Afghanistan has long been a lost cause — but the ending was too abrupt

Afghanistan has long been a lost cause — but the ending was too abrupt
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President Biden acted correctly in pursuing Trump’s plan to withdraw American fighting forces from Afghanistan, but the precipitous departure from the country was an unforced error. The abrupt withdrawal has created panic throughout Afghanistan, providing fuel for the current Taliban offensive.

After Osama bin Laden launched his dastardly attack on Sept.11, 2001, the U.S. justifiably responded with a light-footprint operation to destroy him and his terrorist network. Bin Laden unfortunately escaped, but he and his cutthroats were forced out of Afghanistan and his Taliban hosts were removed from power.

Many Afghans were appreciative that we lifted the oppressive rule of the Taliban and were hopeful that America would stabilize their country and make their lives better. Rather than taking advantage of that goodwill, the U.S. allowed despotic warlords and corrupt politicians to control the country. We should have made it crystal clear from the outset that American support was wholly dependent on effective corruption controls and removal of the warlords. A counterinsurgency strategy won’t work with a corrupt host government.

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Rather than focusing its attention on getting Afghanistan back on its feet so we could leave, the Bush administration diverted its attention to an ill-advised invasion of Iraq on the false pretense that Saddam Hussein had played a part in the 9-11 attack. More than anything else, that blunder made it virtually impossible to achieve a favorable outcome in Afghanistan. 

We continued with a series of other mistakes during the ensuing years. Our troops, as always, performed in a remarkable manner, doing everything they were asked to do. But the big brass seems not to have recognized that we were faced with a Taliban insurgency and that a counterinsurgency strategy was essential. Massive firepower and loose rules of engagement are counterproductive in that kind of fight. You can’t win the population over when their loved ones are victims of collateral damage. You prevail by providing a safe and secure environment for the people.

Among other things, we failed to take into account the long cultural and religious history of Afghanistan and how that might affect the conduct of our personnel. We did not set overall operational goals and an exit strategy from the country. Rather than making it clear to Afghan leadership that it was their war, we poured in substantial forces, essentially making it America’s war. Compounding these many problems, knowledgeable U.S. officials failed to disclose the truth about the situation.

The cumulative effect of these blunders provided fertile ground for a Taliban resurgence. When government corruption is rampant, and apparently tolerated by a foreign occupier, it provides a powerful propaganda tool for insurgents. 

President Trump could not be faulted for wanting to put an end to our involvement in Afghanistan. It was increasingly apparent, even before he took office, that there was little hope that the U.S. could achieve a favorable outcome in Afghanistan. He can be faulted for telegraphing to the Taliban and wider world that he was determined to bug out of Afghanistan before the 2020 election on practically any terms.

The Taliban understood right from the start of the so-called peace talks in Doha that they held the upper hand. Trump received little in return for his commitment to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Indeed, Taliban attacks predictably surged before the ink had dried on the deal.

After the 2020 election, President Biden initially agreed to abide by the May 1st withdrawal deadline established by Trump, but later extended the end date to Sept. 11. The earlier date was not logistically possible. He certainly could not be faulted for that.

Biden has erred, however, in a couple of respects. First, he failed to immediately begin the process of evacuating those Afghans who had put their lives at risk by helping U.S. forces. That error has been belatedly rectified but the program needs to be dramatically expanded and expedited because of the increasingly dire situation on the ground.

Biden’s larger mistake was giving the impression in early July that he had adopted a yank-the-Band-Aid-off strategy for the pullout. After having extended the end date to Sept. 11, it appeared that he had accelerated the pullout in order to be out – lock, stock and barrel – weeks sooner. Contemporary press reports indicated that Afghan forces would not have the benefit of U.S. air cover in defending against Taliban attacks. This combination of factors caused panic among Afghans living in dread of a Taliban take-over.

In 1975, fear of a complete cut-off of U.S. assistance to South Vietnamese forces contributed to the communist victory in that war. Fear is a powerful tool in the hands of an aggressor, and pains must be taken not to give it roots in a jittery population. In order to combat the panic that was taking hold in Afghanistan, U.S. forces stepped up air support for Afghan troops at the end of July. This may have helped to alleviate some of the fear, but the Aug. 8 warning by the U.S. State Department for Americans to leave Afghanistan “as soon as possible” is certain to heighten the anxiety of Afghans. Our leaders must keep in mind that anything they say or do in a life-or-death situation can have serious consequences among a fearful populace.

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and twelve years on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017).