Some Valuable Insights re: Afghanistan

This is a deeply troubling time, and I hope there will be substantive and responsible investigations into how the very seasoned and smart officials in the Biden administration were so surprised by the Taliban’s rapid takeover.

Unfortunately, I’m quite sure we won’t get the kind of bipartisan examination that circumstances demand. Former Vice President Pence has already said the Taliban sensed President Biden’s weakness–a truly astonishing comment in view of the fact that the Trump administration had negotiated a deal with the Taliban without any representation from the existing Afghanistan leaders.

Here are some background details and insights from historian Heather Cox Richardson. I do think her sense that it will take time to see the true impact is wise, and I have added my emphases to those passages of her essay that I find particularly noteworthy. (I’ve also reformatted slightly.)



August 16, 2021
Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson

According to an article by Susannah George in the Washington Post, the lightning speed takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban forces—which captured all 17 of the regional capitals and the national capital of Kabul in about nine days with astonishing ease—was a result of “cease fire” deals, which amounted to bribes, negotiated after former president Trump’s administration came to an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020.

When U.S. officials excluded the Afghan government from the deal, soldiers believed that it was only a question of time until they were on their own and cut deals to switch sides. When Biden announced that he would honor Trump’s deal, the process sped up.

This seems to me to beg the question of how the Biden administration continued to have faith that the Afghan army would at the very least delay the Taliban victory, if not prevent it. Did military and intelligence leaders have no inkling of such a development? In a speech today in which he stood by his decision to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden explained that the U.S. did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner because some, still hoping they could hold off the Taliban, did not yet want to leave.

At the same time, Biden said,

“the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, ‘a crisis of confidence.’” He explained that he had urged Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chairman Abdullah Abdullah of the High Council for National Reconciliation to clean up government corruption, unite politically, and seek a political settlement with the Taliban. They “flatly refused” to do so, but “insisted the Afghan forces would fight.”

Instead, government officials themselves fled the country before the Taliban arrived in Kabul, throwing the capital into chaos.

Biden argued today that the disintegration of the Afghan military proved that pulling out the few remaining U.S. troops was the right decision. He inherited from former president Donald Trump the deal with the Taliban agreeing that if the Taliban stopped killing U.S. soldiers and refused to protect terrorists, the U.S. would withdraw its forces by May 1, 2021. The Taliban stopped killing soldiers after it negotiated the deal, and Trump dropped the number of soldiers in Afghanistan from about 15,500 to about 2,500.

Biden had either to reject the deal, pour in more troops, and absorb more U.S. casualties, or honor the plan that was already underway.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said today. “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong—incredibly well equipped—a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies….

“We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided…close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

“It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not. If the political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down, they would never have done so while U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.”

Biden added,

“I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight…Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?”

The president recalled that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan almost 20 years ago to prevent another al Qaeda attack on America by making sure the Taliban government could not continue to protect al Qaeda and by removing Osama bin Laden. After accomplishing those goals, though, the U.S. expanded its mission to turn the country into a unified, centralized democracy, a mission that was not, Biden said, a vital national interest.

Biden, who is better versed in foreign affairs than any president since President George H. W. Bush, said today that the U.S. should focus not on counterinsurgency or on nation building, but narrowly on counterterrorism, which now reaches far beyond Afghanistan. Terrorism missions do not require a permanent military presence. The U.S. already conducts such missions, and will conduct them in Afghanistan in the future, if necessary, he said.

Biden claims that human rights are central to his foreign policy, but he wants to accomplish them through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying others to join us, rather than with “endless military deployments.” He explained that U.S. diplomats are secure at the Kabul airport, and he has authorized 6,000 U.S. troops to go to Afghanistan to help with evacuation.

Biden accepted responsibility for his decision to leave Afghanistan, and he maintained that it is the right decision for America.

While a lot of U.S. observers have quite strong opinions about what the future looks like for Afghanistan, it seems to me far too soon to guess how the situation there will play out.

