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The lessons of Afghanistan

Recent events in Afghanistan run deeper than the day-to-day humanitarian disaster unfolding now. The militarization of strategy at the expense of diplomacy and negotiation are partly to blame for this outcome.

Afghan refugees boarding a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, on Monday.
Afghan refugees boarding a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, on Monday.
U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/Handout via REUTERS

The United States has now left Afghanistan. After 20 years of nation-building, security force-training, and American commitment, the world has watched in horror as the Taliban have swept into Kabul to restore governing authority over the country. The future of many, especially women and those who assisted NATO forces, remains uncertain — this all the more painful as many Afghans have now known and tasted freedom, some as their only way of life. Events unfolding over the last week and a half at the Kabul airport demonstrate the great despair these people face. The horrific images and videos we have all seen need not be conjured up here once more.

What happened? It seems to be the question on the lips of all. For years, the American public has wanted to get out of Afghanistan, to end the “forever wars,” and to “bring our troops home.” We just never thought it would be done like this.

In reality, there was never a winning military strategy in Afghanistan — not given the context. The United States’ counterinsurgency campaign, spearheaded by General David Petraeus and adopted by the Barack Obama administration, was based on a false premise. That premise was that with enough U.S. firepower, the Taliban could be beaten back, civilian “hearts and minds” could be won, and the Afghan army could fill the security void as the U.S. withdrew. For years, considerations of political settlement were laid by the wayside.

This was a grave error. From the start, Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence provided safe-haven and material support to the Taliban just over the border from Afghanistan in places like Quetta. Though nominal security partners of the United States in the war, the Pakistanis routinely saw their strategic interests aligned with a modicum of Taliban success rather than U.S. and allied victory. In a region of intense rivalry between India and Pakistan, India had for years backed the Afghan Northern Alliance — what would eventually become, in one form or another, the recently disintegrated Afghan government. To the Pakistanis, the government of Ashraf Ghani was viewed as an unwelcome avenue for Indian influence right on Pakistan’s doorstep.

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Fully resourced counterinsurgency — the aforementioned strategy chosen by Obama — was bound to fail given both the Taliban’s willingness to fight and the safe-haven support afforded them by Pakistan. It was never a matter of beating the Taliban into a sufficient pulp. It was only a matter of beating them back until they returned once more. This should have made the need for either withdrawal or a political settlement — albeit one backed by force — more obvious than ever.

Alex Betley
Alex Betley
Yet despite this, diplomacy was sidelined. This was in part due to a prevailing “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” attitude within the Bush and early Obama administrations. Never mind the fact that the U.S. allied itself with warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum (who would later become vice president of Afghanistan in a power sharing agreement) in pursuit of its strategic military interests. The militarization of strategy was so bad that even the effective chief diplomatic envoy for the war — Richard Holbrooke — could not obtain a single private meeting with Obama during his years in the post.

Holbrooke, for his part — and despite all the sidelining — worked toward a political solution, however difficult. He pushed to shift the strictly military-to-military relationship with Pakistan and reached potential breakthroughs on the diplomatic front alongside Pakistani and German diplomats. Holbrooke even managed to convince Gen. Stanley McChrystal — at that time responsible for military operations in Afghanistan — of the need for and viability of negotiation alongside Obama’s 2009 troop surge. However, just as McChrystal was preparing to push reconciliation, he resigned amidst a scandalous piece in Rolling Stone. With Petraeus in McChrystal’s stead, and the Obama administration unwilling to pursue negotiation, all hope of settlement died (along with Holbrooke, who would himself die from a torn aorta not long after).

When the United States did inevitably turn to negotiation, it was at its point of least leverage and the lack of appetite for continued American involvement most obvious. Rather than broker an agreement with American troops flowing in, it was not until after the drawdown did negotiations commence. As the Taliban correctly surmised, the opportunity to take back control of the country was only a matter of time. Opportunities for the U.S. to deal from a position of strength — whether at the beginning of the war or during the surge — were long gone.

So, following $145 billion spent rebuilding Afghanistan, $837 billion spent on war fighting, thousands of American and allied lives lost, and at least 240,000 combined Afghan military and civilian individuals killed, the Taliban have reseized control of the entire country. The result is not just the embarrassing and catastrophic humanitarian emergency we see unfolding day by day in Kabul, but the great tragedy that additional steps — namely diplomacy — could have been taken long ago in pursuit of avoiding this outcome. Much like Vietnam, this complete failure of American foreign policy will live with us long into the future. The best we can hope for now is to learn from it and get as many people as possible out from Afghanistan in the meantime.

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and an ISSP Civil Resistance Fellow. Before Fletcher, he studied philosophy, politics, and economics at St. Olaf College. He can be followed on Twitter @ambetley.

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