Years from now, historians may still be arguing about what were the root and the proximate causes of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal by the United States. Was it incompetence? Corruption? Lack of accurate information? Political miscalculation? Some combination of the above? While all these factors may have contributed to the disturbing chain of events that are making Afghanistan a hub of international terrorism, ideological extremism, and human rights abuses again, the toxic political culture in the U.S. was likely more disturbing than the specific ways in which the withdrawal was mishandled.
Whether withdrawal was a great idea or a terrible one, whether the deadline set was realistic or impossible, and whether any of the last four administrations were equipped with a “solution” for making the region a safe, stable, and humane place, the history of deception at the heart of handling Afghanistan for the past 20 years made a disaster of some sort an inevitability. Failed or flawed strategies or policies can be reoriented, managed, or overhauled, but this cannot happen if there is a fundamental lack of political self-awareness, willingness to admit the fatal errors that ultimately doom a particular course of action, and desire to create mechanisms for effective crisis management, policy self-correction, and a clear protocol for mitigation of damages.
The current partisan blame game reduced the discussion of a regional policy affecting global interests on all levels to a primitive binary option of the sort that has already turned two previous U.S. presidential elections into unseemly debacles, both polarized and polarizing. Voters are not able to make informed decisions when presented with the narrative “Americans can’t stomach long engagements or nation building; they are ’tired’ of endless wars,” which forces them to choose between avoidable and unnecessary extremes: either continue with policies that clearly do not address any legitimate concerns and waste resources or support a reckless withdrawal with no back-up plan.
While the polarizing level of partisanship has arguably been on the rise and accelerating exponentially since at least the George W. Bush administration (and still more so under Obama and Trump), the toxicity of manipulating and deceiving the voters has independently manifested itself in the handling of the “War on Terror,” long before the worst of isolationism and interventionism came to tear the public apart. The criticism of the intervention in Afghanistan (which was not during all stages of the 20 years overwhelming active combat or full-scale war) united both those who favored a largely unilateral withdrawal and its opponents from the very beginning, who believed the mission did not have a clearly defined objective nor an end game or an exit strategy. Others claim that “exit strategy” might not be the right way of addressing the issue, since the U.S. has not “exited” Germany, South Korea, or Japan after decades of military presence.
Was the lack of a clear objective and a strategy to reach defined goals an issue of groupthink and bureaucratic incompetence, or was this open-ended approach from the start an opportunistic power grab to exploit the equally vague “War on Terror” for profiteering and self-enrichment by various contractors, cronies, and the Pentagon? We may not have direct answers now, but we see the results: the echelons who could have intervened with clear proposals did not or were dismissed, and too many were happy to go along with the “war on terror” terminology despite its obvious downside. What may have started as an ill-advised exercise in political correctness ultimately came to define the U.S. foreign policy approach of dealing with extremism, not only in Afghanistan but around the world. Fighting a tactical approach as if it were an enemy doomed the effort.
We have seen examples of it in West Africa, where despite years of counterterrorism (CT) operations, jihadism grows stronger (yet no one is calling for U.S. withdrawal from that base or the termination of CT operations). It has been a fundamentally dishonest approach, which came to haunt the conservative-leaning analysts who initially embraced it. Hardline progressives came to embrace ideological and culture wars at home (i.e., white supremacism), while eschewing the possibility of addressing other forms of ideological extremism and reducing the possibility of addressing Islamism, such as practiced by the Taliban, abroad. The terminology of the “war on terror” doomed the possibility of an effective strategy in Afghanistan, which would have necessarily included a holistic approach to tackling the spread of fundamentalism through counterterrorism operations, education, outreach to tribal leaders, development work, and a crackdown on financing of the ideology by state actors.
Instead, the U.S. was pushed into an awkward conversation about whether to “nation build” or “not nation build,” which came from a strictly pro-democracy perspective. There was no honest reckoning about how to address security concerns without turning to a paradigm that has repeatedly failed every time the U.S. tried it – whether with Hamas elections or later during the Arab Spring. The fundamental dishonesty of the conversation about Afghanistan is not in refusing to address the resources it would take to accomplish “what’s needed,” but playing word and mind games concerning what was “really needed.” At some point, it became obvious that “democracy” without state and civic institutions to uphold the rule of law was a myth; that a republican form of government may not have been an ideal fit for a tribal society, and that in order to change the social views on women’s public role outside of liberal enclaves, NATO or some private actors would need to engage with conservative tribal leaders to secure public acceptance at a socially acceptable rate.
