The U.S. in Afghanistan: 18 Years and Still Counting

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Donald Trump (White House via Wikimedia Commons)

by Robert E. Hunter

Always the man of surprises, President Donald Trump this past weekend sprang two: the first to schedule a “secret” meeting at Camp David to try settling the Afghanistan conflict; the second to cancel the meeting and the entire peace process.

He was certainly wise to do the second. Just before a delegation of the Taliban was about to arrive in the United States, it launched another terrorist attack in Afghanistan that killed 12 policemen and soldiers, including an American. No president could endure meeting with the Taliban’s representatives after such an outrage. It also showed that the group that had run Afghanistan until deposed by the U.S. invasion after al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks in the United States is not serious in working for peace rather than continuing to contend for a return to power though violence.

Spoilers’ Attacks on Peacemaking

Or does it? As with so many terrorist groups or even normal political groups in the region—and indeed elsewhere—to talk of a “group” as being all of one mind or intention is generally incorrect. While it is possible that the recent attack was ordered by what passes for a Taliban supreme command, it could have as easily been undertaken by some subgroup. If so, the objectives would be: first, to make impossible a positive outcome of the impending Camp David meeting; and second, to launch the contest for political power within Afghanistan in the aftermath of drawdown by the U.S. military, whose presence is almost certainly needed to keep President Ashraf Ghani and his followers in office. We often forget that when there is certain to be a forthcoming vacuum of power, total or even partial, contenders for power do not wait but act immediately. The aftermath of America’s exit from Afghan politics has already begun.

The emergence of spoilers with their own agendas rather than what we might characterize as a peaceful or at least positive outcome is also nothing new. We see that now with the possibility of direct negotiations between the Trump administration and at least part of Iran’s leadership. Sources of military power in Iran, presumably the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—a kleptocracy that does not want relations with the West to change—have recently intensified their military activities. At the same time, Israel, which does not want to see any lessening of tensions between the United States and Iran, has been stepping up its military attacks on Iranian forces and surrogates in Syria.

Nor was this spoiler technique just invented. Three years ago, when the Obama administration concluded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action designed to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Teheran immediately conducted some ballistic missile tests, acts clearly designed to put a damper on any follow-on diplomacy between the two countries. Meanwhile, officials in Obama’s own Treasury Department matched the lifting of some sanctions on Iran, as agreed under the JCPOA, by imposing some new sanctions against other Iranian misbehavior. Together, these steps robbed the Obama initiative, a major strategic achievement, of much of its value. Looking farther back, we all recall the brutal murder in 1985 of wheel-chair bound Leon Klinghoffer, whose body was then dumped in the Mediterranean from the cruise ship Achille Lauro by terrorists belonging to the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF). This was not just a random act of cruelty. It was designed to scotch an impending meeting of senior Israeli and Jordanian leaders to pursue avenues toward peace, and it succeeded.

New U.S. Policy on Afghanistan

Even before the surprise announcement of a Camp David meeting between President Trump and Taliban leaders, it was common knowledge that the U.S. is preparing substantially to cut its troop commitment in Afghanistan. The number usually cited in the media was a reduction from 14,000 to about 8,000 troops, leaving behind Special Forces and some support for the Afghan military. The message has been clear. The United States is reverting to a strategy of just doing what it can to reduce, if not eliminate, any terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan against the American homeland (and perhaps also against U.S. allies).

Notably, nine rounds of negotiations in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban and the U.S. negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, himself Afghan-born and fluent in both Pashto and Dari, have isolated Ghani and any other members of his government. Reportedly, as well, Trump’s Camp David talks would have been with the Taliban and Ghani separately, perhaps with some joint meeting if there were significant progress toward a deal. The message is as clear as can be: The United States is looking after its own interests—which, in the end, is what countries first and foremost do—and Ghani can fend for himself. It is the functional equivalent of the U.S. decision under the Nixon administration to undertake the
“Vietnamization” of the Vietnam War: the U.S. getting out, but helping the South Vietnamese to defend themselves (a pledge on which the U.S. then defaulted, at the demand of the U.S. Congress, with the inevitable result).

