution took place. There was no bloodbath. 20 years after the capture of Saigon, the US and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations. I am a professor of history at a liberal arts college in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Taliban is not the Vietnamese Communist Party. With pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs they steamrolled the Afghan National Army and entered Kabul as US forces were caught off guard, scrambling to leave and get their Afghan allies out. Unlike in Vietnam, no serious effort to negotiate anything with the Taliban was ever attempted. Nor did we attempt to enforce whatever terms were agreed to. What we were hoping for was that the Taliban would hold off until we were out and then move in, precisely so we could avoid the Vietnamese comparison and save face. Meanwhile, we’d watch Afghanistan crumble at a distance. Now we get to watch in real time as 20 years of desultory interventionist liberalism implodes. Unlike in Vietnam, there may very well be a violent coda to Kabul’s capture. Perhaps not right away. Perhaps out of sight just a bit. But the Taliban will try to recreate the state it established in the 1990s. And those Afghans who we convinced to believe in the promises we made will suffer the most. In Afghanistan, the liberal arts college that the US constructed will be shuttered.

So make all the Vietnam comparisons you want. Post the side-by-side pictures of helicopters leaving. We get it: “history is repeating itself.” Wink, wink. But it’s not. It is a new tragedy rooted in lessons forgotten and ignored. But Kabul 2021 is not Saigon 1975. It’s worse. And it’s worse all the more for the brief interlude during which we convinced ourselves it wouldn’t be. Remember that next time.

Could America’s Afghanistan fiasco have been avoided? In a rather hyperbolically titled post in The Cosmopolitan Globalist substack site—edited by my good friend Claire Berlinski—”Biden betrays Afghanistan—and the world,” former airborne sergeant Michael Fumento, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, insists that the US could have thwarted a Taliban conquest with an open-ended force presence of several thousand troops—necessitating a formal denunciation of Trump’s 2020 Doha agreement, which Fumento asserts would have been justified—and with the US backing up the Afghan National Army with air power. The stalemate would have presumably lasted indefinitely, with US forces sustaining losses that Fumento deems acceptable (he suggests that the US should have done likewise in Vietnam after 1973).

WADR, in view of how quickly the Afghan army and state collapsed—simply vanished—it is delusional to think that a residual US military presence—for which there was no political support outside the Beltway—could have changed a thing apart from delaying the inevitable. The futility of the US/Western military engagement in Afghanistan was manifest to anyone who read nothing on the subject but merely watched the feature-length films on the Afghan war that came out over the past decade, which I wrote about in April.

But if one is to read just one article on the subject, let it be Anatol Lieven’s in Politico (Aug. 16), “Why Afghan forces so quickly laid down their arms: Opposing Afghan factions have long negotiated arrangements to stop fighting—something the U.S. either failed to understand or chose to ignore.”

If one wishes to read more articles, see, e.g., “How the good war went bad: America’s slow-motion failure in Afghanistan,” by Carter Malkasian in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020); and “Afghan security forces’ wholesale collapse was years in the making,” by Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post (Aug. 16).

N.B. Whitlock is the author of WaPo’s “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” published in Dec. 2019. The lede: “At war with the truth: U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it, an exclusive Post investigation found.” It begins:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

Going back a decade and some is a piece in Armed Forces Journal (Oct. 1, 2010) by Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, “War on the brink of failure: 7 obstacles stand in the way of success in Afghanistan.” The lede: “Absent a major change in the status quo that currently dominates in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military effort there will fail to accomplish the president’s objectives and, despite our best effort to spin it otherwise, we will lose the war in Afghanistan.”

There was, needless to say, no major change in the status quo. On this, Davis, now a civilian, posted a commentary four days ago on a website called 19FortyFive, “Why Afghanistan is falling to the Taliban so fast.”

And then there’s this:

Peter Galbraith posted the following on Facebook four days ago:

I watch the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan with disbelief and horror. I first visited the country with the mujahideen on February 14, 1989—the day the Soviets withdrew—and served there as Deputy Head of the UN mission in 2009. So much went wrong but here is my very partial list of those most responsible for the fiasco.

1. The Afghan political and military leaders who were more interested in staying in power than doing anything while in office except for stealing as much as they could.

2. The US government which pumped so much money into Afghanistan that there was a lot to steal and it was easily stolen.

3. Hamid Karzai—Afghanistan’s first president was corrupt, ineffective, weird, and—after the massive fraud that accompanied his reelection, illegitimate. In 2009, he organized the fraud that got him a second term. That enabled him and his cronies to steal everything else.

