At the end of August, if all goes according to schedule, the final American troops will depart Afghanistan, almost 20 years after the U.S. war there began. And if current military trends are any indication, the Taliban may soon be back in control.
If that happens, we are likely to see a reprise of the 70-year-old “Who lost China?” debate. This time the blame will likely be hung around the neck of President Joe Biden. But that blame would be misplaced. The U.S. “defeat” in Afghanistan is not the fault of one party or one president. Rather, it is a quintessentially American failure — a collective one 20 years in the making, the result of American hubris and a misguided belief in what U.S. power can achieve.
These bad choices began before the initial phase of the war even ended. At Tora Bora, the U.S. turned the final battle against Al Qaeda over to Afghan militias, who allowed the terrorist group’s leaders, including bin Laden, to slip away into Pakistan. It continued with the disastrous Bonn Conference in 2001, which gathered well-meaning diplomats with little experience in Afghan affairs and members of the Afghan elite to draft a new constitution. The result was a highly centralized federal system that ran counter to years of decentralized Afghan governance.
But it was the exclusion of the Taliban from having any political role in Afghanistan’s future that is perhaps most disastrous, as many commentators have argued for years. In the wake of their defeat in 2001, the Taliban was a spent force and many of its foot soldiers (and leaders) simply wanted to surrender and return home. But the Bush administration refused to countenance any political role for terrorists. With its attention soon diverted by the war in Iraq, the U.S. largely ignored the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s resurrection.
In late 2009, under enormous pressure from military leaders, President Barack Obama agreed to surge 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Publicly, he justified the decision as a way to weaken Al Qaeda — even though the terrorist group presented little threat to the U.S. and hadn’t operated in Afghanistan since 2002. With no clear political strategy for ending the conflict, the Obama administration basically ceded the war to the generals.
Obsessed with the doctrine of counterinsurgency, the military convinced itself it could stand up the Afghan government, “out-govern” the Taliban and win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people all the while weakening the insurgency. But there was little reason for local Afghan civilians to trust the American military or the government in Kabul, which many Afghans viewed as deeply corrupt and untrustworthy. Even among those who deplored the Taliban’s extremist beliefs, there was sympathy for the group’s calls to rid the nation of foreign, non-Muslim troops.
From the beginning, the U.S. war in Afghanistan was grounded in hubris and a profound misunderstanding of Afghan history, politics and culture. But Obama’s surge was the nadir of America’s flawed strategy. When that effort predictably failed, the military went back to old habits, escalating air strikes and trying to win by force. The Trump administration kicked up that effort, prompting a massive increase in civilian causalities in the process. But with a safe haven available across the border in Pakistan, the U.S. military could never hope to deal the Taliban a crushing blow.
For two decades, American policymakers failed to grasp that Afghanistan, despite its natural beauty and resourceful people, is a failed state. Wracked by more than 40 years of civil war, landlocked and defined by harsh and unforgivable terrain, it is a nation that can barely survive without outside support. While the country is freer and defined by greater opportunity than it was before 2001, it is hardly a Jeffersonian democracy — and likely never will be.
The irony of all this is that this final collapse will take place during the watch of the one U.S. policymaker who always seemed to understand that U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was fundamentally misguided: Joe Biden.
Read the rest of this article at MSNBC