Inevitably, given the sorry state of American politics these days, Joe Biden will be blamed by many people for the humiliating US defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan. But he is really the victim, not the agent, of defeat: Previous presidents set the scene, and Biden is now left to clean up the mess. And what a mess it is, beginning with the invasion of Iraq under George H.W. Bush, the false hunt for weapons of mass destruction under George W. Bush that set the stage for the occupation of Afghanistan, and the “surge” of troop deployments to Afghanistan under Barack Obama[MG1] .
But any objective assessment of US policy must go deeper. From the Bushes to Donald Trump, presidents and their top advisers consistently failed to consult regional experts and Congress, distorted intelligence, believed overmuch in personal rather than state department-led diplomacy, and thus ended up in inexcusable commitments of American power that resulted in tens of thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars wasted. Afghanistan is often called “the graveyard of empires,” but if that is so, it is the empires that must be called to account. Afghanistan has never been treated as an independent nation. Empires, of which the US is the latest, have always acted out of pure self-interest, dismissive of that country’s history, culture, or politics. (For an excellent discussion of that last point, see my Zoom interview of Benon Savan, former personal representative of the UN secretary-general to Afghanistan, at https://www.podserve.fm/episodes/38430/16-interview-of-benon-sevan-former-un-official-in-afghanistan.m4a.)
Here I want to explore two other milestones on the road to US defeat in Afghanistan: the missed opportunity to negotiate with the Taliban in 2001, and the agreement reached with the Taliban in 2020.
2001: Surrender Isn’t Good Enough
The George W. Bush administration missed a golden opportunity to talk with the Taliban in 2001 following the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. At that time the Taliban was weak and disorganized; from all accounts it was prepared to give up and melt away. But the opportunity US leaders saw was to create a new order in that part of the world, one that would remake Afghanistan, eliminate Saddam Hussein, and win the war on terrorism. “One mistake was that we turned down the Taliban’s attempt to negotiate,” said Carter Malkasian, a former senior adviser to Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during parts of the Obama and Trump administrations. “We were hugely overconfident in 2001, and we thought the Taliban had gone away and weren’t going to come back,” he said. “We also wanted revenge, and so we made a lot of mistakes that we shouldn’t have made.” Revenge was certainly understandable after 9-11, but the absence of clear thinking was not. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said at the time, “We don’t negotiate surrenders.” All kinds of assumptions proved tragically wrong, not only about the Taliban’s weakness but also about Pakistan’s willingness to keep supporting them. As one American recalled, “what we didn’t understand, didn’t pick up on for five years, was that Pakistan had abandoned the Taliban government, but had not abandoned the Taliban. That was a critical distinction. So they could re-recruit, re-fund, re-train and project themselves back into Afghanistan. That was a major missed opportunity.”
To miss an opportunity, however, one must see it as such. And even if opportunities are seized, a favorable outcome is far from assured. Assuming the defeated Taliban had fled to the mountains, would the Bush administration have said “mission accomplished” and withdrawn? Would its attempt at democratizing the country starting in 2001 have changed in any way? Probably not. And if Afghan politics had remained corrupt, tribal, and urban-oriented, the Taliban might well have risen again. We cannot know the future. What we do know is that the Taliban were once a spent force, giving the US an opportunity to negotiate it away and leave Afghanistan to the Afghans.
2020: A Negotiated Surrender
Kori Schake, who worked for both the National Security Council and the state department in the G.W. Bush years, calls the November 2020 agreement that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo negotiated “one of the most disgraceful diplomatic bargains on record.” This assessment is based not on Trump’s use of diplomacy, but on Trump’s determination to get out of Afghanistan. He let the US “be swindled by a terrorist organization. . . . we agreed to disreputable terms, and then proceeded to pretend that the Taliban were meeting even those.” Indeed, the deal is extraordinary for its generosity to the Taliban, the kind of deal anyone could see was being offered by a party desperate to get out of town. In it, the Taliban agreed not to target US/coalition forces or let Afghan territory be used by terrorist organizations to attack those forces. It also agreed to negotiate with the Afghan government which, importantly, was not a party to the agreement. What the Taliban got in exchange will have historians talking for decades: total US/coalition withdrawal within 14 months, an end to all forms of support of the Afghan military, relaxation of sanctions, and—most implausibly—release of 5000 Taliban fighters. It’s hard not to see such an agreement as a sell-out of the Afghans and a US willingness to stand aside as the Taliban took over the country (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/28/opinion/trump-taliban-deal-diplomacy.html).
As Schake also points out, the agreement lacked inspection and enforcement mechanisms. Trump promised severe retribution if the Taliban failed to fulfill its part of the bargain, but the Taliban had to know he was bluffing. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said of the agreement: “Our secretary of state signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban. . . . The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.” Mike Pompeo, with his political ambitions front and center, retorts that he did what his master wanted and adds, in a August 25 tweet, that Biden is really to blame: “We were working hard to put an orderly transition in place and to ensure the Afghans have peace & reconciliation. I met with the Taliban to deliver that. We had real American leadership, and I regret we’re not in that place today” (https://www.politico.com/news/2021/0i8/26/mike-pompeo-afghanistan-collapse-506927).
Orderly transition? Peace and reconciliation? Leadership? Read what Trump, in defending himself, said he said to the Taliban’s number two official, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, while the negotiations were in progress:
If you do anything bad to the United States of America, if you do anything bad to any of our civilians, to any American citizen, or if you do anything out of the normal, you know, they’ve been fighting for a thousand years, but out of the normal, because you’ve had your wars, and if you do anything out of the normal, but anything bad to America or any American citizens, I will hit you harder than anybody has ever been hit in world history. You will be hit harder than any country and any person has ever been hit in world history. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/28/politics/donald-trump-hugh-hewitt/index.html).
Trump goes on to say he wanted US troops to leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2020. “But they missed conditions, and so therefore, I bombed and we hit them very hard.” More Trump false bravado: He wants us to believe that his toughness kept the Taliban at bay, only to have Biden surrender to them. The reality, of course, is that Trump is covering up, just as Pompeo and the Republicans are busy doing now, for the hasty departure that left the country to the Taliban. One hopes Trump, Pompeo, and all the other apologists will be made to answer for their arrogant disregard of America’s, and Afghanistan’s, best interests.
Postscript: A Debt Unpaid
The United States not only expended money and soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan; it also killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent people with its drones and aircraft. And the US leaves behind many thousands of loyal Afghans who were unable to get on flights out of the country—people who not only worked for the US and Afghan militaries but also exercised their freedom to become musicians, teachers, doctors, and public officials. The US owes them a debt, one that for now can only be repaid by speaking out on their behalf and refusing to provide economic aid to the Taliban without assurances that such people will not be harmed. It is the least this empire can do.