‘Trust was gone’: Former Afghan official recounts his government’s collapse

“Afghanistan’s government lost trust in the United States because of the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s insistence on withdrawing its forces, a former Afghan official said Sunday in describing his government’s collapse earlier this year.”

“Mohib told Brennan the decision was made to leave when it became clear that the military had largely melted away and the police had not shown up for work. “We had to make a decision that was right for Afghanistan,” Mohib said.
For his part, Mohib said the Afghan government expected more from the United States, but that his country was betrayed by the U.S. government negotiating with the Taliban independently.

“What happened was the rug was pulled under the Afghans’ feet,” he said, adding: “The decision to talk directly and engage the Taliban and make a deal with the Taliban that didn’t include the Afghan government was protested.””

A Big, Dumb Machine

“It is common to chalk up America’s failures in Afghanistan to incompetence, ignorance, or stupidity. Yet The Afghanistan Papers, by The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, shows an American government that, although it had no idea what it was doing when it came to building a democracy in Afghanistan, did an excellent job manipulating the public, avoiding any consequences for its failures, and protecting its bureaucratic and financial interests. The problem was a broken system, not a generalized incompetence.

In 2016, Whitlock received a tip that the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) had interviewed hundreds of participants in the war, including top American and Afghan officials, military leaders, and outside consultants. When the paper tried to get its hands on the results, SIGAR fought it every step of the way; it took a three-year legal battle to get the documents. The Post then published them on its website—along with some related items, such as memos from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—and those formed the basis of this book.

Ultimate responsibility must start on top. No matter what he told himself, President George W. Bush acted as a man who simply didn’t much care what happened to Afghanistan beyond how it influenced his political fortunes. One of Rumsfeld’s memos notes that in October 2002, Bush was asked whether he’d like to meet with Gen. Dan McNeil. The president asked who that was, and Rumsfeld answered that he was the man leading the war in Afghanistan. Bush responded that he didn’t need to see him. The president was presumably preoccupied with the Iraq war he would launch five months later. (That is, he was preoccupied with selling the war. He didn’t really think much about what the U.S. would be doing in that country either.)

The bureaucracy beneath the president comes across as a big dumb machine that was unclear about what it ultimately wanted, and whose different limbs sometimes worked at cross purposes. Many parts of that machine were extremely aware of how hopeless the mission was. As Gen. McNeil said, “There was no campaign plan. It just wasn’t there.” The British general who headed NATO forces in the country from 2006 to 2007 similarly remarked that “there was no coherent long-term strategy.” American military personnel would be sent to Afghanistan on more than one occasion over the two decades of conflict and, in Whitlock’s words, “the war made less sense each time they went back.”

To fight the Taliban, the U.S. empowered brutal warlords, who would often rape and terrorize the local populations. One of the most prominent of these, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was such a destructive force that one American diplomat offered to make him the executive producer of a movie just to get him out of the country. At the same time, the CIA was paying him $70,000 a month. Whitlock’s account includes an endless number of similar stories, in which one part of the American government was doing things that completely negated the actions of others. Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living documented this on the ground, showing how the same individual might be an ally to the CIA and an enemy to the military, and how ultimately this hurt the Afghan people more than anyone else.

As of 2006, Afghanistan had one successful industry: growing up to 90 percent of the world’s opium. Under pressure from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and members of Congress, and over the objections of the military, the Bush administration decided to start destroying those crops. This only fueled the insurgency, even as opium production increased. When the U.S. tried paying farmers not to grow opium, more had an incentive to start planting the crop—and many of them still sold the harvest on the open market anyway after taking American money. According to one official, “urging Karzai to mount an effective counternarcotics campaign was like asking an American president to halt all U.S. economic activity west of the Mississippi.””

