Where did we go so wrong in Afghanistan?
By Alon Ben-Meir
In his address to the nation last Monday, President Biden used the majority of it to try to justify the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, which needed hardly any justification given that after 20 years the US has not come any closer to defeating the Taliban permanently. The vast majority of the American people supported his decision when he first announced his intention to end the war based on the agreement concluded between Trump and the Taliban last February. Biden’s decision to withdraw was certainly the right one and was overdue by 19 years. His determination not pass the war onto a fifth president was wise, as it would spare the country from continuing to invest blood and treasure in an unwinnable war.
The problem was not the need to withdraw, but the manner in which it was conducted. Why on earth did he begin to pull out troops without the proper preparation to ensure that US and other foreign diplomats and civilians, along with thousands of Afghan interpreters and other support staff and their families, departed orderly and safely?
To subsequently dispatch thousands of troops to secure the airport to ensure safe passage for the departees was certainly necessary. But this happened only following the chaos that swept Kabul and sent shivers down the spines of tens of thousands of Afghans and foreign diplomats and civilians. As I see it, this last sorry chapter is continuing a string of mistakes committed by Biden’s predecessors Bush, Obama, and Trump. They have learned nothing about the nature of Afghan society nor from the Soviet Union’s experience in the 1980s, when it departed Afghanistan after ten years of fighting with its tail between its legs.
Miscalculation from the onset
Following the defeat of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in less than a year, former President Bush rushed to invade Iraq in 2003 through the concerted effort of his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. He failed to make any arrangement with the then-transitional government led by Hamid Karzai over the prospect of continuing Taliban resistance. He lost focus on the unfinished Afghanistan campaign and subjected American troops to an uncertain future, as neither he nor his military brass had any plans as to how to conclude the campaign once the main objective of removing the Taliban from power was accomplished.
Imposition of democracy
The decision to introduce democracy and engage in nation-building was doomed from the start. Yes, progress was made, a democratically-elected government was installed, and human rights and social reforms provided the hallmark of the American enterprise. But then the US ignored the fact that the imposition of a western-style democracy on a country that lived for millennia as a tribal society would be short lived at best.
The US should not be in the business of spreading democracy by force. We seem to have learned nothing from Vietnam, let alone the US’ long history of instigating and interfering in regime changes. Instead of providing a model of a functioning democracy and human rights through the use of soft power to influence other countries, we come in charging with massive military to change the political landscape, only to end up retreating and delivering the country straight to insurgent forces.
Three successive presidents before Biden made their decision on the continuing efforts in Afghanistan based on the recommendations of military leaders who insisted that the war was winnable and wanted to secure a total victory. Troop surges have continuously been sent on the promise that victory over the Taliban was in sight, which obviously was proven to be completely misguided. In addition, the military strength of the Afghan National Army was grossly overstated; thousands deserted over the years and many sold their weapons to the Taliban. Over 2,300 American soldiers were killed and more than a trillion dollars were spent with little to show for it.
Mis-assessing the source of the Taliban’s resiliency
All three administrations preceding Biden’s never fully appreciated or understood the nature of this tribal country, its culture and history, and the Taliban’s resolve to resist regardless of the heavy toll it would sustain. The Taliban are indigenous to Afghanistan, fighting for their country and their culture guided by a deeply religious way of life, following Sharia law using a strict interpretation of the Quran. As they see it, no power would be allowed to exercise any prerogatives in their land and they have no reason to tolerate any foreign intrusion, not to speak of conquest. They are patient and know how to persevere.
Sadly, Biden has shown no better understanding of the Taliban’s resolve and tenacity. In his press conference only a week and a half ago, Biden declared that the Taliban’s takeover was not inevitable, as “the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped [soldiers] and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban,” later stating that “the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” However, Biden’s announcement of the withdrawal three months ago only gave the Taliban time to prepare for their takeover. Intelligence agencies warned the administration of the rapid collapse of the Afghan military and the extreme likeliness of a Taliban victory, and the Afghan government itself was simply unprepared for the Taliban’s onslaught.
Failure to engage the tribal chiefs
Another mistake common to all four administrations is that they did not involve the chiefs of the Afghan tribes, who hold tremendous sway in the country, alongside the central government. A tribal leader with whom I spoke a while ago was adamant that without the tribal chiefs’ participation, the war will go on. After all, the Taliban come from these tribes and tribal leaders can pose a much greater influence on their tribespeople than the Taliban. Had the US engaged the chiefs in the negotiations, the outcome might have been different.
In spite of the US’ efforts to reform the country and establish a legitimate government that responds to the public’s needs, corruption by top officials and the military consumed the country from within. The US knows only too well that unless corruption is weeded out, little social, economic, or political reforms can be made and sustained. Sadly, the US did not insist that the government make every effort to systematically weed out corruption. Billions of dollars have been squandered, bribes were rampant, and as a result many social programs have suffered.
No cohesive and goal-oriented policy
Through mission creep, the US’ goal became to create a functional and stable democracy, but there was no mechanism in place to secure this outcome once the US withdraws from the country. Although several sets of negotiations took place between Taliban representatives and US officials regarding the eventual withdrawal, the US failed to establish a policy of carrot-and-stick. The US could have committed to providing the Taliban financial assistance should they adhere to a certain level of human rights, especially in regard to girls and women, yet failed to implement any sort of arrangement in this regard.
Now that the US is coming to the end of a war that should have ended 19 years ago, the question is, what have we learned from this bitter experience. Leadership bears major responsibility and foresight. We should not be the policeman of the world, but must use our soft power to address injustices and human right abuses wherever they may occur. Our experiment in democracy should be emulated voluntarily, and not forced down the throats of other nations.
Finally, now that the Taliban will govern Afghanistan once again, it’s time to heal the wounds and extend to them a helping hand, which may well be the only way we can persuade them to treat their people humanely and with dignity. If nothing else, if we can affect even such a limited outcome, we can look back and take comfort that the longest war in American history and our sacrifices were not totally in vain.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.