US Pours Gasoline on Afghan Conflict on Its Way Out
Updated: Jun 5
Twenty years ago the US launched a war on Afghanistan. Four presidents, $2 trillion, and more than 200,000 Afghan lives later, the longest war in US history may finally be coming to an end without anything the US can call a victory and nothing Afghans can call stability or a future.
So what was this war even about? How did it start in the first place? Is it really ending? What will it mean for Afghans? And what accounts for the hawkish backlash to ending a war that serves no apparent purpose?
THE HAWKS WANT TO STAY FOREVER
President Joe Biden sent shockwaves throughout Washington when he announced the US would be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “I’ve concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home,” he said.
His liberal base is trying to play it up as proof of Biden’s progressive credentials, but it’s more complicated than that. Meanwhile, the chorus of war hawks predictably lost it.
Max Boot, who never met an American war that he didn’t like (nor one he wanted to end), wrote two op-eds warning against withdrawal. The hawkish Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen expressed fears that “a US withdrawal will create a vacuum in the country that China, Russia or Iran will fill.” Retired general and former National Security Advisor HR McMaster, one of the “soldier scholars” whom Americans revere, also condemned the withdrawal as “an extraordinary reversal of morality” that America is “going to look back on with shame.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called Biden’s withdrawal “dumber than dirt,” warning that “the result of this decision today by President Biden is to cancel an insurance policy that in my view would prevent another 9/11.” Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, two former secretaries of state, both expressed opposition to the withdrawal, with Rice reportedly warning that the US would likely have to return to Afghanistan.
This sudden concern for the fate of Afghan women was echoed across mainstream media, with Republican Senator John Barrasso telling MSNBC, “This is going to turn the clock back on the women of Afghanistan, girls trying to go to school to get an education will once again be killed.”
ZAL’S TALIBAN COUP
The end to the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is long overdue, but the way it is being done will likely only perpetuate the suffering of Afghans.
One longtime expert described the deal as so intrusive and imposing it treats Afghanistan as a colony of the US.
Biden is implementing the February 2020 deal struck in Doha between Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the US State Department, and Mullah Baradar, the Taliban Deputy’s Commander for Political Affairs. It was called the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, although nobody believes it will bring peace to a country at war for over forty years. At the same time, the US also signed a separate deal with the Afghan government entitled the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” Meanwhile the intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan do not have the word “peace” in their description.
The deal that Khalilzad, or “Zal” as he is called, signed in Doha was an “America first” deal that ignored the interests of the Afghan government or people and prioritized the US while empowering the Taliban. It stipulated a troop withdrawal on schedule, by May 1, 2021. This automatically stripped the Afghan government of its leverage and also meant it would be facing a possible Taliban offensive on May 2. Trump did not seem to care and handed it all to the Taliban from the beginning because he was in such a rush to sign the deal.
The US did not place any conditions on the Taliban, such as achieving progress in their talks with the Afghan government. Instead, the US even proposed an interim government to replace the current elected (if flawed) one. To many observers this looked like a US-backed Taliban coup. And Zal has been promising everyone positions in that new government.
The Taliban had to commit to halting their attacks on the US but they could continue to attack Afghan government forces at a time when those Afghan forces were receiving less US military assistance and less logistical assistance so they could not supply bases and had to withdraw from more of the country. The Taliban also increased their attacks against civilians at the end of 2020. None of this mattered to the US government, which wanted the deal for domestic reasons related to US elections and not in order to leave a stable Afghanistan with a successful peace process.
According to one close observer of the talks, “Zal improvised, lied to everybody (including the UN and Europeans) and it fragmented the non-Taliban space. He doesn't want to negotiate; he wants an easier path to a Taliban government. The Taliban don't have a political language. They don't have language for governing. Even the pro-Taliban people in American spaces say the Taliban have no interest in negotiating. And why would they? They are about to win. But the country will blow up. It's not the country of the 90s. You cannot just back the strongest actor. There are too many, and the Taliban is not homogenous, and they have not prepared their fighters because they want to maintain cohesion. Nobody has prepared anything, nobody talked about integration of fighters into the security forces.”
