In my last post I described how happy so many college educated Trump haters were when they could avoid a referendum on the Red Plan BECAUSE “voters wouldn’t have passed it.” Which reminded me of the email I sent my old friend about Afghanistan where he worked for the US Foreign Service. He sent me a detailed analysis he submitted to other professionals about whether Biden’s withdrawal was good or bad. I’ll post it at the end but I warn you it is dry as all good Foreign Policy analysis should be.
My reaction was to think of all the times Democracies like the US England and France subverted foreign elections that we disapproved of because we didn’t like who the people of different countries voted in. My position on democracy is that the majority should decide (although I make an increasingly grudging exception to our Electoral system) who wins. We have reaped our current woes with Iran largely because we supported the overthrow of a democratically elected leader back in the Eisenhower years and we let the banana corporations lead us to overthrow a similarly elected official in Guatemala back about the same time. So here is the dyspeptic reply I sent my friend followed by the analysis he sent me which provoked me:
I set your analysis aside until I had gotten a mish mash of distractions out of the way so that I could fully ponder a savvy analyst’s opinions of the quagmire we left and the disaster to follow.
In total you seem to fall on the Biden-has-been-prescient spectrum. That is good to hear. His chat with the self designated emperor of New China struck me as far more useful than Trump’s split personality genuflecting/spittle flecked, fist waving approach. The Chinese are simply being the kind of folks who are treating their Uighurs like we treated the first Americans in our Indian schools. Who knows, maybe in a hundred years they will let them open gaming casinos as a consolation prize.
My useless irony is focused on where I think I agree with in our rational President. There are limits to our reach and our grasp should not try to take control. Before America became the world’s strongman Democracy was actually zealously wished for by just about everybody. Now, not so much.
On the other hand, the insanity of Trump may have served the very useful purpose his voters yearned for. He shook things up. We were frozen but we’ve been thawing out fast since January’s attempted overthrow of our Democracy. Biden’s and our challenge, as rational beings, is to use the science that Trump’s cultists sneer at in such a way that they come to embrace it rather than thumb their nose at it all the way to the ICU.
A couple precursors to Afghanistan strike me. The US after the Civil War was completely undone in trying to reconstruct the South. The white South reconstructed itself with a fatigued north complying with or ignoring its re-imposition of a new form of “slavery by another name.” Those Jim Crow slaves largely fought their own battles with only marginal White help up until today and its a fight that continues.
I think reform efforts can use some soft power like Biden insists. The VOA through the Cold War years was a good effort. Close monitoring by the CIA and now by the Internet and global trade are a necessary evil but we are powerless to make the Chinese or anyone else think like us. Its a damn shame the world’s environmental degradation is as slow moving as the hour hand on a clock. A coming meteor would focus our attentions on our future a tad better.
I also think back to the French violating democracy when Algerian Islamists won an election back in the Eighties I think. My thought at the time was let the Algerians see the Islamists in action and fail. Instead the French invaded and helped whip up the Islamist horror that has only ballooned across the world.
Our illegal bombing of Cambodia created a nation of orphan soldiers which we have since discovered to be a pretty universal condition in failed states. Disorder is our enemy and I suspected it was back in our debate days as we sloshed around the unfamiliar jungles of Vietnam. Some nations are not ready for democracy. Usually they have all the traits of Medieval France with changing mini states and alliances, multiple languages competing with the use of standing armies or localized gangs. Its not easy building a mini UN in each country since democracy is a threat to each separate power that might find itself out voted. The Spanish are still under threat of dissolution by the Catalans and our insistence on fixing Lebanon’s inequitable democracy only pushed a once thriving nation into becoming a perpetual disaster machine.
Bush’s actions with Hugo Chavez were just as ham handed. Today the most prosperous nation of Latin America, Venezuela, is another Mad Max.
I am drawn to the bourgeoisie desire for order but not at any cost. There must be the grease of democratic progress in the gears or everything will grind to a halt. Sometimes the bourgeoisie can’t see the coming disasters but only see the expense of the grease .
But whatever I think some of the pawns being forced by Belorussia to cut wires into Poland with their children dying of exposure just escaped from our Afghanistan. Out of the frying pan ……
Its a shame that we have created such a shitty world. I hope our children do better but were pretty cheap with the grease they will need and time is running out.
