Republicans -- including U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt of Missouri -- already are trying to score political points by blaming President Joe Biden for America's chaotic exit from Afghanistan. That's a pretty ugly tactic, given that Biden is trying to guide us through a surge in the coronavirus pandemic and some of the earliest clear consequences of climate change -- both largely driven by flawed conservative "thinking." But like a lot of right-wing rhetoric in the postmodern age, this is disconnected from reality. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan was much too lengthy and complex to blame failure on any one administration. Consider this from The Washington Post, under the headline "Afghan security forces’ wholesale collapse was years in the making":
“We’ve made tremendous strides, incredible progress,” Caldwell, the head of the U.S. and NATO training command in Afghanistan, told the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2011. “They’re probably the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led of any forces we’ve developed yet inside of Afghanistan. They only continue to get better with time.”
Three months later, in a news briefing at the Pentagon, Caldwell said the Afghan soldiers and police previously had been in terrible shape: poorly led, uninspired and more than 90 percent of them illiterate. But he said the Obama administration’s decision to spend $6 billion a year to train and equip the Afghan security forces had produced a remarkable turnaround. He predicted that the Taliban-led insurgency would subside and that the Afghans would take over responsibility for securing their country by the end of 2014, enabling U.S. combat troops to leave.
In fact, according to documents obtained for the forthcoming Washington Post book“The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” U.S. military officials privately harbored fundamental doubts for the duration of the war that the Afghan security forces could ever become competent or shed their dependency on U.S. money and firepower. “Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was insane,” an unnamed former U.S. official told government interviewers in 2016.
Those fears, rarely expressed in public, were ultimately borne out by the sudden collapse this month of the Afghan security forces, whose wholesale and unconditional surrender to the Taliban will go down as perhaps the worst debacle in the history of proxy warfare.
Ultimately, the U.S. effort was undermined from within Afghanistan:
The capitulation was sped up by a series of secret deals that the Taliban brokered with many Afghan government officials. In recent days and weeks, Taliban leaders used a combination of cash, threats and promises of leniency to persuade government forces to lay down their arms.
Although U.S. intelligence officials had recently forecast the possible demise of the Afghan government over the next three to six months, the Biden administration was caught unprepared by the velocity of the Taliban takeover. Afghan forces “proved incapable of defending the country. And that did happen more rapidly than we anticipated,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on the ABC News program “This Week.”
How bad does this look in retrospect?
Over two decades, the U.S. government invested more than $85 billion to train and equip the Afghans and pay their salaries. Today, all that’s left is arsenals of weapons, ammunition and supplies that have fallen into the hands of the enemy.
Senior U.S. officials said the Pentagon fell victim to the conceit that it could build from scratch an enormous Afghan army and police force with 350,000 personnel that was modeled on the centralized command structures and complex bureaucracy of the Defense Department. Though it was obvious from the beginning that the Afghans were struggling to make the U.S.-designed system work, the Pentagon kept throwing money at the problem and assigning new generals to find a solution.
“We kept changing guys who were in charge of training the Afghan forces, and every time a new guy came in, he changed the way that they were being trained,” Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary during the Bush and Obama administrations, said in an oral-history interview with scholars at the University of Virginia. “The one thing they all had in common was they were all trying to train a Western army instead of figuring out the strengths of the Afghans as a fighting people and then building on that.”
Biden was the president who pulled the plug, but the mission probably was doomed from its beginnings in 2001:
In government interviews, U.S. military trainers who worked directly with recruits said the Afghans suffered from other insoluble problems, including a lack of motivation and a corrupt chain of command that preyed upon its own soldiers and police.
Maj. Greg Escobar, a U.S. Army infantry officer, spent 2011 trying to straighten out a dysfunctional Afghan army unit in Paktika province near the border with Pakistan. The first Afghan battalion commander whom Escobar mentored lost his job after he was charged with raping one of his male soldiers. The commander’s replacement, in turn, was killed by his own men.
Escobar said he came to realize that the whole exercise was futile because the U.S. military was pushing too fast and the Afghans were not responding to what was, in the end, a foreign experiment. “Nothing we do is going to help,” he recalled in an Army oral-history interview. “Until the Afghan government can positively affect the people there, we’re wasting our time.”
A lack of basic education among Afghan troops, riddled with tribalism, was perhaps the biggest hurdle:
Jack Kem, a retired Army officer who served as Gen. Caldwell’s deputy from 2009 to 2011, said the training command struggled to overcome a host of challenges. Recruiting was hard enough, but was compounded by startling rates of desertion and attrition. And trying to maintain an ethnic balance in the force among Afghanistan’s fractious tribes was another “enormous problem,” he said.
