Frustrated over negotiations for a stay-behind force of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, President Obama is now weighing the possibility of a faster withdrawal and a “zero option” on troops going forward. That may signal the belated recognition of twin American defeats in the Afghan and Iraq wars, says Beverly Bandler.
By Beverly Bandler
Americans hate the word “defeat” but that is what we face in Afghanistan. After nearly 12 years, the longest war in U.S. history is winding down with an almost inconceivably staggering cost in blood, treasure and what economists call opportunity cost , the value of the best alternative forgone.
As Tom Engelhardt, author of The End of Victory Culture, wrote, “Leave the mystery of who beat us to the historians.”
Yet, while future historians may provide the details of the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan, one assessment is possible now: The United States was defeated most of all by its own arrogance and ignorance. The cause for this defeat was bipartisan, implicating both Democrats and Republicans, neoconservatives and neoliberals as well as hubristic officials at the CIA and tunnel-vision generals dispatched by the Pentagon.
The folly dates back more than three decades to 1979 when President Jimmy Carter’s hard-line national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski devised a plan to poke at the Soviet Union by helping Islamist mujahedeen warriors harass the Soviet-allied government in Afghanistan. Brzezinski hoped the provoked Russian bear would fall into an “Afghan trap.”
After the Soviets invaded to protect the embattled regime in Kabul, President Ronald Reagan ratcheted up covert U.S. military assistance into the hundreds of millions of dollars and got Saudi Arabia to send a matching amount. The mujahedeen’s supply lines and much of the command and control was delegated to Pakistani intelligence which favored the most radical Islamists, including Saudi militant Osama bin Laden and his Arab fighters.
In 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew the battered Soviet army and sought a power-sharing arrangement that would merge the Kabul regime with the CIA-backed mujahedeen. But President George H.W. Bush heeding the advice of his deputy national security adviser (and former senior CIA official) Robert Gates rebuffed Gorbachev’s offer and pressed on, seeking a clear-cut U.S. victory.
Passing up Gorbachev’s peace offer represented a major opportunity lost. Instead of a possible peace deal, the Afghan conflict continued inconclusively for years as the country descended deeper and deeper into civil war with various well-armed warlords battling for turf and power.
Finally, Pakistan’s ISI the Inter-Services Intelligence recruited a new force of militant Pashtuns from Afghan refugee camps and supported their drive on Kabul. This force, known as the Taliban, took power in 1996, ruthlessly disposed of its rivals, imposed a fundamentalist version of Islam and granted safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization.
We will probably never know how much U.S. money (along with Saudi funds) was funneled to the most brutal of the fundamentalist fighters from the “Islamic Right,” including bin Laden. But the Afghan covert operation was one of the longest and most expensive in CIA history, with funding beginning with about $20 million in 1980 and rising to around $630 million per year in 1987. An ABC News report said $3 billion was poured into the Afghan resistance via the CIA.
The end result of that massive investment was that by the late 1990s the radical Taliban was in power and the stage was set for an escalation of al-Qaeda’s war against its new enemy, the United States. The group hit American targets in the Middle East and Africa before taking aim on New York and Washington in the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
It was a classic case of what’s known in the intelligence trade as “blowback,” retaliation for some violent intervention in some faraway land, an unintended cause and effect. In this case, many Americans expressed bewilderment over “why they hate us” so much that young men would commit mass suicide and murder thousands of innocents to get revenge. There was little collective American knowledge about the devastation inflicted by U.S. foreign policy on Afghanistan and other Muslim lands.
President George W. Bush exploited this national confusion by providing his own nonsensical answer, “because they hate our freedoms.” Bush also harnessed American fury over 9/11 to brush aside a Taliban offer to negotiate bin Laden’s surrender and instead launched an invasion of Afghanistan.
U.S. forces and allied Afghan militias quickly ousted the Taliban but failed to get bin Laden, who managed to flee to Pakistan. Bush then pivoted U.S. military attention to Iraq, leaving the Afghan occupation/reconstruction to muddle along as the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai stumbled and Taliban regrouped.
In 2009, President Barack Obama refocused U.S. attention on Afghanistan, as he pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq. He also acquiesced to demands for a larger Afghan military escalation from then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, General David Petraeus and other leftovers from Bush’s high command.
Obama was finally able to complete the mission of eliminating bin Laden with a Special Forces raid into Pakistan on May 2, 2011. But the Gates-Petraeus counterinsurgency “surge” in Afghanistan bogged down with little measurable success. Finally, Obama began to withdraw U.S. forces amid continuing squabbles with President Karzai about the size of an American stay-behind force.
