Afghanistan, America and what’s next

helicopter landing on sand

*Editor’s Note: The “Views from NAU” blog series highlights the thoughts of different people affiliated with NAU, including faculty members sharing opinions or research in their areas of expertise. The views expressed reflect the authors’ own personal perspectives.

Dr. Paul LenzeBy Paul E. Lenze, Jr.

Senior lecturer, Department of Politics & International Affairs

Dr. Paul Lenze, Jr. teaches a variety of courses in international relations and comparative politics. His research examines civil-military relations, Middle East politics, U.S. foreign policy and national security, ethnic conflict, leadership and peace-building.

Days after 9/11, President George W. Bush stood atop rubble of the World Trade Center, and as he started to speak into the megaphone, a firefighter yelled out that he couldn’t hear him. Bush then responded with all the bravado he could muster: “We hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and they’ll hear all of us soon!” Those words served as unofficial declaration of war against the Taliban. The U.S., within a matter of weeks, would launch Operation Enduring Freedom to go after Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The overthrow of the Taliban was accomplished swiftly, but the U.S. soon found itself mired in the enormity of attempting to nation-build in a country replete with centuries of ethnic conflict, tribalism and geopolitical importance. Two presidents (Bush and Obama) would continually argue for the importance of “staying the course” in Afghanistan, while two (Trump and Biden) said the time had come for a U.S. withdrawal.

In this region, history, and the history of relationships, matter. Afghanistan is a country of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbeks. For a majority of Afghan history, the Pashtun (the largest ethnic group) have dominated politically, with regional support from Pakistan. The Pashtun’s relationships with others have been acrimonious, but given Afghanistan’s geographical location, the acrimony was only exacerbated as the British, Soviets and Americans all became involved in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Colloquially, Afghanistan became known as the “Graveyard of Empires.”

In the last month, we’ve seen the Taliban retake city after city, culminating in their recapturing the capital city of Kabul. A rush to the Hamid Karzai International Airport by Afghan government officials, civilians and American citizens and officials created a tense few weeks that we’ve all seen on the news. President Biden sent 5,000 American troops to Kabul to assist with evacuation efforts, but on Aug. 26, ISIS-K (the Afghan affiliate of the terrorist group Islamic State, which was created in Syria and Iraq in 2014) conducted a suicide bombing outside of the Kabul airport. Ninety Afghans and 13 U.S. service members were killed and more than 100 people were wounded. Consequently, we’ve seen heated debate on all sides of the political aisle regarding how the U.S. was ending its involvement in Afghanistan.

First, let’s consider how it started. The U.S. overthrew the Taliban government with the assistance of Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek warlords making up the Northern Alliance. The influence of warlords was a direct result of Soviet occupation from 1980-1988 and the civil war in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal, where each group was vying for power. One of these groups, the Taliban, wanted to create an Islamic government and, with external support from Pakistan, won the civil war and provided a safe haven for Al-Qaeda. The Taliban retreated into the mountains after Operation Enduring Freedom and settled in Pakistan to fight another day.

The U.S. then faced the challenge of creating government institutions with intense negotiations to get buy-in from warlords around the country. Many of these groups gained positions within the administration of Hamid Karzai, but we soon saw that early co-opting would not placate elites’ self-interest and continued corruption over 20 years.

The Bush and Obama administrations committed thousands of American troops to continue fighting the Taliban and train the Afghan National Army (ANA) and National Police (ANP). Eventually their mission would be to fight alongside the U.S., as we began to draw down our troops. However, events on the ground and the continued ineffectiveness of the ANA and ANP forestalled any withdrawal from happening.

President Trump’s desire was to end America’s involvement in Afghanistan. Multiple rounds of negotiations were held in Qatar between the U.S. and Taliban in 2019 and 2020, with an agreement on a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 31, 2021, in exchange for the release of Taliban prisoners. The Afghan government (now led by President Ashraf Ghani, another U.S.-supported president) was not invited.

Once in office, the Biden Administration announced our withdrawal from Afghanistan for Sept. 11, 2021, but increased tribalism superseded Afghan nationalism, given the ineffectiveness of governance by the Ghani government. Also, there was a lack of will on the part of Afghan National Army soldiers and Afghan National policemen to defend a government seen as corrupt and not representative of their interests.

For most of the last 20 years, the Afghan government controlled little more than the capital, with the provinces given increased autonomy. The Afghan military and national police were not strong enough to take, or hold, territory without the support of the U.S. military. Simultaneously, the Taliban were waiting and, with supplies from the Pakistanis, began their offensive knowing the Americans had made the commitment to leave. Given the above, Biden chose to end America’s involvement in Afghanistan and moved up the deadline to Aug. 31. The conditions were now set for what we saw on Aug. 16 with the Taliban taking control of Kabul. The Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban returned to power.

The Biden Administration says the Afghan government fell more quickly than they expected, but the U.S. would be committed to evacuations to get Americans and certain Afghans to safety. Biden has opened himself up to repeated criticisms for the lack of planning to ensure Americans could get out safely and that those Afghan citizens who helped us could get out. What we’ve seen is a reminder that the end of a war is always messy. There are no perfect answers. Biden has said he was given a plan by the Trump Administration, but as the saying goes, even the best-laid plans sometimes go wrong.

Put simply, what’s happened cannot be laid solely at Biden’s feet. In fact, I would argue that American hubris, as part of our historic, liberal internationalist mission has contributed to what’s happened in Afghanistan and to the decline of American hegemony around the world. All four presidents since 2001 have continued to “Search for Monsters to Destroy,” to paraphrase President John Quincy Adams’ famous speech. Moving forward, ethnic conflict, tribalism and geopolitics will continue throughout the world. Hopefully, after the events of this month, and the past 20 years, America’s leaders start learning from history. In short, the history of U.S. efforts at promoting liberal values, while a noble endeavor for many, the last 20 years show that the ends do not justify the means. Our relationship with the rest of the world depends on an acknowledgment of this uncomfortable fact.

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