The observer continued, “Trump’s scorched earth policy and his troop reduction means that no matter what the next move is it will lead to a big increase in violence. But violence is the main leverage of the Taliban and they haven't abandoned it, just shifted their tactics. The US only cares about its force protection, they want not one US soldier to get hurt.”
The observer went on to explain that truly ending the war goes beyond a US troop withdrawal.
“Progressives focus only on troop presence but how do you dismantle the War on Terror framework? They are derisking, it’s modern warfare, no Americans die and you rain hell on people, drones, and rely on local proxies. It’s just a counterterrorism arrangement, it was always about counterterrorism, they redirected the state to fighting the Taliban.” The observer noted that now the Taliban would be redirected to fighting al Qaeda and ISIS.
“Everyone is thinking only of survival,” this concerned observer added, “so the Afghan players make bad decisions, but we cannot tell them not to do it because they will die. The government negotiators say ‘we don’t mind compromising’ but when the Taliban say ‘in line with Afghan traditions’ we have problems: there are different Afghan traditions. And the women issue is an issue here – that’s who is being targeted now, they are silencing women, going after them. A lot of the capacity in local administration would be with females and that's who is being targeted. The Taliban need to talk to their own fighters – if it's a takeover, what does it mean? Do they exterminate all the people who worked for the government?”
As long as the US and its allies keep paying and supplying the Afghan security forces, it's possible that they can maintain the government presence in Kabul and a few other cities. But there is no doubt that the Taliban will be able to dictate the terms of an agreement with the government. The US already weakened the Afghan government’s leverage by forcing it to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners as part of Zal’s deal with the Taliban.
The Taliban, who still view themselves as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, may have agreed to a deal with the US government but they still do not accept the government in Kabul as a partner and they are not committed to a peace process for the country as a whole.
Zal, who now serves the Biden administration, seems to want to do away with the current Afghan government and replace it with a new one based on power sharing with the Taliban. The Taliban have every incentive to increase their pressure on the government so that they can extract more from them at the negotiations table.
TALIBAN TRANSFORMATION: FROM PARIAH TO LEGITIMATE GOVERNMENT
The reversal on the Taliban is all the more stark after the Americans for years repeatedly rejected negotiations with them.
In 2001 the Taliban were a pariah, hunted by special forces and militias, denied a seat at the bargaining table. After twenty years they have become a legitimate political player signing deals with a US government that refuses to talk to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other “rogue” actors.
In 2001 the Taliban were a pariah, hunted by special forces and militias, denied a seat at the bargaining table. After twenty years they have become a legitimate political player signing deals with a US government that refuses to talk to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other “rogue” actors.
How did the Taliban achieve such a transformation and reach the point where they are now viewed almost as a government in exile? The primary factor is that they sustained a level of targeted and spectacular violence over a long period, and they consolidated and grew until there was no other choice but to have them at the table.
Their leverage is based on violence in the field, so it’s not a coincidence that there has been an escalation in the conflict during these talks, because it’s why they are there and why they will get their share. It’s not based on their idea of government or because they have administrators or technocrats. It's why the US will sign an agreement with them. They delivered a level of violence that forced the US to talk to them.
Aziz Hakimi, an Afghan researcher at the Christian Michelsen Institute, who has done extensive fieldwork throughout the country on militias, explained that in the early days of Obama’s presidency, the US-backed Afghan government was willing to negotiate with the Taliban but the Americans and the British refused because they wanted to crush them militarily first. “So again, we lost an opportunity there,” said Hakimi. In 2012, during Obama’s second term, the US began to retreat and said it was up to the Afghan government to lead the negotiations. But by then the Taliban refused, seeing the Afghan government as a puppet of the US.
When Trump entered office he changed course. “What Trump did, interestingly, is to sort of do away with the pretense and say, okay, if the Taliban don't want to talk to the Afghan government, then we will talk to the Taliban directly. And that unfortunately has very serious consequences for the Afghan government,” said Hakimi.