There is a lot of power sloshing around in central Asia right now, and I don’t think either that Taliban leaders are the major players or that Afghanistan is the primary stage. Russia has just concluded military exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both of which border Afghanistan, out of concern about the military takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. At the same time, the area is about to have to deal with large numbers of Afghan refugees, who are already fleeing the country.

But the attacks on Biden for the withdrawal from Afghanistan do raise the important question of when it is in America’s interest to fight a ground war. Should we limit foreign intervention to questions of the safety of Americans? Should we protect our economic interests? Should we fight to spread democracy? Should we fight to defend human rights? Should we fight to shorten other wars, or prevent genocide?

These are not easy questions, and reasonable people can, and maybe should, disagree about the answers.

But none of them is about partisan politics, either; they are about defining our national interest.

It strikes me that some of the same people currently expressing concern over the fate of Afghanistan’s women and girls work quite happily with Saudi Arabia, which has its own repressive government, and have voted against reauthorizing our own Violence Against Women Act.

Some of the same people worrying about the slowness of our evacuation of our Afghan allies voted just last month against providing more visas for them, and others seemed to worry very little about our utter abandonment of our Kurdish allies when we withdrew from northern Syria in 2019. And those worrying about democracy in Afghanistan seem to be largely unconcerned about protecting voting rights here at home.

Most notably to me, some of the same people who are now focusing on keeping troops in Afghanistan to protect Americans seem uninterested in stopping the spread of a disease that has already killed more than 620,000 of us and that is, once again, raging.



22 thoughts on “Some Valuable Insights re: Afghanistan

  1. I was torn for a couple of seconds between two comments (and then I thought, “Why not both?”) – the Evil Vizzini’s “never get involved in a ground war in Asia” quote or this –

    We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.

    The underlying message – “We could not provide them the will to fight for the future *we* would choose for them”

    Looks, to me, like they are determining their own future. Their choice isn’t what our advisors have been touting, but the choice is being made in their traditional way. At least, I assume it is their tradition, I keep reading about the tribal background in Afghanistan.
    The Taliban *is* fighting for the future they prefer. Those who were supposed to be trained to resist have chosen not to. Decision made.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard so many opinions, and I don’t regard myself as an expert in this matter at all. Of the comments you reference, it seems as though only two groups were seeking to determine their own futures. One is the Taliban, though they’re donning a more civilized face now—we can only hope their professed desire to join the international community will be a moderating force. The other is the women of Afghanistan who have led a covert battle for their rights since the 1920s. I hope there will still be ways to support them. Many apparently feel betrayed.

      Otherwise, it doesn’t seem as though there were enough people who saw Afghanistan as their country—or even as a country at all. The warlords certainly didn’t; nor did the corrupt series of leaders whom we supported for two decades.

      I think Biden was right and brave to withdraw, and I trust we’ll learn in time how whatever trump and Pompeo cooked up made things worse and harder.

      But I’ve heard too many stories of frantic attempts to get the administration to act as early as July—which were ignored. I suspect we’ve learned about the failures of nation-building. I hope we’ll also learn a lot more.


      1. I don’t know so much, either – less then I think I know, in fact.
        Today I’ve seen a post about the difficulty of hearing anything good about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. (just click “Let me read it first” to skip subscription for this article) The gist is:
        There are a lot of voices in support of Biden’s withdrawal but they can’t get on air. The mainstream media has their narrative, and they don’t want anything that weakens that narrative.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. This is so interesting: just this morning, another newsletter writer mentioned Judd Legum’s newsletter—and this coverage, specifically. I hope we’ll see a bit of self-examination by media folks who’ve rushed out a story on a tide of thoughtlessness that empowers voices and positions that have been discredited years ago. I feel the need to share Legum’s message as well—and I thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Biden had the guts to do what Bush, Obama and Trump failed to do. The buck stops with him. sometimes there are simply no good options so you make a choice and live with it. Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban in Feb of 2020, promising to leave by May, 2021. Anyone in Afghanistan who did not know that the Taliban would take over were fooling themselves.