The real question should have always been what interests the U.S. has in Afghanistan and how are they best met. What government structure is in the best interest of a given society should be up to its people to decide. However, turning security concerns over proliferating threats into a discussion about the limitations of “nation-building” has been a disingenuous way of shutting down discussion about potential solutions to multidimensional problems. Manipulating the understanding of the issues involved in turning the Afghanistan situation around served all parties: the corrupt profiteers seeking to establish a long-term presence at the expense of effective-problem solving; backers of Islamism and leftist causes hoping to promote a radical reshaping of society who were all too happy to ignore the expansion of the Taliban presence and its financial backing by neighboring countries; and of course, anti-war activists looking for an excuse to push their agenda, disregarding predictable security consequences. The collusion of these interests informed the past four administrations, influencing the course of events that guaranteed chaos and a failure of state institutions. The culture of deception and refusal to share accurate information about the state of Afghanistan, U.S. interests, and geopolitical concerns created unrealistic expectations and fed into ideological narratives that have little relation to addressing concerns.
The toxic political culture of the Beltway decision makers maintained a silence on material facts. This included downplaying how the process of building a corrupt client state in part influenced by the involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had interfered with and influenced cooperation with the locals on all levels – from tribal leadership to the central government.
As the press is raising questions about how much President Biden knew and when he knew it, it is worth looking back at the consistently deceptive narratives perpetuated by the Pentagon about the level of the Taliban’s social penetration over the years, and the success of its territorial takeover, which accelerated in the year leading up to Trump’s decision to withdraw. Bill Roggio, the Editor of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, has revealed the level of disinformation; yet the press either remained disinterested in the issue until a disaster occurred or was deliberately playing a role in promoting disinformation, perhaps with an agenda of forcing a particular outcome. It is also unclear whether Trump himself was willing to base his policy on politically expedient considerations at the cost of the truth and sharing security concerns with his base, or whether he was at least partially deceived by the Pentagon and therefore genuinely believed in the positions that also happened to be serving his political goals.
Worth noting, however, is that although the Biden administration by and large worked to undo Trumpian initiatives, for instance, removing the Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen from the Foreign Terrorist Organization list, it followed Trump’s policy on withdrawal, making Afghanistan – a relative non-issue in terms of human resources being spent – into a political “win” of ending a major conflict. Kicking the security can down the road to future administrations, however, was clearly only part of the reasoning.
It is curious that throughout the conflict none of the administrations calculated the potential costs of complete withdrawals and having to address the inevitable security issues in other ways. One of the common explanations had been that U.S. allies such as India and the Gulf States had no interest in contributing to security in Afghanistan. However, that argument was not clearly made by any of the parties. There was never an in-depth discussion about the formation of new alliances to take the U.S. place upon withdrawal or to supplement U.S. presence more effectively. There was also never a discussion about bringing in private actors or other countries for the purpose of setting up civil society, preventing radicalization, or combating the interference of foreign actors – even after it became obvious that the level of interference was quite significant and threatened global interests, not just the immediate interests in Afghanistan.
The infantilization of the U.S. public became a goal unto itself with respect to Afghanistan, almost to the point that in the last few years the desperation to withdraw without putting in place a security framework to avoid the very chaos and destruction we are witnessing today appeared to be not just incompetence by shallow politicians, but an agenda pushed by some sections of the Pentagon and other agencies. When the analysts opposed to such withdrawal repeatedly warned about the eventual likelihood of having to return to Afghanistan, it was met with no response from the same people who claimed “Americans are tired of the war,” even though most Americans gave very little thought to the war and for the most part barely remembered we were there. Indeed, perhaps the point of having the U.S. return to Afghanistan for another 20 years without changing anything about its approach was the underlying goal all along – to keep the process of withdrawing and then having to come back with significant force to “stabilize,” make money, and leave in the worst possible manner was precisely the type of outcome some of these interests were looking for.
