The End of the Endless War


The hasty withdrawal of American troops and citizens from Afghanistan marks the end of the longest war in U.S. history. For 20 years, U.S. presidents, both Republican and Democrat, with the help of NATO and allies, have had a continued presence there. The mission evolved from reprisals and security to a form of undeclared nation building. Thousands of soldiers have been killed in the conflict, more than $83 billion dollars spent on material for the Afghan army and more than $1 trillion dollars wasted. (The Afghan army had over 300,000 soldiers outfitted and trained by the United States; the Taliban roughly 75,000 fighters).


But the Afghan government never won “the hearts and minds” of the people. That is more than evident from the rapid Taliban success throughout the countryside and cities. The government’s level of corruption and incompetence was underestimated by the United States military and foreign policy communities. While the withdrawal of foreign troops was inevitable and announced, the unwillingness and inability of the Afghan army to defend was a crushing blow. Most observers anticipated a civil war of perhaps a year or 18 months between the Afghan army and the Taliban. In 10 days, the army rolled over. 
In a change largely welcomed by Western governments and in Geneva, President Biden has stated that “America is back” with a more international, multilateral foreign policy than Donald Trump’s “America First”. Will the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban change this newfound goodwill towards the United States?  How does it affect America’s prestige in the world? I suspect some unease among allies such as Taiwan who must be wondering about U.S. promises to defend them.
The potential of diplomacy and humanitarian aid to remedy the situation is also in question. A peace agreement signed in Doha between the United States and the Taliban in 2020 has had no effect; nor have subsequent negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, brought about under former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
“The delays that we see from the other side in the progress of talks are not corresponding to the sense of urgency that we have,” senior Afghan government negotiator Nader Nadery told the Wall Street Journal in July of the Taliban’s participation. “The violence needs to end, the war needs to end, and we need to reach a political settlement,” she added. That settlement never came.
Today, Kabul airport is overwhelmed. The United States must not only help its citizens depart; it is also morally responsible for those under threat who worked for and with them for the last two decades. Not everyone who wants to leave will be able to do so. The Afghan president has fled, leaving no legitimate, internationally recognised government in place.
While some Taliban leaders have expressed a policy of no reprisals for those who helped the government or the allies and a willingness to allow young women to continue schooling, the fact that the promises given in Doha have not been followed does not bode well for the future of human rights in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s policies in its controlled areas have been in direct opposition to internationally accepted human rights norms.
Those trying to respond to the unfolding humanitarian crisis are faced with more questions than answers.  There is no way the Geneva community can be assured that the Taliban will cooperate, as they have no track record of doing so. Will Turkey and other countries open their borders to those fleeing? How will an orderly response to the exodus work since the Taliban have shown little respect for humanitarian and refugee norms in the past?
Aid agencies can only function within countries if they have the consent of the ruling authorities. Will the Taliban accept foreign intervention, even humanitarian, when the aid is provided by those traditionally hostile to their establishing a fundamentalist caliphate? Even those aid agencies working outside of governments will be hard pressed to convince the radical Taliban that it is in everyone’s interest to cooperate.
Easy comparisons are being made between the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the fall of Kabul. The Vietnam War was about stopping the spread of communism, and the United States lost the War despite overwhelming military superiority. Today, Vietnam is a peaceful and thriving country.
The Afghan intervention was originally about containing terrorism. That has failed. Al Qaeda and organizations such as Daech still exist. Once again, in a different context, overwhelming military superiority failed. But one can hardly anticipate Afghanistan becoming a peaceful and thriving country like Vietnam. It will probably remain a clannish country ruled by local warlords who have been able to defeat three empires, the British, Soviets and now the Americans.
What lessons can be learned from the collapse of the Afghan government after 20 years of Western support? The most obvious is that military might does not guarantee success in asymmetric warfare. The Taliban, like the Vietcong, were able to succeed despite overwhelming military inferiority. The “hearts and minds” of people did not follow America’s military strength.
And once again, like in Vietnam, military intelligence was unable to describe the actual situation on the ground.
Will these lessons be learned? Doubtful. The hubris behind the 20-year intervention was originally an emotional reaction to September 11, with President George W. Bush sending U.S. troops to Afghanistan in response to the attacks. The mission was to punish those responsible and ensure that Afghanistan would not harbor international terrorists.
Over time, it became more than that. As in the rice paddies of Vietnam, the United States became mired in unfamiliar terrain thinking that it had all the solutions. Whether the fall of Kabul will change that hubris remains to be seen. There is no evidence to support that possibility.
The indispensable, exceptional nation is too mired in its own self-image. And International Geneva, among many others, will have to scramble to pick up the broken pieces


