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Looking back on the forever war

The US was neither able to understand Afghanistan nor conquer it, and its retreat will change its foreign policy

By Hammad Sarfraz |
Design: Ibrahim Yahya
PUBLISHED September 12, 2021

At 7,262 days from the first shot fired to the final withdrawal of its service members, Afghanistan is undoubtedly the longest military nightmare for Washington.

This ‘forever war’ ended abruptly on August 30 when the last US soldier, a two-star general, boarded the final flight out of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

That grainy image of Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division, boarding a C-17 cargo plane will forever define the end of Washington’s twenty-year-long military misadventure and its failure in Afghanistan, which has been called the ‘graveyard of empires’.

As policy experts begin to weave their version of history, the conclusion is almost certainly set in stone: America, like all other empires before it, was neither able to understand Afghanistan, nor conquer it.

Those who watched the end of Washington’s humiliating exit from Vietnam may have even experienced déjá vu in response to the final images that came out of Kabul on August 15, 2021 when the government propped by the US for over twenty years, collapsed in less then two weeks, and that too without a fight.

Analysts, including former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, who served for more than four decades in key diplomatic positions, were quick to point out that the images of US evacuation from Kabul bore a striking resemblance to its final departure from Saigon more than four decades ago.

The exit from Kabul not only serves as a reminder of America’s failure to alter the destiny of another nation, but also its inability to learn from its mistakes.

Experts who have monitored Washington’s military engagements in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the world were quick to point out that America's recent defeat or retreat (however you wish to view it) will change the US foreign policy in consequential ways.

Washington, they believe, was increasingly fixated on tactics for much of its occupation of Afghanistan, and it ended up neglecting the broader strategic questions. In short, in many ways America’s policy making strategic bandwith was consumed by micro tactics in the country it occupied. Another error that cost Washington more than 2,400 lives and trillions of dollars in Afghanistan was its inability to define the mission. From the aimless obsession with the concept of nation building to the surge of troops, policy makers in Washington, including all three Commander-in-Chiefs, starting from George W.Bush to Donald J. Trump remained distracted.

And once again what makes America’s final act in Afghanistan so uniquely tragic is its inability to learn the lessons of Vietnam.

In a no holds barred interview, Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed said that the haunting parallels between Saigon and Kabul will always remind the US that it can neither afford another conflict in a distant and unfamiliar land nor can it ignore the lessons learned in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

“The pattern is very predictable and similar to what they (Americans) did in Vietnam 46 years ago. Similar policies, similar mindsets, propping up regimes which have no roots, and then ending up negotiating with the people they were fighting, and then finally cut and run,” said Syed, who serves as the Chairperson of Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

However, the senior journalist-turned-politician was quick to give US President Joe Biden some credit for taking the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after more than two decades.

“President Biden has taken a bold decision, because he has overridden his security establishment, he has overridden his generals, who were telling him to stay put, who were telling him to have another surge, which they advised George Bush, which they advised Obama and which they advised President Trump,” said the senator from Islamabad.

The abrupt departure last month, Senator Syed explained, is much more than the US simply exiting from failed and flawed policies, which were pursued in Afghanistan and across the Muslim world, post 9/11. “The departure marks the decline of America's role as the sole superpower,” predicted Senator Syed.

That role in Afghanistan came at a total price tag of more than $2 trillion, which translates into $300 million dollars per day, every day, for two decades, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.

The era of America’s use of military power to remake nations, the senator said, has ended. “President Biden’s recent speech marks the end of that period of regime change policies, shock and awe, what we say goes. American arrogance and hubris, has met its end in the debris which they have left behind in the streets of Afghanistan,” he said.

Despite spending trillions of tax dollars and exercising its trial and error policy for more than two decades, the US-backed regime in Kabul and all its organs capitulated before the Taliban in less than two weeks. The so-called 300,000-man army simply melted in their path and the country’s elected president took a flight out of Kabul to a safe location -- only to concede that the Taliban, who the US fought against, had won.

“The British, I think, were better imperialists than the Americans. The Americans have never learned to be good imperialists,” the senator quipped. This issue of nation building in the third world, particularly in the Muslim world, he said, is something the Americans couldn't get a grasp on.

Referring to a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) he said: “The entire project was based on lies and deception.” The damning report, titled “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction” by SIGAR painted an overall grim picture of the situation in the country Washington occupied in the name of nation building for decades.

Based on more than a decade of oversight work, including 760 interviews with current and former policymakers, senior military officials and analysts, the report raised “critical questions about the US government’s ability to reconstruct Afghanistan.” Like most policy experts, the report by SIGAR also draws a parallel between Washington’s current position and its position following the conflict in Vietnam.

America’s position, Senator Syed said, has weakened. “The ground realities have changed significantly. I think this is the third major development in the last 100 years, the First World War produced the end of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and they produced the agreement between the French and the British to carve up the Muslim world in the Middle East, the Second World War marked the end of the British Empire and the British handed over to the Americans the charge of the Muslim world, and the Middle East. August 15, 2021 marks the end of the American empire,” he said.