4. Ban ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General who tolerated the massive fraud in the UN sponsored (and paid for) Afghanistan 2009 presidential elections. This undermined Obama’s surge which may have been the last chance to get it right.

5. David Petraeus, the other US military commanders and the so called strategic thinkers who all declared the Afghanistan War to be a counter-insurgency and also stated that successful counter-insurgencies require a local partner. They then pretended the corrupt Afghan government was a real partner when they knew it wasn’t.

6. USAID which built roads intended to raise rural incomes by getting farm products to market but actually enabled corrupt police to shakedown farmers. This won the Taliban new supporters and the new roads gave the Taliban speedy access to previously defensible areas like the Panjshir Valley (which neither the Soviets or the pre 2001 Taliban ever took).

7. Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan second president, who was a victim of Karzai’s fraud in the 2009 presidential elections and willingly took office—twice—thanks to massive electoral fraud. Ashraf is personally honest but when you come into office thanks to a stolen election, it is hard to crack down on the corrupt power brokers who got you there.

8. The US and UN architects of Afghanistan’s highly centralized constitution that was utterly inappropriate for a country that is as ethnically and geographically diverse as Afghanistan. Not only did the Constitution concentrate all power in Kabul at the expense of the provinces and districts but it also gave all power within Kabul to a Pashtun president as opposed to sharing power with an ethnically diverse parliament.

The rapid collapse follows a surrender agreement negotiated by Donald Trump and implemented by the Biden Administration. There is no reason to think the outcome would be any different if the US took another ten years to withdraw.

A comment by a former French ambassador to Washington (2014-19):

For more on the failed state in Afghanistan, see two remarkable, lengthy articles in The New Yorker—long form journalism at its best—from which I learned a lot: In the July 4, 2016 issue, by George Packer, “Afghanistan’s Theorist-in-Chief: President Ashraf Ghani is an expert on failed states. Can he save his country from collapse?” (response five years later: no); and in the March 8, 2021 issue, by Dexter Filkins, “Last Exit from Afghanistan: Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?” (response: a collapse; also see/listen to the interview with Filkins on NPR’s Fresh Air).

Also this:

As for what happens now, of how the Taliban are going to rule, there is every reason to fear the worst. E.g. two Afghanistan specialists I esteem, Ahmed Rashid and Gilles Dorronsoro, assert that the Taliban has not fundamentally changed over the past two decades, and is, moreover, still in cahoots with Al-Qaida. But other esteemed specialists differ, e.g. Olivier Roy, who, in an interview (Aug. 16) in Ouest France, “‘On a sous-estimé la stratégie des talibans’,” argues that Taliban 2.0 has indeed evolved since it was ousted in 2001.

And then there’s the NYT guest essay (Aug. 17) by Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute, “How will the Taliban rule? Here’s the early evidence.”

Finally, do take four minutes of your time to read this:


UPDATE: Roane Carey, former managing editor of The Nation and friend, tells me that if one is looking to read just one book on post-2001 Afghanistan, to figure out what has happened there and why, it should be Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books, 2014).

2nd UPDATE: This is useful.

3rd UPDATE: Sarah Chayes, who knows her subject better than just about any non-Afghan, has one of the best pieces one will read on Afghanistan, “The Ides of August,” on her website. I particularly like this passage:

And what did we [America] stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.

Is that American democracy?


4th UPDATE: An article by CPW Gammell in Prospect magazine: “Herat is the cultural heart of Afghanistan. Can it survive the Taliban? A city of poets and artists, Herat once challenged Florence for splendour. In defiance of the Taliban, Heratis have tried to keep that spirit alive.”

5th UPDATE: Pakistani/American lawyer/author Rafia Zakaria has a provocative piece (Aug. 19) in Literary Hub, “How the War on Terror became America’s first ‘feminist’ war,” which is excerpted from her new, provocatively-titled book, Against White Feminism.

6th UPDATE: Ryan C. Crocker, former US ambassador to Pakistan (2004-07) and Afghanistan (2011-12), has a guest essay in the NYT (Aug. 21), “Why Biden’s lack of strategic patience led to disaster,” in which he argues—as does Michael Fumento above, though in a more measured tone—that the US could have maintained an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan.

