Leaving Afghanistan

The Daily Escape:

Cathedral Rock, Sedona, AZ – photo by Bill Beardsley

The WaPo and every other outlet reported that Biden has committed to ending US troop involvement in Afghanistan by September 11, 2021:

“The goal is to move to “zero” troops by September….This is not conditions-based. The president has judged that a conditions-based approach…is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.”

We’ve been in Afghanistan for 20 years, and leaving means that the Taliban have won. It also means that they will wind up ruling the country for a second time, since the Kabul government will not survive without US and NATO support.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s just reality. Mistakes have been made in Afghanistan by every president since Carter, who in 1979, supported the mujaheddin rebels, Islamic hardliners against the Russians.

But there is some concern that withdrawal of our troops doesn’t end our efforts on the ground. The NYT has reported:

“Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the US will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats…”

Stars and Stripes says that, according to a Defense Department report, more than 18,000 contractors remain in Afghanistan, while official troop totals had been reduced to 2,500. In essence, Biden isn’t ending the Afghanistan War, he’s privatizing it:

“About 4,700 of the contractors are Afghans hired locally, but nearly three-quarters come from outside the country, including about a third who are US citizens…”

This amounts to roughly seven contractors for every US soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. The US has announced intentions to retain at least two military bases in Afghanistan after the official troop drawdown. Staying in-country will help protect the profits of the US military-industrial complex.

We also covet the Afghans’ mineral wealth. A 2007 US Geological Service survey discovered nearly $1 trillion in mineral deposits, including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and lithium, which is used in the manufacture of batteries. The Grey Zone reports that an internal Pentagon memo stated that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

The Afghan government is largely a creation of the US. Its military is funded by us at a cost of around $4 billion per year. Unless Congress cuts it off, this support will continue alongside large-scale US foreign aid programs that amount to another $1 billion per year.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The US doesn’t want to “lose” Afghanistan to Russia and China, which makes today’s calculation not very different from the 19th-century “great game” between Great Britain and Czarist Russia.

All presidents after Carter were involved to a greater or lesser extent in trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern democratic state. And all have failed. This should have been knowable to these presidents and to their military advisors.

The NYT had an Op-Ed by Timothy Kudo, a former Marine Captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kudo remembered:

“…I once asked a village elder whether he knew why I was there. He responded that we’d always been there. Confused, I asked him about the attacks on America. He said, “But you are Russians, no?” After 30 years of war, it didn’t matter to him who was fighting but only that there was still fighting.”

We should have left Afghanistan after the death of bin Laden. Staying when there could be no defeat of the Taliban made the war the same as Vietnam. We’ve been down this road before: The Taliban want a medieval society, an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” and they have time on their side.

Like the American withdrawal from Vietnam, Biden’s decision will be seen as a sign of weakness, encouraging Russia, China, Iran, and others to challenge US interests elsewhere. But Russia left Afghanistan in 1989. Who remembers? Is Russia considered a patsy on the world stage?

Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires” since Alexander the Great, for long enough that the phrase’s origins are unclear. We should accept that an intervention-first mentality has failed here and will fail elsewhere.

Will leaving Afghanistan prompt us to rethink our country’s place in the world? Could it be the end of the era of our nation-building fantasies? Should our military always be the first tool out of the toolbox? What did the US gain from being enmeshed in the Greater Middle East as it has been for the past 50 years?

Biden’s decision should lead to a reckoning about these questions, and a consideration about what a more modest and realistic US foreign policy would look like.

But Biden will remain under pressure from the military, the Beltway Bandits, and many politicians not to withdraw.

He needs to hold firm.

And yes, this means there will be a “fall of Saigon” moment sometime soon.

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