“Each part of the American war machine had its own mission, and was going to do what it did regardless of the facts on the ground. The DEA wanted to destroy opium, the human rights bureaucracy pushed women’s rights, and the military wanted to keep the war going. Nobody was there to force these disparate parts to work towards a common goal in a way that made sense. Theoretically, the president should have done so, but the American system clearly rewards political competence more than it does the ability to build stable democracies on the other side of the world. Often extremely self-aware, American officials were not as stupid or incompetent as they were self-interested cogs in a system filled with misaligned incentives.”

“The transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump shows how flexible the Pentagon could be to keep the war going. When working for the former law professor, the generals used more rhetoric about human rights and became experts at manipulating statistics to show how they supposedly were making people’s lives better. Under Trump, they realized that they could maintain his support for the war by talking of victory and killing bad guys. In both cases, the generals successfully resisted a president who was skeptical about their mission. The military seemed relatively indifferent to whether it was spending its time building girls’ schools or undertaking a more expansive bombing campaign, as long as it could keep the war going. Joe Biden watched the generals box in Obama, and he came into the White House determined not to be similarly manipulated.”

U.S. Drone Strikes Plunge Under Biden

“Airwars, an independent nonprofit that tracks strikes and casualties in conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, provides regular assessments of civilian deaths. And in their latest data which spans the first year of Biden’s presidency, civilian deaths and strikes plunged in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

The differences are striking, even keeping in mind we’re comparing just one year of Biden’s presidency with four years of President Donald Trump and eight years of President Barack Obama.

During the length of Trump’s four-year presidency, Airwars documented more than 16,000 air and artillery military strikes in Iraq and Syria, which itself was a decline of more than 1,500 strikes when compared to Obama’s second term. During Biden’s first year, there have been 39 total military strikes spread between both countries.

Alleged civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria skyrocketed under Trump’s four years in office to more than 13,000 compared to 5,600 during Obama’s second term. Thus far, Airwars reports only 10 under the Biden administration. There have been no reported civilian deaths in Somalia thus far during Biden’s term, compared to 134 under Trump and 42 under Obama over both of his terms. Strikes in Yemen, which had declined each year throughout Trump’s administration, have dropped to just four this year (Airwars did not provide civilian deaths for Yemen).

This follows reporting earlier this year that Biden had quietly imposed restrictions on the use of drone strikes outside of active war zones. Trump had eased restrictions and allowed the military and CIA to decide when to strike, thus explaining the dramatic increase in strikes and civilian deaths in Somalia during his term. Biden is now requiring the White House to vet and approve these strikes, for now, until the administration sets up new formal policies (about which we know very little, but observers hope will require more procedures to ensure that civilians aren’t killed).”

Around 28,000 Afghans Are Still Awaiting Approval To Come to the U.S. on Urgent Humanitarian Grounds

“Many people seeking an escape from Afghanistan do not qualify for the pathways available to Afghans who served the U.S. military effort in some capacity. Women and girls, human rights workers, journalists, judges, and others must now look instead to a little-used tool of the U.S. immigration system called “humanitarian parole.”

This measure, outlined by the Immigration and Nationality Act, allows certain individuals to enter the U.S. for a temporary period under the discretion of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on the basis of “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” There is no defined set of criteria as to who may qualify for parole, and anyone may apply for it.

Though humanitarian parole allows for faster processing of applicants, it still involves robust vetting. For Afghans, that has meant biometric screenings, cross-checking with intelligence agency watchlists, and other security and identity verification steps. Senior government officials must approve individual applications.

Since July, more than 28,000 Afghans have applied for entry to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, and the Biden administration reportedly plans to use parole to evacuate up to 50,000 Afghans. But only about 100 applicants have been approved so far.

In large part, this is because this year’s application volume dwarfs the 2,000 parole applications USCIS would receive in a typical year. Staffing issues are also a factor.”

“Applying for parole carries a steep $575 filing charge as well—and an application is no guarantee of protection. USCIS has received roughly $11.5 million from Afghans in just the past few months, according to Al Jazeera, but it has approved few applications in that time.”