“This is the first time this region has been handed over to a non-western set of conglomerate of countries, unlike any other transfers which are within the West,”explained Senator Syed.

For Pakistan and the region

While Afghanistan was a hopeless mess for much of the US occupation, the senator believes the exit is a good omen. “I think the American exit has been good for the region and good for countries like China, Russia, and Pakistan. It gives us strategic space, because it gives us greater room to maneuver,” said the Chairperson of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

For more than two decades, Pakistan has been at the receiving end of this conflict. According to the Brown University’s Cost of War project, Islamabad suffered the spillover effect of the conflict inside its northwestern neighbour throughout the two long decades. It lost more than lost 70,000 lives to terrorism, besides billions in terms of economy.

“With India on the defensive after getting a thrashing from the Chinese, Pakistan has greater room to maneuver strategically and also has the strategic space for the next couple of years,” Senator Syed explained.

With Pakistan, China, Russia, Qatar, and Turkey playing an important role since the US exit last month, the Senator said the power to take important decisions in the region had shifted from the West to the East.

“I would like to see the US departure in the context of a transition of power from the West to the East, because now the decisions about Afghanistan are going to be taken by the countries in the region, not by the countries in the West, or the US or the NATO countries, and by the countries in the region, I mean, five or six nations which are Pakistan, China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Qatar.”

Unsparing in his assessment of the long term impact of the US exit from Afghanistan, the senator said even countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt , that have long been in the US sphere of influence, are looking towards Russia and China.

“The retrenchment of American military power from most of the Muslim world also sends message to many of its Arab allies, and I think it was no accident that three days after Kabul fell and the Ghani regime collapsed, Saudi crown prince’s younger brother Khalid bin Salman, who is the Deputy Defense Minister, was seen in Moscow,” said Senator Syed.

While no country will have absolute control of the situation in Afghanistan, he said, the sun is finally setting on the era of American involvement and influence in the region. “In my view, the Americans will also be reducing their vitriol and hostility towards China and there is enough evidence to suggest that Washington is willing to work with Beijing on a variety of issues.”

Overall, he said, trust in America’s commitment appears to be weaker than ever before in history. “The trust factor that America can keep its word has suffered. That is no longer valid. People won’t trust America and they won’t trust the West after what happened in Afghanistan,” said Senator Syed.

Abandoned twice by Washington, the senator hinted that the American cut and run strategy has left Pakistan in a difficult position twice. “They left us hook, line and sinker, and left us carrying the baby with the bath water. And now they've left the Afghans in a similar manner. It is also morally reprehensible the way the Americans have departed the region because it's not just incompetence, it's not just a failure of a policy, it's much more than that.”

The haphazard departure of the US, he said, shows the decline of the West and also the demise of Washington's influence. “I think the American century is now coming to an end. We are seeing the beginning of the Asian century,” the senator added.

9/11 and Pakistan

As the US marks the twentieth anniversary of the attacks that triggered the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the decisions Islamabad took back then are also being examined. Shortly after the attacks that killed 2,977 in New York City, Washington, DC and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, then US president George W. Bush made an emotional speech to a joint session of Congress and the nation, which in many ways also defined his presidency and redefined the way Washington viewed the world, particularly the Muslim world.

The president famously called on nations around the world to choose between the US and the terrorists, who had attacked his country. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” said Bush during the address on September 20, 2001.

Like much of the world, Pakistan had limited choice, but it was strategically well placed in the region.

Recalling the decisions taken by Islamabad in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Senator Syed said: “People are entitled to their opinions on this issue, but I think the facts should be made clear. When 9/11 happened, the first country to offer bases, facilities, overflights, full cooperation, and intelligence support was India. The government in New Delhi called it the opportunity of a lifetime after 1971.”

The Indians, he said, were hoping to align with the US to clobber both Afghanistan, Pakistan and control its nuclear program. “They felt they could join hands with Washington to jointly clobber Pakistan and Afghanistan and also take care of the Pakistani nuclear program. I think that way Pakistan staved off the worst case scenario.”

However, the senator said, Pakistan could have bargained in a much better manner than it did. “We could have bargained better because Americans had no choice but to bank on Islamabad because of our location, our relationship with the Taliban, and our military's old relationship with the Pentagon. So what Pakistan could offer no one else could. Based on that, we could have bargained better for our strategic interests in terms of the economy, in terms of the Kashmir issue, in terms of also giving America several red lines, particularly not allowing India through the backdoor into Afghanistan, which unfortunately happened,” he explained.

“So overall, my assessment is that our system, our rulers, whether civil or military, our handling of America needs to be reviewed,” concluded Senator Syed.

‘Refusing to be subjugated’


While the subject of US withdrawal from Afghanistan appears to be a divisive one, experts on foreign policy believe America missed the learning after Vietnam and it clearly missed the opportunity in Afghanistan, making it the longest war it ever fought.

