Friday, August 20, 2021
Speaking of Afghanistan
I didn't expect the Taliban to take over Kabul so quickly. In
retrospect, I can come up with three reasons, and one more point
which is nothing but a hunch:
The Taliban never was very popular in Afghanistan, at least
outside of the Pashtun regions in the south and east. It took three
years for the warlords to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime once
the Russians left. (The Communist government in Kabul lasted longer
than the one in Moscow.) The Taliban emerged several years later,
took over the Pashtun regions, then struggled elsewhere. When the
US entered in 2001, there were still parts of the country not under
Taliban control, and the Taliban government quickly collapsed as
the US invasion began.
Most of the warnings of an imminent Taliban takeover came from
hawks trying to reverse the American withdrawal. It was natural to
assume they were exaggerating given their ulterior motives.
Ultimately, all Americans turned out to be poor estimators of
what most Afghans thought and wanted. This turned out to be true, not
just for those blinded by hubris and/or propaganda, but also for those
of us who thought we knew better.
And this is the hunch: given that the Taliban wasn't going to
give up the fight, the easiest way to end the constant killing and
mass destruction was to surrender. Americans, so steeped in "live
free or die" bluster (and centuries of military triumphalism, not
that there's much evidence of that since I was born in 1950), may
find this hard to swallow, but history offers lots of examples where
terms matter much less than peace.
There had been a lot of strange talk over the last couple months
about how, with US troops finally withdrawing (but threats of US air
support for the still-US-backed Afghan government) about the advent
of a new (and potentially lengthy) civil war. But for most Afghhans,
war has been a constant plague for 42 years (dating from the Soviet
"invasion," although resistance to the Communist regime had started
earlier, only escalating in 1979 when the US took advantage of the
situation), driven by foreign designs which inevitably provoked
While the Taliban shared in responsibility for the violence, the
US withdrawal gave them an opportunity to promise an end to the war.
Afghan President Ghani refused to negotiate, but many lower officials
and clan figures were willing to deal, ceding political power to the
Taliban in exchange for security -- something the US and its proxies
never could provide. The resulting change of power is more like a
coup than a revolution, let alone a pitched battle. And while media
and politicians in America are all "hair on fire" with their dashed
expectations, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the
way things have turned out. In particular:
Even if Biden wanted to (and he clearly does not), there is
no way the US can return to Afghanistan, conquer the land, and stand
up a new proxy government. They did that once, and the best they
could do (over 20 years and several trillion dollars) fell apart
the instant they left. All the US can hope to do at this point is
damage control, and to do that they have to work with the Taliban.
The great fear is that the Taliban will try to settle old
scores by taking reprisals against the population. There is reason
to think this will not happen, or at least will be limited. First,
they've gained most of their territory by negotiating for security.
Their credibility depends on honoring those agreements, as do their
hopes of extending their power to parts of the country that have
historically been opposed to the Taliban. Also, reprisals will fuel
more refugees, which in turn will detract from their legitimacy.
The late-1990s Taliban suffered greatly for two reasons: they
proved incompetent at running the government; and they never managed
to gain international recognition as a legitimate government. Their
recent diplomatic efforts suggest they are likely to avoid the
isolation of the late 1990s. Regardless of what happens with the
US and Europe, they are likely to gain recognition early on by China
and Russia, by Iran and Turkey, and (of course) by their former allies
in Pakistan and the Arabian states.
The 20 years of US occupation produced some tangible progress
for at least some Afghans, even if not enough to legitimize the proxy
government. I expect that the Taliban will want to build on those
gains -- e.g., in education and public health -- which means that
they will need to come to some sort of accommodation with the urban
professional class. Their statements thus far are ambiguous, but it
seems unlikely (especially if they continue to consolidate power
without having to resort to violence) that they will return to the
extreme Deobandi/Salafist postures of the 1990s Taliban.