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that an “increasingly frustrated” Obama is now considering an accelerated withdrawal of the remaining U.S. combat troops by mid-2014 and a “zero option” going forward, meaning no U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan and the Karzai government left to face the Taliban, more or less, alone.
The prospect of so much invested in American blood and treasure with so little to show for the effort has led journalist Ann Jones to cite the Afghan War as a threefold failure: “no peace, no democracy, and no reconstruction.”
Looking back over the past 11½ years from 9/11 to today it now appears clear that the United States fell into its own “Afghan trap,” becoming just the latest nation taught painful lessons from “the graveyard of empires.” Or as Sir John Templeton once said, “The four most expensive words in the English language are: ‘This time it’s different.’”
An Enduring Crisis
It seems now that the only thing that will be enduring from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan will be the human suffering of the survivors and the fiscal crisis caused by fighting the Afghan and Iraq wars on borrowed money.
Professor Linda J. Bilmes of Harvard’s Kennedy School estimated that the total costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars will be between $4 trillion and $6 trillion, making them “the most expensive wars in U.S. history.” She added: “One of the most significant challenges to future U.S. national security policy will not originate from any external threat. Rather it is simply coping with the legacy of the conflicts we have already fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The latest casualty figures indicate a U.S. death toll in Afghanistan of 2,249, along with about 1,100 more dead among coalition allies. Summarizing just part of the costs for the Afghan people, Chalmers Johnson wrote in 2004: “1.8 million Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees, and 10 million unexploded land-mines.”
The long litany of U.S. miscalculations resulted from a willful ignorance of Middle East and Afghanistan history by Washington’s “group think” community, not to mention the refusal of these “experts” to learn from the lessons Vietnam and the more recent Soviet experience in Afghanistan.
The corporate media and the U.S. public also must accept a share of responsibility for the fiasco, being so easily manipulated by flag-waving jingoism and by Hollywood movies, such as the Cold War propaganda of “Charlie Wilson’s War” which reveled in the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.
Today, at home, the U.S. is itself challenged with an “unraveling” due to dysfunctional polarized politics and a weakened economy, a good part of the latter the result of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
“Mark the moment,” wrote Tom Engelhardt regarding what may be an empire-ending moment for the United States. “It’s historic.”
Beverly Bandler’s public affairs career spans some 40 years. Her credentials include serving as president of the state-level League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands and extensive public education efforts in the Washington, D.C. area for 16 years. She writes from Mexico. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev: “The fundamental problem in Afghanistan is that it isn’t a country in the way the West thinks of countries…There has never been any real centralized state in Afghanistan. There is no such nation as Afghanistan. There are (ethnic groups of) Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks, and they all have different tribal policies.”[Lasseter]
Sarah Chayes: “Afghans remember the reign in the 1960s and ’70s of King Zahir Shah and his cousin Daoud Khan, when Afghan cities were among the most developed and cosmopolitan in the Muslim world…” “The hopes expressed by every Afghan I have encountered — to be ruled by a responsive and respectful government run by educated people — have been dashed” “Ask any Afghan what’s really needed, what would render the Taliban irrelevant, and they’ll tell you: improving the behavior of the officials whom the United States and its allies ushered into power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.”
Zamir N. Kabulov: “Zamir N. Kabulov, Russia’s ambassador to Kabul [until 2009], warned of grim prospects for the American ‘enterprise’ in Afghanistan if the United States failed to learn from the mistakes of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. ‘They listen, but they do not hear,’ he said. ‘Their attitude is, “The past is the past,” and that they know more than I do.’ ” [Burns].
Andrew J. Bacevich: “[T]he attempt to create a cohesive nation-state governed from Kabul (something that has never existed in modern times) is a fool’s errand. Better to acknowledge and build on the Afghan tradition of decentralized governance. Let tribal chiefs rule: just provide them with incentives to keep jihadists out. Where incentives don’t work, punitive action,U.S. air strikes in neighboring Pakistan provide an illustrative example,can serve as a backup. Denying terrorists sanctuary in Afghanistan does not require pacification,and leaving Afghans to manage their own affairs as they always have will reduce internal instability, while freeing up the resources to allow our own country to tackle other challenges more pressing than the quixotic quest to modernize Afghanistan.”