This gave the Taliban a sense of legitimacy – that they didn’t need to bother with the Afghan government if they have a direct line to the Americans.
“The Americans probably did the right thing by talking to the Taliban,” Hakimi added. “But the way they've sidelined the Afghan government unfortunately, made it very difficult for the phase that we're in right now, sort of this inter-Afghan talks and inter-Afghan dialogue, because the asymmetry of power relations is too stark and I'm not sure how are we going to change that.”
Those on the left who rightly cheer the US withdrawal should not conflate that with a victory for some kind of resistance. The Taliban cannot be romanticized merely because they fought foreign invaders who helped destroy their country.
Those on the left who rightly cheer the US withdrawal should not conflate that with a victory for some kind of resistance. The Taliban cannot be romanticized merely because they fought foreign invaders who helped destroy their country. The movement is brutal and reactionary and to the extent that it has a vision for the country, it is a horrible one.
At the same time, experts who know them agree that the Taliban movement has changed. They will not come to power and shut down girls’ schools or stone people to death in stadiums, or host al Qaeda. But they also did not transition in the last two decades from a group that delivers violence to a group that has a capacity and vision of itself as an administrator.
Because they were so successful at delivering violence, they leapfrogged that process in a way that might be disastrous for them as well, meaning that they are trained in destruction – not in construction or governance, and all actors will lose out because of this. This may also be why the Taliban do not want to put on paper what their vision is for the state. They simply cannot do it. They can raise money and get kids to blow themselves up, and they can deliver local justice and security, but that is very different from a ministry of justice, a supreme court, and appointing people to preside over that, while the government of Afghanistan has people who have worked on state building, and have worked on things such as rural rehabilitation and development, and are trained Afghan bureaucrats.
The Taliban have no equivalent to that. So a major challenge in Afghanistan’s post US future will be a political settlement with a group that has been fighting but does not know how to govern, at the same time as much of Afghanistan’s population has moved on since 2001. There is a new generation that is different and does not like the older leaders, the warlords, and there is civil society, media, businessmen and technocrats, and musicians and a globalized constituency that is in terror of what a future with the Taliban means.
In the 90s the Taliban did not govern. They dealt with security and justice (brutally) and left humanitarian assistance to international NGOs. There is little reason to expect any progress since then. It would have been better had the Americans simply withdrawn three years ago, before the talks with the Taliban. The balance of power in the country at the time was more favorable to the state.
THE US HAS BEEN WITHDRAWING
The US war in Afghanistan has been gradually coming to an end for the last decade. US troop numbers reached their peak of 100,000 in 2011 and were down to 8,000 when the Doha deal was struck and are now down to 2,500. The US has been training and arming the Afghan police and army to take on the role of the American military. There are over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen in addition to many militias and forces backed by the CIA and others. But without foreign financing the Afghan government cannot pay for them or itself.
Hakimi explains that the US has been funding and arming local militias, the Afghan local police, and the Afghan army to fight the Taliban for them for years now. “The idea was for local militias to fight the Taliban so that the Americans didn't have to. Afghan lives were cheap. It gave the Americans and NATO forces some breathing space in order to then focus on training the Afghan army and the Afghan police, the national army, and the national police.”
He continued, “Don't forget: in a lot of places, the Americans have already withdrawn, places like Kunar, places like, say Baghlan and Kunduz and Wardak. So for the past couple of years, maybe four or five, it's been the Afghans. The Afghan army, the Afghan police, Afghan special forces that have been doing the fighting. Thousands of Afghan security forces have died fighting the Taliban. And both the Americans and the Afghan government have admitted that the rate that the Afghan security forces are dying or being wounded, it's just not sustainable.”
This full US withdrawal would not be happening without Donald Trump. The Trump administration set a negotiated withdrawal deadline of May 1, which led to a halt in Taliban attacks against US and allied forces.