The fact that the US has already begun negotiations with the
Taliban suggests that the US is not fated to repeat the die-hard
grudges held against North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Iran. Still,
US policymakers have a long ways to go to realize that they can
work productively with parts of the world they cannot control.
Let's start off with a long quote. I was pretty critical of Matt Taibbi
week, but his
piece this week makes some good points, especially the last line
Every image coming out of Afghanistan this past weekend was an
advertisement for the incompetence, arrogance, and double-dealing
nature of American foreign policy leaders. . . .
The pattern is always the same. We go to places we're not welcome,
tell the public a confounding political problem can be solved militarily,
and lie about our motives in occupying the country to boot. Then we
pick a local civilian political authority to back that inevitably
proves to be corrupt and repressive, increasing local antagonism toward
the American presence.
In response to those increasing levels of antagonism, we then ramp
up our financial, political, and military commitment to the mission,
which in turn heightens the level of resistance, leading to greater
losses in lives and treasure. As the cycle worsens, the government
systematically accelerates the lies to the public about our level of
Throughout, we make false assurances of security that are believed
by significant numbers of local civilians, guaranteeing they will later
either become refugees or targets for retribution as collaborators.
Meanwhile, financial incentives for contractors, along with political
disincentives to admission of failure, prolong the mission.
This all goes on for so long that the lies become institutionalized,
believed not only by press contracted to deliver the propaganda (CBS's
David Martin this weekend saying with a straight face, "Everybody is
surprised by the speed of this collapse" was typical), but even by the
bureaucrats who concocted the deceptions in the first place.
The look of genuine shock on the face of Tony Blinken this weekend
as he jousted with Jake Tapper about Biden's comments from July should
tell people around the world something important about the United States:
in addition to all the other things about us that are dangerous, we lack
That's a pretty succinct sketch of America in Afghanistan, but
written generically so it also has obvious parallels with Vietnam
(and Iraq -- a bit less of an embarrassment given that they wound
up with a government we consider some kind of ally, but one which
ultimately asked us to leave). Still, the coups, incursions, and
occupations which didn't descend into quagmires exhibited many of
the same traits: the main difference was that resistance there
wasn't organized sufficiently to provoke Americans into showing
true colors. In every case Americans see themselves as benign,
although they're mostly self-interested and self-absorbed,
oblivious to the harms they import on friend and foe alike.
Even though this week's events show clearly that Americans totally
misjudged Afghanistan, you still see commentators clinging to the same
conceits and delusions, especially in the sudden concern to evacuate
as many Afghans as possible, saving them from the terrifying clutches
of the Taliban. I don't doubt that there are people in need of saving,
but let's be clear: this is a story which reflects the core story line
we told ourselves: Taliban = bad, America = good. I'm not saying the
US shouldn't take in refugees, but I'm not saying we should either.
I understand the sense of obligation -- everyone should clean up after
themselves -- but the greater moral lapse was launching the war in the
first place. Accepting refugees is part of the price of colonialism,
which is only made possible because there are always locals willing
to trade old masters for new ones, to serve the invaders, to flatter
and enable them. And, of ocurse, when they fail, they expect to be
saved. They may be right, but they're still apologists for bad policy
in the first place.
One thing I've always been critical of is how the US made no effort
to negotiate a transfer of power in Vietnam that would have offered
guarantees against reprisals for Vietnamese who supported the US, but
were willing to stay. It's possible that the US will do better this
time: the collapse of the provisional government was so fast that the
US is having to negotiate with the Taliban just to get Americans out
of the country. What would be better than carting off as many Afghans
as one feels responsible for would be an agreement where the Taliban
promises not to engage in reprisals, but the US (and other countries)
have the right to offer exile to anyone who gets prosecuted by the
I've talked about this idea before: an international treaty which
establishes a "right to exile," where people who are jailed in one
country can be claimed by another country, allowing them to continue
their lives in exile. There would, of course, be much resistance to
this from the United States, where we insist on the right not just
to punish our own citizens for political crimes but to kidnap and
imprison foreign nationals (or to just assassinate them -- note that
for a "right to exile" to work, one would also have to outlaw capital
punishment and extrajudicial killings).
