Afghanistan: An impossible choice

Afghanistan: An impossible choice
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In 2007, the Atlantic Council released a study on Afghanistan, co-authored by the former NATO commander in Europe, retired Marine General James L. Jones. The opening line could not have been starker or bleaker: “NATO is losing in Afghanistan.” Deferring to a predictable outcry from NATO Headquarters, the line was amended to read: “The West is not winning in Afghanistan.” General Jones would become President Obama’s first national security advisor.

The reasons for that assessment remain valid a decade and a half later. The critical failure was the inability to understand Afghanistan’s history, culture and tribal divisions and the reality that central control of  the country in Kabul was never sustainable. Attempting to graft onto a Muslim Afghan society a form of Western liberal democracy would not take. And partitioning the country into specific areas of responsibility to be filled by individual NATO member states without a central authority and direct action proved unworkable. 

This past week, the Biden administration announced its plans to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan before Sept. 11th, the date commemorating the 20th anniversary of al Qaeda’s attacks on America and the beginning of a Global War on Terror that would eventually consume Iraq. NATO quickly followed suit. Some 2,500 to 3,000 American and 7,500 coalition troops will leave. Criticism from Republicans and Democrats erupted.

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In fairness, and little is fair in Washington today, the Biden administration faced an impossible choice. Past presidents tried to extricate America from Afghanistan. President Obama instead authorized a surge in 2009 of about 35,000 troops. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE promised to end the endless wars but failed to do so.

The argument for remaining was clear. A relatively small presence of U.S. and NATO forces could be sustained and was vital to ensuring the survival of the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. Casualties were minimal. And as the U.S. still kept sizable forces in Germany and Japan since World War II and in South Korea since the end of the Korean War, why would Afghanistan be any different? Critics have a strong case. The future of the Afghan government and the prospect of a civil war or Taliban takeover certainly were in doubt.

President BidenJoe BidenHouse passes 8B defense policy bill House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE understood that. However, in his mind, enough was enough and the time to end the Afghan War was long past. The administration believed that the Afghan government, still supported by its allies and the United States, can finally assume responsibility for its security, not an unreasonable proposition. And sufficient capabilities in the region to deal with al Qaeda or the Islamic State using Afghanistan as a base to strike the West would be available.

At this stage, it is impossible to know how this will end. But since the end of World War II, one area where American strategic thinking and planning have often led to disastrous outcomes is the inability to consider first, second, third and even fourth order consequences. Both political parties are guilty.

The Kennedy/Johnson administrations had no inkling of how growing involvement in Vietnam would turn out. After August 1964 and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that would consign America to a decade in the Vietnam quagmire, the naive assumption was that the relatively primitive North Vietnamese Army and its Viet Cong sometime allies could never withstand the might of American military power. Fifty-eight thousand dead Americans and an ignominious retreat proved otherwise.

Similarly, the Afghan intervention and the sleep-walk into nation-building followed by the 2003 second Iraq War were void of any serious consideration of consequences. As the Biden order is carried out, what are some of the more obvious consequences that might be considered and so far have not even been raised? 

First, as or more important to Afghan’s future are some 18,000 civilian contractors. The bulk are engaged in logistics, support, maintenance, communications, security and other functions vital to sustaining the government. About 14,000 may leave. What is the impact of that withdrawal? No one seems to know. 

Second, if the U.S. is to maintain an anti-terrorist capability, where will forces be deployed or redeployed? What will that cost and is that more effective than sustaining presence in Afghanistan?

Third, suppose civil war breaks out or the Taliban are able to overthrow the Kabul government. What are the options and contingency plans?

Last, how will Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China and India respond and what will be the consequences? So far, these questions have not been raised.

The decision to leave has been made. But, so far, the consequences for good or ill have been deferred or ignored. On these issues the fate of Afghanistan will rest.

Harlan Ullman, PhD. is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation,” is due out this year.