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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 8/29/21

Afghanistan: new Reflections on Another Failure

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Conditions have changed since the United States began its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the situation remains fluid. New reflections are necessary. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's "pottery barn rule," however, still applies: "You break it! You own it!" - though, of course, you can always throw "it" away. That's what occurred in Afghanistan, known as "the graveyard of empires," because it has historically been so difficult to govern and more difficult to conquer. The United States sent in a raiding party to capture Osama bin Laden following 9/11/2001 and afterwards, like the "man who came to dinner," remained for 20 years -- just long enough to keep rekindling an endless civil war, install its proxies, and leave the nation to rot. Of course, this happened before in Vietnam, Iraq, and iSyria. There, too, we came, we wrecked, we lost, and we leftthough we still engaged in a few post-departure drone-strikes and some useless bombing for good measure. Following President George W. Bush's proclamation of "mission accomplished" in Iraq, indeed, roughly 1/4 of its population wound up either dead, wounded, homeless, or in exile. The Iraqi infrastructure was left in shambles, and the ecological damage remains incalculable. It's a perverse miracle that Bush and his neo-conservative henchman escaped indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Having thrown out the former Soviet invaders in 1989, a loose coalition of ethnic minorities began fighting among themselves and, in 1994, the Taliban filled the power vacuum. Now, decades later, the United States is leaving. There is mayhem at the airports, and thousands are in despair. As in the past, however, civilians will adapt. The Taliban regime might even keep its promise of blanket amnesty, and create an Islamic yet "inclusive" society. Of course, such an agenda would contradict the extremist identity that inspired the Taliban over the years. It is difficult to assume that religious absolutists will extend the hand of friendship to the "other"especially when, considering the threat posed by ISIS-K and al-Qaeda and the dangers deriving from the increasing intensity of what Sigmund Freud termed a "narcissism of small differences."

Another civil war looms for the Afghani people, which will lessen any possibilities for pluralism and the recognition of women's rights. Objective conditions will then justify domestic repression by the Taliban and, once terror is unleashed, it cannot be turned on and off like a water faucet. But the United States will have little to say about such events -- that is what it means to lose. Acting precipitously from the desire to revenge 9/11 is what first led the United States Into the Afghanistan quagmire. The war was lost as soon as failure to instantly catch Osama bin Laden spurred the emotional need to engage in a full-scale invasion. The United States took charge of a fractured anti-Taliban coalition of warlords and tribes that lacked a unifying sovereign. American troops proudly occupied Kabul and the ancient city of Kandahar. But they lacked support in the countryside, and the military command made conditions more unfavorable by backing up Afghani ground troops with bombings that created havoc among civilians. Worse: there was nothing to be done about the ingrained corruption of the Afghani state and its drug economy.

The United States never coherently articulated its strategic goal , and it suffered a severe bout of "mission creep." This malady refers to the unconscious and gradual transformation of aims and the ever-changing justifications required to support them. The seemingly simple plan to eliminate Osama bin Laden quickly got out of hand. Soon, the United States was providing military support to the enemies of those who were hiding him, namely, the Taliban. Conflict between war-lords led the United States to prop up a pathetic regime, and ultimately identify with its proxy sovereigns. What was previously seen as a civil war thus became America's war, which made the fear of losing greater, and simultaneously lessened the urgency of preparing an exit plan.

Neither in nor out, the United States vacillated. As with the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Iraq, and Syria, its elected civilian government was constantly misled by a mendacious, self-interested, and supposedly apolitical military establishment. Seeking increased funding with each new budget, illusory victories were celebrated while cynical rumors about inevitable defeat privately made the rounds. With each new budget came the spurious rationalizations for increased funding. Greed was complemented by ignorance, and ignorance by arrogance. American policymakers consistently underestimated the diplomatic and military skill of the enemyperhaps because there was so little expertise concerning the actors involved and the region's political complexities.

The United States went into Afghanistan nominally allied with sixty nations and under cover from the United Nations, which legitimated its attempt to capture Osama bin Laden as an act of self-defense. Of course, matters didn't end there. Over the last twenty years, at its peak in 2011, 100,000 troops were in Afghanistan. By 2017, there were 15,000 left and then, after the United States cordially announced it was leaving on 9/11/2021, there were none. Or, no, there were 2,500 troops added. Fold or up the ante? On August 14 2021 another 1000 troops were sent, no wait, 4,000 more were ready to go. Who cares? What counts is that we decided to get out -- or not.

