ormer secretary of state Colin Powell’s “pottery barn rule” applies: “You break it, you own it!” Perhaps: but then you can always throw “it” away. That’s what occurred in Afghanistan, known as “the graveyard of empires” because it has historically been 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 then, 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 then leave the nation to rot. Not that this hasn’t happened before in Vietnam and in Syria. There, too, we came, we wrecked, we lost, and we left – though 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, roughly 1/4 of its population wound up either dead, wounded, homeless, or in exile. The Iraqi infrastructure was in shambles, the ecological damage remains brutal, and even given the way things work, it’s a miracle that Bush and his neoconservative henchman escaped indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Now the shoe is on the other foot; it’s Afghanistan’s turn to leave its footprint in the sand. Having thrown out the former Soviet invaders in 1989, the Taliban have finally done the same to the United States and, for better or worse, established itself as a sovereign state. To be sure, there is chaos at the airports, everyday people are scared, and the government is preparing for a shakeup. But the chaos will pass, civilians will adapt, draconian punishments might fall by the wayside, and perhaps the new regime will keep its promise of blanket amnesty for those in the old regime and create an Islamic yet “inclusive” society. Such a program 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.” Skepticism is necessary concerning the Taliban’s avowals of pluralism and recognition of women’s rights. Nevertheless, the United States and the world community should remain agnostic for now about how this will all turn out.
Today, indeed, caution and uncertainty are virtues. Acting precipitously in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers first led the United States into the quagmire, and the war was lost as soon as the failed kidnapping made way for a full-scale invasion. The United States took charge of a fractured anti-Taliban coalition of warlords and tribes that lacked a unifying sovereign. Its military proudly occupied cities like Kabul and the ancient city of Kandahar. American forces lacked support in the countryside, however, and military command made things worse by backing up Afghani ground troops with bombings that produced havoc among civilians. Worse: there was nothing to be done about the ingrained corruption of the Afghani state with its drug economy.
As with the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Iraq, and Syria, America’s civilian government was constantly misled by a mendacious and self-interested military establishment. Seeking increased funding with each new budget, it celebrated supposed victories in public, while cynical rumors about inevitable defeat made the rounds in private. With each new budget came the spurious justifications for increased funding. Greed was also complemented by ignorance, and ignorance by arrogance. American policymakers consistently underestimated the diplomatic and military skill of the enemy – perhaps 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 example of self-defense. But that enterprise generated a dynamic of its own. Over the last twenty years, at its peak, 100,000 troops were in Afghanistan. By 2017, there were 15,000 left and then, after cordially announcing its date of departure as 9/11/2021, there were none. Or no, there were 2,500 troops, reinforced on August 14, 2021 by another 1000 — no wait, 4,000 more are ready to go. Who cares? What counts is that we are getting out – or not.
Public opinion might just swing back the other way given the polarized state of American politics and its momentary enthusiasms. “Shock” that the Taliban took military advantage of peace talks or the American withdrawal, rather than halt its advance to please its enemy, is either disingenuous or criminally naïve. What’s more, the Taliban would have made good on its advantage whether troops were pulled on May 1, 2021 – as President Donald Trump promised – or today or tomorrow. Blaming Biden for pulling out too soon is absurd. That the withdrawal of American troops could have been undertaken with more finesse is another matter, though even then the victor’s footprints would have been left behind.
The United States Embassy will soon be empty – or in rubble. American arms are being confiscated by the Taliban. German, French, and Italian diplomats are trying to leave. UN peace-keepers and human rights activists are stuck. Communication has broken down. Immigrants are massing on Afghanistan’s borders. Its citizens hover between the ambitions of warlord politicians representing the old proxy state, outright anarchy, and victorious theocratic genocidaires ready (perhaps) to make more heads roll.
How could it come to this? What were our 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.
Leaders like to think about their legacies; it’s undoubtedly part of being a leader. Following 9/11, it is easy to forget, Islamophobia was galloping through the United States like the plague. Enraged citizens were calling upon the government to “do something” while eating their “freedom fries.” But times changed – albeit somewhat slowly. According to a March 19, 2021 report by Brookings, more than 60% of Americans supported withdrawal (without a timeline) while 20% opposed it. Getting out must have seemed a prudent political decision for Biden to make – at least at first. Whether or not Biden was actually surprised by events, they shook the American public out of its lethargy regarding the conflict. The right felt angry and betrayed, while the left felt manipulated and guilty.
The United States never coherently articulated the strategic goal of its Afghani policy, outside of killing Osama bin Laden, 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 a terrorist quickly got out of hand. Soon, the United States was providing military support for the enemies of those who were hiding him, namely, the Taliban. In for a penny, in for a pound: conflict between warlord leaders made it necessary for the United States to prop up a pathetic regime and ultimately identify with its proxy sovereigns, who had as little support as their predecessors in Vietnam and Iraq. What was previously seen as a civil war thus became America’s war, which made the fear of losing greater, and lessened the urgency of preparing an exit plan.
