Abandoning Afghanistan

ASIA--PACIFIC, 14 Dec 2020

Mort Rosenblum | Reader Supported News - TRANSCEND Media Service

Afghan villagers pray over the grave of one of the 16 victims killed in a shooting rampage by a US soldier in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, March 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

6 Dec 2020 – “With satellite dishes snipped from tin cans, Afghans can sit back in the Middle Ages and keep tabs on the 21st century,” I wrote from Kabul in an Associated Press dispatch two months after 9/11. “Their bad luck is that this optical miracle works only one way.”

A teacher named Shahla Paryan had made the point as she poured me tea in her book-lined parlor. “I’m afraid the world just doesn’t understand us,” she said. “It is wrong to believe we are the same as those horrible people who brought terrorism to the USA. It is very wrong.”

Nineteen years and only Allah knows how many lives later – perhaps 500,000 – that still stands. And now Donald Trump has chosen to cut and run, leaving Joe Biden with an ungodly mess in a collapsed state of hapless victims ruled by violent factions that see the USA as a bitter enemy.

Trump is leaving behind only 2,500 troops, easy targets for a Taliban that US only ended up strengthening after its longest conflict in its history. With tragic irony, that is nearly the same number of men and women, U.S. armed forces volunteers, who died in vain since 2001.

Shahla was a university graduate who taught young girls to read, as much a part of Afghanistan as the more familiar women in body-bag burqas that evoke most Westerners’ stereotypes. She saw Osama bin Laden as a plague that was no more welcome than locusts or cholera.

She was grateful to Americans for the hope of badly needed change, but she feared they would abandon Afghanistan as they did after the Soviets were driven out in 1989. “This is our great opportunity,” she said. “We cannot miss it.”

During those first heady days, reporters moved freely. An old man in the main market fitted me with a Chitrali pakol, that ubiquitous flat-topped cap, to the amusement of bystanders. In small shops, I scrounged up the makings of an Italian pasta feast for the AP bureau.

I was assigned to do big-picture stories, part of a team directed by Kathy Gannon, whose solid reporting over the years earned her almost total access to press-shy Afghan leaders of all factions. But, as is so often the case, the story was in small-picture vignettes.

One morning, prowling Kabul backstreets, I found a man collapsed in grief next to a gaping hole on the dirt road near his house. His daughter had been playing hopscotch there when an errant bomb landed from an American plane.

Back then, victims like that anguished father accepted Allah’s will. They understood why invaders from half a world away pursued Saudi terrorists who had struck at the heart of America. That didn’t last long.

U.S. forces tracked Bin Laden into Tora Bora, a mountainous cave complex near the Khyber Pass. Then their orders changed. George W. Bush diverted his attention to Iraq. The Americans handed over the operation to Afghan troops, who let him escape into Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.

American troops stayed on, turning their attention to the Taliban, which was fighting warlords for power. Mullah Omar, the Talib leader in Kandahar to the south, had given sanctuary to Bin Laden and his men. But the Taliban then posed no direct threat to the United States.

Rather than focus on basic essentials – schools, a government capable of stemming corruption, an effective police force, courts, agricultural production – Washington waged war. Military costs have since surpassed $2 trillion, little of that for development aid.

Bagram Airfield mushroomed into a giant base, where leaked documents later revealed suspected terrorists were tortured and beaten. Prisoners were shipped to Guantanamo, sometimes on dubious evidence from neighbors with personal vendettas.

As the quagmire deepened, reporters covered the war well until interest back home waned. Many newcomers on short visits missed the dominant and duplicitous role of Pakistan.

War is far easier to start than finish. Generals see lights at the end of tunnels; one more “surge” should do it. Societies fall apart as enmities deepen. Powerbrokers and profiteers amass fortunes. Mission creep leads to occupation. Corrupt leaders stymie plans to create workable democracy. Troops lose gained ground for lack of local government.

