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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 local resistance.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 last week, but his piece this week makes some good points, especially the last line here:

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 "progress."

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 self-knowledge.

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 Taliban.

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):

  • Tariq Ali: 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?

  • Eric Alterman: Altercation: How Low Can They Go? The Media's Afghan Coverage.

  • Zhou Bo: 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.

  • Patrick Cockburn: The Choice Facing Afghans: Do a Deal With the Taliban or Flee; also It is Government Weakness, Not Taliban Strength, That Condemns Afghanistan.

  • Laura Jedeed: Afghanistan Meant Nothing: Veteran, did two tours in the country, "all I feel is grim relief."

  • Fred Kaplan: 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.

  • Jen Kirby: 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.

  • Eric Levitz: 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."

  • Anatol Lieven: 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.

  • MME staff: 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.

  • Andrew Prokop: 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.

  • Aaron Rupar: 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 regard."

  • Grace Segers: 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.

  • Liz Sly: 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 of Empires.

  • David Wood: "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."

  • Robin Wright: 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.)

  • Matthew Yglesias: 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 to above).

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.