There is another element to these talks suggested by Vietnam. President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger talked about a Decent Interval before South Vietnam collapsed. It seemed cynical even at the time, but it did achieve a purpose that was widely supported by the American public, not just “doves” who had long wanted the U.S. to get out of the war but also “hawks” who wanted no more part of a war that U.S. leaders were not determined to win. What has been going in U.S. Afghan diplomacy can be called the effort to create an “indecent interval.” But whether it is justifiable in terms both of U.S. interests and other factors involved needs to be carefully examined.

On the one hand, it is dollars-to-donuts that the Taliban will be in power, if not in all of Afghanistan at least in major parts of it, within a fairly short period after the muscle of U.S. military power departs. No one should put good money on betting the opposite. In areas that the Taliban control, not just now but as their reach increases, social advances of the last 18 years will almost surely be reversed. That will be particularly severe for the role of women and girls, including a reversion to medieval practices of Islamist fundamentalism and the unravelling of much of the modernization in people’s lives that has been achieved.

On the other hand, the United States will no longer be leaking so much money that could be used elsewhere. Even people in the United States who do not oppose continued significant U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan may have in mind other military priorities and the restructuring of U.S. military capabilities, especially regarding China and East Asia. (In any event, strategically Afghanistan was and still is a backwater for U.S. interests, low down on any list of U.S. priorities.) In theory, the risks to U.S. military personnel will also decrease, though perhaps not to zero—the Taliban may cut down on attacks that could endanger Americans so long as U.S. troops are there. From this perspective, last week’s killing of an American was a “mistake.”

The price of America’s continuing to back with (some) blood and (lots of) treasure a non-Taliban Afghan government has long been tolerable in U.S. politics. While the loss of U.S. lives there is always an individual tragedy, with no military draft there is no reverberation throughout American society as there was with Vietnam. The money is, well, “only money,” and the cost of U.S. Afghan policy is rarely discussed in U.S. politics—though it should be. 

A Genuine Dilemma

There is a genuine dilemma. Should the U.S. role in the war continue to be greater than what could be calculated to limit Afghanistan’s use as a base for terrorism against the West? Or should the U.S. largely, if not completely, “get out” and accept the high risk that the process of modernization that Afghanistan has experienced will be reversed? The Taliban and other terrorist groups will not change their spots: they will calculate that they have outlasted the United States. Promising not to export terrorism—and perhaps even to honor such a pledge, although what happened last week isn’t reassuring—for the Taliban is a small price to pay to have the chance to try gaining everything.

Nor would making this pledge be difficult for them to make. After all, it wasn’t the Taliban who undertook 9/11, but Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who were given shelter by the Taliban. They were a natural target for the United States, especially given that it was not about to attack Saudi Arabia, homeland of 19 of the 9/11 suicide bombers and whose clerical establishment has long spawned virtually all Sunni-based Islamist terrorism, from Southeast Asia through the Middle East into Africa. In fact, the leading sponsor of terrorism continues to be Saudi Arabia, not Iran, as the U.S. and a handful of other countries constantly claim.

The invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 was supported widely in the United States—including by this author. But other than trying to catch and kill Osama bin Laden, which failed, this was not a “war of necessity,” as is often argued, but a war of revenge. Sometimes countries do that, and sometimes historically it has proved useful to send a message of “don’t touch.” But once the United States destroyed the state structure in Afghanistan, however rudimentary it may have been, we were stuck with the country. And rather than just cobbling together some replacement for Taliban rule in Kabul and then departing, however much that would have looked like an exercise in raison d’état, the United States took on the task of modernizing one of the world’s most “unmodern” countries.