Chalmers Johnson: “Steve Coll ends his important book on Afghanistan by quoting Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “What an unlucky country.” Americans might find this a convenient way to ignore what their government did in Afghanistan between 1979 and the present, but luck had nothing to do with it. Brutal, incompetent, secret operations of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, frequently manipulated by the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, caused the catastrophic devastation of this poor country. On the evidence contained in Coll’s book Ghost Wars, neither the Americans nor their victims in numerous Muslim and Third World countries will ever know peace until the Central Intelligence Agency has been abolished.” 
Tom Engelhardt: “Seldom has anyone answered better than [Chalmers] Johnson (1931-2010) didquestions like: Why, for 20 of the last 32 years, have we ended up fighting wars in a country to which few Americans had previously paid the slightest attention? How could we have armed and supported a whole crew of Islamic fundamentalists in the first of those wars who would be our enemies in the second? How did we end up with hijacked planes taking down towers on American soil in 2001? How, in response, did we launch a “global war on terror” that shows no sign of ending? And here’s the saddest part of the story, if you even care to think about it (and these days few Americans do): we’re not done yet. The Afghan War goes on and on. Yes, the security forces we’re building up in that country are regularly deserting or blowing away our trainers and advisers; our reconstruction projects are, as they’ve long been, as they were in Iraq, a joke; the U.S. military has proven incapable of suppressing the minority insurgency it faces; and the corruption our money has engendered is staggering in an otherwise still poverty-stricken land. And yet our leaders are planning to leave U.S. trainers, advisors, and bases in Afghanistan until at least 2020.” “the Afghan drawdown of 2013-2014, that implicit acknowledgement of yet another lost war, should set the curtain falling on the American Century as we’ve known it…leave the mystery of who beat us to the historians, but mark the moment. It’s historic.” [August 2012/January 2013]
Gordon M. Goldstein: “For each year of combat from 1965 to 1973 [in Vietnam], [McGeorge] Bundy observed, the United States inflicted far greater casualties on the enemy than it absorbed. Yet despite this dramatic disparity, it was the United States that withdrew its forces ‘home without victory.’ “
Richard Holbrooke: Posthumously, based on Holbrooke’s notes, interviews with Kati Marton, his widow. “Holbrooke opposed the military ‘surge’ in Afghanistan and would see the demise of Bin Laden as an opportunity to go into diplomatic overdrive. He believed strongly that the only way out of the mess in Afghanistan was a peace deal with the Taliban, and his team was secretly engaged in outreach to figures linked to the Taliban, [Kati] Marton says.
‘Reconciliation, that was what he was working toward in Afghanistan, and building up the civilian and political side that had been swamped by the military,’ Marton recalled. ‘The whole policy was off-kilter, way too militarized. Richard never thought that this war could be won on the battlefield’Vali Nasr, a member of Holbrooke’s team at the State Department, puts it this way: ‘He understood from his experience that every conflict has to end at the negotiating table.’ ” [Kristoff] “Let me be clear on one thing, everybody understands that this war will not end in a clear-cut military victory. It’s not going to end on the deck of a battleship like World War II, or Dayton, Ohio, like the Bosnian war,” Holbrooke told reporters last July. “It’s going to have some different ending from that, some form of political settlements are necessary; you can’t have a settlement with al-Qaeda, you can’t talk to them, you can’t negotiate with them, it’s out of the question. But it is possible to talk to Taliban leaders.” [Kristoff, Time]
Anatol Lieven: “A very strange idea has spread in the Western media concerning Afghanistan: that the US military is withdrawing from the country next year, and that the present Afghan war has therefore entered into an “endgame.” The use of these phrases reflects a degree of unconscious wishful thinking that amounts to collective self-delusion. In fact, according a treaty signed by the United States and the Karzai administration, US military bases, aircraft, special forces, and advisers will remain in Afghanistan at least until the treaty expires in 2024. These US forces will be tasked with targeting remaining elements of al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan and Pakistan; but equally importantly, they will be there to prop up the existing Afghan state against overthrow by the Taliban…The struggle for power in Afghanistan will not “end” and US policymakers should not, as in the past, hop away from a swamp they’ve done much to create.” [April 2013]
Ann Jones: “Compromise, conflict, or collapse: ask an Afghan what to expect in 2014 and you’re likely to get a scenario that falls under one of those three headings. 2014, of course, is the year of the double whammy in Afghanistan: the next presidential election coupled with the departure of most American and other foreign forces. Many Afghans fear a turn for the worse, while others are no less afraid that everything will stay the sameOnly one thing is certain in 2014: it will be a year of American military defeat. For more than a decade, U.S. forces have fought many types of wars in Afghanistan, from a low-footprint invasion, to multiple surges, to a flirtation with Vietnam-style counterinsurgency, to a ramped-up, gloves-off air war. And yet, despite all the experiments in styles of war-making, the American military and its coalition partners have ended up in the same place: stalemate, which in a battle with guerrillas means defeat.”