President Biden inherited a mess that he clearly made messier. Once Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a supposed expert on foreign affairs given his vast “experience,” which Oscar Wilde noted “is the name we give to our mistakes,” Biden had originally supported the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. He tamed down a bit while vice president during the Obama years. Yet his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a bold reversal. He promised that all would go smoothly. But then came the “bad optics,” and the scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975.
The Republicans were quick to pounce, and they followed Trump, their leader, by calling for Biden’s resignation. As usual, of course, the former president offered no meaningful policy alternative. His own improvised peace treaty was thoroughly muddled: there was nothing substantive about human rights, evacuees, or the condition of women. That the former president should now call on Biden to resign for leaving these victims in the lurch – and for incompetence – exhibits a hypocritical chutzpah that is extreme even for our most prominent gangster politician.
Claims that Biden should have included the Afghani government in the decision-making process presuppose that it was sovereign – it hadn’t been in years. He could have provided visas earlier and plans for our collaborators. The president might also have begun negotiating an international response to the plight of immigrants and executed the military withdrawal in well-defined stages. Easier said than done. Bureaucratic competence in moments of crisis is usually a vain hope. Which states would prove reliable in helping with immigrants is also unclear. Unless Biden had publicly declared his decision to stay the course, moreover, whether to withdraw gradually or not would have had little impact on the final result. It is difficult to invent an exit from a twenty-year war that neoconservatives undertook without a coherent strategy.
But there is something else. The American intelligence establishment radically underestimated the Taliban’s base of support. Unlike Boko Haram, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, and other extremist organizations, the Taliban was never comprised simply of a few hundred fanatics thoroughly divorced from Afghani civil society. To the contrary: the Taliban represented those elements of the nation who identified with the agrarian economy, tribal lifestyles, and atavistic religious traditions, which appear increasingly threatened by Western infidels and a globalizing modernity. It is worth noting that three-quarters of Afghanistan is decidedly rural.
Who benefited from this mess? Who paid the price? Both Republicans and Democrats originally supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and they will undoubtedly point to the 6,200 American soldiers and contractors killed, the 20,000 wounded, and the $2 trillion in loans taken by the United States to pursue the war that, according to Forbes (August 16, 2021) could reach $6.5 trillion in debt by 2050. Of course, it was far worse for the Afghanis: 69,000 police and military dead, 48,000 civilians, and roughly 200,000 wounded. These numbers were surely helped along by Trump’s massive air raids of 2019.
Afghanistan is right back where it was when the United States first intervened. The rationale is still lacking. There was no geopolitical gain; the national interest was not served; human rights remain imperiled; and material costs outweighed any possible benefit. Will the American public grasp the reality? Or, better, the deeper reality beyond the heart-wrenching photos and videos of Afghanis by the thousands trying to leap on departing planes, desperately awaiting rescue on rooftops, densely crowding the roads, trembling in fear of the looming purges, dreading the repression of women, and bewailing the introduction of rigid Sharia law.
That deeper reality is: the Taliban won, the country has been wrecked, purges will take place, and the United States will lose credibility and probably suffer a new version of the “Vietnam trauma.”
As he threatened, President Biden can begin bombing should the Taliban interfere with the “evacuation,” or any other stated concern, and even reinsert troops. But using military force to salvage order from chaos does not exactly offer a plausible connection between means and ends. Such a strategy would also further harm American standing in the region. It would be better to aid those friends and allies trying to get out, either by taking them in ourselves or helping other nations to do the same. It would be better to develop some version of the Berlin airlift of 1948-1949, which successfully dropped food and supplies to an imperiled populace, and offer to build hospitals and clinics for the Afghani people. It would also be better to try integrating the Taliban into the world community immediately with the help of renowned moderate Imams and the Arab League.
The United States should not pretend that its original goals in Afghanistan have been met, or can be met in the future; that an alternative to the Taliban exists; that America bears no responsibility for what transpired; or that it was some “stab in the back” by liberal doves that made victory impossible. There is already revanchist talk by Republicans about the new Afghanistan becoming the launching pad for new international jihads in some tired imitation of the old domino theory – and how it is necessary to “do something!” Perhaps. But let’s first see what the Taliban does. It’s still early. Purges, pitiless repression, enforced ignorance might all come later – or not. Movements can change – and the United States must remain open to that possibility. It’s time to turn the page and, for better or worse, begin a new chapter under the title: Taliban Redux.
Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue. His most recent book is The Sovereign (Routledge).