America's 'catastrophic success' in Afghanistan

America's 'catastrophic success' in Afghanistan
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This week’s trove of alarming “Afghanistan Papers” published in The Washington Post details how three U.S. administrations successively painted a rosy picture of the Afghan war. It represents a classic example of America’s “catastrophic success” in Afghanistan. The revelations, while hardly surprising, uncover some uncomfortable truths about the Afghan campaign and present a documented admission of major international missteps to build a self-reliant Afghan state.

More troublingly, the reports paint a bleak picture of how the U.S. engagement has created an untenable version of the American dream for Afghanistan. This unfinished dream, at best, reinforces America’s centrality in Afghanistan, including the country’s continued dependence on U.S. cash and military support for survival. While there are countless reasons for America’s original sin in Afghanistan, the chief reason centers around the absence of a functional and consistent war strategy, shifting policy objectives and transactional approaches to wartime governance.

In particular, the documents attest to America’s cash for chaos approach, underlining how formal corruption forms the foundation of Afghan politics. At its core lie America’s earlier investments in an unholy group of Afghan strongmen, corrupt political leaders and useful idiots, which created an elaborate corrupt cronyism. This steadily criminalized Afghan governance, resulting in today’s mafia-style politics. In time, those investments bolstered the entwined political and business interests of Afghan leaders without accountability, leading to their current destructive obsession with managing power over managing the country.

Worryingly, the continued U.S. tolerance for these war profiteers has led many ordinary Afghans to believe the United States is a party, if not complicit, to the formal Afghan corruption. A staggering amount of war economy has been mismanaged or wasted on ghost programs, benefitting the political class. It has also affected the combat motivation of Afghan forces. As a result, many Afghans today believe the Afghan war is a fixed war, where the same people win and the same people lose.

To be sure, the grueling exercise of state-building has put the U.S. in a tough position. It underscores how bringing up a large donor-drunk state edifice is not only difficult to sustain but dangerous to abandon. This validates an important paradox about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan: Every time it wished for peace, it prepared for war, and every time it drew a withdrawal plan, it adversely created the conditions for it to remain in the country.

That is precisely why the U.S. pursuit of incoherent and contradictory policies comes as no surprise, especially considering that the U.S. standard for victory gradually shifted from winning to not losing. But even though bad ideas sometimes make for good stories, some of those policy options have produced a mixed result of victories and defeats.

At present, the unvarnished truth is that despite war-weariness and costly bills, Afghanistan is too dangerous to fail. The U.S. intelligence community has repeatedly acknowledged this reality in their assessments. There is a visible gap between the extent of the terrorist threats in Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces and the capacity of the Afghan government to manage it alone.

Today, the Taliban remain the principal violence entrepreneurs. The group’s intersectional partnership with nearly all terrorist and criminal groups remains strong. The group’s codependent relationship with Pakistan, as captured in the reports, continue to frustrate U.S. officials as they seek a political solution to end the conflict.

As a result, the United States faces a tough decision tree ahead to chart its future role in Afghanistan. Whether the reports amount to a U.S. cover-up of the Afghan war or not, the U.S. reluctance to disengage from Afghanistan and its lack of greater transparency suggest an important point: It wants a presence in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, successive U.S. administrations have been less forthright about this desire with the public, which should change.

It’s also important to consider the psychological element of the Afghan conflict, which is fought as much in the virtual space as it is on the battlefield. All parties to the conflict operate in their own manufactured realities and engage in influence campaigns, where peddling half-truths or exaggerating facts has become a norm. But the revelations in the report is a boon to the Taliban’s propaganda and make them appear stronger against the government.

Where do we go from here?

While the Afghan conflict will not be over until all sides say it is, the U.S. maintains the ability to do more with much less.

First, it should openly acknowledge that the triangular axis of terrorism, narcotics, and criminality in Afghanistan directly undercuts American security. Because endless threats require a persistent, if not endless, response, the U.S. should explain to the American public that it wants a modest counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan. It should also acknowledge that a narrow U.S. counterterrorism focus could well prove challenging, especially if the rest of Afghanistan is falling apart.

Second, as the U.S. seeks a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, it should recognize that converting a political deal into true peace and reconciliation could prove to be nothing less than shooting for a political unicorn. Instead, the immediate focus should be on reaching a peaceful stalemate that creates some semblance of stability.

Third, it is time that the U.S. reconceptualize how it uses its financial assistance to include a greater push for more Afghan ownership and accountability. Finally, the United States should use its convincing power to pressure Afghan leaders to immediately finalize and announce the results of the presidential election and plan accordingly for the transition. A lot can go wrong in Afghanistan, with lasting effects.

Javid Ahmad is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @ahmadjavid.