What I saw in Afghanistan: It’s time to go
President Biden’s announcement of the withdrawal of American military personnel from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 will create uncertainties after this longest of American wars. But it is time to go. The U.S. has met the original objectives in Afghanistan, and the U.S. and allies have invested more than enough to this point to give the Afghans the means to shape their future. Remaining at present levels is unlikely to improve the situation.
After several trips to Afghanistan as a NATO official, I concluded that bringing the country into the modern world was a 100-year project. The challenges of tribalism, illiteracy, economy, healthcare, attitude toward women and other deeply seated cultural norms — and the interference of Afghanistan’s neighbors — would take decades to resolve.
On my first visit to Afghanistan in 2005, I noticed that the close protection security for President Hamid Karzai in the Kabul presidential palace was primarily American. As a Vietnam veteran, I saw this as a bad sign.
Later images reinforced those concerns.
Freedom of movement is the only sure measure of success in an insurgency. The number of schools, hospitals and roads built, kids in school and security forces trained are important — but if U.S. forces and activities are unable to safely travel the roads and streets to and in towns and cities, the security campaign is not working.
In that first visit to Kabul in 2005, officials could travel from the airport to the secure area around the U.S. Embassy and the NATO headquarters a short distance away in a simple land convoy with standard security. Three years later in my last visit to Kabul, the short trip from the airport to the NATO headquarters for officials required a helicopter flight for security.
The deteriorating situation was clear, although every briefing by officials on the ground highlighted progress.
One problem for U.S. policy has been the continuity of effort. The U.S has had 11 ambassadors or chiefs of mission in Kabul since 9/11. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is on its 16th commander. Most forces deployed to Afghanistan are there for tours of one year or less. Everyone comes to Afghanistan, makes progress in their time, survives and leaves the problem to their replacement.
The United States went to Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. The tasks were straightforward: Bring the leaders of the 9/11 attacks to justice and deny Afghanistan as a haven for Al Qaeda terrorists. Unfortunately, in the early years after 9/11, the Bush administration gave priority to fighting a war in Iraq rather than stabilizing Afghanistan. That period may have been an opportunity lost.
Once the Taliban regime fell, Washington imposed a central government based on democratic principles. But that government soon became both dependent on American assistance and corrupt.
Corruption is the most fundamental threat to every democracy. The U.S. has spent enormous sums in assistance to the Afghan government, local development programs and democracy-building. Yet the Kabul government lacks the confidence of the Afghan people because it is generally considered to be dysfunctional and corrupt and has little authority outside Kabul.
U.S. military operations have cost the lives of more than 2,200 killed and more than 20,000 wounded. In addition, the U.S. has spent on the order of a trillion dollars in assistance and military operations in Afghanistan so far. The constant U.S. military deployments to Afghanistan and to Iraq placed significant stress on American forces.
Today, an American public commitment for staying in Afghanistan is not apparent. After all, Osama Bin Laden is dead, and Al Qaeda is in disarray. Terrorist threats to the U.S. could originate in dysfunctional spots all over the world. Afghanistan is just one of them. The key to future security is to be sufficiently flexible to pre-empt threats anywhere in the world they may emerge.
The long-term future of Afghanistan has been in doubt from the beginning of the U.S. engagement. Further commitment by the U.S. would not change that situation without an unacceptable escalation in the size and scope of military and other assistance.
The Taliban has advanced in the countryside as the U.S. pulled back, and many of the positive developments in Afghanistan could very well be lost when the United States withdraws its forces. But a disastrous return of the Taliban to power in Kabul is not certain. The Taliban has its own issues, and the Afghan people and leaders will have a say in how the situation develops over time.
The U.S. and its allies have done their best to bring order and development to Afghanistan. Hopefully, many of those programs will have a lasting effect. But at some point, the 39 million Afghans have to stand up for themselves if they want their country to be secure and to move forward.
James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as deputy assistant secretary-general of NATO and is the author of “Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.”
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