Afghanistan became the graveyard of American hubris

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By Ishaan Tharoor

There’s power in cliches, even if they may not always be true. In recent years, myriad commentators have invoked the old saw about Afghanistan as a “graveyard of empires,” a land where the designs of mighty powers fall into ruin. The expression is so oft-quoted that it’s not even clear who first coined it. It conjures a tidy, if simplistic, history: Waves of hubristic foreign invaders found their comeuppance in the country’s mountain redoubts and arid wastes, foiled by its rugged terrain, its inhospitable climes and its indomitable tribesmen.

Plenty of empires thrived in what’s now Afghanistan, but our modern memory is shaped by a narrative of disaster. Over the space of almost a century, the British launched three variously ill-fated incursions beyond the Khyber Pass, bloody expeditions and short-lived occupations mostly remembered outside the country, if at all, as colonial storybook adventures of the original “Great Game.”

The grueling, decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s became the miserable coda to the entire project of the U.S.S.R.  a quagmire, deepened by the supply of U.S. aid and weaponry to the Afghan mujahideen, that preceded the end of the Cold War. And then there’s the experience of the United States. President Biden announced Wednesday that the United States would unconditionally withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 exactly 20 years after the events of 9/11, hatched by al-Qaeda on Afghan soil, provoked a U.S. invasion to topple the then-ruling Taliban.

The initial punitive mission might have succeeded, but it turned into America’s longest war, a Sisyphean exercise in counterinsurgency and state-building that has seen more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers die, more than 20,000 wounded in action and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians perish. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create ideal conditions for our withdrawal, and expecting a different result,” Biden said.

“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.” What comes next is bound to be tricky. In his remarks, Biden said he was moving ahead with the basic outline of an agreement secured by then-President Donald Trump after months of negotiations with the Taliban, though Trump had set the withdrawal date for May 1.

The Taliban still controls swaths of Afghan territory and may yet launch a new spring offensive in the coming weeks, even as Western and regional officials pin their hopes on a slow-moving peace process between the militants and the Afghan government. “The Taliban once derided as an implacable terrorist threat that needed to be crushed  will almost certainly seize a far greater role in the future Afghan government than U.S. officials were willing to contemplate when the war started,” wrote my colleague Greg Jaffe.

“Some analysts worry that the U.S. exit could precipitate the collapse of the struggling Afghan army and a worsening of the country’s civil war as various warlords fight for power. And Afghan civilians, particularly women who enjoyed new rights and freedoms after the Taliban’s initial defeat in 2001, will probably suffer immensely.” In Washington, there are many skeptics. Hawkish Republicans insisted that Biden was effectively ceding Afghanistan back to extremist elements and paving the way for a new 9/11. In a conference call, David Petraeus, former commanding general of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said he doubted the Biden administration’s ability to check the Taliban’s advance without a troop presence in the country.

“I’m really afraid that we’re going to look back two years from now and regret the decision and just wonder if whether we might not have sought to manage it with a modest, sustainable, sustained commitment,” he said. The Washington Post’s editorial board warned that, if the Biden administration’s assessments prove wrong and the Taliban doesn’t moderate its fundamentalist views or participate in a good-faith political transition it “may simply result in the restoration of the 2001 status quo, including terrorist bases that could force a renewed U.S. intervention.”

The president responded to this line of argument. “There are many who loudly insist that diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust U.S. military presence to stand as leverage,” Biden said during his Wednesday speech, in which he emphasized the need for the country to pivot and face new challenges, from China to cyber warfare to reckoning with the pandemic.

“We gave that argument a decade. It’s never proved effective. … Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm’s way.” As a mammoth 2019 Washington Post investigation into internal government documents exposed, U.S. policymakers and military officials for years recognized the futility of some of their efforts in Afghanistan as the militant threat metastasized and U.S. aid cultivated whole economies built on government corruption.

But the need to both justify the American presence in the country and also assert that the United States was winning or could, ultimately, win in Afghanistan led officials to “deliberately mislead the public,” my colleagues concluded.

The lessons of the past 20 years are still being measured. Some suggest a political solution with the Taliban ought to have been secured far earlier. “Negotiate early and negotiate often,” Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told my colleagues. “You don’t win a war by destroying an opposing army and occupying their capital. You win by making possible a settlement that was not possible before the conflict started.”

Will Ruger, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, told Today’s World View that one of the legacies of the war ought to be “greater humility about what the best military on the planet can achieve and more thoughtfulness about how we deploy it.” Speaking during a conference call held by the Defense Priorities think tank, he added that Biden and future American leaders may still struggle with “right-sizing American grand strategy for the challenges ahead of us.”

“After 9/11, the United States set out to prove that it was the indispensable nation that it could not merely address a security threat but use spectacular power to transform other countries,” Stephen Wertheim, deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank that advocates foreign policy restraint, told Today’s World View.

Biden may not even believe this, but “his action implies that the United States is a nation among nations, with limited interests and responsibilities,” Wertheim added. “In that recognition lies the start of a better foreign policy for the American people and the world. Afghanistan is not the graveyard of the American empire far from it. But it may be the graveyard of America’s pretensions to global indispensability.”

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