Afghanistan: A Bipartisan Mess 20 Years in the Making

Afghanistan is a bipartisan mess. Yes, the Bush Administration initiated the military intervention there, but people accross the political spectrum supported it, you might recall. And a surgical strike at al Qaeda in Afghanistan was justified at the time, but the Bushies went in half-assed and let al Qaeda slip away. The Taliban were still entrenched in Afghanistan, however, and I guess one set of Muslim extremists is as good as another.

“By spring of 2002, the Taliban were roundly defeated,” wrote Juan Cole. “Opinion polls showed that their favorability rating was good only among 5 percent of the population.”

By spring of 2002, congressmen visiting Centcom head Tommy Franks were bluntly told that Afghanistan was no longer the mission, and the Bush crime gang had clearly decided to set up Iraq as a fall guy for 9/11 and break the country’s legs.

The US in 2002-2003 had a good outcome in Afghanistan. We should just have left then. I can’t imagine why we didn’t. I think then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to surround Russia so it couldn’t reemerge as a peer power. It had nothing to do with Afghanistan.

The US lost Afghanistan in part by trying to occupy it militarily. In 2005 US troops used flamethrowers to burn poppy crops of Afghan farmers, who had nothing else to live on. One in 7 as a result had to sell a daughter. I doubt they have forgiven the US.

The occupation continued, and the U.S. tax dollars that poured into Afghanistan mostly funded bombs and corruption. And this continued through the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration.

Last Friday, Paul Waldman reminded us of why the U.S. gets itself into messes like this.

Back in the early 2000s, the term “Very Serious People” was coined to refer to those who were wrong about Iraq but nevertheless were treated with great deference and respect because they were mouthing conventional wisdom and taking a position that the media and the broader Washington culture treated as hardheaded and rational.

In contrast, the people who were right about Iraq — who said there was no real evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, or was about to attack the United States — were treated as silly, unserious and not worth listening to.

Then as now, the supposedly unserious people continued to be sidelined and ignored even after events proved them right.

It’s not just about who gets a platform in this debate. It’s also about what the limits of that debate are. As Matt Duss, a foreign policy expert and adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told me, the debate is shaped by “a general hawkish interventionist framing you see in the media and the foreign policy establishment.” It presumes that the deployment of U.S. military power overseas is nearly always justified and likely to accomplish its goals.

A long history of not accomplishing goals doesn’t seem to make a dent in the framing.

What gets left out of that discussion? For starters, the fact that we spent 20 years trying to create and sustain the Afghan government, and it remained so plagued by corruption that it didn’t have legitimacy with the country’s population. As one 2010 State Department cable reported a senior Afghan official saying, “corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance.” You can read that and an endless catalogue of horrors in this report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

But the problem went deeper. “Even focusing on the failures of the Afghan government lets us off the hook,” Duss told me. “When we’re talking about corruption, the biggest beneficiaries are U.S. multinationals.” Indeed, another recent government report found that between 2011 and 2019 we spent nearly $100 billion on private contractors in Afghanistan.

The Very Serious People also tended to have connections to, and investments in, the military-industrial complex. We stayed in Afghanistan because powerful people were making a lot of money from it. That’s why. Juan Cole:

US officials sent out to Afghanistan knew that it was a Washington Ponzi scheme. Billions were disappearing into the pockets of contractors and warlords. Only the arms manufacturers were happy. The US was massively bombing the country every year, the only reason that it was still able to be there. US officials confessed as much to government watchdogs, and the Washington Post managed to get those interviews and publish them in 2019. Nobody believed in the mission. There was no mission. There was a morass of corruption and incompetence. Many of the regional warlords under the new government were not easier on women or minorities than the Taliban had been, and were fundamentalists of a different stripe.

This much needs to be admitted to, and understood, as media continues to clutch its pearls over “President Biden’s failures” in Afghanistan. Greg Sargent:

Let’s keep two ideas in our heads at the same time. The first is that President Biden deserves serious scrutiny over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and congressional hearings should examine it.

The second is that no such accounting will be remotely complete if it doesn’t also examine how the current debacle is the outgrowth of 20 years of catastrophically wrongheaded thinking and decision-making spanning four administrations.

Going by the teevee news, one might assume that everything in Afghanistan was just rosy until President Biden decided to withdraw. And I confress I also have paid less attention to Afghanistan than to domestic politics. I give President Biden credit for doing the right thing to just withdraw. Why didn’t Barack Obama make that decision? I guess someday historians will sort that out.