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  • "Afghanistan was never about Nation-building" says Joseph Biden, nor about fighting terrorism one is tempted to add. Cui bono ? A bunch of narcissistic pathological anti-communist warmongers, instrumental in american politics, at least since the Reagan administration as far as Afghanistan is concerned, eager to fuel the military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower had warned the american people in 1961.

  • Even if your title is supposed to recap all of it with your wording "the end of an endless war", do you seriously mean it?

    In Afhanistan, the no-way goes on endlessly, at citizens' level.

    A small country, where big strategic external interests are at play since the eighties, forcing its best citizens to migration, decades ago.

    Failed note.

  • At the outset, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had a clear, stated objective — to retaliate against al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
    The US administrations tried to create — from scratch — a democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington. It was a foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law.
    Today's reality shows that the grandiose nation-building project was marred from the start. America's biggest single achievement in Afghanistan, may have been the development of mass corruption by flooding the fragile country with far more aid than it could possibly absorb.
    The US went into Irak and Afghanistan not knowing a damn thing about those countries, the culture, the history, the politics, and the people.
    If it is true that failure is a better teacher than success, I hope the US establishment will learn lessons from its failure in Afghanistan and Irak, not about their stinging defeat, but about itself.

  • forcing its best citizens to migration," ??? Forcing its worst citizens to migration !

  • Do not lump all the peoples of Central Asia together, this is an extremely complex jigsaw puzzle.

  • The invasion of Afghanistan was approved by the US Congress with a vote of 420-1 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. Much world support, including NATO, backed this decision with little reservation. A look back at the Carter Doctrine, with threats of force, in 1979 or the British Declaration of 1903, for instance, reveals a long history of very different motives. How could a loosely organized group like the Taliban overcome a US sponsored Afghan governing entity? The Taliban is motivated by strong ideology and the government by greed/money.
    The US finally passed the Violence Against Women Act with a funding of $1.6 billion. The news was dominated by the Me Too movement till other more pressing issues. Sexuality norms have taken dimensions unacceptable in recent history. Racially motivated rioting is prevalent throughout the nation. Resistance movements in Afghanistan do not lack for supporting oppositional material to galvanize unity. A US withdrawal. however messy, is a plus.

  • Right now most politicians and media figures appear more concerned with dissecting the immediate, political implications of Biden’s mismanaged withdrawal rather than examining the incalculable costs of the last two decades. The US inability or maybe unwillingness to understand Afghanistan’s underlying ethnic, political and social dynamics left the US establishment incapable of building sustainable programs that could be led and administered by the Afghan people. The same applies to Irak, Yemen, Syria, etc...
    The central problem is not the chaotic withdrawal but rather the abject failure of the US two-decade long military engagement, and should serve as a nail-in-the coffin for the nation building enterprise, particularly the notion that it could be accomplished through prolonged brutal military engagement.
    It is about time for the US to reflect about the wisdom of "regime change". US presidents would like to convey the impression that, with the wave of a magic wand, they can transform a dictatorship into a democracy overnight thanks to her military might.
    The bigger problem relates to war powers and how presidents have a long history of acting without receiving a great deal of push back or accountability from Congress. US Presidents have engaged in a variety of unilateral military actions since 1950 without Congress doing a great deal to impede them or draw down forces if the operation is failing to achieve even the vague objectives. In 2002 Congress provided Bush broad powers to wage war indefinitely. Bush used it to invade Afghanistan and Irak. We all know the outcome.
    It is about time for the US to develop and implement a more sound grand strategy based in diplomacy rather than continuing the reactive and overly lethal foreign policy that has mired the United States in endless wars.

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