We Got Afghanistan Wrong, but There’s Still Time to Learn Something

“We have already heard a lot about “conditions-based” approaches and all that Afghanistan might lose with our withdrawal. Notably missing from those arguments is any acknowledgment of 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.”

“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. This is not a new revelation, but with the constant turnover of American commanders and a perennially optimistic (or delusional) view that the potential for victory over the Taliban was just around the corner, the instinct was always to double-down, or keep propping up the Afghan forces just long enough to get them over the finish line.
Unfortunately, there was always a fatal flaw to this approach. Pushing western technology and firepower into the Afghan military was never going to be sufficient to beat the Taliban, not when pouring billions of dollars into a government ill-equipped to handle it also contributed to the corruption and illegitimacy that opened additional political space for the Taliban to operate.”

“With President Biden’s decision to withdraw there undoubtedly will be consequences for the Afghan military. The absence of sustained American airpower will enable the Taliban to move even more freely, while the Afghan government will be challenged to move its best fighters around the country via helicopters to counter Taliban gains. Unfortunately, American military leaders have placed so much emphasis on building a force reliant on these assets that it will take some time for security forces more organic to Afghanistan to emerge, and it is far from certain whether an effective force can form in the face of increased Taliban attacks.”

“We must, at long last, acknowledge that building a national army requiring the kind of technological and logistical support to which western militaries are accustomed was not only a massive waste of American blood and treasure, but actually counterproductive to the fight. Jettisoning our delusional vision for the Afghan military will be painful in the short run, but necessary for Afghan stability in the long run. It is well-past time to shift our thinking from how many millions of dollars we need to keep airframes operational, to making sure that those assets that are actually sustainable and useful for Afghan forces are in place as foreign forces withdraw.”

The US military is finally withdrawing from Afghanistan

“The US has formally begun its withdrawal from Afghanistan after almost 20 years in the country, Army Gen. Austin Miller confirmed on Sunday. The news comes less than two weeks after President Joe Biden announced that all US troops would be out of the country by September 11, 2021 — a significant achievement that eluded his predecessors.

According to the New York Times, Miller, the top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at a press conference in Kabul on Sunday that he had received his orders, and the US would begin “transitioning bases and equipment to the Afghan security forces.”

“All of our forces are now preparing to retrograde,” Miller said, according to a CNN report of the same press conference. “Officially, the notification date will be the first of May, but at the same time, as we start taking local actions, we have already begun that.”

Previously, the Trump administration had set May 1 as the deadline for withdrawing all US troops from the country as part of a deal struck with the Taliban in February 2020, but as of this month, the US had about 3,500 troops still in Afghanistan.

As Vox’s Alex Ward reported earlier this month, Biden inherited that promise, and essentially chose to extend the timeline for removal, but without the Taliban’s explicit approval.”

““War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking,” Biden said. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is degraded … in Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war.””

Let the Afghan People Come

“The fundamentals of the war have remained unchanged since nearly the beginning. The Taliban insurgency can and will outlast the U.S. occupation and the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul is too corrupt and weak to establish itself as a sovereign.

“The fact that we have failed to defeat the Taliban or to effectively establish a new government after almost 20 years of trying strongly suggests it is an unachievable mission and, far from a reason to stay longer, is in fact a compelling reason to leave as soon as possible.”

“policymakers have to come to grips with the fact they don’t have many policy tools to effectively manipulate the treatment of Afghans in Afghanistan. Human rights protections have improved for many Afghans during the U.S. occupation, including respect for women’s rights. But even after nearly two decades of efforts on the ground, the United Nations still ranks Afghanistan 153rd out of 160 countries for gender equality. In a 2017 index, Afghanistan tied with Syria for the worst place in the world to be a woman.
If U.S. policymakers are serious about adopting policies that can protect Afghans under threat, they should welcome Afghans to American shores. The first step is to restart the refugee program that was effectively cancelled by President Donald Trump. Biden said he wants to welcome 125,000 refugees, but he hasn’t taken the first step—authorizing an additional 62,500 this year—even though the presidential determination is sitting on his desk waiting for his signature. Biden could permit entry to 40,000 Afghans a year if he wanted to.

A second step would be to allow Americans to privately sponsor refugees at their own expense. Such a program could be modeled on America’s experience with private sponsorship for Jews fleeing the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War and on how Canada runs its very successful system today. The Biden administration could start the pilot program and enlist veteran groups who have been at the forefront of arguing for their Afghan comrades to find refuge in America.

That leads us to the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program for Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government. These folks risked their lives to help American forces and the Taliban will show them no mercy if it takes over. But the SIV is mired in bureaucracy, preventing many deserving applicants from coming here. Biden should give the SIV program a kick in the pants to immediately welcome the roughly 17,000 Afghan employees of the U.S. and their roughly 50,000 family members.

The U.S. could also help European and Asian countries settle Afghan refugees within their borders. Many Afghan refugees want to go to Europe where their family members are living and nothing is stopping the Biden administration from working with the Europeans to facilitate such a humanitarian migration.

Unfortunately, the government probably won’t organize itself in time to help Afghans in these ways. The last, desperate option that the Biden administration will have to consider is paroling Afghan refugees into the United States. Under presidential authority, Biden could fly refugees directly from Afghanistan or surrounding countries to the island of Guam and process them there for entry to the U.S. They could immediately start working and building new lives for themselves.

This is what the United States did for many Kurds during the 1990s after the U.S. government asked them to rebel against Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq and then abandoned them to be slaughtered by the Iraqi government.

Biden’s parole authority is the same that President Gerald Ford had when he decided to process about 111,000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975. At the time, a young senator named Joe Biden said, “The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese.” The success of the Vietnamese in the United States should have changed Biden’s mind in the intervening decades.

Simply put, the United States has lost the war in Afghanistan. By pushing past the May 1 withdrawal date, Biden is merely delaying the inevitable. Afghanistan and its people are unlikely to be much better off by maintaining a small military presence there for a few months longer. Offering refuge to Afghans fleeing abuse would be a constructive human rights policy. Extending a lost war won’t be.”

Biden’s stated rationale for extending America’s war in Afghanistan is weak

“President Joe Biden all but said during his first formal press conference on Thursday that the United States would likely extend its 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan for at least a few more months beyond the May 1 withdrawal deadline set by the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban.

That’s his prerogative, of course. But some experts and advocates of withdrawing say his stated reason for keeping US troops in harm’s way for a while longer — that in terms of sheer logistics, it would be hard to pull the remaining 3,500 US troops out the country by that date — is weak.”

“The choice facing Biden was always a tough one: Abide by the Trump-era agreement and leave by May 1 — risking the Taliban’s hostile takeover of the country as soon as the US departs and the reversal of progress on women’s and children’s rights that would inevitably follow; or violate the agreement and stay in order to pressure the Taliban to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government, risking more dead American service members in the meantime.

Neither is a great option, which may explain why Biden seems to have chosen a sort of muddled middle path: withdraw, but likely later this year — and make it look less like a strategic decision about the US’s role in the country’s peace process going forward and more like merely a function of logistical realities on the ground.”

“while there are legitimate logistical challenges to pulling out US troops by that tight deadline, some experts I spoke to aren’t convinced that’s what’s really driving Biden’s foot-dragging.

Most analysts and even top congressional Democrats acknowledge that, at this point, the US can’t withdraw from Afghanistan safely by May 1, even if Biden were to order that today.

The main problem isn’t removing the service members themselves, but rather all of their equipment, from the landlocked country. America and its allies could leave things like vehicles and guns behind as part of a hurried exit, but then the Taliban or other terrorist groups could use them for their purposes.

“It takes a while to do [this] methodically and well,” said Jonathan Schroden, an expert on the war at the CNA think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

But some experts and advocates for withdrawal cite two reasons for why Biden’s rationale rings hollow.

First, the timing: “If what he wanted was the fastest possible out, that could have been the order in January,” said Andrew Watkins, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan

Simply put, the administration is surely aware of how long a safe withdrawal takes. Biden, then, effectively made the decision to keep troops in the country beyond the deadline by not making a decision until he’d passed the point where that was possible.

Second, some say that despite its harsh rhetoric demanding “all foreign troops…withdraw on the specific date,” the Taliban probably wouldn’t consider it a violation of the agreement and start targeting American troops even if the US hadn’t gotten every last person or piece of equipment out of the country by May 1, as long as Biden had announced his order to withdraw and it was genuinely underway.”