Abdul Nasir: “Nasir celebrated the American invasion in 2001, and, in the decade that followed, he prospered, and fathered six children. But now, with the United States planning its withdrawal by the end of 2014, Nasir blames the Americans for a string of catastrophic errors. “The Americans have failed to build a single sustainable institution here,” he said. “All they have done is make a small group of people very rich. And now they are getting ready to go…“Everyone is getting ready for 2014…“ the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin,” he said. “This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government. ” [Filkins]
Robert Dreyfuss: “If there is going to be a peaceful end to the war in Afghanistan unlikely as that may be, it will come when the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan all agree on a rebalancing of the government in Kabul, probably with a new constitution and probably either including the Taliban in the new regime or giving the Taliban effective control of parts of southern Afghanistan in some sort of federal system.Indeed, the Afghan government is being sidelined,having been propped up by the United States since 2001, with a haphazard military and security forces that can’t sustain themselves. It’s long been obvious that a political accommodation with the Taliban is necessary. If it isn’t achieved, then either the United States will have to stay engaged in Afghanistan for another ten years or more, continuing to prop up a regime that can’t last, or Afghanistan will plunge into an intensified civil war. In such a war, it isn’t clear if the Taliban can retake Kabul. Far more likely, it will be a war without end, with the Pakistan-backed Taliban establishing itself in the south and east as India-backed forces control the north and Iran-backed forces control the west.”
Linda J. Bilmes: “The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in US history totaling somewhere between $4 to $6 trillionOne of the most significant challenges to future US national security policy will not originate from any external threat. Rather it is simply coping with the legacy of the conflicts we have already fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Linda J. Bilmes, March 2013.
Dexter Filkins: “After eleven years, nearly two thousand Americans killed, sixteen thousand Americans wounded, nearly four hundred billion* dollars spent, and more than twelve thousand Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished. Objectives once deemed indispensable, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven’t worked or because there’s no longer enough time to achieve them. Even the education of girls, a signal achievement of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, is at risk. By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining. No senior Afghan official will likely be imprisoned for any crime, no matter how egregious. And it’s a good bet that, in some remote mountain valley, even Al Qaeda, which brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.”[July, 2012] *Cost of War puts the cost at more than $639 billion.
Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev did two tours in Afghanistan for the USSR and left as a regimental commander. Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations specializing in security studies, foreign policy and military history at Boston University and an author. He served for twenty-three years as an officer in the U.S. Army. Linda J. Bilmes teaches public policy, budgeting and public finance at Harvard University. She is a leading national expert on financial, budgeting, veterans and civil services issues and credited with drawing attention to the Iraq War costs. Sarah Chayes: Former NPR reporter, currently a senior associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Robert Dreyfuss: An independent journalist who specializes in magazine features, profiles, and investigative stories in the areas of politics and national security Tom Engelhardt is an author, co-founder of the American Empire Project and creator of the blog Tomdispatch.com. Dexter Filkins is an American journalist known primarily for his coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his dispatches from Afghanistan. He currently writes for The New Yorker. Gordon M. Goldstein is an author and scholar of international affairs who has served as an international security adviser to the Strategic Planning Unit of the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard Holbrooke (1941-2010) was one of the most influential of American diplomats. He was the only person to have held the position of assistant secretary of state for two different regions of the world (Asia, and Europe). He was special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan from January 2009 until his death in December, 2010. Chalmers Johnson (1931-2010) was an American author, CIA consultant (1967-1973), president and co-founder of the Japan Policy Institute. A former cold warrior, he changed his mind and examined the consequences of American Empire. Ann Jones is an award-winning journalist, women’s rights activist, and author of a number of non-fiction books about her research into women’s and humanitarian issues. Jones has provided humanitarian aid around the world, including Afghanistan. Zamir N. Kabulov a high-rank diplomat who was Russia’s ambassador to Kabul until 2009. He served as a K.G.B. agent in Kabul, Moscow’s top spy in the 1980s and 1990s during and after the nine-year Soviet military occupation. Anatol Lievan is a British author, journalist and policy analyst who focuses on U.S. global strategy and the War on Terrorism, and currently with the New America Foundation. Abdul Nasir An agricultural student from a secular family at Kabul University in 1992, he is now a TV producer for one of the many private channels that have sprung up since 2004.
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