The Inevitable

I am going to be writing on this topic elsewhere, and I have written about Afghanistan multiple times in the past on this blog. So, I am going to be extremely to the point.

When Bush decided to engage in nation building rather than simply going into Afghanistan to hunt Al Qaeda and supporting any naturally occurring coalition of warlords who enabled us to do so, that was a major error. The idea of a Western Hemisphere power nation building a landlocked and remote from trade route country in Asia is a blatant farce to anyone who can read a map. There were no strong U.S. allies neighboring the country and logistics were dependent on the intermittently hostile and utterly compromised Pakistan to be workable.

When Bush redirected military effort away from Afghanistan and towards the utterly unnecessary war of choice in Iraq, the error became a disaster in the making.

When Obama’s Afghan surge failed, the war was lost and no rational person could deny it. It continued because it was profitable for defense contractors and no president had the courage to own what would inevitably be a ghastly situation of Taliban resurgence when they pulled out. But with the failure of the surge if not earlier it became obvious that every second the war was continued was just putting more lives and money on the line to delay an inevitable sour end. Stay one day more or fifty years, the result would be the same. Nation building only works in countries that already have the indigenous skill sets to develop themselves, such as the industrialized former Axis powers after the war. Or in places where your objective is to annex and administer the territory directly through settlement like Roman Gaul, an impossibility here.

Biden, a man who I am not a fan of by any stretch of the imagination due to too many reasons to count over his decades in the senate, was brave to finally break with this trend and pull out. Trump, even, in negotiating an exit, deserves some marginal credit. The media, which hates ending wars and loves starting them due to its advertising being bought and paid for by so many connected to defense contracting, is throwing a fit. But Biden is correct on this issue.

The danger now is the weaponized human rights rhetoric that is easily cultivated among the “socially aware” of society, which will complete the neoconservative turn of the Democratic Party in particular. ‘We betrayed Afghan women and girls” will become a rallying cry for liberal interventionism no matter how stupid the cause. In fact, the tragic fate of Afghanistan is an argument against nation building and cultural engineering of different places. But that isn’t the lesson that will be learned by those with financial and/or ideological incentive to keep endless wars going.

Not even I, someone who was very skeptical on the long term fate of the Afghan government, saw how rapid their loss would be. I have had a great run of predictions the last few years but I definitely didn’t see just how rapid Taliban advances would be. Add this to my 2016 election prediction as my two big screw ups I will fully own. If over two trillion dollars and almost two decades of military aid was not enough to get this government to survive, than nothing was. This was already over at least a decade ago. South Vietnam stood a better chance at surviving on its own. This is more like Manchukuo.

The only rational critique, given this inevitability, is that the U.S. should have evacuated all of its allies who wanted it as the first rather than last order of business once negotiations started. They really did get screwed by Washington. But over all, Washington and Kabul had a highly dysfunctional and corrupt relationship that made a few people on both sides very rich but failed to address the actual security situation on the ground. This complicates everything in the relationship.

But even more than Washington and Kabul there is one actor who sabotaged everything continuously and cannot be overlooked as the ultimate architect of the dismal future for Afghanistan: Pakistan. The good news here is that with U.S. withdrawal, there is no longer any need for close relations between Islamabad and Washington. Having no longer any use (and actively being an impediment for warming relations with India), Pakistan will turn to its only friend, China. And China has the capacity to get them to reign in their rogue intelligence services far more than the U.S. did since they are so vital to Pakistani security vis-à-vis India. The ISI should be careful what it wishes for.

But never forget who led us into this for so long and who lied about it. How the media praised them and politicians promoted them. And how it all could have been avoided with a sustainable grand strategy and sober cost/benefit calculation of what military action can and cannot do. The Taliban controls more of the country and is arguably stronger today than it was on September 10, 2001. For the time being, there does not even appear to be a Northern Alliance. Only the future will tell if their current victory is more fragile than it appears, but no matter their fate I for one am glad the U.S. is no longer swimming against the tide in a place that did not serve its interests to be in, attempting the impossible at the greatest expense and least effectiveness it could.

Helpful Source Materials:

The Afghanistan Papers, Washington Post

U.S. costs for the Afghanistan War, Brown University Costs of War Project

Contractor Corruption 1, Michael Tracey

Contractor Corruption 2, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate

Corruption in the Afghan Government, Washington Post

The Long-standing Taliban-Pakistan relationship, Human Rights Watch

Current Pakistani ISI-Taliban Relationship, Project Syndicate

The one good media take I have seen so far, Breaking Points

And more, Breaking Points

Edit: three hours later, looks like Biden agrees with me on reasoning.

The Slithering Death of Bush’s Last Legacy

Afghanistan-and-Its-Neighbors

 

Two decades, one peace deal.

I am hopefully going to have a much larger and depth write up on Afghanistan’s likely futures out soon. I will post that once its done. In the meantime just a brief commentary on the now diverging fates of Kabul and Washington.

1. The second the US decided to go on its quixotic Iraq crusade rather than focus on Afghanistan and reigning in Pakistan vis a vis the Taliban was the second this war was lost for Washington. Everything since has just been an incredibly expensive buying off of the inevitable. Afghanistan’s mere location in the world ensured it could never be a long term development project like some US cold war allies were (Thailand, South Korea). I still blame Bush and Pakistan first for this and everyone should really. Before that point this war was indeed (briefly) winnable. And it should have been won then. Everyone save the Taliban would have been better off.

2. Though Afghanistan’s immediate future will enter a dark readjustment, the long term prospects are what they have always been due to geography. China and Russia matter more in the fate of Afghanistan than America ever really could. Even if the Taliban take power totally (not a certainty, state failure or a splitting of country factions seem at least as likely) the situation has changed enough that other powers will act to contain any designs they have outside of the country. Russia and China’s capabilities are much greater than they were in 2000 and the 90s. Also, the Taliban does not get along with ISIS and even fights them quite effectively now, a trend that will only increase as the common American foe leaves. The Taliban have to be somewhat tired of war. It would be unwise for them to take part in any more international schemes, and if they do it will most likely target Ashgabat, Dushanbe, and Urumqi than NYC or Paris (still unwise). Local powers will find containing a resurgent Taliban from outside Afghanistan’s borders a more sustainable long term project than America could from this incredibly vulnerable position within the country. They are also more likely to be able to successfully negotiate with them since they cannot be waited out like distant America could. And the only country truly capable of reigning in Pakistan is their patron China.

3. From the US perspective its very important that once we leave Afghanistan we no longer have to rely on Pakistan for anything. The U.S. re balance towards India (and the admitting that Pakistan was always a Chinese goon before it ever could be an American goon) has infinitely more geopolitical significance to Washington than anything that ever happened in Afghanistan-including the Soviet invasion itself. Having to rely on Pakistan for logistics has really deformed this process.

So the U.S. lost the war in a sense. It negotiated itself out of a failure for only promises that might not be kept. But rather than being weakened, its likely strengthened on the world stage. No longer does this small outpost surrounded by rivals tie a maritime power to remote mountains deep in Eurasia. Security efforts move towards Moscow and Beijing’s pocketbook. And the Taliban ‘won’ but only in a way where they now face a local system even more likely to check their ambitions than before.

So who actually won here, if anyone? In a clear cost/benefit type of way? Pakistan I suppose, but a stronger more assertive China being their guarantor against India means perhaps not.

I think if anyone gets out of this with a strengthened hand its Iran. U.S. forces out of a country they share a large border with coupled with the rise of a threat that makes makes other local countries view Iran (and its proven sunni-fanatic killing abilities) a more desirable country to partner with. Tehran is coming out of the cold.