Have a happy Thanksgiving,
And here is M’s analysis of our Afghanistan withdrawal:
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has driven a major change in foreign policy for the Biden administration. The Biden administration believes soft power should be preferred over hard power in consolidating new governmental authorities in the wake of any regime change. At the same time, Biden officials uniformly assert hard power should be focused on “great power competition” (i.e., China) and military foot-prints in country are not essential to conduct effective counter-terrorist actions going forward.
Let’s unpack three issues related to this policy change:
1. Could the U.S. withdrawal have been executed more effectively, ensuring more Americans and Afghans could be evacuated safely?
In mid-June, Defense Secretary Austin and Gen. Milley told NSA Sullivan and State officials—that the military would be out by the first week in July, except for 650 troops guarding the embassy and airport. A PowerPoint presentation on the withdrawal spotlighted the planned closing of Bagram air base, nearly 40 miles north of Kabul, and Camp Dwyer, an air base in Helmand province. This presentation was backed up by an intelligence assessment that concluded Kabul could fall six months after the U.S. military left. Adding more complexity to any retrograde operation, on June 25, President Biden acceded to Afghan President Ghani’s request that American citizens and Afghan allies not be folded into earlier draw downs of American soldiers. Ghani argued it would undermine Afghan troop morale and spread panic.
Once the presentation was made, NSA Sullivan raised questions about shutting down Bagram. It’s clear, with only two weeks before most of the military was due to leave, the NSC had some questions. The Pentagon paused the shutdown for several days so Mr. Biden and his aides could reconsider the timing of the Bagram closure. Keeping it open would delay the Pentagon in carrying out Mr. Biden’s plan to remove the vast majority of American troops. Nonetheless, the Bagram closure occurred on July 2, close to its original closure date.
Working with the administration’s troop limit of 650, military commanders have made it clear they had to choose between keeping open Bagram or the Kabul airport, which was thought ready to handle a large evacuation.“Securing Bagram is a significant level of military effort of forces, and it would also require external support from the Afghan Security Forces,” JCS Chair Milley said at a Pentagon press conference. “Our task was protect the embassy in order for the embassy personnel to continue to function.”
“So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made,” Gen. Milley added. Operating out of the Kabul airport, he said, “was estimated to be the better tactical solution in accordance with the mission set we were given and in accordance to getting the troops down to about 650.” At a September 28 Congressional hearing, Milley added that he had advised the Biden team to keep 2500 troops in country to forestall an Afghan Army collapse, while DefSec Austin believed 5000 troops were necessary to keep Bagram open while the evacuation was carried out in Kabul. However, these statements were made before the White House decided to go down to 650 soldiers, and these senior officers also admitted such a troop presences but would not be “sustainable” and, above all, they did not challenge the White House decision on the 650 troop limit once it was made.
I believe the drawdown to 650 troops accelerated the AF Army collapse, requiring us to move from 650 to 4000 by August 10, and from 4000 to 5000 troops at Kabul airport on August 14. Even with these increases, too late to forestall the AF Army collapse, we could not conduct a well layered of the airport since we had more limited air support and much fewer Afghan personnel.
In retrospect, we should have kept Bagram going to bolster the AF Army which relied on the base for not only air support but critical logistics resupply. Is it any surprise the AF Army collapsed without regular resupply? Could the military have provided a more realistic plan? Yes, but they would have had to push back on the 650 number that the Biden administration wanted. In the eyes of history, Biden officials should be held accountable for not recognizing the limits of their 650 number and the criticality of the Bagram facility for Afghan army morale.
2. Can the USG meet its strategic aim of dismantling extreme terrorist organizations in AF as we go forward? Will such organizations be encouraged by the US exit to widen their recruitment and influence in the years to come?
Most senior military officers from the Bush and Obama era have criticized the new Biden approach to reduce in-country military footprints combatting terrorism. Current standing generals have joined them. Few have supported the Biden approach because they argue it reduces options, weakens intel collection, and could embolden terrorist groups, Indeed, Retired Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said that, if we’d pullout the troops after killing Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida would simply have returned. He still argues terrorist groups will reconstitute themselves in AF.
