After hubris and humiliation in Afghanistan, will humility follow?
It was only the lightning speed with which the Afghan military and government collapsed that should have been shocking. The United States had no theory of victory, only an eroding stalemate. To grasp how stunned President Biden was by the event, recall a July 8 press conference where he dismissed the idea that collapse was inevitable and any analogies to Vietnam: “They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability,” he said. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan.”
To see that grim reality of helicopters evacuating the U.S. embassy 38 days later is perhaps the final American self-deception about a war that began as a necessary response to 9/11 but mission creeped itself into a vain nation-building fantasy. In his Monday address, Biden conceded that he badly misread the situation. “The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” he said. Yet he didn’t take ownership for the horrific, inept execution of the withdrawal that resulted from his overestimation of the Kabul government and its military.
This was a disaster more than 20 years in the making, across four administrations, Republican and Democratic. Biden’s tactical folly is just the culmination of the enormous post-9/11 hubris. The Afghan experiment began to drift off the rails when the Bush administration, in one of the worst foreign policy decisions in U.S. history, invaded Iraq. That diverted focus and resources from Afghanistan, while the mission creeped into nation-building.
President Obama’s mistakes didn’t help — launching a massive 100,000 troop surge in 2009 with a deadline, allowing the Taliban to simply wait it out. And President Trump negotiated a deal releasing thousands of Taliban prisoners, withdrawing all but 2,500 of some 15,000 U.S. troops, closing Bagram Air Base (which would have made the final exit a lot easier) and committing to remove the rest by May 1, with few hard conditions from the Taliban. That is why U.S. forces had not been attacked but left Biden with the choice of honoring the agreement or facing a new cycle of violence if U.S. forces remained.
The irony is that the U.S. succeeded in its original mission. U.S. forces entered Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, and by early December the Taliban was gone and al Qaeda was on the run. Had Washington declared victory and left, one wonders, would it have turned out differently?
There is a surfeit of lessons to be learned — lessons about misjudging basic requirements of counter-insurgency; about the perils of mission creep and imposing U.S. notions of nation-building ill-fitting to Afghan culture, history and politics; about using military approaches to what ultimately are political problems; about self-deception fueled by bureaucratic inertia; and not least, about the hubris involved in not understanding the limits of U.S. power.
It is often forgotten that the origins of the Afghan-al Qaeda problem stretch back to the Carter administration, when the U.S.-backed Mujahideen jihadists (including Osama bin Laden) were fighting the USSR in Afghanistan. The Taliban – with more than a little help from Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency – were spawned. The blowback began from there.
This gets to the original sin: not heeding core counter-insurgency principles. The U.S. Army counter-insurgency handbook says what provides opportunity to insurgents is “significant gaps in the ability of the state or its local allies to control its territory and population. States must have the capacity to detect the early stages of insurgent organization and mobilization.”
If you’re wondering why, after $83 billion in U.S. training, arming and equipping the Afghan forces evaporated, the failure of a deeply corrupt, ethnic and sectarian divided Kabul government to establish sufficient national legitimacy helps explain it.
A necessary condition of success for counter-insurgency is a credible local partner as an alternative to the insurgents, denying the insurgents a rear base and having a rear base to operate from. Pakistan tolerated, if not aided, the Taliban’s rear bases, even as it cooperated and provided the U.S. with a key rear base to fight from.
The similarly flawed assumptions about local partners during the Vietnam War highlights the difficulty of the venture, particularly when there is a lack of understanding of the local, culture, history and politics. Afghans didn’t need to be taught how to fight — they’ve been fighting foreign invaders since Alexander the Great. Other factors explain the failure.
But what lies beyond the current fear and uncertainty? There is a world of difference between insurgency and governing. The Taliban are trying to repackage themselves as Taliban 2.0, promising blanket amnesty, no revenge and to allow women to continue with education and work.
But at the same time, they’re promising some version of Sharia, Islamic law. Will they allow jihadis to operate in their territory again? The Taliban face enormous challenges in stabilizing the nation, rebuilding and obtaining the resources for development and jobs for a nation of 39 million.
Since 2001, an entire generation has grown up with cellphones, the internet and access to Western culture. There is widespread skepticism that the need to adapt to change, for external legitimacy and foreign aid and investment, is enough to moderate their behavior.
If they ban other jihadi groups as promised and allow some trimmed-back version of modernity to continue (media, women’s rights), it could create a situation where the U.S., working with frontline states (Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, Turkey), EU allies and Japan have leverage to create incentives toward a path to stability.
Fears of shattered U.S. credibility may be overblown. No doubt, Biden’s “America’s back” rhetoric now looks, at best, premature. But concerns about U.S. reliability and credibility in the minds of allies and adversaries have steadily increased since the Iraq War and 2008 financial crisis. Trump took such skepticism about the U.S. to a new level.
Before the next U.S. missionary adventure, we should consider the cost in global credibility of the terrible U.S. foreign policy legacy of failed interventions: Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, now Afghanistan — when the U.S. walks away and leaves godawful messes for others to clean up. One lesson: The limits of U.S. power in a multipolar world should be respected.
Despite the likely trepidations of U.S. allies and partners – and the gloating calculations of adversaries – betting against U.S. resilience is not wise. After the Vietnam debacle in 1975, many wrote off the U.S. A decade later, a buoyant America won the Cold War. Over time, we will recover, the U.S. military and the U.S. dollar as well as U.S. technological prowess will remain preponderant.
The world will take America’s promises and threats with a still larger grain of salt. But if Washington learns the lesson that it is not so exceptional — that just because we have a large hammer, doesn’t mean every problem is a nail — such humility will travel well. Once the U.S. grasps that the world is not black and white but mostly lived in shades of gray, it can remain a leading force in a complex, multipolar world.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of State for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.