In 2001, President George Bush declared a war on terrorism and the United States of America invaded Afghanistan. Twenty years later, in accordance with a deal negotiated by President Donald Trump under his “America First” strategy, the United States is leaving Afghanistan after 2,372 American soldiers have died, another 20,320 American soldiers were injured and about a quarter-million Afghans have been killed, 70,000 plus of them civilians (the rest Taliban and Afghan Army and police). The negotiated withdrawal was agreed to be compete by September 11, 2021 (no comment needed).
The United States spent anywhere between $1,000,000,000,000 and $2,260,000,000,000 (that is between $1 and $2,26 Trillion dollars. Here is how we spent all that money:
Note the chart above with the following facts: 1) George Bush was President from 2001 to 2009; 2) Barack Obama was President from 2009-20017; 3) Donald Trump was President from 2017-2021; 4) Joe Biden became President on January 20, 2021 and does not even appear on this chart. And this result is his fault? Do they really think we are that fucking stupid to believe that idiocy?
Let me provide a brief review of history: From the time of Alexander the Great, Afghanistan has been one tough hombre. No one has ever successfully “conquered” and held Afghanistan for any significant length of time. The last “win” was when the Sikh empire won the battle of Peshawar in 1834. Since then, the British tried three times, in 1838–1842, 1878–1880 and 1919. Never succeeded. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan three times, in 1929, 1930 and 1979. Got their asses kicked. At peak, the USSR had 100,000 troops in-country in their last incursion, suffering an estimated 15,000 deaths and 30,000 wounded. Oh, and that which usually goes unmentioned – an estimated two million Afghan civilian (men, women, and children) killed.
In addition, the US brain trust (as well as every other invader) misread or misunderstood Afghan culture. Afghanistan has never really been a country, but a collection of tribal areas controlled by warlords. The current borders, drawn up primarily by the British, with accommodation for battles with Pakistan, have never been “united.” There has never been a “central government.” Noah Feldman nailed that when he referred to the historical Kings of Afghanistan more as mayors of Kabul than anything else. The rest looks like the tribal areas of Pakistan.
With that in mind, the brain-trust of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld believed they could reverse the history of the last two hundred years (at a minimum) and successfully invade Afghanistan. President Obama, faced with increasing Islamic terrorism from Al-Qaeda, with covert support from the Taliban, initially doubled down but soon reduced spending and troops, which stayed at about the same level under President Trump. It was Trump who negotiated the US-Taliban truce under which the United States committed to withdrawing all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2021.
By the time Joe Biden made the decision to complete the withdrawal, there were only 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan. Estimates of the number of Taliban fighters range between 10,000 and 100,000 going back to 2001. Here is the BBC’s map of who controlled what on July 9, 2021:
We (the United States) effectively controlled less than half the country at the start of the withdrawal. We, never succeeded in ‘defeating’ the Taliban. The best we did was suppress their presence in Kabul and Kandahar and contiguous areas with random provinces thrown in. We also gave Afghan women in US controlled areas 10 years of relative freedom and the right to education, which will, very unfortunately, become lost progress when the Taliban rule. We never did get the Afghan warlords under control, nor did we end the corruption of the putative elected government of Afghanistan, nor did we prevent the tribal rivalries or deals with the Taliban that undercut the government the US was supporting, nor, finally, did we ever make any part of Afghanistan ‘safe for democracy.’
The horrible reality is that all our sacrifice, the lives and treasure, provided the opportunity to split the Taliban away from Al-Qaeda, but did not really disrupt Pakistan’s support of the Taliban, nor remove the Taliban as a military force.
This endgame was inevitable.
And then, we have this from Trump:
Had our 2020 Presidential election not been rigged and if I were now president, the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal. I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable. It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that much better than anyone.
The big lie continues. What unmitigated horseshit, but then, what else would you expect from this man, our country’s greatest wellspring of excrescence. There is not one iota of evidence that Trump would have done a ‘better job’ – and in fact, had his performance on this matched his performance on COVID, jobs, foreign policy, or damn near anything else, it would have been a magnitude bigger clusterfuck.
The speed of Afghan armed forces capitulation should not have surprised anyone and the fact that it did is a massive failure of US intelligence but the endgame, i.e., the Taliban taking over the country, has been the inevitable result for years. Everyone knew the Taliban were going to take over when the US left. You cannot blame Joe Biden for that.
The Afghani Army started to melt back into the population right after the announcement of the Trump-Taliban deal. They cut “surrender” deals with local Taliban leaders before the Biden announcement. The fact that our vaunted intelligence services failed to provide this to the President is certainly a black eye, but for the agencies, not Joe Biden.
Why would anyone be delusional enough to believe that the intelligence community under Biden is in anyway substantially different – apart from the very most senior leadership – in less than a year under Biden than it was under Trump? Only if that attitude fit your political agenda because it sure lacks logic.
The British tried and failed. The Soviets tried and failed. We have now tried and failed. Along with “never start a land war in Asia,” “do not invade Afghanistan” should be a seminal section in the US Armed Forces manual. Do not blame Biden. Do not blame the US Armed Forces or our NATO allies. If you must, blame our distorted view of how and when to fight terrorism. Blame Bush, and Obama, and Trump. Once in and committed, Obama, and then Trump were severely constrained in what they could do. In other words, we were royally screwed.
Trump finally cut a deal with the Taliban to stop shooting Americans in return for a promise to leave the country. He did this without the involvement of the Afghan government or the Afghan military. Are we now surprised that the Afghan Army put up no resistance to the Taliban takeover? We trained the Afghan military for 20 years and the result is that the Taliban now have all the assets we gave to the Afghan military.
We owe our Afghan war military veterans an apology – it was an impossible mission. They served honorably when their country asked them to serve. Our leaders misapplied and misused them. The right intelligence at the beginning, along with a willingness to accept that intelligence even though it ran counter to the narrative that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld wanted, could have saved thousands of American casualties and millions of Afghan civilian casualties. But just like Vietnam, our leaders did not listen. So, this was another war with zero hope of winning.
Someday, if fortune smiles upon us, our political leadership will adopt the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s* doctrine. My simplistic interpretation of which is that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” (Isaac Asimov). In other words, do not start if you cannot win. Find another way.
Frequently, how you start is a real factor in how you finish. How did we start? Angry, over-confident, vengeful, unfocused, looking for payback, in other words, more than a bit incoherent. Surprise, surprise, which is mostly how it is ending.
I think President Biden will own the mess and do everything he can to mitigate the danger to the Afghan people who helped the United States and the US personnel that are in-country (I wrote this before his speech on the withdrawal. Rarely prescient but nailed it this time.) I also think a review of how our intelligence agencies are functioning is in order.
*The Powell Doctrine (from Wikipedia)
The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all must be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:
- Is a vital national security interest threatened?
- Do we have a clear attainable objective?
- Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
- Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
- Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
- Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
- Is the action supported by the American people?
- Do we have genuine broad international support?
It denotes a nation’s exhausting of all “political, economic, and diplomatic means”, which, only if all were futile, would result in the condition that the nation should resort to military force. Powell has also asserted that when a nation is engaging in war, every resource and tool should be used to achieve decisive force against the enemy, minimizing casualties and ending the conflict quickly by forcing the weaker force to capitulate.