But perhaps the biggest hardship was having to teach virtually every recruit how to read. Kem estimated that only 2 to 5 percent of Afghan recruits could read at a third-grade level despite efforts by the United States to enroll millions of Afghan children in school over the previous decade.
“The literacy was just insurmountable,” he said in an Army oral-history interview. Some Afghans also had to learn their colors, or had to be taught how to count. “I mean, you’d ask an Afghan soldier how many brothers and sisters they had and they couldn’t tell you it was four. They could tell you their names, but they couldn’t go ‘one, two, three, four.’ ”
Here is more perspective from Salon, under the headline "Lay off Joe Biden: He didn’t “lose” Afghanistan — we are finally leaving it alone; We spent 20 messed-up years in Afghanistan flexing our muscles and money, and now we are making a messy exit."Writes Lucian K. Truscott IV:
Do you really think our pull-out from Afghanistan would have looked any different under the man who handled the coronavirus pandemic so well that he cashiered 400,000 American lives? He claimed over and over that he was going to end the "forever wars" and get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan once and for all. He was the president who said he could "make a deal" with the Taliban that was supposed to lead to a peaceful reconciliation with the Afghan government upon the withdrawal of American troops.
Taliban insurgents cleverly allowed cameras from Al Jazeera to film them walking through the presidential palace in Kabul demonstrating how a neat and tidy transfer of power looks, compared with what was attempted by the violent Trump mob that tried to take over the U.S. Capitol. This has led to predictable hand-wringing and pearl-clutching by the usual gaggle of Trump puppets, who the likes of MSNBC and CNN have been only too happy to allow on air to spew their anti-Biden garbage.
I swear, if I see the grim visage of one more Republican congressman lamenting the "chaos" caused by Joe Biden and the promises we broke with our "Afghan partners," I'm going to puke. We didn't have Afghan partners; we had people in a foreign country we showered with money and ordered around and told what to think and who to believe, which was us. Republicans have been waiting to hang "losing" the Afghanistan war around the neck of Joe Biden since he announced back in April that we would withdraw the troops remaining in that country by the end of this month. Unmentioned by all the Trump-puppets is the fact that Biden is doing nothing more or less than carrying out to the letter the deal Trump made with the Taliban last year: that we would pull all our troops out, that we wouldn't engage Taliban fighters in hostilities and they wouldn't engage us, and that the Taliban would pledge not to turn the country back into a stronghold for terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
What are the grim lessons of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan?
Here's the deal with a big, muscular country like the United States that thinks it should have so much say about the way the world is run that we have military outposts in 140 countries: The minute we "take" a city, or a region, or a country, we've lost it, because everyone who lives there knows two things.
One, that we were never really going to live there, like we would if we changed citizenship or got a visa to move to a country like France. That's living in a country. We did what we always do in countries we occupy but don't live in. We walled off limited areas and turned them into Little Americas and called them "base camps" complete with resident McDonald's and KFC outlets. That's where the Americans who "took" Afghanistan lived, and nobody knew that better than the Afghans themselves.
Sure, there were some American civilians who actually lived in Afghan homes or apartments they rented or bought. Most of them worked for NGOs or international aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the dozens of groups that set up programs to help establish schools to educate Afghan girls and women. But few were in that country on official business of the American government. Most of the Americans representing our government lived behind gigantic concrete walls or Hesco barriers topped with razor wire and traveled in armored SUVs and Humvees in heavily defended convoys.
When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan around American troops, I used to ask them how they would like it if some foreign country moved a bunch of soldiers into their hometowns and seized property owned by locals and walled off that property and topped it with razor wire and then began moving around their hometowns in armored vehicles carrying soldiers with machine guns and grenades and even heavier weapons. To a soldier, they replied that would never happen in their hometowns, because people wouldn't let it.
Everywhere we established an American presence in Afghanistan was a hometown that didn't like being occupied by heavily armed American soldiers. So what did we expect?The other thing the locals know with certainty is that we would leave. Hell, they watched 20 years of American soldiers cycle through their service in one-year tours. If they worked with the American military, Afghans could get to know a lieutenant in 2002 and watch them return as a captain in 2006, as a major in 2010, as a colonel in 2016, even as a general in 2020. But nobody stayed. Few became familiar with Afghan customs. Even fewer learned the language. They knew we wouldn't stay the course because most Americans Afghans came into contact with didn't stay more than a year.