“Put together, experts say Biden’s case to the nation for why the US should remain in Afghanistan a little longer doesn’t hold up. Biden’s true intention, they divine, is that the president and his team believe their long-shot push for a diplomatic solution to the 20-year war requires prolonging America’s military presence.”

“So why didn’t Biden just say that during the press conference?

Some experts said the US may still be working to agree to an extension with the Taliban, and openly stating America will remain beyond May 1 to keep the insurgents at the table wouldn’t play well until there’s an understanding. Plus, citing logistical concerns might draw less backlash from the American public than extending the military presence in search of an unlikely peace deal.”

The best case against withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan

“The last option — and this is the option that I would support — would be using US leverage with the Taliban to greater effect to get a real, genuine peace process in place, which would mean keeping US forces in the country until that peace process is further along and shows more signs of progress.

This would mean more costs and resources for something that admittedly may not work, but it would allow the peace process to continue, preserve US credibility, and reduce risks to Americans from terrorism.

I think that the question really is this: Is the US willing to spend $5 billion annually, which means a small US force presence of about 2,500? Is that worth it, as an insurance policy to prevent another 9/11-style attack?”

“Our combat role ended back in 2014. Since then we’ve really been focusing on the counterterrorism mission, which does involve backstopping the Afghans by assisting and advising. But it’s not as if we’re going at it hand in hand with the Taliban.

But remember also that if the Taliban came back to power, you’ll see terrorists from all over the world — not just al Qaeda — you’ll see a convergence of extremists and terrorists back in Afghanistan. It’s likely to be a worse terrorist safe haven than it was before 9/11.”

“We are obviously much more equipped to prevent that 9/11-style attack from happening on US soil, no doubt. The argument that I’m making is that if we withdraw to zero, the Taliban comes back, and terrorist groups and extremists pour back into Afghanistan.

That gives the Taliban a dangerous narrative to propagate, which is they were able to kick out the US and its NATO partners. “We succeeded,” they could say. That is the real danger, that we lose to terrorists and extremists and we provide an opportunity for them to regather strength.

And yes, you’re right, we do have the ability to stop terrorism much more than we did 20 years ago at our border. But it’s still a high cost for us to pay when we could continue to support partners that we’ve been supporting for 20 years. There’s no indication the Taliban feels pressure to break with al-Qaeda. Even the UN has said the Taliban has not changed its relationship with al-Qaeda.”

“we’re down to 2,500 troops. We had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at one point. We really have right-sized our engagement there. We’re not looking for quick, easy solutions. We’re trying to manage threats and being able to manage the threat at roughly $5 billion a year, that seems like a good investment from a national security perspective.”

The best case for withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan

“The US has a history of missed opportunities in Afghanistan, and we’re at risk of adding another one. In 2001, the Taliban in effect offered to surrender. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai not only said “No,” but “Heck no,” in terms of accepting the Taliban’s offer to stop fighting and just live in peace.

There were also other overtures, some written about and others I’ve personally heard about, and again the United States and the Afghan government said, “No, we don’t agree.”

In the negotiations I was involved in as the secretary of defense’s representative from 2010 to 2012, the United States did not put the political capital behind the effort. Washington just simply couldn’t get its act together to move forward [in] a peace process. The result was the Taliban eventually got frustrated and left the talks.

Each time we forfeited these opportunities — the last time, when there were 100,000-plus international soldiers on the ground — the Taliban’s only demands were to do a detainee exchange, [Bowe] Bergdahl for the Gitmo Five, open a political office in Doha, and lift sanctions on their version of diplomats.

You fast-forward all these years later to what we’re left with — an agreement where we essentially traded no troops for no terrorism with the Taliban — and it’s the best we could’ve gotten at this point.

Are we ready to miss another opportunity? It breaks my heart to see the suffering of Afghans, and it breaks my heart to see continued policy- and strategy-making in the United States that is leading us to worse outcomes at huge costs in blood, treasure, and time.”

“The administration should aim for a six-month extension to see if we can get the stalled peace process back on track. If we don’t get that extension, and getting one will require a heavy lift, then we should pull out the remaining 2,500 troops and apply penalties to whichever side breaks the peace process.

The US is in a reverse-Goldilocks position: 2,500 troops is too little to really do any good with what’s coming from the Taliban, and too big to get away quickly. We’re entertaining a lot of risk if we simply abrogate the agreement [signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban]. The United States will blame the Taliban for not meeting their end of the bargain, but at the end of the day, it’ll be the United States making the decision to tear up the agreement.