One sympathizes with Crocker’s sentiments but political scientist Rajan Menon lays waste to such illusions in an excellent analysis (Aug. 20) posted on the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog, “Why it’s wrong to blame Biden for the Afghanistan debacle: Washington elites are rightly horrified by the Taliban’s swift takeover, but more troops and more time wouldn’t have made a difference.”

7th UPDATE: Two Afghanistan-themed films seen on Netflix since posting. One is David Michôd’s 2017 War Machine, based on the late journalist Michael Hastings’ 2011 best-seller The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, and with the impeccably cast Brad Pitt’s character rather obviously inspired by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It’s a mordant satire/black comedy, set in 2009-10, on the delusions and general absurdity of the US military, and, pace Ryan Crocker, of the utter futility of the US’ “nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan. Reviews were mixed, which I find puzzling—and totally disagree with—as it’s a very good film, with a sophisticated screenplay and well-drawn characters, and is spot-on in its critique (and which is particularly pertinent today). It was also notably shot in the United Arab Emirates, which I believe is a first for such a sizable-budget film. The Moviefone website justly says that ‘War Machine’ “might be the most wicked, funniest, and wackiest wartime satire since Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ (Yes, it’s really that good).” [UPDATE Aug. 27: Matt Stoller has a great discussion/review of ‘War Machine’ on his Substack site, “The war in Afghanistan is what happens when McKinsey types run everything.”]

The other film is Rod Lurie’s 2020 The Outpost, based on Jake Tapper’s 2012 best-seller (of course) The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (reviewed here in Small Wars Journal), of a US army base camp in Nuristan province that was incomprehensibly located in a valley surrounded by steep mountains and swarming with Taliban fighters, and who launched an all-out assault on the camp in October 2009 (the film was shot in Bulgaria, where one apparently finds the appropriately rugged terrain). It’s a more classic war movie and which was generally well-reviewed. The ultimate battle scene is very well-done, as is the depiction of the soldiers’ band-of-brothers camaraderie. And the interactions of the latter with the local villagers—in which there is a manifest failure to communicate—underscores, perhaps unwittingly, the futility of the American enterprise in Afghanistan.

8th UPDATE: The NYT’s Alissa J. Rubin has a devastating, mind-boggling, must-read report (Aug. 23), “Did the war in Afghanistan have to happen? In 2001, when the Taliban were weak and ready to surrender, the U.S. passed on a deal. Nearly 20 years later, the Taliban hold all the cards.” Money quote:

It was in the waning days of November 2001 that Taliban leaders began to reach out to Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the interim president of Afghanistan: They wanted to make a deal.

“The Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,” recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time.

Messengers shuttled back and forth between Mr. Karzai and the headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai envisioned a Taliban surrender that would keep the militants from playing any significant role in the country’s future.

But Washington, confident that the Taliban would be wiped out forever, was in no mood for a deal.

“The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a news conference at the time, adding that the Americans had no interest in leaving Mullah Omar to live out his days anywhere in Afghanistan. The United States wanted him captured or dead.

Almost 20 years later, the United States did negotiate a deal to end the Afghan war, but the balance of power was entirely different by then — it favored the Taliban.

On the Doha negotiations:

“When I heard the U.S. were going to meet in Doha with the Taliban and without the Afghan government, I said, ‘That’s not a peace negotiation, those are surrender talks,’” said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan.

“So, now the talks were all about us retreating without the Taliban shooting at us as we went,” Mr. Crocker added, “and we got nothing in return.”

The deal the Trump administration struck did not enshrine rights for women, nor guarantee that any of the gains the United States had spent so many years, and lives, trying to instill would be preserved. Nor did it keep the Taliban from an all-out military push to take over the country.

It was not even a peace deal. Instead, it extracted a somewhat vague promise by the Taliban to prevent future attacks against the United States and its allies. And even that language was contested: In the agreement, the Taliban refused to accept the word “terrorist” to describe Al Qaeda.

N.B. Obama and Biden bear their share of responsibility for the Afghanistan fiasco but the Bush-Cheney administration and Trump bear far more.

Jeet Heer has an on-target post (Aug. 23) on his Substack site skewering the POVs of people like Ryan Crocker, “Lies about Afghanistan: Joe Biden’s critics in the national security establishment are pretending that the status quo is easily sustainable. That’s absurd.”