Someone should write a book that carefully and critically sifts
through the media hour-by-hour and day-by-day reporting on 9/11.
I was in Brooklyn at the time, with Laura Tillem and Liz Fink, and
they were glued to the TV while the towers fell, and the immediate
human tragedy metamorphosed into a national (and international)
political crisis. I spent most of the day loosely connected, one
ear picking up the broadcasts, while I thumbed through a picture
book called Century, which in my mind put the day's events
into the context of the very bloody 20th century. I remember bits
and pieces from the news. Most relevant here were the chyrons: by
mid-day they were announcing "America under attack"; that evening,
they came up with some grainy video from Kabul, showing a rocket
explosion, so they changed the chyron to read "America strikes
back." By the time the Kabul video appeared, it was widely reported
that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Still, it was
the media that assumed that the American response would be war, and
they wasted no time cheering it on.
It took Bush-Cheney a month to launch its war, but
the media blitz had answered one question: would launching a war
be a popular move? There was no need for war, and every reason to
expect that war would be ineffective and would cause longer-term
repercussions that could easily spiral out of control. The number
of people involved in 9/11 numbered in the dozens, with all the
actual bombers already dead. Pakistan readily agreed to help find
and prosecute the others. The Taliban balked, which hardly meant
that negotiation was impossible. But Bush-Cheney, secure in the
knowledge that the political media was gung-ho for war, rejected
negotiation and plunged right in.
They knew that the Taliban was weak and unpopular, and that its
hold on Afghanistan was fragile. The Northern Alliance still ruled
the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, and still drew on international
support to fight the Taliban. Just days before 9/11 Bush-Cheney
decided to side with them, which made the subsequent decision to
invade all but automatic. It didn't exactly go smoothly -- Alliance
leader Mahmoud Shah Massoud was killed, as was US favorite Abdul
Haq. But the CIA entered with buckets of cash and hired a bevy
of mercenary warlords, while the Taliban and Al-Qaeda slipped away,
to regroup and fight another day, leaving the US stuck with the
rump of a failed state and a lot of jaded, war-weary people.
I referred to the rapid advance of US-backed forces as the "feel
good days of the war." They didn't last long, but the high sufficed
to get Bush-Cheney looking for bigger and richer game in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the initial goal of mopping up Al-Qaeda had failed,
and the exit of the Taliban left a vacuum filled by the warlords --
the same people whose mismanagement had made the Taliban possible --
plus some slapdash political veneer, and finally the US military.
After that, it all went wrong, for more reasons than I can count.
But one was certainly that Bush-Cheney were too committed to
stripping public resources and undermining democracy at home to
be bothered with building a competent, popular government half
way around the world.
Some more recent pieces on Afghanistan (no attempt to be comprehensive
or representative here):
Debacle in Afghanistan. Author previously (in 2008) wrote
Afghanistan: Mirage of the Good War: "The problem was . . . the
Western state-building project itself, by its nature an exogenous
process -- aiming to construct an army able to suppress its own
population but incapable of defending the nation from outside powers;
a civil administration with no control over planing or social
infrastructure, which are in the hands of Western NGOs; and a
government whose foreign policy marches in step with Washington's.
It bore no relation to the realities on the ground." Given how
circumscribed the project was, is it any wonder that the anointed
Afghans did little but help themselves to the spoils, planning to
skip out as soon as the gig is up?
Altercation: How Low Can They Go? The Media's Afghan Coverage.
In Afghanistan, China Is Ready to Step Into the Void: And why not?