But it’s also the case that the Trump Administration didn’t leave Joe Biden with much of a choice. Trump’s “deal” with the Taliban appears to have paved the road to the current debacle. See Scott Dowrkin at Newsweek:

In Afghanistan, President Biden got dealt yet another losing hand from the Trump Administration. Their Doha Agreement with the Taliban violated the most basic principles of self-government for the Afghan people. There was no way to enforce it or make sure the Taliban kept its word. There was no denunciation of al-Qaeda terrorists. Worst of all, the deal didn’t mandate the Taliban stop attacks against Afghan security forces.

All of this set the stage for the chaotic scenes we’re seeing on TV today.

Juan Cole:

In all the press pillorying of President Biden, which has barely mentioned Trump, I have seen no one mention that Trump once claimed that upon the US withdrawal the Taliban would take up the war on terror. Even while he was talking with them, the Taliban occasionally brought old al-Qaeda commandos to the parts of Afghanistan they controlled.

In the treaty, Trump promised to pull 8,500 troops out of the country in about 4 1/2 months. He pledged that the Afghanistan government of Ashraf Ghani would release 5,000 captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Ashraf Ghani at first resisted this provision, saying he was not party to the talks and thought it a horrible idea. But under strong Trump pressure, Ghani let the fighters go by the following October.

In return for these steps and for a promise that the U.S. would withdraw completely from Afghanistan, the Taliban pledged not to attack the remaining U.S. troops in the country by May 1, 2021. When you hear advocates of staying in Afghanistan forever say that US troops had not been attacked in the past 18 months, that is why. They stopped the attacks because Trump promised to leave. If Biden had reneged and stayed, then US troops would have been in the cross-hairs again.

The February, 2020, peace treaty was clearly rushed through by Trump in hopes it would add to his popularity and help him win the November, 2020 presidential election.

See also Trump’s Deal With the Taliban, Explained and Some former Trump allies say his Taliban deal laid the groundwork for chaos.

Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State, meeting with the Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Taliban peace negotiators in Doha, Qatar, in November 2020. New York Times photo.

11 thoughts on “Afghanistan: A Bipartisan Mess 20 Years in the Making

  1. Speaking of the "Very Serious People", we just needed a few (hundred) more Friedman Units and all would be good in Afghanistan.

  2. Afghanistan was the MIC's ( Military Industrial Complex's) greatest love – after their previous favorite: Vietnam.

    Afghanistan was a bottomless treasure chest. 

    You're a military-gear salesman/lobbyist who wants a new Rolls?  Talk to the military chief's who might want a nice gig after they retire.  Tell 'em you got the things they need.  NEW things!

    Lean on the D & R politicians whose campaign's pockets you control.

    EVERYBODY has great times on the taxpayer's dimes!


    I'd like to present a thought experiment: 

    Imagine, if on his way out of office, Eisenhower, instead of warning us about the MIC, had told us that he had aborted a growing military industrial complex which would plot to gain its profits at the cost of endless wars for our country.  Ok, got that?

    Now, we have seen what's been happening for the last 60 years: Endless military threats and engagements.

    But in our wildest, worst nightmares in 1960, could we have imagined the last 60 years?

    I'm not sure the most accurate Cassandra in 1960 would imagine Vietnam: Russia/Cuba/China and the Cold War; Granada; Panama; not 1 but 2 gulf wars; and all sorts of practice and dry-runs in Asia, Africa, the Balkans, South & Central America, and the oceans.

    If Ike had actually told us that if he hadn't stopped this military industrial complex before it got to be too big a complex, that this is what would happen, what we've seen, would anyone have believed him? 

    Or would people have said, "Whew, looks like Ike's snapped!  Good thing he couldn't run for a 3rd time, huh?"

    I'm curious, if you want to answer.

    • MSM – "He's crazy!"

      The voters – "meh…what’s a Balkans?"

      Oligarchy – "why is he saying the quiet part out loud?"

      Ike's alter ego – "damn dude…WTF??"

    • If Eisenhower had made a serious effort to dismantle the MIC, they would have killed him. End of.

  3. Ran across a great piece on the recent history (last 40-50 years) of Afghanistan written by a pair of Anthropologists who know their stuff.  The rural/urban divide there is even more stark than here.  Governments are inherently urban; Afghanistan is mostly rural and tribal.  Ironically, we (US) repeated some of the mistakes of the Communist government which ruled there for a few years before the Soviet invasion.  Even more ironic is that the Soviets understood that Afghanistan wasn't ready for Communism!


    Afghanistan: The End of the Occupation | Anne Bonny Pirate


    • That link is a great read.  It gives a clear sensible perspective on the Afghanistan situation.  