What happens then? From the Taliban’s point of view, the West can’t be trusted, and they’ll decide to go on an all-out offensive. The Taliban right now are surrounding eight to 10 provincial capitals. With 2,500 troops and the limited airpower that we have in Afghanistan, the math just simply doesn’t work that [we would be able to] sort all of that out. The Taliban is likely to gain some serious momentum.

For the Taliban to thrive, they’re going to need support from the West. But if the West proved itself untrustworthy by breaking the deal, then they will look to Russia and China, even knowing any aid will come with huge strings attached.”

“If we tear up the agreement, we can look forward to a Vietnam-style, Tet-like offensive by the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Some of those major attacks are going to be much more successful than the Tet Offensive was.

The Biden administration will own the consequences of what looks to be an increasing calamity in Afghanistan. One of the biggest risks for the United States is the specter of a C-17 [plane] screaming out of Bagram [Air Base] on the heels of a Taliban offensive army.

The risk is, it replaces the fall of Saigon in 1975 as a black eye for America. The alternative is that you leave in the manner in which it was agreed, while putting the peace process on a more stable platform.

If fighting resumes, and it’s likely to resume, the Afghan government is going to be forced to get its act together and stand up and fight the Taliban to a new stalemate, which is what I personally think is likely to happen. Or they’re just going to collapse. And after 20 years of international investment, the Afghan government needs to earn the public support.”

“There’s no evidence that 2,500 troops is a difference-maker in maintaining stability in Afghanistan.

And al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan. There are a lot of groups, the Taliban included, that are interested in fighting ISIS. You also get all sorts of reports coming out of the Afghan government about 20 or 25 terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Well, maybe they exist, and maybe they’re about three or four people sitting in a cave.

Again, I’m just not convinced that a withdrawal is just a prelude to another 9/11. The evidence for that is almost nonexistent.

Plus, our capabilities 20 years after 9/11 — to detect and to strike any sort of emerging terrorist threat in a place like Afghanistan — are much, much higher. Our information networks in Afghanistan itself, as well as our detection and strike capabilities, really are the best insurance against a terrorist attack against the United States. It’s far better than keeping a small force presence in the country.”

Leave now, extension, or indefinite stay: Biden’s 3 bad Afghanistan options

“Today, the insurgents control more territory in Afghanistan than they did in 2001 when the US invaded”

“President Joe Biden has been presented with three broad options for how to prolong or end America’s involvement in the 20-year Afghanistan War — and all three have significant drawbacks for the administration and the Afghan people.
Here’s what Biden’s military and intelligence advisers offered up in recent days, as reported by the New York Times and the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, details of which I later confirmed.

The first option is to adhere to former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require Biden to withdraw all remaining 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan by May 1. The second is to negotiate an extension with the insurgent group, allowing American forces to remain in the country beyond early May. And third is to defy the Trump-Taliban pact altogether and keep fighting in Afghanistan with no stated end date.

Each plan has serious pitfalls”

“If the US leaves in the next three months, it’s likely the Taliban will overrun the US-backed Afghan government and once again make life worse for millions of Afghans, especially women and children.

Staying in Afghanistan just a little bit longer would likely delay that takeover, but would also expend any diplomatic capital the US has left with the Taliban and keep US troops in harm’s way.

Finally, violating the terms of the agreement and remaining indefinitely will almost certainly lead the Taliban to restart its campaign, put on hold ahead of the May 1 deadline, to kill American service members in the country.”

“Multiple US officials told me in recent days that the administration’s Afghanistan policy review is nearing its end, with one telling me they expect Biden to make a decision “very soon.””

“There’s just no guarantee that the Afghan government and the Taliban will actually make a deal. After months or even years of talking, it’s possible neither side will make concessions to the other to hash out a comprehensive peace pact. If that’s the case, US troops will have remained in danger for little to no progress.”

Why Biden can’t ignore Iraq and Afghanistan, even if he might want to

“When President Joe Biden gave his first foreign policy address two weeks ago, he didn’t once mention the words “Iraq” or “Afghanistan.” But events in those two countries over the past 24 hours have offered a stark reminder to the administration that it can’t forever ignore America’s forever wars.

