“We’ve been a country too long at war.” — President Biden
Headlines have been dominated by the cataclysmic events in Afghanistan — the sudden Taliban takeover followed by the precipitous U.S. withdrawal from the country. A blizzard of expert commentary along with statements from members of Congress have produced an unusually clear consensus narrative. It is not kind to the administration.
There is general agreement on several major points. First, the U.S. government failed to foresee the sudden collapse of the previous American-supported Afghan government and armed forces. Second, the administration failed to plan for the extraction of tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Afghans who had worked with the U.S. and who would be in mortal peril if the Taliban returned to power. Third, the first two failures meant that an orderly departure from Afghanistan was impossible. Instead, we witnessed a frantic, desperate and often chaotic process focused on the Kabul airport. Fourth, inevitably, large numbers of Afghans (and even some Americans) who wanted to get out, were left behind. Fifth, there is every reason to fear that the Taliban will revert to type, welcoming jihadist radicals to Afghanistan while imposing a repressive form of shariah law that will strip women and girls of all the gains they have made. Afghanistan will revert to the dark ages and America will have nothing to show for 20 years of effort that cost over 2,400 military deaths and well over $1 trillion spent.
It is a pretty grim indictment. The Biden White House will bear the brunt of the anger and recrimination, even though the war was initiated and carried out by three previous administrations — and the most consistent, high level, critic of the whole enterprise was Joe Biden.
History may well validate this narrative; the critical chorus may be right. But maybe not. The first word of caution is to be aware of how little we really know and how shaky our track record is when it comes to predicting strategic outcomes. The most prominent critics (in and out of government) of the Afghan withdrawal, were, to a person, supporters of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, a strategic blunder of historic proportions. In an earlier generation, Washington’s best and brightest almost unanimously supported the American military intervention in Vietnam.
There is another possible (plausible?) narrative. It begins with an appreciation of the magnitude of the challenge facing U.S. officials, civilian and military, over the last few weeks — and the magnitude of what they actually accomplished. There are a lot of armchair critics out there who have no real conception of the impossible choices facing senior White House officials as Afghanistan began to unwind. The best information they had a couple of months ago suggested that the previous government could hold on for months or even years. If the U.S. acted early to start moving people out, it could well be seen as a vote of no confidence in the future of the government, precipitating a collapse of morale and support. Fearing this, U.S. officials urged American citizens to leave, but did not organize a high-profile evacuation. As it turned out, the best information was wrong and the government collapsed far more quickly than anticipated.
In response, the U.S. military did something no other military in the world could even contemplate, much less implement. In a matter of days, the Pentagon organized an airlift that evacuated over 120,000 U.S. citizens and Afghans who had worked with the U.S. All of this was done using a single runway at a civilian airport with all traffic controlled by a Marine Corps master sergeant operating out of a tent on the tarmac. Meanwhile, a thin line of soldiers maintained a perimeter controlling a crowd of tens of thousands of frantic Afghans. They did so knowing that they had no real defense against a suicide bomber. Thirteen died. The whole effort was way beyond impressive; it was beyond heroic.
A second element in an alternative narrative notes the repeated statements by the Taliban leadership that they have changed (a lot) since they were forced from power in 2001. Many unflattering adjectives fit that earlier Taliban — fanatical, repressive, ignorant as well as rural, tribal and often illiterate. That Taliban rejected female education, destroyed priceless archaeological sites (they weren’t Islamic) and welcomed Osama bin Laden. The current Taliban leadership talks a very different game. They want to modernize the country, they want officials of the former regime to stay and work with them, they will allow anyone who wants to leave to do so, they will support female education and enterprise, they want international recognition, and they want the U.S. embassy in Kabul to reopen. The question is whether any of this is genuine; and no one outside the Taliban knows.
What we do know is that the new Taliban government will face colossal problems. This is a leadership that can’t even operate an airport. Can they provide electric power and wastewater treatment — not to mention hospitals? They inherit a country in dire economic straits with a crippling draught, widespread malnutrition and looming starvation and an empty treasury. Everything Afghanistan needs — fuel for generators, food for markets, money for banks — requires external aid and support. All the money in the national treasury is held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The flow of vital foreign aid is controlled by the IMF. Everything is on hold, and nothing is going to move unless Washington says so.
There is a word for a situation like this — that word is leverage.