Leaving Afghanistan and the teachings of America’s longest war

In early 2010, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, offered advice to President Barack Obama on the Afghan war. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and were in an invincible conflict with Islamist mujahideen rebels aided by the United States and others, Gorbachev ignored hawks in his Politburo and ordered a military retreat, which ended in 1989. He warned Obama that America risked a similar “major strategic failure”, and he recommended “a political solution and troop withdrawal.” This “two-track” approach – a controlled troop withdrawal and talks with the Taliban and other Afghan factions in the war – should seek to promote “national reconciliation” in the country, Gorbachev advised.

Obama approved secret peace talks with the Taliban later that year, and since then the United States has essentially followed Gorbachev’s approach, albeit slowly, through policies full of contradictions and at very high cost of living, more than twenty-two hundred US troops. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan peaked at about one hundred thousand troops in August 2010 and dropped to just under ten thousand by the end of Obama’s presidency. The Obama administration’s negotiations with the Taliban failed, but when Donald Trump became president, he revived the negotiations. In early 2020, Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s envoy, entered into an agreement with the Taliban that included a promise to eliminate all US troops by May 1, 2021. Trump also ordered a reduction of US forces to twenty-five hundred when he left the office. (About seven thousand NATO troops were also left.)

This was President Joe Biden’s legacy: a decade of failed negotiations, a flawed Trump deal that increasingly benefited the Taliban, a US troop deployment too small to change the war deadlock, and a looming deadline to leave the country altogether or even invite to renewed Taliban attacks. Biden was not faced with any good choices, only a menu with risky options. In the White House, Wednesday, after a policy review, consultations with NATO allies and one last push to speed up stalled peace talks between the NATO-supported government in Kabul, led by President Ashraf Ghani, and the Taliban announced to Biden his decision: America would end the longest war in its history, and the entire United States and NATO troops would retreat before 9/11.

“We went to Afghanistan because of a terrible attack that happened twenty years ago,” Biden said. “It can not explain why we should stay there in 2021.” He noted that he was the fourth president to oversee US involvement in the war, adding: “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”

At present, it can come as no surprise that the United States has openly accepted defeat in its protracted war. It has been clear for at least a decade that the war could not be won militarily. A stalemate between foreign troops and local insurgents, such as that which the United States has been exposed to with the Taliban since around 2006 – and that which the Soviets turned away from thirty years earlier – often loses proposals when the insurgents have an external sanctuary where they can recruit, train, treat their wounded and armed, as the Taliban have had in Pakistan. Pakistan’s army and its main intelligence service, ISI, have successfully run the same handbook against NATO troops in Afghanistan as ISI and CIA ran against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with the same final result.

More surprising given the Taliban’s obscurantist prospects and sparse past experience of international diplomacy, it has been its success in surpassing the United States in negotiations. From its initial talks with Obama’s envoys through its intense negotiations with Khalilzad, the Taliban have relentlessly pursued two demands: the withdrawal of foreign forces and the release of Taliban prisoners. The group has now achieved these goals – the Afghan government released 5,000 prisoners last year – while not admitting much.

Trump helped the Taliban by constantly threatening to order a total US withdrawal, whether the Taliban made concessions to reduce attacks on Afghan forces or support negotiations. And as U.S. threats to punish insurgents on the battlefield increasingly turned out to be empty, the Taliban’s biggest incentive to compromise was to gain credibility as a responsible party on the world stage – which its leaders apparently judged they had either already achieved. or not required. .

The Pentagon and many Republicans in Congress argue that Biden should have postponed a final withdrawal of troops until a political agreement between the Taliban and Kabul had been cemented, or until the Taliban had agreed to a ceasefire or at least a major reduction in violence against Afghan forces. and civilians. But it is difficult to argue with Biden’s conclusion that it would be insane to “continue the cycle of expanding or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan in the hope of creating ideal conditions for withdrawal and expecting a different outcome.” After two decades of official optimism and outright dishonesty about the progress of the war, there is certainly value in a president’s accepting military defeat for what it is.

Still, the spin machine that Biden White House has set in motion to get the best out of a humiliating decision is discouraging. The president has framed the end of the war with the upcoming 9/11 anniversary for obvious reasons, but it hits a hollow ring of political marketing in a moment that should evoke gloomy reflection on the tragic cost of hubris – the more than 2,200. American lives lost , but also, crucially, more than a hundred thousand Afghans killed. It is, of course, the Afghan people who have paid the highest price for the failed ambitions of the United States in their country, and who now face the grim threat of another Taliban revolution or a deepening and cutting civil war, and this after more than forty years with almost persistent conflict, started and prolonged by invasions and secret actions from external nations.

The Biden administration insists it will continue to lead international efforts to provide diplomatic, humanitarian and political assistance to the constitutional government in Kabul and to a generation of urban Afghans, and especially women who grew up in power under protection of NATO security forces. Yet it has been a recurring habit for U.S. governments, amid the manifold flaws of their own policies, to deny blame to Afghan allies – as if chronic Afghan corruption was completely separate from the huge injections of U.S. dollars into the country’s bottom economy, or as Afghan heroin drive was separated from the dependence of Western users. A letter from Foreign Minister Antony Blinken to President Ghani, which was recently leaked, filled with frustration and veiled threats due to Ghani’s reluctance to accept US priorities in peace talks, is the latest entry in this grim archive. On Thursday, Blinken flew to Kabul to demonstrate “the continued commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan.”

When Gorbachev presided over the Soviet withdrawal, beginning in 1988, the CIA and many other analysts confidently predicted that the mujahideen rebels, the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had armed and bankrolled against the Soviets, whose ranks included future Taliban leaders, would quickly take power. In fact, the secular-oriented government in Kabul at the time – still financially supported by Moscow and by left-wing Soviet military advisers – held on for several years as Gorbachev sought “sincere and responsible cooperation from all sides”, which he remembered in 2010 to achieve to a political solution that would prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and stabilize the region. Gorbachev did not find such cooperation; Pakistan and the United States sought total victory, and shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, so did the Kabul regime.

Still, if some of the Soviet experience is lacking, external forecasts of Afghanistan may usually be incorrect. “The opportunity is there,” Gorbachev wrote eleven years ago, “but it takes a lot to seize it: realism, perseverance, and last but not least, honesty in learning from the mistakes made in the past and the ability to act. on that knowledge. ” Honesty has been long overdue, but the opportunity remains.


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