  4. This may sound cynical but any Americans in Afghanistan, except the military, chose to be there. Anybody who was there when Trump negotiated "peace" with the Taliban (and left the government of Afghanistan out of the deal) should have clearly seen the handwriting on the wall. 

    I want all Americans safely out of Afghanistan but dammit, they got themselves into the mess they are in. If they didn't get out, like a month ago, they were flirting with disaster. 

    Regarding Afghan citizens, they were screwed by everyone, including the US. We offered to do nation-building where the climate for such is/was very poor. Many citizens of Afghanistan, including and especially women, wanted a level of freedom that should be every person's birthright. 

    Women in Afghanistan needed an army of noble Muslim warriors to protect the rights women deserve. They failed after the US invested two decades and billions of US dollars. The price of failing, and all did fail, was too high to underwrite forever. 

  5. The next time you hear "nation building" your first reaction should be to check your wallet.  Its nothing more than a cover for greed, graft and corruption.  We spent literally trillions of dollars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, "nation building," enriching the same players and leaving both nations worse off.  We can barely get "democracy" right here, how in the hell can we claim to be "subject matter experts" in it when we have it teetering on the edge right here at home?  Some of the anti-democratic stuff going on here right now, with respect to voting, would be used as pretexts for going into a "failed state" and start "nation building."  Glossing over the fact that the same reason democracy is in peril here is thanks to the same cohort who are prioritized over the mission to profit whenever we go in to nation build somewhere.  We went into Iraq to "fight terror" (was the lie GWB and company told) with the end result being the spawning of ISIS.  We went into Afghanistan to get bin Laden, knowing all along he was in Pakistan — they’re our “ally” you know, but stayed to "nation build" because the opportunities to "nation build" were too tempting.  With the end result being the Taliban in power.  

    And now they, including and especially the press, want to whitewash it all, and their complicity in it, by piling on Biden, who had the courage to finally put an end to the debacle.

    If the American people don't wake up, see this for what it is, and put an end to this cycle of forever wars, trillions in tax dollars and the lives of those doing the paying for it, it will never end.  Ike warned us about this decades ago, and yet here we are, doomed to relearn the same lessons over and over.

  6. Currently over 80,000 evacuations have been completed with no glitches. Yet, virtually all the video media outlets run the same stock footage from day one of the project, where the plane takes off with people climbing on the outside of the plane and fall to their deaths. 

    This is the meme they want to persist: that the evacuations are a complete disaster and demonstrates the fecklessness of the Biden administration. One must diligently search for news outlets that tell the whole story. Usually foreign news outlets. 

    Yes, the Taliban are imposing an arbitrary deadline of August 31 to end the evacs, but negotiations may be under way to relax that.

    Negotiations may work because: the current Taliban leadership are believed to want to  improve their optics in the world view and because this administration will not do something stupid like send trump's son in law to speak with the Taliban.

    There is still the humanitarian crisis to deal with i.e. where will the refugees end up and be peacefully assimilated. That will give Lindsey Graham* and the other right winger trump acolytes a chance to clutch their pearls and cry about the "invasion" of Afghans who might kill us all. Dutifully reported by American media to the exclusion of all else. 

    *personal insult not a generic insult. 

  7. I appreciate the comments here, but they miss the larger point: There is no Afghanistan. It's not what we think of normally as a "nation". It is a collection of warring tribes and ancient resentments and cultures that are opaque to us because we think like proper Westerners. When I hear people talk about sociological considerations, and governmental influence, and diplomatic negotiations, and, most risibly, the "Afghan military", it's all I can do to keep from collapsing in a fit of hysterics. 

    Like many Middle Eastern countries, there is never an expectation that one will speak the truth. So when our politicians talk about "negotiations" and "agreements", Afghanis laugh and figure how much they can take us for. Oh, they may nod and wear ties even, but they mean none of it. Never have, never will.

    Life has little to no value there. Education has no value there. We have no value there. We are not Afghani, or fellow tribesmen, and mean less than nothing except for the money they can take from us. 

    They have been this way for centuries, long before the United States was a glint in the Founders' eyes. And they have endured. They will endure. 

    Americans don't understand this, can't understand this. The best we could have done was land some commandos, find bin Laden, and kill him and his crew. And then leave. If we could have managed that it would have been quite impressive. That the Afghanis might even have grudgingly admired.

    Instead we marched in with the swagger we love to flaunt, acting like the biggest swinging dicks we imagine ourselves to be, and got taken to the cleaners.

    Because we believe that everyone admires us, wants to be us. We believe that we can make deals to solve every problem, and then are shocked when we're cheated. We assume we can bomb our way to victory, when we don't even now who, let alone where, the enemy  is.




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