Given the polarized state of the American politics, and its momentary enthusiasms, that may change. Who knows? "Shock" that the Taliban took military advantage of the American withdrawal, rather than halt its advance to please its enemy, is either disingenuous or criminally naà ve. The Taliban would have triumphed whether troops were pulled on May 1, 2021as President Donald Trump promised - or today or tomorrow. Blaming Biden for pulling out too soon is duplicitous. Perhaps the withdrawal of American troops could have been undertaken with more finesse. Even then, however, the victor's footprints would have been left behind.

That is because the United States lost the war! What were those policy-makers thinking? Best to begin with a very American trait we don't like to lose! Remember: Donald Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015 not with a white supremacist diatribe, but by rhetorically asking - "when was the last time we won anything?" Four presidents extended America's stay in Afghanistan, or vacillated concerning its departure, in part because none of them wished to take responsibility for being the first commander-in-chief to lose a war. It doesn't matter that "we" lost in Vietnam or Iraq--- "we" couldn't admit it.

Following 9/11, Islamophobia was galloping through the United States like the plague. Enraged citizens called upon the government to "do something" as they ate their "freedom fries." Decisions were made. But times changed - albeit somewhat slowly. According to a March 19, 2021 report by Brookings, more than 60% of Americans supported withdrawal (without a time-line) while 20% opposed it. Getting out must have seemed a prudent political decision for Biden to makeat least at first. The media stoked discontent with the outcome, and t's now fifty-fifty. Some on the right felt angry and betrayed while many on the left felt manipulated and guilty. President Biden's poll numbers started slippingand, fairly or not, this could impact the 2022 mid-term elections.

He inherited a mess. Yes, he originally supported the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq before he tamed down a bit while Vice-President during the Obama years. Still, the president's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a bold reversal - and a necessary one. But then came the "bad optics," and the scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975. The media kept running those horrible scenes at the Kabul airport over and over. But the president righted the ship. Since mid-August 2021, well over 100,000 people have been evacuated; planes carrying scores of exiles departed from Kabul every 45 minutes, and more than 16,000 were flown out in one day.

"Mission accomplished" may overstate the case, but Biden kept his promise of pulling out by September 1. Terrorism at the Kabul airport has cost a dozen American service-men their lives, and not every supporter of the US presence will escape. But that is only realistic to expect when a war has been lost, and when the United States is not calling the shots. Meanwhile, the mass media focused on the "human" tragedies to boost their ratings while Republican critics (as usual) threw red meat to their base. President Donald Trump wailed that thousands of "terrorists" were entering the United States while his pack of devoted followers called upon Biden to resign for not enabling everyone to escape. The world will soon see whether the supposedly compassionate concerns of the Republican leadership for their well-being will morph into their usual brand of xenophobia.

But the Republicans might also choose to live with the contradiction. Why not? They have done the same before and, regarding the withdrawal, they had no alternative strategy to offer. Trump's own bungled peace treaty said nothing meaningful about human rights, evacuees, or the condition of women. That the former president should now call on Biden to resign for leaving these same victims in the lurch- and for administrative incompetence - exhibits a chutzpah that is extreme even for our most prominent pathological egoist. But, never fear, Europe has a sterling counterpart. That former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's lap-dog back in the day, attacked American strategy in Afghanistan as "imbecilic"for not protecting the gains (!) of 2001is simply staggering.

President Biden is not off the hook. His proclamation that the Afghan army would not collapse was an ill-considered prediction. It depended on American support and it lacked a united leadership command of its own) Visas were being prepared, but perhaps preoccupation with them was impractical and overly bureaucratic from the beginning. Biden could have begun negotiating a coordinated international response to the immigrants' plight. The president might get another chance by calling upon the United Nations to help deal with a postwar situation in Afghanistan where the currency is worthless, draught is imperiling agriculture, famine is likely, and the country is in tatters.

The Taliban is now also faced with extremist rivals -- al-Qaeda and ISIS-K - for both national power and sway over an international religious movement. Each will do its best to embarrass and imperil the others, as in the case of the suicide bombings by ISIS-K at the Kabul airport, which placed both the US and the Taliban in a bad light, and led President Biden to drone-bomb their sites. This raises questions for the future. The United States can either participate in dangerous and shifting international and national alliances of convenience to further momentary stability, step back from a conflict from a defeat hat has the makings of another civil war, or respond to new provocations with military force and find itself drawn into another swamp.

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STEPHEN ERIC BRONNER received his B.A. from the City College of New York and his Ph.D. from the University of California: Berkeley. Member of over a dozen editorial boards, Professor Bronner has also worked with US Academics for Peace and Conscience (more...)
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