9th UPDATE: In the interests of fairness and balance, see the hard-hitting indictment (Aug. 16) of the US action by Pakistani/American columnist Mohammed Taqi in the Indian webzine The Wire, “Biden’s Afghanistan blunder will come back to haunt the US and its allies: Whatever else might be the consequences of the US debacle, Biden has virtually thrown Afghans to the wolves.”

Also take 7-minutes to listen to the anguished testimony of Pulitzer Prize-winning Afghan photo journalist Massoud Hossaini in Mediapart (Aug. 20, in English), who made it out of Kabul—to Turkey, then the Netherlands—in the nick of time.

NPR’s 1A program had a segment this morning (Aug. 24), “Afghan women on what’s at stake for women in Afghanistan,” that is worth the 47-minute listen time.

10th UPDATE: Linking to an NYT guest essay by Afghan national army commander General Sami Sadat—in which he asserts that the withdrawal of US military contractors was one of the factors causing the collapse of the ANA—Anne Applebaum poses this pertinent question:

A particularly delusional argument that the Taliban could have been indefinitely held at bay with 2,500 US troops remaining and US air power and contractors backing up the ANA’s elite units is advanced with insistence by retired US army Lt. Col. Brad Taylor in the National Review (Aug. 25), “The day Afghanistan died,” and where he makes the ridiculous analogy with the US in South Korea.

Ivo Daalder puts paid to this notion in a brief Twitter thread.

Shadi Hamid’s latest piece (Aug. 23) in The Atlantic, “Americans never understood Afghanistan like the Taliban did: In the end, few Afghans believed in a central government that they never felt was theirs,” is worth the read.

11th UPDATE: Ezra Klein settles the matter in an excellent column in the NYT (Aug. 26), “Let’s not pretend that the way we withdrew from Afghanistan was the problem.”

12th UPDATE: Onetime “neocon” Robert Kagan, who’s always interesting to read, has an essay in The Washington Post (Aug. 26), “It wasn’t hubris that drove America into Afghanistan. It was fear.” He manages not to mention the Iraq war once, but we’ll give him a pass on that.

Thomas Meaney, presently a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen—and who writes excellently on a whole range of subjects—has a piece on the war in Afghanistan (Aug. 27) in the London Review of Books, which begins with a series of remarkable quotes and ends with this:

And, just as before, the women and girls of Afghanistan are foremost among the war lobby’s playing chips. They face violence from every quarter and their weaponisation by the West – as a post-hoc justification for invasion and now as an argument for continued occupation – only exposes how irrelevant the long-term future of Afghan women has been to the US project. The improvements in their health and education under the US occupation – as under the Soviet one – are incontrovertible. But to cheer on such progress in a Potemkin state is to lead people to the slaughter. There is talk of an effort on a par with that performed after the collapse of Saigon in 1975 to shelter refugees in coalition countries. But an exodus has been going on for years, and today taking in refugees isn’t the symbol of Western largesse that it was in the 1970s. ‘A simple way to take measure of a country,’ Tony Blair once said, ‘is to look at how many want in … and how many want out.’ That verdict came some time ago in Afghanistan.

13th UPDATE: Ashley Jackson, who is linked to above, enumerates “Five myths about the Taliban” in The Washington Post (Aug. 27). The myths are:

1. Pakistan controls the Taliban.
2. The Taliban fragments easily.
3. The Taliban has a plan for running Afghanistan.
4. The Taliban will bring back al-Qaeda.
5. The Taliban doesn’t reflect Afghanistan’s diversity.

In regard to myths 3 and 4, France’s two top specialists of Afghanistan, Gilles Dorronsoro and Adam Baczko, have a noteworthy tribune in Le Monde (Aug. 25), “‘Le mouvement taliban est paradoxalement dans une situation de faiblesse, le moment est propice pour négocier avec lui’: Dans une mesure limitée mais réelle, l’évolution du nouveau régime en Afghanistan dépendra de notre attitude à son égard.”

14th UPDATE: An exceptional report in The Washington Post (Aug. 28) on the fall of Kabul: “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war.”

And do not miss the essay by Kevin Baker in Politico Magazine (Aug. 28): “The old cliché about Afghanistan that won’t die: ‘Graveyard of Empires’ is an old epitaph that doesn’t reflect historical reality — or the real victims of foreign invasions over the centuries.”

15th UPDATE: Another terrific article by Anatol Lieven, this in Prospect magazine (Aug. 27): “Nemesis: Why the west was doomed to lose in Afghanistan: And why it could be doomed for good—unless we learn from this catastrophic occupation unmoored from reality.”

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