United States

Ending the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan

10 mei 2021

In mid-April, I took part in a conference entitled New Transatlantic Relations organized by a Romanian university.  In my presentation on whether the Joe Biden administration will engage in a “Transatlantic Reset,” I talked about the American public’s attitude and weariness about fighting “forever wars,” in particular, the war in Afghanistan, which will reach the 20-year mark this fall.

In the question-and-answer time, members of the audience raised concerns about what will happen in Afghanistan after U.S. forces withdraw.  Is America abandoning a loyal ally in the fight against terrorism?  Are those many political pundits and politicians who argue that Biden is being foolish and hasty right and should Europeans try to temper Biden’s withdrawal plans?

Biden’s Character
First of all, what Biden is doing is not unexpected.  Several recently published books by key foreign policy actors in Barack Obama’s administration all tell the same story of Biden’s reticence to expand the U.S.’ role in Afghanistan.  For example, in 2009, Biden was the lone dissenter among the members of the National Security Council to the surge policy that sent another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan.

Biden was also often a broker between two groups within the Obama administration.  One group led by Hillary Clinton and other Bill Clinton-era officials, wanted to have a greater U.S. military presence around the world.  In the case of Afghanistan, this group wanted a larger military footprint.

In opposition to this group was a coalition led by younger staffers, who joined the Obama administration after working on his campaign or because they had worked for him in the Senate.  The life experiences of these younger staffers led them to advocate a more constrained American role in the world.

Obama often agreed with his younger advisors and it was Biden who was the link between the two groups.  Sometimes he argued for an enhanced American role but more often he argued for a careful approach.  In the discussions on whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan, Biden argued for a strategy that focused on counterterrorism (that targeted al Qaeda) rather than one that focused on nation-building (that targeted the Taliban).

Biden’s relationship with the Pentagon
Although Biden held a skeptical view of what the military was proposing in Afghanistan, his relationship with the Pentagon was respectful.  For instance, Biden got along well with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  Contrast this with President Donald Trump’s famous bust-up at the Pentagon in July 2017.  During a briefing by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, which was designed to fill-in the gaps of Trump’s knowledge of history, geography and America’s interests abroad, Trump unleased a stream of venom at the military, calling them “losers,” and “a bunch of dopes and babies,” before walking out.  It was after this meeting that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson infamously called Trump “a fucking moron.”

What does this mean for Afghanistan?
Although Biden is not likely to visit the Pentagon and call Afghanistan a “loser war,” he is raising questions similar to Trump’s about America’s never-ending war there.  Answers to what America should do in Afghanistan are complex with catch-22 elements of dilemma: the U.S. should not leave before the situation on the ground is better but staying is contributing to a poor situation on the ground.

Unfortunately, after over 40 years of war the people of Afghanistan are traumatized, with the World Health Organization estimating that large percentages of the population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The U.S. must take part of the responsibility for this situation; for example, studies conducted after 9/11 indicate that the prevalence of PTSD was as high as 42% of the population.  To improve the situation on the ground, the U.S. has over the years implemented programs and supported democratically elected Afghan governments.

Poppy Fields and the Global War on Terrorism
Sadly, governments in Afghanistan have been unsatisfying partners.  In the case of Hamid Karzai, the levels of corruption were such that General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander, said Afghanistan was Karzai’s “crime syndicate,” while General Stanley McChrystal (the commander who preceded Petraeus) called Afghanistan “Chaos-istan.”

The question is not whether Afghanistan needs help, the question is what sort of help is the most effective?  Can the U.S get results commensurate with the enormity of its investment of troops, their families and the cost to U.S. taxpayers? Can these troops change the conditions on the ground within a certain time period?

And who exactly is the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan?  Does the Taliban need to be defeated in order to keep al Qaeda from threatening U.S. national security?  What if al Qaeda is stronger elsewhere, for example, next door in Pakistan?  Such questions were already being asked by Obama when the military wanted to increase American troop levels to a total of 140,000—at a time when only 100 al Qaeda fighters were in Afghanistan.

In making his decision to pull out troops, Biden perhaps remembered two cables sent from Afghanistan by. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired general who also had a stint as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  Eikenberry wrote that increases in the U.S.’ presence will only increase Afghan dependency and deepen America’s military involvement in a mission that most agreed could not be won solely by military means.  Additionally, Eikenberry said that more troops ran counter to U.S. strategic goals of civilianizing government functions and turning over the country to the Afghans themselves.

How do you end a war gracefully?
I do not know what the right answer is for U.S. policy in Afghanistan.  But is Afghanistan a better place after 20 years of mostly good intentions, of several American administrations laboring to find a policy that works?  Since the answer is not a resounding yes, policy makers and observers alike find it hard to avoid feelings of futility.

Knowing the catch-22s and the contradictory emotions held by policy makers goes some way in explaining why ending a “forever war” is difficult.  Losing is hard and humiliating.  And yet, I am reminded of a story I read about Zalmay Khalizad, the U.S.’ Special Representative in Afghanistan, who once received a direct message from the Taliban, “You have all the watches, but we have all the time.”  For the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan is truly a never-ending one, which means keeping U.S soldiers there may be as hard and humiliating as leaving.