Only one senior officer has stepped up to counter this claim. Asked about Petraeus’ opinion, former JCS Chair Mullen acknowledges Petraeus has a point. But, Mullen adds that by 2012, it was “widely believed that al-Qaida was pretty significantly diminished, and that’s where they’ve stayed.” Mullen states, “Keeping al-Qaida at bay” was clearly in U.S. interests, but “it was not a reason to stay”—that is, it was not a mission that required a continued U.S. combat presence, much less a sharp escalation.
Surveying this issue in this forum, I submit the jury is still out on whether there will be a resurgence of terrorist groups. It is significant to note, too, AF’s neighbor, Pakistan, still harbors many of these groups but we are prevented from establishing an in-country military presence there. My own feeling so far is that we have to give the Biden approach a chance to play out. And we have to find a way to strengthen human intel collection to improve the accuracy of our drone strikes, our preferred military response.. Continued civilian casualties from such strikes serves to fuel public resentment and terrorist recruitment. Finally, the horrific asymmetric weapon of terrorist suicide attacks is generally viewed by academics as impossible to counter efficiently but can only burn itself out by removing the underlying grievances that created them in the first place. We will have to see if this is the case in AF as events unfold. It is too early to know.
3. Why did US government-and-army building efforts fail so dramatically? Has the Biden administration charted a new, more promising approach to regime change and the perceived threat of great power competition?
Back to former JCS Mullen. He has acknowledged that, back in 2009, he and all the other top officers advised Obama to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan and to adopt a nation-building strategy. Biden was alone in calling for merely an extra 10,000 troops and to restrict their activities to training the Afghan army and fighting terrorists along the Afghan-Pakistani border. “Biden got it right,” Mullen said of Biden. “It would be hard to argue that [Biden’s proposal] wasn’t the right way to go.”
Mullen said that he and his fellow officers got two big things wrong. First, he said, “We underestimated the impact of corruption.”
At the time, Mullen stressed the importance of stopping corruption within the Afghan government. At a Senate hearing back in Sept. 2009, a few months before Obama decided on a war policy, Mullen testified, “The Afghan government needs to have some legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The core issue is the corruption […] It’s been a way of life for some time, and it’s just got to change. That threat is every bit as significant as the Taliban.” Sen. Lindsay Graham, noting that the Taliban were gaining ground because of this corruption, asked, “We could send a million troops, and that wouldn’t restore legitimacy in the government?” Mullen replied, “That is correct.”
The corruption never ended, yet Mullen continued to support the war effort. Mullen spotlights a 2011 scandal at Kabul Bank, in which Afghan insiders embezzled $850 million—all U.S. taxpayers’ money—and spent it on personal luxuries. “We had the goods on them,” Mullen recalled. An anti-corruption agency, led by U.S. officials, had been created to go after these sorts of crimes. But the administration “chose not to prosecute,” he said. “I realized right then that this was politically going nowhere.” I was in the Embassy group charged with making that recommendation. We fudged it because we did not want to risk creating a power vacuum by removing corrupt officials
The other, perhaps larger mistake, Mullen admits: “We underestimated the significance of our presence, in all that we were doing.” First, American trainers created an Afghan army in their own image, heavily reliant on U.S. close-air support, intelligence, logistics, helicopter transport, repair, and maintenance. When this combat support was withdrawn, Mullen felt collapse was almost inevitable. There was a more intangible side of this dependency as well—”the confidence they got by having us there.” He added, “Their soldiers fought—tens of thousands died.” When they saw that we were leaving, the wind went out of them, and so they made deals with the Taliban or simply fled.”
The only general to criticize his own actions, Mullen sat at the pinnacle of the U.S. military machine back when this dependency was molded.
As for the new Biden policy that has grown out of recognizing the shortcomings of nation-building, we cannot judge it until a concrete case arises where such activities might again be considered. If such a case arises, I argue that more realistic, limited goals should be set that are exclusively focused on US and host-nation security. We should allow diplomacy to work out what other aid, if any, is needed for democracy, justice, and economic progress within the host country.
In conclusion, it may well be that Biden’s renewed focus on great power competition, namely China, will prove prescient. We must wait to see what challenges the rest of the 21st century brings us.
Thanks for listening.