This forced Biden into a corner. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t when it came to Afghanistan. If he stayed it would turn into a bloody quagmire with US involvement, the relative quiet between Americans and the Taliban would end and there would be a massive escalation in violence. But when he leaves there will likely be some kind of bloody civil war.
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“THE BLOB” PANICS
In December 2019, Congress established the Afghanistan Study Group composed of the best and brightest of the foreign policy establishment in order to attain recommendations that “consider the implications of a peace settlement, or the failure to reach a settlement, on U.S. policy, resources, and commitments in Afghanistan.” And yet all they came up with was that the US should do more of the same. This likely convinced Biden to abandon the so-called “blob,” as Obama’s circle contemptuously dismissed proponents of the conventional wisdom in Washington.
These same old tired bromides were evident in a discussion by “experts'' on PBS Frontline on April 15 which included retired Lt. Gen. Doug Lute who worked on Afghanistan for two presidents, Annie Pforzheimer who was acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Afghanistan until 2019, and David Sedney who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia during the Obama administration.
Sedney warned that the threat from al Qaeda and ISIS has not gone away and criticized Biden for trusting the Taliban. Lute, a rare voice of reason on the subject, stressed that al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan was less of a threat than its branches elsewhere and that the last al Qaeda transnational threat was in London in 2005. Pforzheimer said the Taliban will be emboldened by a conditionless withdrawal that removes leverage, and she worried that the Taliban would declare a victory. Lute said it's important to remember who is the enemy, and that while nobody likes the Taliban, they never harmed or threatened an American outside of Afghanistan, and the Taliban want a voice in Afghanistan. They may be repressive Islamists, he said, but they are not a threat and they are not al Qaeda. At this both Sedney and Pforzheimer shook their heads in disapproval.
They rejected the notion that al Qaeda was decimated. Sedney wanted to preserve the strategic partnership agreement between Washington and Kabul. He said the agreement with the Taliban made the US weaker, allowed adversaries in China and Russia to claim that the US is weak and the withdrawal was a strategic loss for the US. Pforzheimer said that women had reacted with horror and concern. She stressed that al Qaeda and ISIS are present and if there is a civil war, which will lead to a power vacuum, then ISIS can take advantage of it. Lute said that Afghanistan is already suffering from a civil war and women and children are already suffering despite US troops being present and only a negotiated end to the civil war between the government and the Taliban can solve the problem.
Biden’s first pick for secretary of defense, Michelle Flournoy, had hoped to maintain a counterterrorism force in Afghanistan. She was replaced with a more pliable candidate, Lloyd Austin, who also had the advantage of placating the congressional Black Caucus, but was attractive because he would be less likely to obstruct Biden’s decisions.
Biden took power hoping to restore Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran (the JCPOA) and undo Trump’s rejection of the deal. He could hardly do that while throwing a deal Trump made out the window. In addition, Biden can implement Trump’s deal with the Taliban knowing that if it all collapses and things go to hell, then Pompeo and other Republican candidates in the 2024 election will not be able to blame the Democrats for the failure.
Had he not abided by Trump’s withdrawal deadline, the Taliban would resume attacks against the US military. This in turn would lead to a resumption of US military operations, arrests, strikes, raids and all the casualties, civilian and military, that come with such a war.
In order to build a narrative around the withdrawal, the government’s public relations people are trying to rewrite Biden’s history to make it seem like he always wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, even in the Obama days, just because he had advised Obama against listening to the generals and increasing US troops for the 2009 surge in that country. It took great pressure from think tanks like the anti-interventionist Quincy Institute and a coalition of veterans groups and activists from the left and the right to force the Biden administration to relent and agree to a full withdrawal. Even by pushing the official departure date to September he risks a potential escalation with the Taliban.
Biden announced the coming departure of around 2,500 US troops on September 11. That means the additional withdrawal of 6,000 NATO troops. But at its height the US had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, which makes 2,500 troops almost negligible. And withdrawal means little when the US has the global ability to reach out and touch anybody it wants with drones, special forces, and other capabilities, including covert ones.