There's little the US can do that China cannot, and little the US can
do to China to express displeasure. And Chinese investments come with
fewer strings, and less greed for returns (key line here: "China has
patience"), than Americans or Europeans expect. And if the Taliban turn
out to be really repressive, China won't mind. China might even give
them some pointers. By the way, don't expect Pakistan to bow to US
pressure now the way it did in 2001. China has become a more reliable
anti-India ally than the US ever was, and that's the main thing Pakistan
cares about. I also expect that US hostility will drive Russia, Iran,
and Turkey into becoming friends of Taliban.
The Choice Facing Afghans: Do a Deal With the Taliban or Flee; also
It is Government Weakness, Not Taliban Strength, That Condemns
Afghanistan Meant Nothing: Veteran, did two tours in the country,
"all I feel is grim relief."
America's Failure in Afghanistan Started 20 Years Ago: "It started
in November 2001 . . . when an international conference decided the new
Afghanistan would be led by a centralized government in Kabul following
the principles of democracy and a civil society." Oh, that's what it
was supposed to be? He makes it sound like the Afghans weren't ready for
democracy, but perhaps the problem was that its centralized design was
preferred by the US to install and control Hamid Karzai, viewed at the
time as a friendly and pliant leader. I've long thought that a federal
system would have worked better in that it would allow power to be more
evenly distributed to localized ethnic groups. But that was only the
start of the problems. The division of spoils among warlords fixed not
democracy but feudalism as an operating principle. And excluding the
Taliban from the political process made it possible for them to regroup
outside the system, free from the taint of American-financed corruption,
with no obligation to practice the democracy they were denied. Kaplan
winds up quoting Michèle Flournoy, who admits that "the United States
and its allies got it really wrong from the very beginning," and adds:
"The bar was set based on our democratic ideals, not on what was
sustainable and workable in an Afghan context." She doesn't explain
what the latter might be, but the US tried rigged elections, bribery,
and sheer force, and they didn't work any better. Kaplan also wrote:
The One Big Thing Biden Got Right About Afghanistan: That it never
stood a chance of working. A week ago, he also wrote:
Trump's New Big Lie: Afghanistan. I don't get the point of saying
"Biden has handled the situation badly." Even if one had anticipated
the accelerated timetable for withdrawing not just troops but nationals
and allies, it was very difficult to admit as much. It may even be the
case that panic has let the military focus.
Who are the Taliban now? One of the few pieces I've seen that at
least considers the possibility that the Taliban have evolved over
their 20 years out of power, although the author (like most Americans)
is clearly predisposed to cling to "but they're still the Taliban."
That's certainly possible, but one thing I've learned in reading about
Islam is that the religion can be flexible and tolerant when it suits
its practitioners. The two big questions in weeks to come will be how
tolerant the Taliban is of diversity internally, and how much legitimacy
the Taliban will seek and achieve internationally. I think the two are
related, with the key being how much resistance they encounter, both
among Afghans and around the world.
Afghan Refugee Crisis Will Test the Strength of GOP Nativism: Not
really. As long as they think it makes Biden look bad, Republicans may
give him some guff over his failures, but anti-immigrant wing (well,
more like the body) of the party won't want to welcome Afghan refugees,
no matter how much they sacrificed to help America's stupid war aims
(and not just because they're Muslims, although that's part of it).
You're starting to see some of this, especially with Tucker Carlson.
Expect more. At some point Trump will chime in, with "I like immigrants
who aren't losers."
The general lied and the fantasy died: "H.R. McMaster and other
apologists for the failed policy in Afghanistan would like us to focus
on anything but their complicity in it today." Also:
Why Afghan Forces So Quickly Laid Down Their Arms: "Opposing Afghan
factions have long negotiated arrangements to stop fighting -- something
the U.S. either failed to understand or chose to ignore."
Ezzatullah Mehrdad/Sudarsan Raghavan:
Anti-Taliban fighters claim victories as first stirrings of armed
resistance emerge: "Claims that could not be independently verified,"
but a reminder that although the Taliban have taken all of Afghanistan's
major cities, there are still pockets where they're not in control. I
expect that the more violent resistance there is to the Taliban takeover,
the more repressive the regime will become, the more unpopular, and the
less successful. No doubt anti-Taliban guerrillas will attract sympathy
from many Americans, but US government support would consign Afghanistan
to many more years of futile war.
