With no winners in Afghanistan, the people must determine their own future
The greatest flaw in American foreign policy is a simple one — shortsightedness. There have been a few exceptions noteworthy for their resounding success: The Marshall Plan’s resurrection of Western Europe, a rebuild of Japan, the U.S. partnership with the Republic of Korea (intact so long as a threat remains from North Korea, and to some degree, China) and the sustainment of international coalitions abroad. The failures of short-term policies however, abound: Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan.
Short term vision and a lack of coherent strategy has resulted in the United State’s ignominious withdrawal from our longest war. This week, another 3,000 U.S. personnel surged into the capital city of Kabul to stabilize ongoing efforts in the teeth of a sweeping Taliban march across the graveyard of empires. In April, the Biden administration declared its intention to follow through with the negotiated Afghanistan departure, but with careful rhetoric leaving the door open for a reversal and continuation of the forever war policy, something I pessimistically predicted shortly after the announcement.
The blood and treasure spent there has been for negligible return. This is certainly something that service members, U.S. and coalition partners alike, will need to come to terms with, in the near future and long term. This is a fight that can only be tallied as a loss, because the United States never established what the end state was supposed to be. It isn’t a failure of military might, and the sacrifice of 2,352 service members lives, as well as 20,149 injured, must not be forgotten as they fought for the ideal of securing Americans, helping the Afghans and pursuing the enemy in their safe havens.
Too much blood and treasure for so little gained. I spent almost three years of my 11-year military career on the ground in Afghanistan. From my first deployment (2011) to my last (2019), nothing changed. It was because of short term policies that failed to understand the environment, cut losses or establish a long term presence to bolster the region and affected states and enable Afghan stakeholders to have some semblance of self-determination.
Plenty of strategists will pine over China’s seemingly inevitable move to fill the impending U.S. vacuum. Let China try. Let Afghanistan become Beijing’s quagmire for the next 20 years. Based on personal experience during hundreds of missions across Afghanistan, my money is on the Taliban. They won’t capitulate to the Chinese Foreign ministrations, and the unproven People’s Liberation Army are no match for the Taliban’s ruthlessness. If China attempts to brutally subject Afghanistan, an insurgency is nothing new to this nation, and in a way, the United States might be vindicated in the court of global opinion. After all, China’s record on Muslim rights is already egregious. The exception this time, is that while America, for the most part, nobly sought to enable the rise of a liberal democratic Islamic government through aid and security guarantees, China’s entry is an existential threat to Afghan sovereignty and Pakistani influence that the U.S. largely prevented for the last 20 years by presence alone.
Better to let the Taliban fight their way to some measure of stability, not unlike the dictators which the United States has leaned on to instill some kind of order in South America and Southeast Asia in the previous century. The kind of stability which a corrupt Afghan government has been unable to achieve in 20 years, despite more than $2 trillion of American sponsorship. The issue of the Islamic State in the Khorasan (ISIS-K) still looms large, and that will drag on for the foreseeable future. Let the Afghans sort it out. It is their country, and if they want legitimate governance, 20 years of American efforts scarcely moved the needle. They must assert self-determination or remain subjected to brutal rule. Either way, the onus is not on the United States to hold together the thousands of tribes who are naturally inclined to disaggregate by ethos unless existential threat unites them.
Forty-six years ago, Saigon CIA Station Chief Tom Polgar cabled one final, prophetic, and chilling message, truncated here:
“[It] has been a long and hard fight and we have lost. This experience does not signal the demise of the U.S. as a world power. The severity of the defeat would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half-measures which have characterized much of our participation here despite the commitment of resources, which were certainly generous. [Let] us hope that we have learned our lesson.”
We lost this war, not in the framework of military confrontation, but in a new paradigm. Losing the war will not be a failure if we realize that we cannot dictate sovereignties for those who refuse to self-determine their own futures, especially if efforts are exacerbated by short sighted policy, half measures and a failure to align military supremacy with diplomatic influence and democratic legitimacy.
Like Vietnam before, if we do not learn to avoid the pitfalls of short-term policy, we are doomed to lose the next war, adding another headstone to the graveyard of empires.
Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point), RealClearDefense and The Hill. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.