The Long, Good War
After two decades, we are quitting the long, good war. We called it “Good” because in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most Americans could articulate why we were there: A foreign government harbored terrorist who launched an attack on America and America deposed that government. Slightly less than two weeks after the attack on the World Trade towers, the CIA dropped a team in Panjshir Valley. We call it “Long” because nearly a generation later, US forces are still there. Over 20 years, some 800,000 have served, but that’s only about .25% of the general population. It was also called the “Quiet” war
At the war’s peak under President Obama, there were about 100,000 US troops in country – a surge that Joe Biden argued against as Vice-President. On 14 April, Now President Biden announced that every one of the remaining 2,500 US soldiers and a few thousand mercenaries on our payroll with be withdrawn by 11 September – the twentieth anniversary of the stunt that put them there. There are also about 7,000 Europeans troops under the NATO banner as well. They are not under US command, but will surely leave on our cue.
The why of it seems more political theater than strategy – Trump’s drawdown has left only a skeletal force capable of security and training, but hardly going on the offensive. We’ve had more troops in South Korean, and for much longer. It looks like Biden trying to make good on an argument he lost to his former boss a decade ago.
To the average Afghan, however, this maneuvering must look like some fresh hell coming down the street. Withdrawal will almost certainly lead to disaster, but it may be the only choice. You may be able to keep a superficial peace at the end of a barrel – but it limits your options. Peace isn’t simply the lack of violence, its lies in having better options than brute force.
The Taliban will take charge, and they will do it with brute force. Just like they did after the collapse of the Soviet backed regime, just like they were before we invaded. They will likely roll back the human rights written into the new constitution – but many of those rights were only on paper. The UN backed government is only in charge of the cities, isolated archipelagos amid a sea of Taliban held hinterlands and roads.
When the United States took over France’s colonial war in Vietnam, French-American journalist Bernard Fall predicted that US efforts would produce the same results as the French effort: Thinking that the crisis had a strictly military solution. Afghanistan, Vietnam, or almost any insurrection, will defy these solutions simply because there is no proper army to defeat, corner and surrender. Practically speaking, guerilla wars don’t work that way, leading to an endless policy of kill-all-you-can and know that the survivors will melt away and regroup. And recruit.
Foreign languages are relatively easy to master, the idioms, less so. Foreign logic, however, is nearly impossible. Through a mix of fear, exhaustion and local logic no foreign power can hope to master, the Taliban will always be able to recruit. Their’s will be a grisly, medieval world, but a stable one. And if they can make the roads safe at night – like mob-controlled neighborhoods - the population will side with them.
There is a knock-on to this terrible, unavoidable move – and it is very Machiavellian: that a US withdrawal will be a disaster for Russia and Iran as well. Russia no longer shares a border with Afghanistan, but it is very important for those countries that were part of the former USSR to remain in its sphere. An influx of afghan refugees will spark chaos and pleas for help. Moscow cannot have that help come from the West.
Also bordering Afghanistan is Iran and when we leave, the Islamic Republic will get what it has long wanted: a chance to finally play Big Man for the first time since the rise of the Ottomans. They’ll never forgive us for the honor. In Tehran – and you do have to admire the long game of the old men – has always had more patience with marriages of convenience than say, a relatively teenaged republic whose voting citizenry has more talent for checkers than chess. They have a saying: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Practical enough, but an arrangement like that can only work as long as the primary enemy is still on the stage. The Taliban, and their sponsors in al Qaeda, are mortal Sunni enemies that pose a greater threat than the United States ever did to the Shi’a Islamic Republic. And soon they’ll have the run of the place and will be flooding Iran with heroin.
The two Muslim allies might shake hands on the final US withdrawal, but they’ll be at it by morning.