20 August 2021   Leave a comment

We have been flooded with news reports on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the apparent victory of the Taliban in taking control of the country. I have been struck by how many “experts” have emerged with a number of fanciful “what should have happened” scenarios in the face of a genuine humanitarian crisis. Over time we will learn more of the decision-making process of the Biden Administration and whether the President made a flawed decision to withdraw US forces precipitously.

I will wait for much more evidence before I determine how accurate these assessments are. But I am not at all reluctant to think that these assessments are less important than the more important question of why the US invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 2001. All the Sturm und Drang over Biden’s decision obscures the central fact that the US effort at “nation-building” was a colossal and expensive failure. What makes this fact so disturbing is that the US should have learned that lesson in the Vietnam War.

There once was a recognition that the failure should not be repeated. Colin Powell articulated the conditions necessary to support and sustain a military intervention in the future so that the US military would never find itself in a no-win situation. Powell outlined what came to be known as the “Powell Doctrine“. In Powell’s own words:

“In time, just as I came to reexamine my feelings about the war, the Army, as an institution, would do the same thing. We accepted that we had been sent to pursue a policy that had become bankrupt. Our political leaders had led us into a war for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anticommunism, which was only a partial fit in Vietnam, where the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anticolonialism, and civil strife beyond the East-West conflict. Our senior officers knew the war was going badly. Yet they bowed to groupthink pressures and kept up pretenses, the phony measure of body counts, the comforting illusion of secure hamlets, the inflated progress reports. As a corporate entity, the military failed to talk straight to its political superiors or to itself. The top leadership never went to the secretary of defense or the president and said, “This war is unwinnable the way we are fighting it.” Many of my generation, the career captains, majors and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support.”

The Powell Doctrine had the following questions to answer before the US would intervene in the future:

1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?

2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?

3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?

5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

7. Is the action supported by the American people?

8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

The problem with the Powell Doctrine was that these conditions were so strict that it would be highly unlikely that the US would use military force in the future and that outcome proved to be unacceptable to those who wished to keep the US military and to those who wished to profit from military spending.

After the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew its leader, Saddam Hussein, the US found itself in the position of determining a strategy to guide its operations in Iraq. Essentially, the invasion vitiated the precepts of the Powell Doctrine and the US found itself in the position of trying to rebuild Iraq. General David Petrae­us (whose Princeton Ph.D. dissertation was entitled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam”) rewrote the counterinsurgency manual for the US Army: “He took up the task of rewriting the military’s counterinsurgency manual. The new manual, which was published last month, presents a thoroughly researched and innovative rethinking of counterinsurgency in the post-Sept. 11 world — a reassessment of strategy based on the history of counterinsurgency stretching from ancient Rome to the French debacle in Algeria to America’s experience in Vietnam.” One can read the entire manual which is entitled “The Field Manual on Counterinsurgency Operations“.

Andrew J. Bacevich, writing in The Atlantic, highlights the significance of the shift from Powell to Petraeus:

“A leading voice in the Conservative camp is Colonel Gian Gentile, a Berkeley graduate with a doctorate in history from Stanford, who currently teaches at West Point. Gentile has two tours in Iraq under his belt. During the second, just before the Petrae­us era, he commanded a battalion in Baghdad.

Writing in the journal World Affairs, Gentile dismisses as ‘a self-serving fiction’ the notion that Abrams in 1968 put the United States on the road to victory in Vietnam; the war, he says, was unwinnable, given the ‘perseverance, cohesion, indigenous support, and sheer determination of the other side, coupled with the absence of any of those things on the American side.’ Furthermore, according to Gentile, the post-Vietnam officer corps did not turn its back on that war in a fit of pique; it correctly assessed that the mechanized formations of the Warsaw Pact deserved greater attention than pajama-clad guerrillas in Southeast Asia.

“Gentile also takes issue with the triumphal depiction of the Petrae­us era, attributing security improvements achieved during Petrae­us’s tenure less to new techniques than to a ‘cash-for-cooperation’ policy that put ‘nearly 100,000 Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, … on the U.S. government payroll.’ According to Gentile, in Iraq as in Vietnam, tactics alone cannot explain the overall course of events.

