The Foreign Policy Borg And The Retreat From Afghanistan

There are few things in this kaleidoscopic world of ours that we can count on – for predictability, for fixity of outlook, for unswerving resistance to the vicissitudes of life. The American foreign policy community is one of them. They reliably react to stunning events in the world with reiteration of what they have been saying for years and decades They do so in unison. They never admit error of analysis or of policy, they preserve a righteous tone, and they retain a permanent inventory of persons to scapegoat – and, equally important, those who are always exempt from blame.

The Afghan debacle demonstrates, once again, how deeply entrenched this behavioral pattern is. It is self-evident, it is glaring, and it is a reason for both shame and for doubting the United States’ ability to conduct its external relations in a sober, reasonable manner. Recent essays of mine have sought to explicate this phenomenon. There is no point in trying to summarize them. Instead, here are several declarative statements intended to correct some of the most egregious misrepresentations about what had happened and its implications:

  1. The United States never has had a strategic national interest in Afghanistan – certainly, not for the past 30 years.
  2. No one is to blame for ‘losing’ Afghanistan. It never was ours to lose; it was never ours to recast in Washington’s image of what we would like it to be. No more than China, Cuba, Vietnam or Iraq were ‘ours’ to lose.
  3. The widespread notion that the ‘American Dream’ has as a central component an imperative to empower women and teach religious tolerance in Central Asia, among other places, is total nonsense. It is neither historically, psychologically nor philosophically valid (to understate it). There are very good reasons to probe the collective American psyche in search of clues as to why we act as we do. Superimposing a puerile version of WOKE sensibility on the nation’s foreign affairs is a pastime we cannot afford – even if the editors of The New York Times instruct us that their potted version of history is the true one. That tale tells us that Afghanistan dissipated a dream that somehow had survived Vietnam, Iraq, and Libya – not to speak of our failed experiments in exporting Americanism in Haiti (multiple times), Dominican Republic (a few times) and across the Central American banana belt.
  4. Staying in Afghanistan after we had dislodged and scattered the al-Qaeda was a fool’s errand from the very beginning; whether the aims were geostrategic or nation-building. It never had a chance of succeeding. The foreseeable costs always outweighed any conceivable successes – however modest – by several magnitudes.
  5. Afghanistan significance as a launching pad for Islamic terrorism was always exaggerated, and today is totally unjustified. The Taliban did provide refuge for Osama bin-Laden and his lieutenants after they were kicked out of Sudan. The execution of 9/11 itself was organized in Hamburg and operationally coordinated from two apartments in New Jersey. Over the past several years, the mainspring for terrorist acts has been ISIS – not al-Qaeda or its affiliates. Al Nusra, an affiliate, has concentrated its activities in Syria. ISIS, in turn, owes its existence to the United States. It was spawned in the prison camps we built in Iraq, its core recruits were Iraqis, its military expertise was provided by ex-officers of Saddam’s army whom L. Paul Bremmer III summarily fired in 2003.
  6. Some ISIS fighters did try to reestablish themselves in Afghanistan -with transport and support provided by their long-time backer: President Erdogan of Turkey. (He exported others to Azerbaijan and many thousand to Libya). They were a mixed lot of Syrians, Iraqis, Chechens, Uighurs. Initially, they got some sympathy from radical Taliban factions. The leadership, though, wanted nothing to do with them and soon moved to suppress/evict them forcibly and will continue to root them out. In the present Taliban vision for the country, they are as welcome as a Vatican established bishopric in Kabul.
  7. The range of commitments made by the Taliban in Moscow in regard to jihadis – and other- matters – gain credibility from the new regime’s acute need for economic assistance. Washington’s freezing of the Central bank’s meager assets in only the first step in the West’s campaign to strangle Afghanistan and, thereby, to destabilize the Taliban government. China and Russia have pledged financial aid, investment and commercial dealings to counteract the American strategy. It would be put in jeopardy by any significant Taliban deviation from the mutually agreed guidelines.