President Ashraf Ghani in UAE on 'humanitarian grounds': I was going
to make a joke about how fleeing gives him a chance to reunite with his
foreign bank accounts, but the reports are more prosaic; e.g.: "Ghani
had escaped with $169m in cash in bags before Kabul fell to the Taliban."
[PS: Ghani denies taking cash:
Ashraf Ghani says he fled Afghanistan to avoid being lynched.]
Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I Can't Forget the Lessons of Vietnam. Neither Should You. One of
America's finest novelists and critics, fled Saigon with his family
when he was 4 years old, so not surprising that his lessons are not
the same ones I drew from that same war.
Why Biden was so set on withdrawing from Afghanistan: "Even in 2009,
he didn't believe the military had a strategy for victory." As I recall,
Biden was pushing a strategy he called "counterterrorism," while the
military (especially General Petraeus and McChrystal) had come up with
an ambitious "counterinsurgency" strategy, which would focus on building
trust and winning hearts and minds. Obama went with McChrystal, then fired
him after Michael Hastings' book (The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying
Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan) came out: not, as was
often written, because McChrystal had made disrespectful remarks about
Obama, but because the military had revolted, deeming the new strategy
too risky to their security. (Note that McChrystal's second, Michael
Flynn, was even more insolent, but Obama went on to promote him to run
DIA.) Obama appointed Petraeus to take over McChrystal's command, but
by then Petraeus had given up on counterinsurgency. It's doubtful that
Biden's alternative approach would have done any good, other than by
reducing the American footprint, which was what was really driving
Afghans to embrace the Taliban.
The dark irony of who TV news talks to about Afghanistan: "Cable
news is dominated by the same Afghanistan hawks who created this mess."
No surprise here: "Fox News has been by far the worst offender in this
Biden Finally Unifies Congress -- Against His Afghanistan Withdrawal
Debacle: This just goes to show that politics in America has nothing
to do with policy but is totally subject to rhetoric. If it sounds good,
it must be right. It makes you wonder why politicians even try to win.
After all, if you do, you're stuck defending yourself in the real world,
while the losers get to second guess you every which way.
Afghanistan's collapse leaves allies questioning U.S. resolve on other
fronts: Sure, why not pile on? I wish I could chalk this up to lack
of resolve. That might suggest that US security mandarins are developing
a sense of limits. But really, they made a bet that failed, and has left
them with no other options (OK,
Steve Coll suggests "bombing Afghanistan to smithereens," but he
doesn't explain how that might help). They did everything they knew
how to do to stand up a friendly government with a well-equipped army.
And, frankly, neither would have been viewed as more legitimate had
the US continued to prop them up. As I've seen written several times
recently, time was on the Taliban's side, not the Americans'. Either
it works, or it doesn't, and it didn't.
Jeffrey St. Clair:
Roaming Charges: When the Empire of Graveyards Falls in the Graveyard
"If Killing People Would Win This, We'd Have Won a Long Time Ago".
Quote comes from Marine Colonel. Also quoted is an infantryman: "Those
targets in Afghanistan will never end, because there's an infinite
supply of enemy and a finite supply of us."
Does the Great Retreat From Afghanistan Mark the End of the American
Era? More likely the era ended when America got suckered into
entering and taking over Afghanistan. After all, that was Bin Laden's
plan all around. 9/11 was just bait, an audacious challenge to those
"world's sole hyperpower" boasts. (By the way, I expected something
better from Wright than this lament, but after she details all the
times she went there with this or that general, you can see where
her prejudices lie.)
