Monday, August 16, 2021

Afghanistan - Pick a President to Blame

 As we watch the final departure of US force from Afghanistan, joining the narrative of the British and the Soviet Union before us, we remember actor Wallace Shawn's pithy delivery of line in The Princess Bride (1987), 

You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is 'never get involved in a land war in Asia'..."

So as the self-congratulatory Monday morning quarterbacks all start to say "I told you so" even when they didn't, it is fair to say the following.

1) The Neo-con attempt at installing democracies during the Arab Spring has finally lost its last straw man as the President of Afghanistan has fled for Tajikistan.  Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan... none of them have emerged as a peaceful democratic system of government.

2) The US invasion of Afghanistan achieved a 20 year pause in Taliban governance,  which will now be relegated to history. 

3) The US post-9/ll military strategy did significantly break down the central organization of Al Qaeda, and implemented broad intelligence and military capabilities throughout the region in the form of cyber war, imaging, surveillance and drone warfare - all of which are ongoing.

4) Liberal attempts to build social democracies based in civil rights, political freedom and gender equality have not been successful or enduring in the region.

So who do you blame?

Bush II, who started it all?  His strategy was to find Osama, defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, and establish a pro-Western government in Kabul with US military support

Obama, who increased our presence there?  His strategy was counter-insurgency, rooting out Taliban cells, protecting civilian targets nation wide, building social institutions like schools and medical facilities and trying to re-integrate former Taliban supporters into the new society?  

Trump, who largely left the war to the generals while periodically pushing a strategy of "why the hell are we still there?" His strategy was to pursue negotiations with the Taliban to protect the US forces from attack with the promise of departure, while increasing materials and funding to the Afghani army, police and government.

Biden, who continued the Trump policy of withdrawal, and continued to underestimation of the Taliban's eagerness to take the country back.  His policy was to get out and to support the Afghani government financially and materially.

All four presidents have reason to blame.  Perhaps Trump was the most realistic of the four.  In hindsight, the place where mission creep shifted to a long term disastrous failure was under Obama.  

In retrospect it seems clear that the deeper military investment, the "surges" to drive back insurgents and create living spaces for civilians - all with an eye towards nation building or even building of a liberal society - were the ideas that got us stuck for another decade.  These were the ideas of the Obama white house.  

On the other hand, Obama did in fact pull out of Iraq and was later lambasted for creation a power vacuum for ISIS in the region.  Had he also pulled out of Afghanistan, one might argue that would have been even worse across a larger swath of the map.  And he hadn't found Osama in Pakistan yet at the beginning. Surely we had to stay to have the ground game to support that search.  Perhaps.  But once Osama was gone, and the war on ISIS was underway in Iraq and Syria, it seems hard to see what the goal in Afghanistan was any more.

Let's be clear:  the government and society that Obama hoped for in Afghanistan would have been a wonderful thing.  That is exactly the kind of country we form close allies with, and I believe make the world a better place for humanity.  The question is, how do countries become that?  Somehow our experience in Germany and Japan continues to tell us that we can be successful conquerors of other nations in this manner, despite the absolute differences in historical, cultural and political context.  We need to admit:  we can not change another country by military force.  This was the siren's call that led Obama astray.  If only we can carve out peaceful areas to allow our values to grow, they will be so desired by people anywhere that they won't be able to avoid becoming open democracies.  This is fool's gold.