In Iraq, rockets seemingly launched by an Iranian-backed militia on Monday killed a non-American civilian contractor at a military base in Erbil. Nine others were injured, including four US contractors and one service member, according to Col. Wayne Marotto, the spokesperson for the US-led coalition against ISIS.

And in Afghanistan, the Taliban has closed in on major cities just a few months before the scheduled departure of US forces on May 1. The insurgent group released an open letter to Americans on Tuesday, basically asking the Biden administration to trust the Taliban to lead the nation and respect human rights after the troops leave — a dubious claim at best.

Even as Biden would prefer to spend most of his time addressing the coronavirus, China, and climate change, it’s clear that, like every president since George W. Bush, he’ll continually have his attention diverted toward Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s not that he and his team have neglected those countries. Defense chiefs from NATO nations are meeting over the next two days in large part to discuss plans for Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration is also reviewing its policies in the two countries, weighing what to keep from the past four years and what to change.

But recent events have added an extra sense of urgency, with US troops under threat in an increasingly unstable Iraq, and a tough decision looming for the president in Afghanistan: leave the country to almost certain ruin, or stay and face another deadly fighting season against the Taliban?

In normal times, those would be tough issues for any administration to handle. In this era, they’re extra difficult.”

Don’t Let Biden Sink Troops Back Into the Afghanistan Quagmire

“”There has been no cease-fire agreement and high levels of insurgent and extremist violence continued in Afghanistan this quarter despite repeated pleas from senior U.S. and international officials to reduce violence in an effort to advance the peace process,” John Sopko, the longtime special inspector general, wrote in the report’s introduction. “Nor is it evident, as SIGAR discusses in this report, that the Taliban has broken ties with the al-Qaeda terrorists who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks on the United States.””

“”Election fraud in Afghanistan is rampant and takes many forms: Political leaders exert influence over senior election officials and, through them, lower-level staff, and election commissioners and their senior staff sell their services for financial gain. Senior election officials thus play an ambiguous role, serving variously as protectors of the process, perpetrators of fraud, illicit collaborators with senior government officials, and victims of their abuses. Fraud is also perpetrated by local powerbrokers trying to curry favor with candidates in the anticipation of reward, in the form of government contracts, jobs, or payoffs. It is difficult to detect and prove fraud, and even harder to reduce it. Anti-fraud measures are often co-opted to perpetrate more fraud, and even successful fraud mitigation can end up suppressing legitimate votes, sometimes in ways that favor one group over another.””

The Joint Chiefs chair just gave a brutally honest assessment of the Afghanistan war

“Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, just gave an honest yet brutal assessment of America’s decades-long war in Afghanistan.

Asked at a Washington, DC, think tank virtual event about the planned drawdown to 2,500 US troops in the country by January 15, President Donald Trump’s top military adviser tried to assure the audience that the US had somewhat completed its mission.

“We went to Afghanistan … to ensure that Afghanistan never again became a platform for terrorists to strike the United States,” he told the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon on Wednesday morning. “We believe that now after 20 years — two decades of consistent effort there — we’ve achieved a modicum of success.”

Let those last four words — “a modicum of success” — sink in for a moment. That’s Trump’s top military adviser saying out loud that after two decades of war, tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans killed, and more than a trillion dollars spent, the US can only boast of “a modicum of success” for its efforts there.

Milley’s remark is certainly more accurate than the rosy assessments top US officials offered the public as the war raged. Year after year after year, presidents and top generals insisted America’s effort to support Afghan government forces against the Taliban had “turned a corner” and that success was on the horizon.

But now, as US forces draw down from the country, Milley has made one thing painfully clear: The US never turned that corner. Instead, the US and its Afghan partners in Kabul made only modest gains over the past two decades.”

“the US hasn’t suffered a terrorist attack on the homeland planned in Afghanistan since 9/11, and America helped set up a friendly government in Kabul, a capital city that in recent years has been safer than in the past. But the Taliban holds more ground in the country than when the war started, and danger remains for the insurgents to overrun the government in Kabul if and when US troops fully depart.

Milley acknowledged as much. “We have been in a condition of strategic stalemate where the government of Afghanistan was never going to militarily defeat the Taliban,” he continued, “and the Taliban, as long as we were supporting the government of Afghanistan, is never going to military defeat the regime.””