Not quite two decades ago, American troops went to war in Afghanistan and then, as if that weren’t bad enough, they now want to come back. Dreadful decision. They should stay put, perhaps even maintain an indefinite presence there.
That anomalous posture, startling though it may seem, defines the public discourse — among pundits in the mainstream media and decision-makers in the corridors of power — focused on the peace deal signed by Washington and the Taliban last February calling for a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of all remaining American troops from Afghanistan.
These folks are now saying that, in the agreement, a complete withdrawal was conditioned on the Taliban’s commitment to break with terrorist organisations based in the country and to cease attacks on Afghan forces, large cities and other targets.
But the Taliban, they claim, have not met their end of the bargain, since though they have indeed refrained, as called for in the agreement, from attacking US forces, they have continued to launch attacks and to keep close relations with terrorist groups.
That viewpoint was given further credence by the bipartisan, congressionally appointed Afghan Study Group (ASG), headed by a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when it released a report on February 3 that fervently argued for abandoning the May 1 timetable for withdrawal.
“[A] withdrawal in May”, the report predicted, “will likely lead to a collapse of the Afghan state and a possible renewal of civil war”. It then grimly warned that a “precipitous pull-out could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the US homeland within eighteen months to three years”.
The Afghan conundrum
Now the new administration is presented with a recommendation — albeit one wrapped in a dilemma — by a blue-ribbon, congressionally-sponsored committee, in a report released after ten months of extensive deliberations by prominent figures with a diversity of strategic, political, military and diplomatic expertise, to stick it out in Afghanistan, for however long it takes.
For however long it takes to do what, though, remains unclear close to twenty years after the fact.
Still, some right wing pundits, like Washington Post columnist Max Boot, are already calling on the White House to keep the war drums beating. “[President] Biden should take the advice [given by the ASG] to avoid haunting images of US personnel being evacuated from Kabul as from Saigon in 1975”, Boot wrote in the paper last Thursday.
“The entire world is watching how Biden handles these early tests. They will set the tone for his whole presidency. He should avoid getting embroiled in the larger Middle East, but he also needs to show the world that he is no pushover. Otherwise [Taliban] provocations will only get worse”.
You can’t help here but be reminded of how in 2003 the neoconservatives (remember them?), hell-bent on going to war in Iraq, had used various methods of deception, including gaslighting, to coerce then President George W. Bush, and along with him a whole lot of Americans, into accepting the myth that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed stockpile upon stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
Proceed with nation-building
Thus going to war in order to destroy that regime and proceed with nation-building there was the right and necessary thing to do — a flawed rationale that finally led to the explosive growth of Daesh, and to the emergence of Iranian proxies that went about — and still go about today as we speak — doing Tehran’s bidding in Iraq.
When will superpowers learn about the hazards of overreach?
So, twenty years ago, imbued with the self-confidence and the devil-may-care swagger of a superpower, the United States took the plunge and went to war, a world away, in Afghanistan. It was all expected to be a piece of cake — just in and out, as it were — but it morphed into a piece of work, an unwinnable, no-end war that the American people have paid dearly for in blood and treasure.
Afghanistan is a difficult country to govern, let alone turn into a Jeffersonian lotus land. In recent history, empires like Great Britain, from 1839 to 1842, and the Soviet Union, from 1979 to 1989, had failed to pacify it, as had, in antiquity, fierce Mongolian hordes, who, from the outset of their arrival there in 1221, faced sustained resistance to their presence.
In short, these foreign invaders, who had imagined that they could hold the destiny of Afghanistan in the palm of their hand, had not been apprised of its ghoulish nickname: the graveyard of empires.
Moral of the story? Don’t poke the bear and expect it to sit still.
No, blinded by their bravado, superpowers, being superpowers impatient to assert their dominion worldwide, are never of a mind to learn from history and from the costs incurred by overreach.
Well, they make their bed, don’t they?
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile