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Wars of Unintended Consequences – Antiwar.com Original

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

TomDispatch began with the Afghan War — with a sense
I had
from its earliest moments that it was a misbegotten venture of the
first order. Here, for instance, is a comment I wrote
about that disaster in December 2002, a little over a year after the U.S.
began bombing and then invaded that country:

“This week, two wounded American soldiers and a dead one brought some
modest attention to the American situation in Afghanistan. [The Toronto
Sun
‘s Eric] Margolis reminds us that the Soviets, too, were initially
triumphant in Afghanistan, installed a puppet government, declared the liberation
of Afghan women, and churned out similar propaganda about their good deeds.
Where the analogy breaks down, of course, is that there is no other superpower
left to fund and arm a resistance movement against an American Afghanistan.
Still, we declared victory awfully early and didn’t go home. It’s likely to
prove a dangerous combination. (The word to watch for in the American press
is ‘quagmire.’ When you see that and Afghanistan appearing in the
same articles, you’ll know we know we’re in trouble.)”

Unfortunately, when it came to the American media, that Vietnam-era word
never made a serious appearance, even as the Afghan War stretched on, year
after year, ever more quagmirishly. In a sense, on a planet without another
superpower, America was left to play the roles of both the Soviet Union during
its disastrous war of the 1980s in Afghanistan and of
the United States
in those same years when it put such effort into creating
a crew of extreme Islamist fighters to take the Russians down. In other words,
in a world of one, all the imperial roles were ours and it couldn’t
be clearer now that we did indeed take ourselves down in a fashion that, in
its final moments at Kabul’s airport, proved all too desperately dramatic.

Today, TomDispatch
regular
Rajan Menon considers just what lessons Washington might now draw
(but undoubtedly won’t) from those endless decades of involvement in Afghanistan.
~ Tom


The True Lessons of the Afghan War

By Rajan Menon

Disagreements over how to assess the American exodus from Afghanistan have
kept the pundits busy these last weeks, even though there wasn’t much to say
that hadn’t been said before. For some of them, however, that was irrelevant.
Having overseen
or promoted
the failed Afghan War themselves, all the while brandishing
various “metrics” of success, they were engaged in transparent reputation-salvaging.

Not surprisingly, the entire spectacle has been tiresome and unproductive.
Better to devote time and energy to distilling the Afghan war’s larger lessons.

Here are four worth considering.

Lesson One: When You Make Policy, Give Serious Thought to Possible
Unintended Consequences

The architects of American policy toward Afghanistan since the late 1970s
bear responsibility for the disasters that occurred there because they couldn’t,
or wouldn’t, look beyond their noses. As a result, their policies backfired
with drastic consequences. Some historical scene-setting is required to understand
just why and how.

Let’s start in another country and another time. Consider the December 1979
decision of the leadership of the Soviet Union to send in the Red Army to
save the ruling Marxist and pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan
(PDPA). Having seized control of that country the previous year, the PDPA
was soon pleading for help. By centralizing its power in the Afghan capital,
Kabul (never a good way to govern that land), and seeking to modernize society
at breakneck speed — through, among other things, promoting the education
and advancement of women — it had provoked an Islamic insurgency that
spread rapidly. Once Soviet troops joined the fray, the United
States
, assisted by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and even China,
would start funding, arming, and training the mujahedeen, a collection
of Islamist groups committed to waging jihad there.

The decision to arm them set the stage for much of what happened in Afghanistan
ever since, especially because Washington gave Pakistan carte
blanche
to decide which of the jihadist groups would be armed, leaving
that country’s powerful Inter-Services
Intelligence Agency
to call the shots. The ISI favored the most radical
mujahedeen groups, calculating that an Islamist-ruled Afghanistan
would provide Pakistan with “strategic depth” by ending India’s influence
there.

India did indeed have close ties with the PDPA, as well as the previous government
of Mohammed Daoud, who had overthrown King Zahir Shah, his cousin, in 1973.
Pakistan’s Islamist parties, especially the Jama’at-i-Islami,
which had been proselytizing among the millions of Afghan refugees then in
Pakistan, along with the most fundamentalist of the exiled Afghan
Islamist groups
, also helped recruit fighters for the war against the
Soviet troops.

From 1980 until 1989, when the defeated Red Army finally departed from Afghanistan,
Washington’s foreign policy crew focused in a single-minded fashion
on expelling them by arming those anti-Soviet insurgents. One rationale for
this was a ludicrous theory that the Soviet move into Afghanistan was an initial
step toward Moscow’s ultimate goal: conquering the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
 The spinners of this apocalyptic fantasy, notably President Jimmy Carter’s
hawkish national security adviser, Zbigniew
Brzezinski
, seemed not to have even bothered to peruse a map of the terrain
between Afghanistan and the Gulf. It would have shown that among the obstacles
awaiting Russian forces headed there was the 900-mile-long, 14,000-foot-high
Zagros
mountain range
.

Enmeshed in a Cold War-driven frenzy and eager to stick it to the Soviets,
Brzezinski and others of like mind gave no thought to a critical question:
What would happen if the Soviets were finally expelled and the mujahedeen
gained control of Afghanistan? That lapse in judgment and lack of foresight
was just the beginning of what proved to be a chain of mistakes.

Though the PDPA government outlasted the Red Army’s retreat, the collapse
of the Soviet Union in late 1991 proved a death sentence for its Afghan allies.
Instead of forming a unity government, however, the mujahedeen promptly
turned on one another. There ensued a vicious civil war, pitting Pashtun mujahedeen
groups against their Tajik and Uzbek counterparts, with Kabul as the prize.
The
fighting
destroyed large parts of that city’s western and southern neighborhoods,
killing as many as 25,000 civilians, and forcing 500,000 of them, nearly a
third of the population, to flee. So wearied were Afghans by the chaos and
bloodletting that many were relieved when the Taliban, themselves former participants
in the anti-Soviet jihad, emerged in 1994, established themselves
in Kabul in 1996, and pledged to reestablish order.  

Some of the Taliban and Taliban-allied leaders who would later make the United
States’ most-wanted list had, in fact, been bankrolled by the CIA to fight
the Red Army, including Jalaluddin
Haqqani
, founder of the now-infamous Haqqani Network, and the notoriously
cruel Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar
, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami,
arguably the most extreme of the mujahedeen
groups, who is now negotiating
with the Taliban, perhaps angling for a spot in its new government.

Osama Bin Laden’s links with Afghanistan can also be traced to the
anti-Soviet war. He achieved his fame thanks to his role in that American-backed
jihad and, along with other Arabs involved in it, founded al-Qaeda
in 1988. Later, he decamped to Sudan,
but after American officials demanded his expulsion, moved, in 1996, back
to Afghanistan, a natural haven given his renown there.

Though the Taliban, unlike al-Qaeda, never had a transnational Islamist agenda,
they couldn’t deny him succor — and not just because of his cachet.
A main tenet of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun social code they lived by,
was the duty to provide refuge (nanawati)
to those seeking it. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, became
increasingly perturbed by Bin Laden’s incendiary messages
proclaiming it “an individual duty for every Muslim” to kill Americans, including
civilians, and personally
implored
him to stop, but to no avail. The Taliban were stuck with him.

Now, fast forward a couple of decades. American leaders certainly didn’t
create the Islamic State-Khorasan Province — aka IS-K, an affiliate
of the main Islamic State — whose suicide bombers killed 170 people
at Kabul airport on August 26th, 13 of them American troops. Yet IS-K and
its parent body emerged partly from the ideological evolution
of various extremists, including many Taliban
commanders
, who had fought the Soviets. Later, inspired, especially after
the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, to continue the jihad, they yearned for something
bolder
and more ambitious than the Taliban’s version, which was confined to Afghanistan.

It should hardly have required clairvoyance in the 1980s to grasp that funding
an anti-Soviet Islamist insurgency might have dangerous long-term consequences.
After all, the mujahedeen were hardly secretive about the sort of political
system and society they envisaged for their country.

Lesson Two: Beware the Overwhelming Pride Produced by the Possession
of Unrivaled Global Power

The idea that the U.S. could topple the Taliban and create a new state and
society in Afghanistan was outlandish considering that country’s history.
But after the Soviet Union started to wobble and eventually collapsed and
the Cold War was won, Washington was giddy with optimism. Recall the paeans
in those years to “the
unipolar moment
” and “the
end of history
.” We were Number One, which meant that the possibilities,
including remaking entire countries, were limitless.

The response to the 9/11 attacks then wasn’t simply a matter of shock
and fear
. Only one person in Washington urged reflection and humility
in that moment. On September 14, 2001, as Congress prepared to authorize a
war against al-Qaeda and its allies (the Taliban), Representative Barbara
Lee (D-CA) gave a prescient speech.
“I know,” she said, “this resolution will pass, although we all know that
the president can wage a war even without it. However… let’s step back
for a moment… and think through the implications of our actions today,
so that this does not spiral out of control.” 

In the heat of that moment, in a country that had become a military power
beyond compare, no one cared to consider alternative responses to the al-Qaeda
attacks. Lee’s would be the lone no vote against that Authorization to Use
Military Force. Afterward, she would receive
hate mail, even death threats.

So confident was Washington that it rejected the Taliban’s offer
to discuss surrendering Bin Laden to a third country if the U.S. stopped the
bombing and provided proof of his responsibility for 9/11. Secretary of State
Donald Rumsfeld also refused to consider the Taliban’s leadership attempts
to negotiate a surrender
and amnesty
. The Bush administration treated the Taliban and al-Qaeda
as identical and excluded
the former from the December 2001 Bonn talks it had convened to form a new
Afghan government. As it happened, the Taliban, never having received the
memo from various eminences
who pronounced it dead, soon regrouped and revved up its insurgency.

The United States then faced two choices, neither of them good. Its top officials
could have decided that the government they had created in Kabul wouldn’t
survive and simply withdrawn their forces. Or they could have stuck with nation-building
and periodically “surged” troops into the country in hopes that a viable government
and army would eventually emerge. They chose the latter.  No president
or senior military commander wanted to be blamed for “losing” Afghanistan
or the “war on terror,” so the baton was passed from one commander to the
next and one administration to another, each claiming to have made significant
progress. The result: a 20-year, $2.3-trillion
fiasco that ended chaotically at Kabul airport.

Lesson Three: Don’t Assume That Opponents Whose Values Don’t
Fit Yours Won’t Be
Supported Locally 

Reporting on the Taliban’s retrograde beliefs and pitiless practices helped
foster the belief that such a group, itself supposedly a Pakistani creation,
could be routed because Afghans reviled it. Moreover, the bulk of the dealings
American officials and senior military leaders had were with educated, urbane
Afghan men and women, and that strengthened their view that the Taliban lacked
legitimacy while the U.S.-backed government had growing public confidence.

Had the Taliban truly been a foreign transplant, however, they could never
have kept fighting, dying, and recruiting new members for nearly two decades
in opposition to a government and army backed by the world’s sole superpower.
The Taliban certainly inspired fear and committed numerous acts of brutality
and horror, but poor rural Pashtuns, their social base, didn’t view them as
outsiders with strange beliefs and customs, but as part of the local social
fabric.  

Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s first supreme leader, was born in Kandahar Province
and raised in Uruzgun Province. His father, Moulavi Ghulam Nabi, had been
respected locally for his learning. Omar became the leader
of the Hotaki tribe, part of one of the two main Pashtun tribal confederacies,
the Ghilzai, which was a Taliban mainstay.  He joined the war against
the Soviet occupation in 1979, returning to Kandahar once it ended, where
he ran a madrassa, or religious school. After the Taliban took power
in 1996, though its leader, he remained in Kandahar, seldom visiting the capital.

The Kabul government and its American patrons may have inadvertently helped
the Taliban’s cause. The more that ordinary Afghans experienced the raging
corruption of the American-created system and the viciousness of the paramilitary
forces, militias
, and warlords
the U.S. military relied
on
, the more successful the insurgents were at portraying themselves as
the country’s true nationalists resisting foreign occupiers and their
collaborators. Not for nothing did the Taliban liken
Afghanistan’s U.S.-supported presidents to Shah Shuja, an exiled Afghan monarch
the invading British placed on the throne, triggering an armed uprising that
lasted from 1839 to 1842 and ended with British troops suffering a catastrophic
defeat. 

But who needed history? Certainly not the greatest power ever.

Lesson Four: Beware the Generals, Contractors, Consultants, and Advisers
Who Eternally Issue Cheery Reports From War Zones

The managers of wars and economic projects acquire a vested interest in touting
their “successes” (even when they know quite well that they’re
actually failures). Generals worry about their professional reputations, nation-builders
about losing lucrative government contracts.

Senior American commanders repeatedly assured the president and Congress
that the Afghan army was becoming a thoroughly professional fighting force,
even when they knew better. (If you doubt this, just read the scathing
analysis
of retired Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who did two tours
of duty in Afghanistan.)

Reporter Craig Whitlock’s Afghanistan
Papers
— based on a trove of once-private documents as well
as extensive interviews with numerous American officials — contains
endless example of such happy talk. After serving 19 months leading U.S. and
allied forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen declared that the Afghan
army could hold its own, adding that “this is what winning looks like.” General
John Campbell
, who held the same position during the last quarter of 2015,
praised those troops as a “capable” and “modern, professional force.” American
generals constantly
talked
about corners being turned.

Torrents of data were cited to tout the social and economic progress produced
by American aid. It mattered not at all that reports
by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction questioned the
readiness
and capabilities
of the Afghan army, while uncovering
information about schools and hospitals funded but never built, or built but
never used, or “unsafe,”
literally
crumbling
,” or saddled with unsustainable operating
costs
. Staggering sums of American aid were also lost to systemic corruption.
U.S.-funded fuel supplies were typically stolen on a “massive
scale
” and sold on the black market.  

Afghan commanders padded payrolls with thousands of “ghost soldiers,” pocketing
the cash as they often did the salaries of unpaid
actual soldiers
. The economic aid that American commander General
David Petraeus
wanted ramped up because he considered it essential to
victory fueled bribe-taking by officials managing basic services. That, in
turn, only added to the mistrust of the U.S.-backed government by ordinary
citizens.

Have policymakers learned any lessons from the Afghan War? President Biden
did declare
an end to this country’s “forever wars” and its nation-building
(though not to its anti-terror
strategy
driven by drone attacks and commando raids). Real change, however,
won’t happen until the vast national security establishment and military-industrial
complex nourished by the post-9/11 commitment to the war on terror, regime
change, and nation building reaches a similar conclusion. And only a wild
optimist could believe that likely.

Here, then, is the simplest lesson of all: no matter how powerful your country
may be, your wishes are not necessarily the world’s desires and you
probably understand a lot less than you think.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
and join us on Facebook.
Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel,
Songlands
(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel
Every
Body Has a Story
, and Tom Engelhardt’s A
Nation Unmade by War
, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In
the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power

and John Dower’s
The
Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II
.

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch
regular
, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations
at the Powell School, City College of New York, Senior Research Fellow at Columbia
University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and a non-resident
fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author,
most recently, of The
Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention
.

Copyright 2021 Rajan Menon



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