Trump Appeased the Taliban; Biden Pays the Price
PREFACE: As an undergrad I heard a talk by China expert, Prof. Richard Walker who said, “America sees time in terms of months and years; the Chinese perceive time in terms of centuries.” A captured Taliban fighter said a few years ago, “You Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” Maybe our biggest downfall in Afghanistan was our lack of patience.
Afghanistan is where empires have gone to die since the early 19th Century, namely the Russians (1878, 1885, 1896) and British (1838–42, 1878–81, 1919-21). Afghanistan represents a geographic and linguistic confluence of the Middle Eastern, South Asian and Central Asian cultures. History has shown they’re interested in neither Communism nor a liberal democracy.
President Joe Biden’s popular decision to end American involvement in Afghanistan has backfired in the worst way. Ending an “Endless War” is a noble goal, but managing that after two decades is delicate and precarious. Yes, the withdrawal has been disastrous, but there’s plenty of blame to go around with the Pentagon, Congress, and most notably Biden’s immediate Republican predecessors. This started under President George W. Bush, but the stage was set by Reagan. He furnished weapons to the Mujahedeen and Al-Qaeda, which were turned against us in later conflicts. Most Republicans don't know the difference between Al-Qaeda (Arab) and the Taliban (Pashtun). The Pashtuns are a mix of Persian, Mongol and Turkish cultural traditions. Both have perverted Islam as the American Evangelicals pervert Christianity.
No president makes such weighty decisions on his own. President Biden has said baffling things on occasion, including understating the Taliban threat upon withdrawal. But because of his obvious limitations, he is more carefully “managed” by thoughtful qualified advisers; unlike Trump and Bush Jr. before him. The people advising him and holding cabinet positions don’t have the cruel, cynical agenda that Trump’s people had to undermine the health and mission of those agencies and divisions. Biden is a good man, intelligent and forged for the job through four decades of public service. He’s not addled like Reagan, ignorantly misguided like Bush Jr., nor maliciously cynical and mean-spirited like Trump.
Biden is a good man, intelligent and forged for the job through four decades of public service. He’s not addled like Reagan, ignorantly misguided like Bush Jr., nor maliciously cynical and mean-spirited like Trump.
Donald Trump, in his simpleminded, impetuous impatience, struck a reckless deal with the Taliban; he just wanted out and didn’t care how. Primitive thinkers such as him are interested in results, not the process or consequences. Trump’s fatal mistake was negotiating with the Taliban, but excluding the Afghani government from the talks. That’s not Biden’s fault. In doing so, “We therefore delegitimized the government we had pledged to support,” said former US Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
This was made worse when Trump forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Now we know Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” involves capitulation to self-destruction if that’s what it takes. Crocker, who served the missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan said, “Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.” Maybe we should have followed the Korea and Germany model with limited a long-term presence.
Biden’s mistake was honoring Trump’s self-imposed, arbitrary deadline for withdrawal. Maybe Trump’s intent all along to sabotage the withdrawal for Biden. I’m cynical enough to believe that, even if Trump isn’t that farsighted. But Biden couldn’t bring himself to say, “That was Trump’s bad idea; ending the ‘Endless War’ sounds great, but it’s more complex than that.”
A parallel tragedy is the violent end to Women’s Liberation in Afghanistan, after we helped increase female education enrollment there from 0% to 37% since 2003. Our Afghani interpreters, scouts, guides, liaisons and support staff are viewed as traitors by the Taliban, and those left behind have very dim futures there, and hopefully will be rescued.
Biden has been more proactive than given credit for. The US has evacuated 122,000 people, including 5,400 American citizens, since rescue operations began in earnest on Aug. 14. and he’s announced an indefinite postponement of the total withdrawal. (That could be a long time.) He was clearly on the defensive in the beginning, from horrifying images and incriminating media portrayals. Now that thoughtful assessments have been made and plans implemented it’s still an ugly war, but the US hasn’t bungled it as badly as earlier portrayed. There would have been horrifying chaos at the beginning of any withdrawal that may have occurred earlier, especially since no one expected the Afghan military to fold so shamefully. It’s also reassuring to know that the US is working with other nations throughout Europe, the Americas, the Gulf and Arab world to resettle the refugees, every one of whom has a story of heartbreak. What we need is a quick redux of both the Berlin Airlift and Marshall Plan as best can be assembled. Fortunately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activated Stage 1 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which was created in 1952 after the Berlin airlift.
The scary wild card is the Islamic State, which threatens to sabotage the evacuation efforts. ISIS hates the Taliban because they feel they’re not extreme enough. Attacking the Kabul airport would be devastating to both the Taliban and the US. Maybe some cooperation with the Taliban can be elicited under that shared threat.
Various media have promoted false narratives about the situation, which reflect horribly on Joe Biden. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Postdebunked some of those myths in a recent op-ed. The Kabul airport is functional, and the US is flying out up to 9,000 people a day. The US is doing its best to work with the Taliban to assure safe passage to the airport. None of Biden’s advisers told him to expect the 300,000 strong Afghan army would collapse in ten days.
