President Donald Trump’s determination to stay in Afghanistan is, in my view, the best decision he has made since he assumed the presidency.
During the Obama administration, Trump had often criticized the American presence in Afghanistan and wanted the U.S. to abandon that country. That he accepted this drastic change of mind is a good sign for his somewhat turbulent presidency.
As Trump’s national security team deliberated over what to do with the Afghan problem, one of the proposals called for privatizing the war.
Instead of sending military personnel, the scheme recommended hiring a private army to help the Afghan military fight the Taliban.
That would have been a disaster. Having several thousand mercenaries roaming about in the Afghan countryside could have culminated in a catastrophe.
In the year 2002 and for several years thereafter, American military personnel were stunned by the unimaginable poverty and primeval state of life in Afghanistan’s villages.
That unexpected confrontation with that virtually inconceivable condition provoked within some of the American uniformed personnel a fusion of repugnance and superiority, a state of mind that generated an urge to mistreat the Afghan villagers, often in cruel ways, and sometimes leading to murder.
After having taken several years for the American soldier to understand the sensitivities of the Afghan people and, despite poverty and backwardness, their easily wounded pride, it would have been a misadventure had the White House unleashed a horde of men onto that country who would have gone there to kill for money.
It’s easy to imagine the inhuman aggression and brutality that could and probably would have ensued. Such a situation would have triggered a massive popular uprising, not against the Taliban, but with the Taliban against Americans.
No matter what people think of Trump, in this important issue — that has cost the United States about 2,400 lives and almost $ 1 trillion in expense — Trump acted as any capable president would: He listened to the right people.
This is the good side of his long deliberation. The question is whether the strategy he has spelled out will lead America to its set goal. According to the president, this goal is that “our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of our tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.”
Regrettably, this principled resolve, vitally necessary for both the United States and Afghanistan, stands in stark contradiction to his declaration that “We are not nation-building again.”
To achieve that “honorable and enduring outcome,” the U.S. would have to enable the Afghan state to reach a degree of security, political stability, sustainable economy, and financial self-sufficiency that would allow it to move on without the support of foreign financial, advisory, and military support. Bringing a failed state, which Afghanistan is, to that level of functionality is nothing else but nation-building.
Francis Fukuyama writes in his book "State-Building, Governance and World Order in the 21st Century," “… nation-building means the creation of self-sustaining state capacity that can survive once foreign advice and support are withdrawn.”
The question, therefore, is whether the president is aware of this significant dichotomy. The fact is that the one cannot be done without the other. If this contradiction persists, the Trump strategy is doomed before it even begins to be implemented.
Exactly this dichotomy brought the Obama administration’s surge in 2010 to failure. The surge brought the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 100,000. With its NATO allies together, The U.S. had 150,000 highly trained and well-armed troops under its command in that country.
Similar to Trump’s strategy, Obama’s plan, in addition to the military feature, also contained economic and political aspects.
Yet, Afghanistan today is essentially the same failed state it was when the U.S. invaded it in October 2001. Washington and the international community together pay 90% of Afghanistan’s expenses.
Without this financial support, the Afghan government would collapse almost immediately. That country’s economy depends almost entirely on foreign military and civilian activities. And, yes, it also depends on the dollars the illegal drug trade brings to the country. These are the typical characteristics of a failed state.
The reason the Obama strategy failed was Washington’s lack of a competent and committed partner in Kabul. The political and economic aspect of the strategy could only be successfully implemented with the support and cooperation of a capable, honest, and committed local government. Karzai’s regime lacked all these attributes.
In his book "Obama’s Wars," Bob Woodward writes that during a session of Obama’s national security team discussing Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy, his National Security Adviser James Jones observed, “This plan is not executable without changes in governance, fundamental changes.”
In another such meeting in the White House, Woodward quotes General Petraeus, “I understand the [Afghan] government is a criminal syndicate.” Thereupon, then Vice President Joe Biden asked, “If the [Afghan] government is a criminal syndicate, a year from now, how will troops make a difference?”
Obama’s strategy failed because no one in Washington had the courage to insist on a change in leadership in Kabul. If that was too daring for Obama, Washington should have, at least, done these two things:
- First, it should have made sure that all reconstruction projects and their financing were firmly in American hands.
- Second, Karzai and his cronies should have been forced and controlled to respect the law.
In public, official Washington refrained from talking about this aspect of the problem. In private the dilemma was explained that the U.S. could not interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.
In truth, Afghanistan lacked the basic competencies of claiming sovereignty. As mentioned above, the country lacked the ability to pay its bills, it could not defend itself against a growing insurgency, it had no control over its borders, and it was ruled by warlords.
Having been elected in a fraudulent election, President Karzai himself lacked any legitimacy. In fact, he was part and parcel of the corrupt system he served as president.
Francis Fukuyama writes in his above-mentioned book, “State sovereignty was a fiction or bad joke in the case of countries like Somalia or Afghanistan, which had descended into rule by warlords.”
Obama’s plan failed. Now, seven years later, Washington is again wondering what it should do to honorably extricate itself from this quagmire. If the Afghan government was then “a criminal syndicate,” the present government is not much different.
Since the Ghani administration took power in a thoroughly corrupt election in 2014, it has displayed virtually complete lack of governance, utter inefficiency, and burgeoning corruption. The depth and breadth of poverty has reached visibly greater magnitude. A low volume, but rising, anger is rumbling about among the people.
The ground for the lawlessness and corruption in Afghanistan was laid at the Bonn conference in 2001. Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, Hamid Karzai’s elder Brother Qayoum Karzai, Ashraf Ghani and their handpicked small group of Afghans delivered Afghanistan into the hands of warlords and drug kingpins.
They also did it for themselves and profited from it. Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani gained the presidency. Mr. Khalilzad became, as a German newspaper put it, President W. Bush’s Afghan. And they unleashed their families and friends upon the dollars that began raining over Afghanistan.
In “Crime and War in Afghanistan,” published by Oxford University, The National Australian University’s Centre for Crime and Justice concludes: “The Bonn agreement in 2001did not usher in an effective ‘constitutional moment’ because it enabled a personalized division of spoils rather than an institutionalized division of power.” The study also observes that the Bonn agreement engendered “a culture of impunity.”
As long as Afghanistan’s present leaders rule that country, nothing will change. Most of them are products of mayhem and have thrived by it. They abhor the rule of law. As they have done in the past, they will now do anything to thwart it.
As in the case of the Obama strategy, Trump’s announced plan will militarily and financially intensify America’s involvement in Afghanistan without presenting the U.S. that moment that it could “honorably” terminate the longest war in its history.
I realize, I have not dealt with the aspect of Trump’s strategy that goes beyond Afghanistan and brings into the design India and Pakistan. I hope and intend to deal with that aspect of the strategy in a second paper.
However, the desired outcome of the strategy hinges mainly on what happens inside Afghanistan and depends only marginally on what happens in South Asia as a whole.
Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades.
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