Lessons not Learned in Afghanistan

Much of the blame-seeking around Afghanistan is not only off-base, but damaging to our national interest.  It’s incredible that even the comparisons with Vietnam talk about the final evacuations, not the failed enterprises.  By concentrating all attention on an asserted “manageable” withdrawal, we’ve given the real perpetrators a pass.

In the last couple of days the NY Times has finally published two good articles.  One by Ezra Klein has the apt title: “Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem”.  In it the author goes over the real options we faced and why.  It’s a good job. My only concern is that while he is exhaustive about the options, he stops short of all the conclusions I’d like to draw.

For that, the other article is essential.  That one was by Sami Sadat, commander of the Afghan Army.  His title is “I Commanded Afghan Troops This Year. We Were Betrayed”.  His point—that the loss was not just the Afghan army’s fault—is not the main point here.  What is important is that he gives a detailed description of the reality faced by the Afghan forces, and that says quite a lot about how much had gone wrong.  There are three points to make:

1.  The war was lost the moment Trump signed the Taliban agreement.

Here’s the quote from the general:

“The Trump-Taliban agreement shaped the circumstances for the current situation by essentially curtailing offensive combat operations for U.S. and allied troops. The U.S. air-support rules of engagement for Afghan security forces effectively changed overnight, and the Taliban were emboldened. They could sense victory and knew it was just a matter of waiting out the Americans. Before that deal, the Taliban had not won any significant battles against the Afghan Army. After the agreement? We were losing dozens of soldiers a day”.

The last bit is particularly important.  Defeat is an exponential process—the likelihood of attrition depends on how bad things look, i.e. on the losses of all kinds beforehand.  Once the process starts it accelerates.  It was an astonishing mistake of US intelligence to believe we had many months, a year and a half even, before a Taliban takeover.  There was no stability once defeat took root. Biden’s late withdrawal of 1200 US troops is not even mentioned by the general, as it was never the issue.

2. There was NO exit plan ever.

Again from the general:

“The Afghan forces were trained by the Americans using the U.S. military model based on highly technical special reconnaissance units, helicopters and airstrikes. We lost our superiority to the Taliban when our air support dried up and our ammunition ran out.

“Contractors maintained our bombers and our attack and transport aircraft throughout the war. By July, most of the 17,000 support contractors had left. A technical issue now meant that aircraft — a Black Hawk helicopter, a C-130 transport, a surveillance drone — would be grounded.

“The contractors also took proprietary software and weapons systems with them. They physically removed our helicopter missile-defense system. Access to the software that we relied on to track our vehicles, weapons and personnel also disappeared. Real-time intelligence on targets went out the window, too”.

The key point is that none of these functions are transferable in weeks or even months to the Afghan army.  This is a rebuke of the entire war effort. That this gap existed means that there was no serious attempt to make the Afghan army self-sufficient.   As for the contractors, the general’s language makes clear that they had no intention of making their valuable, proprietary expertise available to anyone.

3. The Afghan government had lost the support of the population

On this the general’s comment is specific to the military:

“… there was only so much the Americans could do when it came to the well-documented corruption that rotted our government and military. That really is our national tragedy. So many of our leaders — including in the military — were installed for their personal ties, not for their credentials. These appointments had a devastating impact on the national army because leaders lacked the military experience to be effective or inspire the confidence and trust of the men being asked to risk their lives. Disruptions to food rations and fuel supplies — a result of skimming and corrupt contract allocations — destroyed the morale of my troops.”

More generally, Fareed Zakaria cites a US government poll of Afghans in 2018 that “showed that Afghan support for U.S. troops was at 55%, down from 90% a decade earlier”. That’s saying almost half the population was ready to choose an unknown Taliban regime as better than what they had.  With the rampant corruption, participation in the last Afghan election dropped to less than 25%.  The Afghan President Ghani reportedly fled through Kabul to the United Arab Emirates with $169 million in cash.

So, with all of that why were we still in Afghanistan?  That answer is not complicated.

Getting out was always going to be some variant of the mess we’ve just seen.  And there was also a moral argument:  leaving was going to hurt a lot of people in Kabul (though fewer elsewhere).  So people in government wanted to believe a fantasy—that there was a solution.  That is, the Afghan military would defend the state against the Taliban, and everyone would live happily ever after.  That fantasy trumped reality all the way down to the end. 

What can you say about Biden? 

There’s no evidence he could have done much to delay the military defeat.  He has gotten more people out thus far than has happened in other comparable situations, but he should have started sooner and that would have reduced some of the chaos.  He has not given in to the many proposals for last-minute military actions that would have undoubtedly made things worse.  (To be clear, there was no Afghan army, the US couldn’t possibly take on that role itself, and any serious military action would have put all evacuees at risk. Talks of retaining a second military airport are particularly fanciful, as the evacuees weren’t there.) He might have gotten some of the military equipment out earlier, but doing so would have undercut the Afghan army even more.  (And the Afghan President Ghani pleaded with him not to do it.) 