From Sweden’s Uppsala University, Professor Ashok Swain, who is very vocal about his views on Afghanistan and the region on Twitter said: “Afghanistan has demonstrated that if a nation refuses to be subjugated, no power on earth can dominate it forever.”

“If anything, the US and the West should learn these lessons from Afghanistan and not engage themselves in changing the regimes in other countries through the use of force,” said the Peace and Conflict studies expert from Sweden by email.

On the issue of recognition of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Dr. Swain said: “The Taliban has much more international legitimacy than they did in 2001. Besides the support of Pakistan and China, the group has also established valuable diplomatic contacts with Iran, Turkey, India, and even Russia.”

Ruling out international isolation, he said: “Considering the existing division in the international community, particularly among veto carrying members of the UN Security Council, I see very little possibility of any sort of international isolation mechanism succeeding against the Taliban.”

When asked to comment on the manner in which the US troops left Afghanistan, the Sweden-based academic said: “The withdrawal of troops could have probably been better organized, but any departure of an invading force after the defeat has always been chaotic.”

In reality, he explained, the US was counting on the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF), which it had created, trained, and armed to be able to halt the Taliban advances. “But, ANDSF preferred to make deals and not to fight with the Taliban. This sudden collapse of the Afghan army surprised the US withdrawal planning and led to the highly embarrassing chaotic situation for a couple of days.”

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan appears to have left it more isolated, even within its own club of like-minded nations -- particularly Europe and its NATO allies. After two decades of supporting Washington in its ‘forever war’, Europe is finally finding its own voice.

“Europe, Afghanistan is your wakeup call,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, who serves as the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and vice president of the European Commission.

On Twitter, Borrell later said that after the events in Afghanistan, Europe must enhance its capacity to think and act in strategic terms. “It should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who cares about the Atlantic alliance,” he cautioned in his opinion piece for the New York Times last week.

Introspection in the US

The US has bagged more than its fair share of criticism -- even from policy makers and experts from within, who appear to be equally divided in their assessment of the manner in which the war ended, but seem to be on the same page in terms of the lessons that were learned (or not).

“Washington achieved the most early in the war. It degraded al-Qaeda sanctuaries and removed their Taliban hosts from power. After that point, the US struggled to articulate a strategy for remaining in Afghanistan,” said Michael Kugelman, Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Despite that, Kugelman said, the US did facilitate more gains, especially on human development levels. “There were major advances in literacy rates, women's rights, public health, and education. With the Taliban now in power, all of this is now in jeopardy,” Kugelman said by email from Washington.

On the manner in which the US left Afghanistan, Kugelman said: “To be sure, no one could have anticipated that the Taliban would take over Kabul before the withdrawal was complete. But still, the US failed to come up with a smooth plan for the final withdrawal and especially evacuations.”

“This has delivered a blow to America's global reputation at a moment when the Biden administration is keen to strengthen the US image that took major hits during the Trump era,” he added.

On the lessons learned in Afghanistan, Kugleman said the US is good at starting wars, but not at ending them.

The Afghanistan mess, he said, is the latest example of the US not only failing to defeat a non-state nemesis, but also to end a war with one on terms that are favorable for the US.

“There's also a lesson here about humility. The US may be the world's sole superpower, but all the military power and wealth that comes with that doesn't ensure success in its exploits abroad,” the Washington-based expert concluded.

In all its years in Afghanistan, the US never fully understood the country it occupied. That, experts believe, was a major error and may have even clouded Washington’s judgement.

“The United States didn't understand Afghanistan any more than the Soviets or the British. No matter how powerful, outside powers could not bring the tribes and interests of Afghans by cajoling or force,” said Timothy McNulty, Chicago Tribune’s former Public Editor.

The veteran journalist who has extensive reporting experience both within and outside the US said the policy makers in Washington were unsure about the purpose behind the war and clearly missed the deadline to exit the country after it had achieved the initial goals.

“Sadly, it seems to be a lesson that has to be learned repeatedly. To commit the military in another country, there should be a clear purpose. In Afghanistan's case, the goal was to avenge the attack on the World Trade Center by al-Qaeda, which the Taliban was protecting. Perhaps the best time for the US to withdraw was as soon as Osama bin Laden was killed,” said McNulty by email.

Taking a potshot at former president George W. Bush, the veteran journalist said: “The disastrous turn to Iraq by President Bush and his war hawks is another example of going blindly into a deadly conflict, one that his father, George H.W. Bush, wisely avoided.”

“Intervention in another country has to be with clear and limited goals,” he concluded.

Despite the growing chorus of criticism aimed at Joe Biden for the unplanned pullout from Afghanistan, Storer H. Rowley, Chicago Tribune’s White House correspondent and National Editor said the US president will be vindicated by history because ‘we were right to exit from America’s forever war’.

However, the former foreign correspondent said, the US has to stop thinking it can carry out projects of nation building using its military in distant and unfamiliar areas.