    The immediate collapse of the Afghan army was a surprise. As was the immediate fleeing of the corrupt “government”. That took everyone by surprise. Notice how the 2nd guessers never expressed this possibility , did they?

    Now, the Taliban will take over and impose harsh Shari’a Law. God help women and anyone who demonstrates any degree of modernity.

    But there is really nothing more that can be done. Hold the airport. Evacuate as many as possible. Then leave. Sometimes you need to understand that the US is not invincible, if Vietnam did not teach you that.

    As soon as bin Laden was killed the US should have begun to leave. That was point of the invasion. It succeeded. Just stayed too long.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Probably so, Joseph. That was the time to leave, but the will wasn’t there. I do think the current cloud will be replaced by greater understanding of all these “surprises” in the near future—at least I hope so.

      And I missed Biden’s compassionate tone in the responses I heard when he was asked about the terrible situation that may well unfold there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Biden would do well to lay it out, blow by blow, as you have done here. But to be reflected as “I stand by my decision” and, paraphrased, “Gee, this is terrible,” isn’t enough. Thanks for the clarity, Annie, as always.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Annie, good summary. What is happening in Afghanistan is awful, but it is not a surprise. The Taliban taking over was bound to happen no matter when the allies pulled out. Truly, the only surprise is the haste of the change. Afghanistan has long been called the “graveyard of empires” because no invading nation has ever been successful.

    The US failed to heed that lesson, even after a reminder of the USSR failure in the 1980s. The opposing force is too distributed and the terrain too mountainous and arid-like. And, the Taliban carries through on its threats against locals who favor the enemy. As a result, the locals are scared to cross them.

    Sadly, this failure falls on many presidents, even dating back to Ronald Reagan when Congressman Charlie Wilson helped secretly fund and supply the Mujahideen to drive out the Soviets in the 1980s. What we failed to do is help the country after the Soviets left and the US became more mistrusted and things deteriorated (Tom Hanks stars as Wilson in “Charlie Wilson’s War”)

    But, with George W. Bush authoring the invasion after 9/11, Barack Obama’s continuing push, Donald Trump’s acquiescence to the Taliban and Joe Biden’s decision to honor the agreement to leave with poor planning, we have shown an inability to solve problems, leaving behind more. Since we dove in, leaving entirely may not have been the most elegant answer, as it is like the husband leaving the wife when times got hard. They needed to stay together to make it work. So, now our trustworthiness is even lower than if we never invaded.

    Yet, like with Iraq, we went in without a clear mission and definition of what success looked like. Even with that, we would have likely failed because we did not study history. Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with much of what you say .
      However, I think we did go in with a clear mission. Destroy al-qaeda and drive out the Taliban for giving them safe harbor. And at the time we had the entire world, including many Muslim countries, agreeing with us and sending token forces to help
      Then the mission changed into nation building. Bush wanted to invade Iraq and left Afghanistan without resources needed. That was the mistake.
      As soon as bin Laden was killed Obama had the perfect excuse to leave. He didn’t. Big mistake.
      Then Trump made a deal with the Taliban and that was the end of it.
      Biden left to pick up the pieces and absorb the blame.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Thanks for taking us back to Charlie Wilson, Keith. I heard a Department of Defense Inspector General discussing our history in Afghanistan. He noted—wisely, I think—that there may come a time when our national interest really does require us to enter one of these quagmires, so we must ensure we learn from the past and don’t make the same mistakes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good comments, both of you. Annie, we do not show a collective awareness of past mistakes to avoid making them again. Former Vietnam veteran and Senator Jim Webb of VA pleaded on the floor for more caution before the Iraq invasion. He said be prepared to stay thirty years if we go in. Yet, his pleas fell on deaf ears. That was 18 years ago and we are still there. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

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