Leadership in Washington, both executive and legislative and from both parties, forgot the 13-year war needed to end fighting against the U.S. presence in the Philippiines after 1898, and the dreadful failure of our effort to convert South Vietnamese politics and society, which was not just halfhearted but also impossible. Modernizing Afghanistan from outside is impossible, full stop, and at this point in its development may not even be possible from inside, however much outside money is provided. Some unmodern states have benefitted from outsiders’ resources—India is the most spectacular example. But that is by no means certain. Often, outsiders’ direct meddling in local politics and society has made local problems even worse.

The Impact in NATO

In this mix, the United States also must think of its European allies—all of whom, along with several other countries, have been engaged in Afghanistan at U.S. behest. The Europeans’ motives were almost all the same. They were worried that, after the United States was attacked on 9/11, it might lose interest in European security and focus largely on what came to be called the Global War on Terrorism, which was always a grossly excessive characterization of the threat that the U.S. and other Western countries have faced. Hence, without the U.S. requesting it, the NATO allies on 9/12 invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which is the pledge to consider an attack on one ally an attack on all. Further, as the United States became more deeply involved in Afghanistan, the allies rallied to calls for direct military involvement in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and, when that came to an end in 2014, at lower levels of commitment in what is now the Resolute Support Mission, involving about 6000 troops (in addition to U.S.) from 36 NATO and Partnership for Peace nations.

Allied military involvement in Afghanistan was not primarily motivated by fears of terrorism at home, but to ensure that the United States would not lose interest in Europe, especially to do the one thing that no other allied country can do: deal with Russia. Ironically, if it is true that there is some kind of “bromance” between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin—though this is more a slogan reflecting U.S. domestic politics than a reasoned argument—the allies have not gotten even that reassurance. 

It is also not clear that Washington has kept the allies fully informed of its Afghanistan diplomacy, though that is much to be hoped. The transatlantic relationship already has enough difficulties without new worries about U.S. Afghan policy (though all the allies would just as soon bring home the troops they still have in Afghanistan; they just don’t like U.S. vacillation and opacity).

Making Judgments

This column will not end with the usual exhortation about what to do. The dilemma is genuine: the “head” says that the United States should get out of Afghanistan, while trying to cut the best deal it can to keep the Taliban from sponsoring terrorism in the West; the ”heart” says that the U.S. and others in the West cannot just abandon those Afghans who have benefited from modernization. It’s a tough choice.

What the U.S. does need to do, however it proceeds with the Taliban—and the Trump administration’s clear direction is toward “head” rather than “heart”—is to continue providing large amounts of money and other aid to the Ghani government, unlike Washington’s betrayal of the South Vietnamese after U.S. troops left. Washington should intensify diplomacy with other countries, including Pakistan, which may believe it can pick up the pieces to its own advantage; India, which has its own ambitions; plus Russia and China. Whether any of these countries will listen to the U.S. once it is moving toward departure is another matter. And the U.S. certainly needs finally to demand that Saudi Arabia get all its people to stop promoting terrorism, something that neither Trump nor his recent predecessors have been prepared to do. At least these steps could be the foundation of serious U.S. policies toward the region, which have never been particularly effective or had enough clarity or coherence, even if the United States now pursues the realpolitik course that the abortive Camp David meeting was promising.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. The Sep 11 terrorists were sheltered by the USA, not Afghanistan. They all travelled to the USA on valid passports and were trained as pilots by the USA. The only “evidence” that Osama Bin Laden ordered the attack was extracted by torture. The reason civilized countries gave up torture wasn’t because torture doesn’t work. It was given up because it always does.

    It is incorrect that they were all Saudis; only 14 or 15 were. There were 4 of them who had been to Afghanistan either during the Saudi / US / al quaida / Taliban alliance or afterwards. Which wasn’t made clear in the media.

    Everybody who fights a war fights for their allies’ aims as well as their own. The values the US now find worth killing for include pederasty and heroin. These were previously fought by the Taliban (with US financial help after verified results) because they did not love those present US values in Afghanistan. I’m not sure whether corruption should be included; the US public would accept that but that doesn’t prove it’s any worse than before the US war of aggression.

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