Afghanistan is America’s longest war, and it seems it could go on indefinitely, if only because, in shades of the Vietnam catastrophe, there is no face-saving way out, and national pride is very much at stake.
President Trump says he will “pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past” but has inherited a blunder he is going to find very difficult to resolve. The situation in Afghanistan is dire to the point of calamity, and while Mr Trump has not yet made his intentions clear it is difficult to imagine him approving negotiations with the Taliban, and equally hard to see him in the position of an “America First” Commander-in-Chief who ordered his forces to retreat.
Perhaps money might affect his final decision.
The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Mr John Sopko, recently reported that “Afghanistan needs a stable security environment to prevent it from again becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other terrorists. More than half of US reconstruction dollars since 2002 have gone toward building, equipping, training, and sustaining the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). However, the ANDSF have not yet been capable of securing all of Afghanistan and have lost territory to the insurgency.”
The ‘reconstruction dollars’ noted by Mr Sopko total a mind-boggling $115 billion, a figure most of us are incapable of comprehending. One way of understanding how much this is, in a historical context, might be to consider that the entire 1948-1952 Marshall Plan, the US initiative for reconstruction of the whole of Western Europe following the devastation of World War Two, cost $103 billion in current dollars. The tiny country of Afghanistan has swallowed up even more but remains a disaster area. Of major relevance is Transparency International’s report released on January 25 which places Afghanistan 169 of 176 in its Corruption Index and notes that “there is no comprehensive legal framework for preventing, detecting and prosecuting corruption.”
In Mr Sopko’s words, “the United States contributed signiﬁcantly to the problems in Afghanistan by dumping too much money, too quickly, into too small an economy, with too little oversight. Poor understanding of Afghan political and social realities led to unrealistic timelines and false assumptions about what was possible.”
The SIGAR’s summation is too kind. It has to be faced that after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 it engaged in a full-out war, thereby alienating millions of Afghans because the Pentagon had no understanding whatever of the country’s ‘political and social realities.’ (Some of the troops on the ground tried hard to become involved in local realities but got nowhere because their tours of duty were far too short, and their generals wanted victory in terms of conquered territory and dead bodies, not social understanding.)
The US-NATO military alliance directed the war from 2003 to 2014 when it was announced that its combat operations would cease and the US would leave a residual force until the end of 2016 (now extended). Some thousands of US soldiers, mainly Special Forces, under the ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’ Mission, continue combat operations but other foreign contingents are confined to training and advising the Afghan army, air force and police.
In an election speech in 2008 Mr Obama declared he would ‘make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.’ But the war had already been lost. Then in 2013 he said that withdrawal of US forces was possible because ‘we achieved our central goal, or have come very close, which is to de-capacitate al-Qaeda, to dismantle them, to make sure that they can’t attack us again.’
This was willfully ignoring reality, because the country was already lurching towards civil war, with disparate bands of insurrectionists creating mayhem at the same time as countless numbers of people within and connected to the Kabul government played politics, acquired vast sums of money, and bought expensive mansions in Dubai. It was hoped, against all evidence, that the Afghan army would be able to defeat the Taliban and other insurgents, but this has not happened, and US special forces have now ramped up their operations.
The sad fact is that foreign meddling in Afghanistan has been catastrophic and the place is verging on anarchy, while masses of money continue to be poured into the place, especially by the United States. This doesn’t make sense, and President Trump has said he wants to end wasteful expenditure. This is the man, after all, who made a campaign speech declaring that ‘the people opposing us [the Democrats] are the same people — and think of this — who’ve wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death, and more suffering – imagine if that money had been spent at home.’
Trump is right about waste (although the figure of $6 trillion is suspect), and if he really thinks that building at home is better than battling abroad, then he would immediately shut off Washington’s Afghanistan money tap which is scheduled to pour out another 4.6 billion dollars in 2017.
So will the President adhere to his publicly announced principle and abandon Afghanistan for the sake of America First?
The research agency Stratfor noted that before his bid for the presidency, “Trump released a video arguing that the United States’ decision to invade Afghanistan was a mistake and that its troops should withdraw. He stuck to a modified version of this view throughout the campaign season, presenting himself as a can-do technocrat with zero tolerance for waste.”
If the Taliban take over Afghanistan it is most unlikely there would be any direct threat to the United States. Life would be hell for ordinary citizens, but since when has Washington worried about such things? None of the insurgencies and coups in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, has resulted in a better life for the unfortunate people who have been the supposedly intended beneficiaries of Washington’s meddling.
President Trump declared that “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first . . . we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” But will he really “learn from the mistakes of the past”?
His promise appears indicative of intention to avoid further expensive catastrophes such as have been visited on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — although he did take time, during an Inauguration ball in Washington, to speak by video link to US troops in Afghanistan and tell them that ‘I’m with you all the way . . . we’re going to do it together.’ This was certainly a thoughtful public relations gesture — but was far from being assurance that the Trumpian United States would remain committed to Afghanistan’s future.
His final decision may well rest on discussions with the trio of generals he has appointed to high positions. Generals Mattis, the Secretary of Defense; Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security; and Flynn, National Security Adviser, are not people who are disinclined to present their views forthrightly. Nor are they reluctant to wage war. It’s what they’ve been doing all their lives, after all. The fact that their wars ended in dispossession, displacement and death of millions of people is neither here nor there.
The war in Afghanistan is an economic, social, moral and military fiasco, but we can expect it to go on for a long time. The Kabul government will stagger from indecision to dire decision and corruption will prosper while the Afghan people suffer unimaginable hardships and the barbaric loonies of extremist Islam have a wonderful time killing for the enjoyment of killing. Just like the intellectual General Mattis, now Pentagon Supremo, who declared that “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”
The hope that President Trump’s foreign policy will learn “from the mistakes of the past” is sadly optimistic. Carry on shooting.