Why thousands of Afghans are still on US military bases

“The Afghan evacuation in August was a shock to the US immigration and resettlement system, a collection of federal programs and nonprofit organizations that had already been upended by the Trump administration. Afghan evacuees are in this holding pattern for several reasons.

Until the Very End, the Generals Wanted Biden to Leave 2,500 Troops in Afghanistan

“In response to a question from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), Austin acknowledged that while there were “a range of possibilities” for what could have happened with a theoretical continued presence, “if you stayed there at force posture of 2,500, certainly, you’d be in a fight with the Taliban. And you’d have to reinforce yourself.”

This is the crux of the matter: There is no plausible scenario in which the U.S. could leave behind a permanent, or even indefinite, force of soldiers without incurring further casualties. The Doha Agreement negotiated under Trump set an end date by which all American forces would have left Afghanistan, barring any future Taliban violence; a new administration reneging on that deal would certainly have invited renewed bloodshed. And a force of 2,500 facing the entirety of a renewed Taliban would have necessitated further reinforcement. At that point, we would be right back to October 2001, facing an uncertain future and an even more uncertain end goal.”

20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 lives

“between direct ground troop assaults (up to and including the assassination of Osama bin Laden), targeted drone strikes, and a greatly expanded system of intelligence sharing both among US intelligence agencies (like the CIA and FBI, which famously failed to share intelligence before 9/11) and with foreign intelligence agencies, al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities have been badly degraded, especially when it comes to attacking the US.

This is not merely because of successes in the US-led war on terror. ISIS, a group that emerged as a direct result of the war, became a more effective recruiter of young aspiring militants than al-Qaeda, especially in 2014 and 2015. But it seems fair to credit at least a good share of the group’s weakening to US actions.”

“Let’s suppose for the sake of argument, though, that al-Qaeda was capable of more attacks on the scale of 9/11, and that absent the war on terror, the US would have lost 3,000 people (the approximate death toll on 9/11) annually due to al-Qaeda strikes. That amounts to some 60,000 lives saved to date. Whoa, if true.

But even with that degraded capability, global deaths from al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Taliban attacks have not fallen since 9/11. While al-Qaeda’s ability to attack America has been badly degraded, its operations in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Libya are still significant and deadly. ISIS’s attacks, and those of the pre-conquest Taliban in Afghanistan, were even deadlier.”

“The Costs of War Project estimates that between 897,000 and 929,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other post-9/11 war zones. These are conservative figures; they exclude, for instance, civilian deaths in countries like the Philippines and Kenya that have seen drone or special ops engagements but for which reliable civilian death figures are not available. It uses only confirmed deaths that are directly due to the wars, rather than estimated deaths using mortality surveys”

“Crawford and Lutz estimate that 15,262 American military members, Defense Department civilians, and contractors have died in these conflicts — a much lower toll.”

“The most comprehensive attempt I’ve seen of a cost-benefit analysis of counterterrorism policies is in the book Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security, a 2011 book by political scientist John Mueller and engineering professor Mark G. Stewart.

They estimate the cost of a 9/11-scale attack at roughly $200 billion, both in economic costs in rebuilding, health care for survivors, and reduced business activity in the wake of the attack, and, more important, in the lives of those lost. To calculate the latter, they use a measure known as the value of a statistical life. The idea is to use, for instance, the extra wages that workers in especially dangerous jobs demand to be paid to estimate how much the typical person is willing to pay to extend their life.

In Mueller and Stewart’s book, they put the value of a statistical life in the US at $6.5 million (that’s actually lower than the $7 million a recent review of studies found). Using that, the gross cost of the war on terror falls to “only” about $13.9 trillion.

That implies that for the war on terror to have been worth it, it had to have prevented more than 69 9/11-scale attacks over the past two decades, or about 3.5 attacks every single year.

More plausibly, the war on terror could be justified through, say, the far greater number of lives saved through aid to the Afghan health system.

Here, too, though, the necessary number of lives saved needs to be enormous to justify the costs. At a total cost of $13.9 trillion and a value of $6.5 million per life saved, the entire effort would have had to save at least 2.1 million lives to have been worthwhile.

There’s simply no evidence suggesting that the war on terror, or the public health programs launched as part of it, saved that many lives on net. The only estimate I’ve seen in that territory is the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon telling his colleague Jonathan Rauch that he “guesstimates that U.S. activities [in Afghanistan] saved a million or more lives.””

“It is also important to think of the opportunity cost of the war. Coincident with the war’s launch was the initiation of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. That program, then and now, buys and distributes massive quantities of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV and AIDS in developing countries, and promotes condom distribution and other prevention measures.

One influential study of PEPFAR’s impact found that in its first four years, in 12 specific focus countries, the program reduced the death rate from HIV by 10.5 percent, resulting in 1.2 million lives saved, at a cost of $2,450 per death averted. It is truly one of George W. Bush’s great achievements.

That implies that the US, by expanding funding for HIV treatment and in other cost-effective areas like malaria prevention, could save 2 million lives at a cost of more like $5 billion, or less than one-thousandth the cost of the war on terror.

When you step back and think about the cost of the war on terror and all the possible benefits that could have come from it, you would be hard-pressed to arrive at a place where the benefits outstrip the costs. Indeed, the former never comes remotely close to the latter. The war on terror was as wasteful, and morally horrific, on the balance sheet as it was in the collective memory.”

The Afghan refugee crisis has revealed the artificial limits of America’s will to welcome

“The US has made a distinction between Afghan refugees and the other vulnerable populations arriving at America’s doorstep. And it’s a false one.

Afghans fleeing Taliban rule have so far occupied a unique space in the immigration policy debate. In a climate where immigration has become a political wedge, there has been overwhelming bipartisan support for resettling at least some of them in the US: Polling has shown that 76 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats back resettlement efforts for Afghans who aided US troops. When it comes to other asylum seekers, the numbers are starkly different. For example, 64 percent of registered voters believe Biden needs to institute stricter policies at the southern border.

What makes Americans sympathetic to Afghan refugees compared to other people seeking protection? Some rightly feel a moral responsibility to protect those who were forced to leave their home due to their government’s ill-conceived and failed nation-building efforts, especially those who worked alongside American forces.

But what may also be a factor is that the Afghan war was also the kind of faraway conflict typically associated with the sort of refugees the US has historically admitted, like Somalis fleeing ongoing civil war in their home country.

Complicating this idea, however, is the fact that the kind of persecution and peril Afghans face in their home country is markedly similar to that faced by asylum seekers arriving on the US-Mexico border. Those from Central America’s Northern Triangle — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — are fleeing brutal gang violence, extortion, and government corruption, which are compounded by poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and climate-related issues. The same is true of many other groups as well, like the thousands of Haitians gathered in Del Rio, Texas.

Though the US has not fought a 20-year war in the Northern Triangle or in Haiti, it has played a direct role in creating the societal ills people are running away from, meaning the moral obligation many feel America has toward Afghans ought to extend to migrants from those countries as well.

That, of course, hasn’t been the case. Often invoking racist dog whistles, Republicans have falsely painted them as criminals who threaten public safety, carriers of disease, or economic migrants who want to skip “the line” of legal US immigration. Democrats have not necessarily been much better: The Obama administration detained migrant families on a large scale and told them “don’t come” while the Biden administration has maintained Trump-era policies, effectively blocking all asylum seekers from gaining access to protection amid the pandemic despite claiming to take a more humane approach.

Afghan refugees deserve protection. But so do the other vulnerable populations arriving at America’s doorstep. The Afghan refugee crisis has clarified this in a way other recent mass migration movements have not, and it also presents a unique opportunity for the US to recalibrate its policy about who is worthy of American protection.”