“All of this forms a backdrop to Gentile’s core concern: that an infatuation with stability operations will lead the Army to reinvent itself as ‘a constabulary,’ adept perhaps at nation-building but shorn of adequate capacity for conventional war-fighting.

The Petraeus Doctrine guided US operations in Afghanistan almost perfectly. And therein lies the humanitarian tragedy we are witnessing in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was likely the nation less amenable to US influence, or, to be more precise, to any outside influence. In 2017 Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote:

“Afghanistan is a notoriously difficult country to govern. Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan, giving the region the nickname “Graveyard of Empires, ” even if sometimes those empires won some initial battles and made inroads into the region. If the United States and its allies decide to leave Afghanistan, they would only the latest in a long series of nations to do so. As the British learned in their 1839-1842 war in Afghanistan, it is often easier to do business with a local ruler with popular support than to support a leader backed by foreign powers; the costs of propping up such a leader eventually add up. The closest most historical empires have come to controlling Afghanistan was by adopting a light-handed approach, as the Mughals did. They managed to loosely control the area by paying off various tribes, or granting them autonomy. Attempts at anything resembling centralized control, even by native Afghan governments, have largely failed.”

Since 2001 the US has invested the lives of many soldiers and civilians and likely more than $1 trillion in an effort to build an Afghan army capable of resisting the Taliban. But those efforts were a spectacular failure as evidenced by the quick collapse of the Afghan national army. Some argue that the Afghan military folded because the Afghan government abruptly fled the country. There is some truth to that explanation but the soldiers in the Afghan army certainly knew that their government was not nearly as bad as the Taliban. Kori Schake explains the reason for the US failure:

“But our efforts to train foreign militaries also fail because of shortcomings particular to American policy choices. The U.S. tends to undertake large-scale train-and-equip programs when we don’t want to do the fighting ourselves; that has been the story in Iraq and Afghanistan. But sending that signal heartens adversaries and weakens the very forces we’re attempting to help. We convey the limits of our intentions.

“The same message is transmitted by assigning the training task solely to the military. The surges of military forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to have civilian counterparts. Remember General Stanley McChrystal claiming that we were bringing “government in a box” to Afghanistan when he took over command of allied forces there? Neither surge, in Iraq or Afghanistan, delivered on its aims to strengthen civilian governance, which is essential for military training programs not to outpace and thereby undermine their civilian counterparts.”

We have known for some time that the training program was not going to be successful. In 2019 The Washington Post published what have come to be known as the “Afghanistan Papers” (using the Vietnam Pentagon Papers as an analog). Craig Whitlock describes the conclusions of those documents:

“A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

“The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

“‘We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,’ Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: ‘What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.

“’If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,’ Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. ‘Who will say this was in vain?

“Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.”

Ultimately, the emptiness of the US program led to the success of the Taliban. Douglas London, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia until 2019, outlines the US failure, not the Taliban’s victory:

“And in grading their own homework, the U.S. defense establishment only exacerbated the problem. While it’s little surprise the Department of Defense was unwilling to objectively evaluate the resolve and capacity of those they trained, equipped, and advised to resist a forthcoming Taliban offensive, their rose-colored depictions of achievement over 20 years flew in the face of reality, and was consistently challenged by the CIA’s more gloomy, albeit realistic projections.”

I would rather point to the US belief in American exceptionalism as the main cause of the failure. That belief, and the parochialism of the American perspective, was captured in the speech given by former President George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address in 2002. Bush celebrates the US ideology as universal, ignoring the long and distinguished history and culture of the Afghan people:

“America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere.

“No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture. But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity:  the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance.”

This belief was maintained by subsequent Presidents Obama. Trump, and Biden. Until the US divests itself of the self-serving assumption that everyone in the world wants to be an American, it is likely that the mistake of Afghanistan, like the mistake of Vietnam, will be forgotten.

Posted August 20, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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