US Withdrawal: Fateful Hubris

Parwan, August 1993: I was sitting on a grassy knoll in Jabal al-Siraj, waiting for the jeeps to arrive and take us to the rest house which was used by Ahmed Shah Massoud as his operational headquarters. I was part of a small delegation of journalists from Pakistan who were trying to understand the factional fighting that was tearing the country apart. But at that moment, looking at the landscape before me, my thoughts were with the Soviet commanders and their plight.

Parwan’s landscape is beautiful but also daunting. Bagram air base, which became notorious as the nerve centre of United States military operations in Afghanistan, as well as for its prisons, is also located in Parwan, south of Charikar, the capital of Parwan, which itself lies south of Jabal. It’s a mountainous province with three ranges: Panjshir in the north, Laghman in the southeast and Kott-e-Baba in the southwest. The population is mostly rural, including Kuchi nomads that comprise both short- and long-range migratories. Other ethnic groups are Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and Pashtun.

There’s nothing to exploit in Parwan in any military sense. As students of operational strategy know, simply going into an area and capturing it means nothing, unless that presence adds value to other objectives. On that afternoon, I wanted to commiserate with Soviet military commanders for having been pushed into a country where they faced a dilemma: how exactly to deploy forces outside the few urban centres, how to hold onto the countryside and to what end? What exactly was there to hold and exploit? This was not Hungary or Czechoslovakia, urbanised states with educated populations which the state could track, control and oppress.

Afghanistan was a poor, rural backwater outside its few urban centres. The idea of central authority was an enigma and anathema to populations outside those urban centres, populations divided along tribal and sub-tribal lines. Its history showed that every time Kabul tried topdown reforms, policies that bypassed the requirement of negotiating with solidarity groups (Qaum), there were revolts, beginning with Amanullah Khan’s attempts to modernise a tribal society that ended with a civil war and his abdication. There were similar short-lived episodes during Zahir Shah’s long and generally calm tenure; Daoud Khan’s nearly 5-year rule also saw purges and unrest, resulting in a horrific end for him and his family. The communists and their reforms agenda saw a full-blown uprising and insurgency which pulled in the United States on the side of the ‘mujahideen’ when Soviet troops crossed Amu Darya.

What happened after the Soviet withdrawal which, going by what we are watching today, was an example of a planned, drawn-out military withdrawal, is known to all. Afghanistan has had no respite nor any reprieve from continuing violence.

So what’s the point of this quick and very sketchy glance back? It is a reminder of the assumptions that informed America’s misadventure in that country whose epitaph is being written through evacuations from Kabul’s airport. But there’s another reason too. Some voices in Afghanistan, in the United States and also the United Kingdom still believe that negotiating with the Taliban was a strategic mistake; that the US and its allies should have remained committed militarily in Afghanistan.

This is patent nonsense for a number of reasons, notably the obvious fact that what the US and its allies could not do at the height of troop surge, they could not do with numbers that were at best good only for a holding operation. The desire to put the clock back ignores two facts: one, no coalition can remain committed in a foreign land ad infinitum; two, retaining some troop presence — enough to ward off a growing insurgency — would mean the host (more appropriately, client) government does not have the capacity to breathe on its own. If the US (patron) could not make the host (client) government walk on its own in two decades, it stretches credulity to imagine it could do that in another decade or two. The question is not whether the US made a strategic mistake by talking to the Taliban, but what other strategic choice(s), if any, did the US have.

In previous weeks I have written about the politico-military mistakes made by the US and its partner states. There is also evidence that over the years those mistakes and their consequences became institutionalised. Those mistakes were reinforced despite warnings from military commanders, oversight agencies, discerning journalists and independent observers. There was no way in 2020 that the US could put the clock back to December 2001 and instead of hounding the Taliban leaders, pulled them in to work out and configure a more inclusive political settlement. As Lear said to Kent, “The bow is bent and drawn; made from the shaft.” The arrows had been shot; they couldn’t be put back in the quiver. 

America made these mistakes not because its administrations and think tanks house idiots but “in the end, they [have] more confidence than vision, and that failing [breeds] in them a fateful hubris.” The quote is from late Senator John McCain’s foreword to David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, a book about Vietnam. The ‘have’ and ‘breeds’ in parentheses above are ‘had’ and ‘bred’ in the original quote. The fact that I can change the tense without changing anything shows that America’s best and the brightest remain doggedly persistent in their failure to learn.

Those who bitterly criticise the US for opening talks with the Taliban would be best advised to read the conversation between Halberstam and then-US ambassador Ellsworth Bunker.
Staying on would have meant “fighting the birthrate of the nation, that the war was essentially a stalemate—but a stalemate which favoured the other side, since eventually we would have to go home.”

Since I have referenced Vietnam and Halberstam’s brilliant book, and since there has also been much talk about how and why Ashraf Ghani’s government and forces collapsed like a house of cards, it is instructive to read Walter Ladwig’s work, The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counterinsurgency. The central thesis of Ladwig’s book is what he calls a “critical error” that “lies at the heart of American thinking about counterinsurgency: the assumption that the United States will share common goals and priorities with a local government it is assisting in COIN, which will make it relatively easy to convince that government to implement US counterinsurgency prescriptions.”

Ladwig argues that despite a shared aim of defeating an insurgency, the US and its client will have differing priorities in the politico-military spheres. Unless the US can bring in some reforms and lean on the host government, its support will have “a limited impact”. But this also creates another problem for the US: “When a host-nation government believes that it is so important to Washington that it cannot be allowed to fail, it is inclined to resist any US-backed reform effort that would challenge the domestic status quo.”

Ladwig has three case studies in the book to support his thesis: the Hukbalahap Rebellion in the Philippines, Vietnam during the rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Salvadoran Civil War. But while his book does not deal with Afghanistan (or Iraq) directly (because those are cases of direct military intervention), it is obvious (and he argues thus) that his thesis also holds in relation to the workings and machinations of the governments run by Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan and Nouri Maliki in Iraq.

Finally, since February 29, 2020, when the US cut a deal with the Taliban in Doha, I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of American, Afghan and other critics of that deal on my television programme. Not one could give a satisfactory response to what else if not a deal. The long winded responses would, expectedly, focus on arguments about how Taliban could not be trusted, how a Taliban takeover would undermine the progress of the past twenty years, how women and other weaker groups would lose out on the rights they have got used to et cetera. While all these are and remain a matter of concern, they did not, and still do not, address the basic question: if not this, then what?

The very fact that there was nothing left in any viable terms but to talk to the Taliban when they were ascendant, is the biggest indictment of fateful hubris.


The writer is a journalist interested in foreign and security issues. He tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.