Biden (and Trump) did the right thing on Afghanistan: "The war was
lost long ago -- if it was ever winnable." No, it never was, but reading
this shows more superficial reasons than the truism that wars only have
losers, even if you can distinguish relative degrees. What's clear is
that the US had no idea what "winning the war" might mean. I'm not even
sure that they wanted to catch Bin Laden. (When Obama finally did, it
changed nothing.) All they really wanted to do was to throw a gigantic
temper tantrum -- to show the world that this is what you get for 9/11.
How else do you explain the rejection of the Taliban's surrender offer?
Omar's culpability was far less than Hirohito's, but the swelled heads
in Washington couldn't see that. One more link jumps out at me here:
"Afghan Pedophiles Get Free Pass From U.S. Military": I guess
Rumsfeld was right: you go with the Army you have, not the Army you
want or need.
Finally, here's a list of books I've read on Afghanistan and
Pakistan, including a few more general "war on terror" books, but
not ones specifically on Iraq or other Arab countries (which would
more than double the list) or Israel or American militarism (which
would double it again). These are probably longer on background,
with a relative shortfall of books on the Afghan government (and
its corruption) and the evolution of the Taliban.
- Robert D Kaplan: Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan (1990; paperback, 2001, Vintage)
- Gilles Kepel: Jihad: The Trail of Politican Islam (2000, Belknap Press)
- Ahmed Rashid: Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (paperback, 2000, IB Tauris) -- updated 2010.
- Tariq Ali: The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002, Verso)
- Steve Coll: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004, Penguin Books)
- Anonymous [Michael Scheuer]: Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (2004, Potomac Books)
- Rory Stewart: The Places in Between (paperback, 2006, Harvest Books)
- Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006; paperback, 2007, Vintage Books)
- Tariq Ali: The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008; paperback, 2009, Scribner)
- Ahmed Rashid: Descent Into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008, Viking)
- Gregory Feifer: The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (2009, Harper)
- Seth G Jones: In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (2009, WW Norton)
- Jon Krakauer: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (2009, Doubleday)
- Gretchen Peters: Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda (2009, Thomas Dunne)
- Nicholas Schmidle: To Live or to Perish: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (2009; paperback, 2010, Henry Holt)
- Nir Rosen: Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World (2011, Nation Books)
- Michael Hastings: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Story of America's War in Afghanistan (2012, Blue Rider Press)
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012, Knopf)
- Andrew Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016; paperback, 2017, Random House)
- Steve Coll: Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2018, Penguin Press)
- Matt Farwell/Michael Ames: American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the US Tragedy in Afghanistan (2019, Penguin Books)
I probably have 100 books on Afghanistan in my
Book Notes file. I started to pull
out a select list of books that struck me as interesting, but they're
pretty uneven, and not many are recent. Anand Gopal's No Good Men
Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan
Eyes is one of the most promising, but I kind of gave up reading
about Afghanistan after the Hastings and Chandrasekaran books in 2012.
I expect there will be a rush to write up what's happening now, as
most recent books have fallen behind. Meanwhile, Craig Whitlock's
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (Simon &
Schuster) is due Aug. 31, and Spencer Ackerman's more general Reign
of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump
(Viking) came out last week. Also on the schedule for November 30 is
Tariq Ali's The Forty Year War in Afghanistan and Its Predictable
Outcome (Verso), probably undergoing some minor touch up right
now (it's an essay collection, no doubt including the articles linked
One last thought: I found it pretty gratifying a few days back when
Seth Meyers repeatedly referred to "the disastrous war on terror," as
if that's not just established fact but common wisdom. He even posted
a picture of Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against
the Afghanistan War authorization. On the other hand, I was dismayed
in this article search to see another piece talking about how "9/11
brought us all together." I've rarely felt more separated and divided
from other Americans than after 9/11 as war fever swept the nation.
Still, not totally separated, as I was able to find a demonstration
against the madness. (I was in New York at the time, but my wife had
returned to Wichita, and she, too, found a friendly demonstration --
the beginning of our circle of friends after moving here in 1999.)
There was nothing nostalgic about launching the war in Afghanistan.
It was a recipe for disaster, and nearly everyone can see that today.