Afghanistan, the rock and the hard place

Civil war seems almost inevitable, writes William Milam

Afghanistan, the rock and the hard place
I was torn by conflicting emotions when, as I expected, President Biden announced that the US would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year. That is the 20th anniversary, of course, of Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States, which killed close to 3,000 Americans in New York City and Washington, D.C. The US has had troops in Afghanistan since soon after that attack, at first to retaliate against Al Qaeda, and second to punish the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan at the time, for allowing Al Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for the attack. The attack was planned and directed by Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, but carried out by 19 AQ members already in the US who hijacked four different civilian airliners, three of which hit their targets in New York and Washington.

That there were no Afghans among the hijackers made no difference. The 15 citizens of Saudi Arabia, two citizens of the United Arab Emirates, and one each from Egypt and Lebanon that hijacked the planes clearly were following the orders and the plans that came to them from AQ in Afghanistan. All of them perished along with the passengers when the planes crashed into the two World Trade Center buildings in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. The fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania during a struggle between passengers and the hijackers killing all aboard.

It has been labeled the deadliest terrorist attack in human history, although I guess that depends on the how terrorism is defined. In addition to the almost 3,000 Americans killed in the attacks, the damage to infrastructure amounted to almost $10 billion. The inevitable US retaliation defeated the Taliban and drove them from power in Afghanistan, and began what is now termed the longest war in US history. It probably is the longest war the US has fought abroad, but as usual our collective amnesia about the wars fought against the nations of indigenous Native Americans, in order mainly, to take their property, are not included in our narratives of American wars. (The USG War against the Comanche nation went on for about 30 years, beginning sometime in the 1840s and ending in 1876.)

From the late 1990s, when Osama Bin Laden and AQ began to threaten the United Stated directly and target Americans, the US had been warning the Taliban that it, and Afghanistan, would be held responsible for attacks against America by AQ that emanated from Afghanistan. Among other American officials, I had warned Taliban interlocutors that they needed to keep a tight leash on Bin Laden and AQ. At that time, the US did not have an embassy in Kabul, having closed it in 1992 when the civil war made security in that city very dicey, and I served as sort of a surrogate ambassador; under instructions I met with Taliban officials occasionally to try to convince them to deport Bin Laden so we could arrest him and bring him to trial for the embassy bombings and other attacks, and also more frequently, I met with the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad to issue warnings when we had intelligence suggesting a strike against us. It was clear at the time that they did not take the warnings seriously, but whether it was because they thought that the US was a paper tiger (our retaliation after the bombings in Africa was pretty feeble), or they didn’t believe that AQ would try, or was capable of, a strike at the US homeland is unclear.

In any case we are, after 20 years, leaving Afghanistan. I don’t like the decision, but I understand why it was made. President Biden was handed an impossible situation in Afghanistan. It would have been a difficult situation anyway, but his predecessor, Trump, made it impossible by overseeing the agreement of February 2020, negotiated only with the Taliban, which promised US withdrawal by May 1 of 2021 if the Taliban worked out a political solution to the war with the civilian and civilian stakeholders. This has gone nowhere as the Taliban have dragged their feet even to attend meetings with the government. Trump, of course, probably intended to withdraw the US forces anyway, no matter what the Taliban did. The agreement included a number of other conditions which hedged US withdrawal on good Taliban behavior, including one which required them to break off completely with the remnants of AQ and other transnational extremist Muslim terrorist organizations that still reside in Afghanistan. None of these conditions were met, nor did the Taliban make much effort to meet them it appears, but still the Taliban continued to insist the US carry out its side of the bargain.

Moreover, I understand President Biden’s desire to get this nagging domestic political problem behind him as he needs to focus on very different and more important foreign policy challenges — China, Russia, the deterioration of our European alliances under Trump, global warming, the global pandemic, and a host of others. Despite the Taliban’s non-performance of the conditions in the February 2020 agreement, our security interests are less directly threatened by Afghanistan than they were 20 years ago. Moreover, our illusions of bringing the Afghan Army up to speed have evaporated. In the deeply divided politics of Afghanistan, the rampant corruption, and one might add, the incompetence of the civilian government, that project looks to be decades away from completion. While, the cost of human and material cost of keeping troops there is lower now than it has ever been, just the fact that he can’t or won’t end a 20-year war is costly in domestic political terms. It detracts not only from his foreign policy agenda, but from his ambitious domestic political agenda, which I believe is both historically important in its structure, but also dependent on Democrats winning the 2022 Congressional mid-term election.

The arguments for staying were twofold: first, why should we fold our tent now when the human and material costs are at much lower levels than many of our other interventions overseas and let the Taliban just take over (if they can), which would make the much higher costs we bore while we maintained a more robust presence there just sunk costs. All that cost and nothing gained. The Taliban strategy since the beginning of the conflict has been to wait us out—a successful strategy in many similar situations over the past centuries although it didn’t work for the Commanches and other Native American nations (who had something we wanted). It is very off-putting to see their arrogance as they know we do not have the staying power they do. The second argument is that we actually have built something worth preserving, given the low current cost: an urban civil society of mainly young people, led primarily it seems by the women of Afghanistan, devoted to modernization and democracy. All that is likely to be lost when the US and its NATO partners move their forces out of Afghanistan.

What will follow that departure is not clear, but it will almost certainly not be a modern inclusive democracy that this young segment of Afghan society dreams of. Will the Taliban be able to establish their own dream—an Islamic Caliphate, probably not very different than the ultra-conservative, backward looking, repressive regime that was in charge in the 1990s? Or, will Afghanistan return to the civil war that has marked its last three decades, pitting the more moderate and modernized segments against those who continue to represent the exclusionary forces of the past? Most experts I know do not rule out a period of stress while the two sides try to avoid a civil war, but none believe any kind of political solution is possible without the presence of outside help. Ultimately civil war seems almost inevitable.

I have two worries if there is not solution outside of war. The first is the people we will leave behind. We have seen how the Taliban feel about the modernized urbanized young people who have emerged as voices of change and of peaceful solutions in the wave of assassinations that has taken place since negotiations for a political solution have begun. These have primarily targeted those who have spoken out for an inclusive political solution in which all voices are heard. While the Taliban deny complicity in the wave of assassinations, very few believe them. When foreign forces are gone, violence is very likely to increase. There are at least 18,000 US visa applications by Afghans who worked for, or in some way aided the foreign forces or the organizations trying to strengthen Afghan institutions of government, pending, and progress on them has been very slow, especially during the Trump years, and this backlog needs to be cleared away by September 11.

Am I optimistic that the US will do the right thing, and the moral thing, and allow most of these people to emigrate to the US if (when) danger threatens? History is my guide and the answer is, no, I am not optimistic at all. We certainly have not acted morally in past situations, i.e. when we left Vietnam.

My second worry is what another Afghan civil war will do to Pakistan and to South Asia in general. For Pakistan, I fear the worst—an increase of religious zealotry and extremism, and an even tighter grip on power by the military. In other words, our nightmares about Pakistan will only worsen.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.