“While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” Biden said, adding that, “We’ll continue to support the government of Afghanistan. We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces. And along with our partners, we have trained and equipped a standing force of over 300,000 Afghan personnel today and hundreds of thousands over the past two decades. And they’ll continue to fight valiantly, on behalf of the Afghans, at great cost.”
In comments that echoed former president Trump’s “shithole” reference to countries such as Haiti, Biden gave a speech on May 28, honoring combat veterans and described Afghanistan as a “God-forsaken landscape.” Biden is said to hate the place and reject the notion that the US has any obligation to it.
According to the New York Times, the US will also be leaving behind a “shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations Forces, Pentagon contractors, and covert intelligence operatives.” Their mission will be to “find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic state threats, current and former American officials said.”
This makes Aziz Hakimi doubt the claims that Afghanistan’s government will collapse once the US leaves. While the Taliban will be in a powerful position, the alarmism that they will sweep across the country is a convenient and self-serving narrative for those who want the Amerians to stay indefinitely.
“First of all, the Americans are not necessarily cutting aid as the Soviets did. So this government might go on for a few more years. So I don't see the Taliban walking into Kabul, in a month or two after the Americans have left,” he argued. “I don't think we're going to see the kind of collapse that we saw in the early nineties.”
NOTHING TO CELEBRATE
America’s European partners were not as eager for a hasty and unplanned pulling of the rug from beneath the Afghan government. In their view Afghanistan was a managed problem. No Americans were dying. Afghans were dying. There were more NATO troops than American troops. America’s NATO partners did not want to leave, in part because Europe is worried about the refugee flows that will likely follow. The Europeans had hoped for a so-called conditions based withdrawal. This was expressed with surprising bluntness by General Nick Carter, the chief of the General Staff of the British military who said “it is not a decision that we hoped for” in an April 16 BBC interview. The Europeans were resentful of Khalilzad who reached agreements behind their backs and presented them with a done deal they had no choice but to accept.
On the other hand the Europeans and especially the Germans had explicitly encouraged the Americans to negotiate bilaterally with the Taliban as the insurgents had demanded. It was a Taliban condition. And once the US decided to pursue bilateral talks it was inevitable that only narrow American interests would be considered. The US does not do peace processes. Americans do not have the subtlety or patience or attention to detail or humanitarian concerns to design peace processes or to even care about them very much. This same narcissistic approach has been typical of US based analysis, which is focused on American dynamics and interests, not those of Afghans, not surprisingly.
A leading intellectual of American imperialism known for his gravitas, Anthony Cordesman wrote an April 13 article in which he declared: “It will be a tragedy, but the time has come for the strategic equivalent of a mercy killing.” After the US sabotaged any leverage the Afghan government had to negotiate and empowered the Taliban, making a peace agreement impossible, Cordesman called for the US to place conditions on US aid to the government to force Afghans to reach an agreement.
Cordesman sees advantages for the US in withdrawal: “The first benefit is to shift the burden of Afghanistan and the focus of any extremist activity outside its borders to China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. The second is to free U.S. resources to deal with the many centers of instability and extremism outside the region, and ones where U.S. resources can be far more effective.”
Jason Dempsey, a former US military officer and Pentagon official who has been influential in the withdrawal debate, wrote an article in April 2021 entitled, “We Got Afghanistan Wrong, but There’s Still Time to Learn Something” in which he correctly pointed out how “inefficient and ineffective our nearly 20-year-long military-led endeavor has been, how our efforts thus far have fed into Afghanistan’s dysfunction, and why we should not expect "more of the same" to lead to better outcomes now.”
He correctly argued that “instead of building a force that fit Afghanistan, we built an Army of mini-me’s. A force that, like our military, requires massive logistical support and technical capabilities to manage. A force that relies heavily on airpower and armored vehicles to fight an enemy who relies on his feet, IEDs and an AK-47.” He added that “we have created a force entirely dependent on technological assets like armed surveillance drones and warplanes that can only be provided and maintained by the United States or its allies. And because it bears repeating, this force has been struggling against an enemy that has neither warplanes nor the type of heavily armed drones available to Afghan forces.”