The US went into Afghanistan in 2002 under President George W. Bush to hunt down Osama Bin Ladin. President Obama finished that job in 2011, then the mission evolved to an undefined agenda that sucked $Billions each year from the US Defense budget. Once we got there, it was hard to resist expanding the nation-building mission, and “mission creep” got the best of us. Many have said that the fall of Kabul is reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975. This is worse. The communists in Vietnam had a thoughtful vision and righteous cause. The Taliban is a bunch of violent, ignorant, misogynist thugs, who have perverted Islam worse than the American Evangelicals have perverted Christianity. The Taliban is an enemy of the US and indeed humanity on every level.
Prof. Juan Cole argues that the Taliban promotes a brand of Islam that conflicts with many teachings in the Qu’ran, and that they represent a fringe element similar to the KKK in America. He illustrates how the various and diverse sects of Islam differ in their manifestations, as American Christians do. Yes, they are Muslims, but not true to the Qu’ran. Their counterpart is the many American Christians loyal to Donald Trump (King Cyrus), whose leadership is far from the teachings of Jesus.
The Pentagon, generals and yes Biden, blew the exit in the worst way for now. The best we can do is to rescue as many Afghanis as possible, and give them unqualified residency and path to citizenship. They earned at least that much with their sacrifices on our behalf. I know a woman who was a child on the last helicopter out of Saigon. She’s a brilliant nurse and hospital administrator with a beautiful family, and a compelling story of survival, immigration and assimilation. By working to rescue as many refugees as possible, America can create a positive legacy out of this humanitarian disaster.
The question of the day is if the US can or WILL work with the Taliban. If so, the basis is their common enemy in ISIS. Hmm, working to stabilize a region with the people who blew it up in the first place? Or to stand down and let them to as they will? None of the choices are good, especially for Afghani women. Sexism has been a tenant of most world religions. ALL religions have their ayatollahs, who subjugate women and make them wear degrading “costumes” with their hair covered. But the Taliban’s sexual repression is an especially brutal brand. In one of the greatest displays of Chutzpah in history, Afghani women are demonstrating in Herat, demanding to return to work, AND be part of the government. At least they’re making “good trouble,” hopefully not for a lost cause.
Historical Background Sidebar
American misadventure in the region began in 1953 when the State Department, under Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles (brothers) fomented a coup against Mohammed Mossadeq, the popularly elected president of Iran. The goal was to protect the mineral and financial interest of Aramco (Arab-American Oil Company), which Mossadeq had tried to nationalize. The 2nd Shah of Iran was installed as America’s client dictator, and his brutal regime lasted until its overthrow in 1979. Throughout the Cold War period, nations such as Afghanistan and Egypt tried to make the best of non-alignment to their advantage, accepting aid from both the Soviets and Western powers. But to the Dulles brothers, non-alignment was not an option; a client had to be with us or was considered the enemy.
The 1979 Soviet invasion was prosecuted to oust President Nur Mohammad Taraki, and prop up the Socialist government of Babrak Karmal. Their secondary goal was to contain the spread of “radical Islam,” and shield their own 50 million Central Asian Muslims from that influence. The Soviet Republics near Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; are legacies of Czarist expansionism, inherited by the Bolsheviks when they took to power. Russia staged periodic invasions of Central Asia beginning in 1734 through 1896, and Afghanistan was the unfortunate buffer between the British Empire in India and the Russian Empire.
Cultural, linguistic, tribal and religious differences were not considered with the great powers’ territorial demands and imperial designs.
The modern nation was essentially created in 1885, when Russia and Great Britain reached an agreement to stave off the brink of a major war. Prof. Louis DuPree, a premier 20th Century scholar of the region, characterized it as “expressing their genius for drawing a boundary in the wrong place.” Cultural, linguistic, tribal and religious differences were not considered with the great powers’ territorial demands and imperial designs. This great error of history repeated itself at the 1920 San Remo Conference, where they divided up The Levant after World War I with the creation of Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria. Artificial boundaries naturally invite conflict for decades to come, as tribes and cultural entities maintain their identities and loyalties despite artificial boundaries.
Dupree stated, “Afghanistan is an artificial country created out of tribal kingdoms as a buffer state between Russia and Britain in the 19th Century.” As a result Afghanis have equal hate for both Russian (Soviet) and Western imperialism, who used their country as a bloody pawn in their game of nations. Both superpowers contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the 20th Century, and indirectly, the creation of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Soviets killed over 2 million Afghanis, and lost 15,000 troops with over 35,000 wounded, though estimates vary. And they should have learned from costly ventures into Afghanistan in the 19th Century! The ungovernable, mysterious, clannish place ultimately proved too much for America’s nation building wonks to resist, and we’ve wasted over $3 trillion over 20 years. Republican and Democrat presidents have misplayed their hands and made mistakes. So has Congress and the Pentagon.
Personal Sidebar: One aspect of the 1970’s crisis in Afghanistan is deeply personal to me. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph “Spike” Dubs was one of my undergrad professors at Rhodes College in the 1970’s. This brilliant renaissance man (scholar, athlete and great guy), was the first casualty of the pre-Soviet conflict, when he was kidnapped and assassinated on February 14, 1979. This prompted President Jimmy Carter to cut off all American aid to them, which opened the door for greater Soviet influence.
H. Scott Prosterman