What is apparent, however, is that both parties had allowed deception and manipulation of public opinion to take precedence over addressing U.S. national security in clear and compelling ways. There were many points when U.S. administrations and their supporters in the foreign policy world could have publicly admitted that mistakes were made and proposed various scenarios and courses of action to account for a change in approach that would also prevent the proliferation of extremism. Lack of daylight on these issues contributed to the Taliban’s growing legitimacy in the international community, and its level of funding, training, and support came as a total surprise to many. As well, the failure to admit the lack of support of the Afghan military in the face of an enemy backed by multiple state actors contributed to their cooperation with the Taliban and willingness to give up the fight. That was a completely predictable result, regardless of the actual level of preparation. Furthermore, the deception over the supposedly constructive role of Qatar, Russia, China, and Pakistan in Afghanistan only reinforced the confusion when push came to shove. Qatar’s political support of the Taliban had continued for many years, yet all the administrations failed to account for it to the public. Finally, the lack of a coordinated information sharing and response with other NATO allies throughout the process, particularly by Biden at the very end, created a situation where the U.S. was forcing security risks on other countries for the sake of political expediency.
It became evident from recent communications, for instance, that the UK, a major contributor to operations, was never fully on board even with the “planned” withdrawal – and that, too, was never revealed to the U.S. public, which may have viewed the situation differently had it known of the differing security risk assessments by other players in Afghanistan. Ironically, Biden’s debacle, despite his alleged prioritization of democracy, human rights, and multilateralism, demonstrated that these concepts are once again merely expedient talking points. He also clearly disregarded the opinions of career experts and some of the political advisers who seemed mortified and shocked by how far Biden was willing to go in sticking to a badly failing policy. The fact that no one has resigned over the mishandling of the crisis the way some officials who had disagreed with Trump left at various points shows that the toxic political culture has become increasingly entrenched over time.
Indeed, some of the very same Republicans who refused to foresee any problems with Trump’s version of withdrawal, jumped at the opportunity regarding Biden without ever addressing the inherent flaw of the approach or their own change in position on the issue. This intellectual dishonesty only feeds into the hands of Biden’s apologists in the media, who, instead of calling out Biden’s misplaced political priorities, were given leeway to attack the apparent self-serving Republican hypocrisy and inconsistency on the issue. Still, Biden’s commitment to failure raises his culpability to a different level, and the shamefulness of the mental acrobatics in justifying his mismanagement goes far beyond his predecessors on this issue. Increasing evidence points to some level of intent in Biden’s willingness to go to such an extreme in abandoning allies and weapons, ignoring warning signs, and creating a perfect scenario for the Taliban to take over quickly and ruthlessly.
Moreover, there was a certain consistency in ignoring the alternatives that could have mitigated some of the damage at every step that led to the instant fiasco, culminating with his rejection of acknowledging that anything had gone wrong with the mission. Biden instead painted a great and unprecedented victory. The pathological level of deception has been analyzed at length in the growing number of investigative reports uncovering Biden’s doublespeak throughout the month of July, including secret cables from local officials; pressure on the former vice president to cover up the extent of Taliban’s expansion; the uncoordinated departure from Baghram; the failure to remove or destroy valuable weapons; the turnover of biometric data and lists of names of stranded Americans and U.S. allies to the Taliban; the failure to assist those most likely to be targets of the Taliban while somehow managing to bring out 100,000 unvetted refugees with low levels of connection to the U.S. and fewer special risk factors; the denial that the U.S. had failed to warn Americans who had not evacuated earlier about the risks of staying in Afghanistan; and so forth. All of these contribute to the perception that there is more to the story than overzealous sucking up to the Taliban and Iran.
In fact, none of these steps that were supposed to help with goodwill benefited the U.S. in any way. The U.S. had repeatedly relied on flawed intelligence by the Taliban causing PR fall-outs; the Taliban enabled ISIS-K and Al Qaeda without any acknowledgment of their violation of the terms of the agreement; furthermore, every time the Biden administration appeased them the Taliban abused the situation to increase pressure and to make the conditions far more unmanageable than before. And yet Biden persisted, as did everyone who claimed there was nothing he could possibly do, while at the same time he subtly whitewashed the Taliban as a more “moderate” organization and a potential security partner, a falsehood disseminated by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though conveniently advanced by the pro-Biden circles even at the expense to the usual partisan hackery.
Corrupt agendas, lack of expertise, poor risk assessment, ideologically motivated, willful blindness to reality on the ground, and the disruption of the decision-making process can be addressed, resolved, and eliminated for the future. However, when a rot takes root in the political culture that makes evaluation of mistakes and problems impossible and prioritizes short-term political expediency over national security considerations, the possibility of improvement is moot. A self-destructive decay that can bring down even a strong country by relatively minor adversaries is not far away.