Recent events surrounding Afghanistan shouldn’t confuse anyone, as the reality of the situation still lies in one simple statement: The US-NATO coalition has lost a war its political leaders never meant, or knew how, to win.
‘Winning’ in Afghanistan was never anything more than killing Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, as many of their fighters and civilian supporters as possible and then getting out immediately with the full knowledge that—as Mao said long ago—insurgencies always rebuild and the process might need to be repeated.
The best and most appropriate response to al-Qaeda’s September 11 raid, then, would have been a unilateral US punitive expedition that inflicted massive death and destruction on the enemy and delivered a clear warning to Islamists not to pick fights with the United States. Indeed, many Islamists expected this response, which is why they poured vitriol on bin Laden and expected the US military to set back their movement a decade, if it did not destroy it completely.
Faced with this criticism, bin Laden simply said ‘wait,’ adding (in paraphrase) that the Americans and their allies can’t stomach casualties, that they won’t use their full military power and will unite Afghans by trying to Westernize them via popular elections, installing women’s rights, dismantling tribalism, introducing secularism and establishing NGO-backed bars and whorehouses in Kabul. Bin Laden was right; it seems he is, among other things, a keen student of the West’s past nation-building operations.
Since June 1, the parade of incompetents crossing the Afghan stage is stunning: Gen. Stanley McChrystal, US President Barack Obama, Gen. David Petraeus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai—the list is long. McChrystal, saddled with a dead-end strategy devised by David Kilcullen, John Nagl and other counterinsurgency ‘experts,’ gave access to himself and his staff to Rolling Stone, long among the most anti-military US journals.
For his trouble and indiscreet words, McChrystal was fired by Obama—who, with his senior advisers, merit all the negative things said about them—and replaced by that purveyor of military snake oil, Gen. Petraeus. Even as the transitory success of the Iraq ‘surge’ is unravelling, Petraeus takes the Afghan command saying everything is okay (within a week the Pentagon’s media machine was telling Congress and Western publics that the ‘Afghan war is on track.’)
While this has played out, Hamid Karzai reportedly met with Sirajuddin Haqqani—a major Afghan insurgent leader—and prepared to surrender under the guise of creating a coalition regime. For all his failures and fabulously corrupt relatives, Karzai can easily solve the dilemma the West can’t even frame accurately: Question: What does the Taliban and its allies want? Answer: Power. So Karzai is talking to Haqqani, and probably Taliban leaders, to see if there’s a governing arrangement that will give him a role in post-NATO Afghanistan and doesn’t lead to his execution after the last NATO trooper leaves. The chance of this is near nil, however, and so Karzai and his family will have to step up the pace of their alleged thievery and get ready for an early exit that leaves the West holding the bag.
And as these parties circle the Afghan drain, Lindsay Graham, a much but inexplicably respected Republican senator from South Carolina, said: ‘This is a chance to start over completely [in Afghanistan].’ At the start of the US Civil War it was said South Carolina’s fatal flaw was that it’s too small to be a nation and too big to be an insane asylum. Sen. Graham has reconfirmed this truism.
After nine years, it is utterly impossible to restart Western policy in Afghanistan. Too many Afghans are dead; too many Afghans and non-Afghan Muslims have joined the Taliban-led insurgency; too much pro-Taliban money is pouring into Afghanistan from wealthy donors on the Arabian Peninsula and across the Muslim world; too much Western funding has been stolen and sent abroad by Karzai’s cronies; too much popular support for the war in the West has been squandered; too many U.S.-NATO troops are dead or maimed; too much has been done by the West to push Pakistan toward the abyss by demanding its military do Western dirty work; and too much time has been wasted on counterinsurgency theories and policies that avoid killing the enemy and his civilian supporters. The one thing the West ‘can start over completely’ is a revision of the plans for withdrawal that moves up the departure date.
The bottom line is that the United States and NATO stand defeated in Afghanistan. Under McChrystal, Petraeus, or Obama himself the counterinsurgency strategy now being flogged has been intellectually bankrupt from its inception. No better proof of this can be found than the fact that the part of the policy meant to address the Afghans’ ‘quality of life’ has been a substantial success.
There are 3 million-plus more Afghan children in school today than in 2001; more electricity and potable water are available; many roads and irrigation systems have been rebuilt; and more primary health care is being delivered. Kilcullen, Nagl and their colleagues argued that such success would prompt the Afghans to turn away from the Taliban’s religiosity and nationalism and isolate that purportedly small force from a population swelling with delight and loyalty to Karzai because of material improvements. In short, a social science-powered, mini-New Deal in Afghanistan would win with minimal use of US-NATO military power because Afghans would joyfully jettison God and country for better teeth and smoother roads.
Well, no such thing occurred. As the trend line for these accomplishments rose, the positive trend line for the Taliban-led insurgency rose faster. The once southern-Afghanistan-based insurgency spread across the nation; the Taliban and its allies struck in Kabul at their pleasure; and the large military/social-work operation to clear insurgents from Marjah District in Helmand Province—framed as the test case to validate US-NATO strategy—became, in McChrystal’s words, an endless, ‘bleeding ulcer’ as the Taliban has gradually reasserted control there.
The enraging and unifying impact on Afghans of the US-NATO occupation of the country; Western support for the unrepresentative and corrupt Kabul regime; and the secularizing campaign by Western governmental agencies and NGOs has not and will never be negated by purer water and more refrigeration. The Afghans will appreciate and pocket the material improvements even as more of them take up arms to drive out occupiers they perceive as the enemies of God and Afghanistan. Western leaders should have recalled they’re not fighting Westerners, for whom more ice cubes and tetanus shots might have been enough to give up their faith.
A year after Obama outlined this new strategy at West Point it lay in shreds and tatters: the Taliban, et. al are more powerful and geographically dispersed, and the Afghan people are no less Islamic or nationalistic. The ever-present avenging angel of history ignored is exacting its pound of flesh and is still hungry. And the bin Laden-inspired Islamists are nearing victory over the world’s last superpower, a win that will have a galvanizing anti-US impact in the Islamic world by showing Muslims the impossible is possible.
The tragedy of this reality is that it would have taken no highly classified intelligence data or deeply penetrating brain power to predict its occurrence. A week’s reading at the local library about the occupations of Afghanistan by Alexander the Great, the British Empire and the Soviet Union shows each empire was sooner or later defeated and evicted—Alexander lasted longest because he built Greek colonies—by the most basic Afghan trait which has been transparently and overwhelmingly dominant since the 4th century B.C.: Afghans refuse to tolerate foreign occupation and rule.
Reading history’s lessons also would have shown that the one foreigner who had the most successful strategy for Afghanistan was Genghis Khan. He killed all the Afghan fighters and their families he encountered, built mountains of their skulls to remind Afghans that Mongols are not to be trifled with and then got his army out of the country to India as quickly as possible. George W. Bush had the chance to play Genghis for about a year but didn’t. Instead, he and his clone Obama defied history to try to win the love of Afghans and international applause. In the end, both men earned and richly merited what we see today—abject Western defeat.
Michael Scheuer is the author of ‘Imperial Hubris’ and former chief of the CIA’s Bin Laden Issue Station.