These are all important critiques from a US military point of view, but where Dempsey’s proposal turned dangerous is when he suggested that the “devolution of the Afghan military,” is not a bad thing and that there are “organic power structures,” by which he means “tribes and ethnic groups” who should be allowed to rise and receive support from the US. What this means is supporting the collapse of the Afghan state because Afghans are somehow too primitive to handle the modern army we gave them and we should acknowledge that they’re just a bunch of tribesmen and this is organic, ignoring the US role in destroying the Afghan state in the 80s and supporting warlords and then failing to rebuild the Afghan state. And this orientalist argument is framed by Dempsey as progressive.
While the foreign policy blob in Washington panics, there is a dangerous jubilation among progressives, such as Dempsey, that America is finally doing good by leaving Afghanistan. But this is not true. It is good that America reduces its military presence in countries, it is good that America is no longer killing Afghans who had nothing to do with September 11. But the US is still going to be an imperialist power. And it will maintain its involvement in Afghanistan, just more covertly. The “kinetic” activity will shift to targeted killings.
Western intelligence agencies do not believe in the Afghan army despite their governments spending so many years building it up. They will contract with the old warlords as well as the new generation of militia commanders and handle the war remotely.
In addition, there is little to celebrate when the US departure is going to precipitate a major massacre and Afghans are frightened for their future and wondering why the US is doing this to them. There is an added irony that most Iraqis want America out and yet the US stubbornly insists on staying in Iraq, despite the Iraqi parliament voting for US forces to leave and despite Shia militias targeting American bases. Removing US bases from Afghanistan will not lead to peace and prosperity, even if it is something that should be done. The US will redirect its global terror threat and shift its war to Africa, to places like the Congo, or Mozambique where obscure Islamist militias are being called ISIS, and of course the US will shift to China.
If it’s not for the women, Americans are told by the war hawks that they must stay to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist safe haven. To prevent another 9/11.
But Afghanistan was not a terrorist safe haven because of the Taliban. The Taliban inherited the terrorist camps for foreign fighters from the Mujahideen days. The reason Afghanistan was a terrorist safe haven was because the state was destroyed and the country suffered years of civil war. The US tolerated or encouraged the creation of bases for local and foreign fighters, the Mujahideen, to fight the Soviets and then moved on and didn’t care anymore (remind you of Syria?). The Taliban seized control in the 90s and found the camps there and maintained cordial relations with fellow Muslim comrades in arms. Today’s Afghanistan does not have such camps, nor is there a need for them.
But the world has changed. First of all, there are far better locations in failed states that the West helped create in northern Syria, north Africa and west Africa, as well as Yemen. And the US has drones and satellite capabilities it didn’t have in the 90s, allowing it to bomb wedding parties, funerals, as well as camps, and even al Qaeda members, as we see in northern Syria and the remote parts of Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere. And global jihadists have moved to urban slums in the West and to the internet.
Most importantly, there is no global jihadi or terror threat. At most we can say it's a nuisance. The threat is to locals. Jihadi groups are now locally focused, whether in west Africa or Syria’s Idlib. The trends have changed. And given how few westerners have gotten hurt in terror attacks, we are spending an absurdly disproportionate amount of resources and attention compared to widespread and deadly problems like gun violence, rising inequality, unaffordable medical care, and growing poverty in the US.
And finally, the Taliban themselves have changed from the movement they were in the 90s. Globalization and progress affects everybody, new generations emerge, leaders learn from mistakes and they adapt. They want to rule Afghanistan and have a seat in the UN and be part of the global system. They have no governance experience and inherit a poverty stricken country and need all the help they can get from the UN. And they know the consequences of having foreign jihadi fighters running amok.
As Aziz Hakimi explained, “Even if they [the Americans] leave, they will still be there in the region and they will probably still find a way to work with local forces, be it the government or the Taliban within the government. TheTaliban have also shown an inclination to keep the internationals happy because they would need the money, they will need some sort of development aid.”