So you can give him a B.  It was certainly embarrassing, but it could have been quite a lot worse.

Even more important, all Biden could do was manage the exit from a failed war. There was no hiding that fact. For real responsibility it’s worth quoting a succinct recap of US policy failures from former anti-terrorism officer Ali Soufan:

“Every administration made a lot of mistakes in this. The Bush administration made a lot of mistakes in moving much-needed resources to focus on Iraq and then focusing on Iraq. The Obama administration even sent more troops in and, for eight years, was hoping that something miraculous would happen. The Trump administration is responsible for not understanding the situation at all and opening negotiations only with the Taliban and disregarding the Afghan government and releasing 5,000 Taliban fighters without asking the Taliban for anything in exchange. Unbelievable.”

Lessons

1. Don’t believe in “benevolent” colonialism. 

Neither Afghanistan nor Vietnam was a special American phenomenon.  Whatever our original motivations, these were ultimately colonial wars.  Once you take over a country, the motivation of the occupier is stability at all cost.  That leads to wholesale corruption at the expense of the population and even the war effort.  The Afghan general described that situation exactly. You can get a more detailed picture here. Vietnam was the same. The classic on this subject was written in 1860—we should have figured it out by now.

We got into Afghanistan as a follow-on to 9/11.   It was up to us to schedule elections and get out.

2. Watch out for fantasies. 

Something has to be done about an intelligence establishment that was so eager to please, that it couldn’t recognize that the fantasy had no basis in reality.  Remember there was NO exit plan.

3. Watch out for complacency, the idea that the future will just be a continuation of the past.

There is no other obvious reason why Biden was being told that the Afghan army would hold off the Taliban for six months to a year and a half!

4. Finally, going back to Eisenhower, watch out for the military industrial complex. 

For that, it’s worth thinking about who won this twenty-year war.  Not us, just forced to leave.  Not the Afghans who had to live with the fighting and corruption, and now are stuck with the Taliban. The real winners were the contractors.

Over the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. spent $89 billion in taxpayer dollars to fund the building and training of the Afghan National Army with an estimated $2.26 trillion in total operating costs funded by U.S. taxpayers. Ever since the U.S. government began keeping track, contractors have made up more than half of the military personnel working for the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This is all the more remarkable since—as we’ve seen—their objectives were not even aligned with our national goals!

The contractors are said not to be worried at all about the end of the Afghan war.  There’s a whole new round of military modernization coming.  And we’ve never been short of wars.

Urgent Messages

1.  From the Olympics

In the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics many speakers, notably IOC President Thomas Bach, pointed out the importance of the Olympics as a symbol of what can be possible when all countries of the world to come together in peace.  That sounds nice, but it’s probably more apt to think about what happened with the original version of the Olympics, which persisted for quite some time. That message is not so rosy.

The original Olympics functioned even more as a symbol of peace, because there was an actual truce during the Olympic period.  But the overall lesson of the Olympic experience was that good feelings are not enough.  The Olympics did not prevent the horrendously bloody and unnecessary Peloponnesian War, fought between prime participants Athens and Sparta. 

Symbols aren’t enough.  If we don’t work at peace, it won’t happen.  There are more than enough parallels of that past with the current situation between the US and China.  If you want peace you need to remove reasons for war.

2.  From the fires and floods worldwide:

Messaging about effects of climate change has been more than a little confused.   We read about how front-line communities will bear the worst of climate issues (true enough but that makes it someone else’s problem).  We see maps of how different countries or regions will be better or worse off.  The NYTimes once had an article asking readers to plug in numbers to see if they were rich enough to escape the worst.  The most frequent objection to the Paris Accords is that we need to go back and renegotiate a better deal.

Nature is telling us something else.  We’re all in this together, and there is nowhere to hide.  Scientists have correctly indicated the directions of change.  But the world has never been here before, so it’s impossible to predict every bad thing that is going happen and where.

What’s more, carbon dioxide just accumulates in the atmosphere, so climate effects are going to continue getting worse until we can stop burning fossil fuels.  There will be more and more unexpected phenomena with more and more damaging results.   All the talk of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere is not going to produce results any time soon (and even if it works will itself take monumental amounts of energy).  So there’s only one answer—migrating the world’s energy requirements to sustainable sources.

This has to happen worldwide and we have to work together.  It may be contrary to all of our normal modes of behavior, but if we don’t all win we’re going to lose.

In the end the two messages are largely the same. We’ve fought two world wars, and now we’ve now got a third one against climate change. We have to learn how to behave when we’re all–unavoidably–on the same side.