This is hardly new. Think of the Uncle Remus story, The Tar-Baby, in 1881. Br’er Rabbit fashions a doll of tar and turpentine to entrap Br’er Fox, who punches it repeatedly, getting steadily more entangled.

Earlier, a French general famously asked Napoleon how he would get out of an impossible battlefield situation. “I wouldn’t have gotten into it,” the little emperor replied.

Vietnam is the classic example. John F. Kennedy began with discreet “advisers” to help the South fend off the North. In 1964, I interviewed a returned pilot at Davis-Monthan Air Base in Tucson. He said his role was to advise Vietnamese crews when to drop bombs.

I asked if he spoke Vietnamese. He didn’t. Nor did the crews speak English. So, I asked? With a sheepish grin, he said that he simply cut out the middleman. Eleven years later, Gerald Ford had to declare victory and bail, leaving the communists to implant their own of style of capitalism.

Afghanistan has been indomitable since Alexander the Great bogged down and found another way east. It defeated Genghis Khan and Britain. The Soviet Union was undone by its futile war. Had America picked up the pieces and brokered peace, it might have thrived. Or maybe not.

Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas tried. He persuaded Congress to supply $1 billion worth of heavy weapons to guerrillas – including Bin Laden – who humbled the Russians. But with no follow-up, rebel warlords turned their guns on each other. Much of Kabul was pounded to rubble.

Dexter Filkins’ masterful book, The Forever War, narrates the passage from 9/11 until 2008 as Bush’s “global war on terror” blasted open a Pandora’s Box in South Asia, the Middle East and far beyond.

A brief excerpt, from a visit in 1998, describes the result of a lost decade:

“One morning I was standing amid the blown-up storefronts and the broken buildings of Jadi Maiwand, the main shopping street before it became a battlefield, and I was trying to take it in when I suddenly had the sensation one sometimes feels in the tropics, believing that a rock is moving, only to discover it is a living thing perfectly camouflaged. They were crawling out to greet me: legless men, armless boys, women in tents. Children without teeth. Hair stringy and matted.

“‘Help us,’ they said.”

Another explains what America and its allies were up against:

“War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next games got underway.… War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.”

Bush left Barack Obama a free hand to shape his own policy, as presidents have routinely done in past wars. Beyond simple courtesy, continuity is vital to national security and global stability. Obama took months to hear all arguments before building to a peak of 110,000 troops in 2011.

“Commanders who were knee-deep in the fighting deserved some deference when it came to tactical decisions,” Obama wrote in A Promised Land. And, he noted later, “New presidents couldn’t simply tear up agreements reached by their predecessors.”

Biden urged a change in strategy, not just tactics. He counseled resisting the generals to negotiate a way to disengage from an unwinnable war. He was probably right. The goal was to deny potential terrorists a staging ground, but the conflict created yet more implacable foes.

Obama briefed Trump thoroughly on Afghanistan and, as Bush did, he left the way clear for a new president to chart his own course. In August 2017, when Trump was still listening to seasoned advisers, he read a 3,000-word policy statement at Fort Myers in Virginia.

“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Trump said. “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists would instantly fill … The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory.”

Today that rings as hollow as Bush’s vow not to rest until he had hunted down the mastermind of 9/ll. Trump is abandoning not only Afghanistan but also Somalia and other global flashpoints. He is backing away from Iraq while goading Iran toward another unwinnable war.

Admiral William McRaven, who directed the raid on Bin Laden in 2011, excoriated Trump’s firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, among others. Partisan hawks with no experience in conflict endanger U.S. troops and increase the risk of retaliatory terrorism.

He wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “If our promises are meaningless, how will our allies ever trust us? If we can’t have faith in our nation’s principles, why would the men and women of this nation join the military? And if they don’t join, who will protect us?”

Because of a clueless amateur guided by his own selfish instincts who mocks the “suckers’’ and “losers” defending America, Operation Enduring Freedom now echoes a Rudyard Kipling line after routed British troops fled to the Khyber pass: “An’ you’ll die like a fool of a soldier …”


Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs MortReport.org.

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