  8. The main reasons why the West’s Afghan project failed were these: we installed a corrupt, incompetent, and weak leadership that had little legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of Afghans; our coddling of warlords, opium lords and a host of unsavory characters; the deep-seated Afghan distaste for foreigners meddling in their affairs. The use of aggressive tactics like search-and-destroy, signature airstrikes and the creation of Afghan commando units that were a law unto themselves – all of which alienated an increasing fraction of the Afghan (largely rural) population. So, our placing of non-Pashtuns from the Northern Alliance in most senior military, Intelligence and police positions (along with a preponderance of rank & file personnel) to quell an insurrection that was Pashtun at its core. In other words, our strategy was a recipe for recrudescence of the Taliban as effective as anything they could have prepared themselves.
  9. The United States understanding of the country they were trying to reconstitute was thin, non-existent or distorted. This was true of policy-makers in Washington and especially the Pentagon’s Central Command which ran the war. The parade of commanding generals whose identity changed every year was a further guarantee that the learning curve would be flat.
  10. The suddenness of the Ghani regime’s disintegration, the collapse of the much-touted Afghan Army we supposedly trained for 19 years – in mimicry of the routing of the even more highly touted, Petraeus built Iraqi National Army that crumbled with hardly a shot being fired before ISIS in 2014 The evacuation fiasco itself derived from poor Intelligence – CIA & Pentagon, the willful ignorance about Afghan politics, and appallingly bad planning by the U.S. Army.
  11. The Army is one of those entities that our politicos and MSM have been given immunity from accountability and criticism. The Pentagon’s omnipresent campaign to sacrilize the American military has paid off in a big way. So, instead of offering the apology they owe the American people they carp from the sidelines (if retired), leak to the press (if still in uniform) and mobilize their corps of Pentagon-briefed, Pentagon-loyal camp-followers to lay the blame on President Biden*. These are members of the defense expert fraternity who have an unblemished record of getting just about everything wrong since the inception of the Global War On Terror. The decision to leave Afghanistan was made by Trump and Pompeo. They had nearly a year to prepare. Biden gave them an extra three months. Military forces in country were kept at levels that the Army itself deemed adequate to ensure a smooth withdrawal of troops. He later added a few thousand. And it was the Pentagon, not Joe Biden, that took the bizarre snap decision to quit the Begram Airbase in the dead of night (without informing the Afghan general slated to inherit it) – thereby, denying us a secure airport conducive to an orderly processing and boarding of evacuees.
  12. However, it appears obvious that no contingency plans were ever made for a possible rapid evacuation of civilians – much less qualifying Afghans. Even in the fateful weeks when the handwriting was on the wall, they brass failed to act. The tragic fiasco at the airport was wholly the Pentagon’s fault. They could not as much as cordon off sections of the airport, establish control of entry gates, or maintain a modicum of order.The ensuing chaos occurred despite the understanding with the Taliban, who observed it, not to interfere with the evacuations.

    So, a fair judgment is that the people who should be denounced for sins of omission – and a few of commission – are Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, CENTCOM head General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr, and the American commander of ISAF, General Austin “Scott” Miller. They are the 4 untouchables who barely get a mention while the pack harries Joe Biden. Simply put, they didn’t do their jobs.

    No candor, no sense of responsibility. What do we get instead? The Republicans castigate Biden for Trump’s decision. The Pentagon casts aspersions on the administration – but surreptitiously. The media put on their hysterical psycho-drama – and, in the process, display their profound ignorance cultivated over 15 years of forgetting about Afghanistan. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan seeks to divert attention and to sow panic (thereby, perhaps, unifying Americans in collective fear) by loudly sounding the alarm about a fanciful ISIS threat – “real” and “acute” – to the evacuation.

*(Biden, for all his faults, was the one man in the Obama administration who stood up to the cabal orchestrated by Robert Gates, with Hillary out front providing political cover, that coerced Barack Obama into the ill-fated ‘surge’ of 2009-2010).

by Michael Brenner