The US Afghanistan Catch 22

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

A version of this appeared at The Jerusalem Post

The US is seeking to withdraw from Afghanistan, something that has bedeviled three US administrations over the last two decades. There is consensus now among some Republicans, including US President Donald Trump, and Democratic Presidential contenders, that the US should leave. US Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, for instance, has said we are approaching the day when there will be news of a casualty in Afghanistan “who was not born on 9/11.” The US has been in Afghanistan so long an entire generation grew up.

Yet America’s main enemy, the Taliban, have shown that even as the US seeks peace, or at least to withdraw quietly, that it will be nipping at the US heels. Afghan government forces repelled an assault on the city of Kunduz last week, the third assault in the last years by the Taliban. Th Taliban also carried out an attack in Kabul, killing sixteen and wounding more than 100 on Sunday. It was termed a “blast” in some news report, the Orwellian language used to cover up murder and terror. That is part of the plan to whitewash the Taliban  to ease the US withdrawal, because signing a deal with the group that, ISIS-style, blew up the Bamiyan Buddha archaeological site in 2001, is a bit odd considering the US got involved  in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda camps it had hosted.

In reality the US should have withdrawn years ago, soon after it had successfully toppled the Taliban. Osama Bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in Pakistan in 2011, has been dead for years. The US has been in Afghanistan so long that AL Qaeda has come and gone and ISIS has become the more “extreme” version of a Taliban that is now depicted as “moderate” and whose overweight and smiling negotiators lunch in Qatar and jet off to Moscow when they feel the need. There is something surreal about the whole story. The story of US involvement in Afghanistan was chided by Trump in January when he wondered why the US is still fighting there and not countries more close to the country. “We have an area where ISIS is here and the Taliban is here and they are fighting each other, I said let them fight, they are both our enemies.” But Trump said more recently that he didn’t want the country to become a “laboratory of terror.”

It’s a complex problem for the US that has become a catch-22. The longer the US stays, the longer it needs to stay because the country’s security and stability has become dependent on the US staying. But US allies have long ago decided that they won’t stay forever. French combat troops left  in 2012. Dutch troops left in 2010 but recent reports showed that around 100 are still there as part of the NATO mission. Another 60 are helping a small German contingent train, advise and assist Afghan special forces. Canada left in 2014. Trump has said other countries need to do more.

Trump’s Afghan policy is controversial in policy circles and within his own administration. US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis decided that more troops were needed in the spring of 2017. The NATO mission sought several thousand more for an extended fight in the country after Taliban gains. By that time there were around 8,400 US forces in country. By December 2018 the numbers appear to have fallen to around 7,000 and the US was seeking to leave. Mattis also departed the Trump administration, angry over the reversal on Syria policy. In Trump’s view he had  given Mattis from June 2017 to the fall of 2018 to accomplish something in Kabul. But like previous administrations, going back to George W. Bush and Obama, short term plans don’t lead to long-term gains in Afghanistan.

It’s not like the problem in Afghanistan isn’t well known. Americans have known that the war is unwinnable for more than a decade. The 2010 documentary Restrepo clearly sets out how the war looked in 2007. You can’t watch the film or its 2014 sequel Korengal, which profiles one US company of soldiers in the conflict, without realizing there is no hope for victory. A less serious film, but one that comes away with the same clarity regarding the mission, is 2017’s War Machine. It is a fictionalized account of General Stanley McChrystal’s tenure at the helm of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, basically the lead US commander of the NATO mission. McChrystal wanted more US forces, to the tune of  30,000 or so, sent to aid the war effort. But the Obama administration was seeking a way out and eventually US combat operations ostensibly ended and ISAF was wrapped up and re-packaged as Resolute Support.

Resolute Support, keeping the same green logo as ISAF, is supposed to be training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces in line with the streamlined current US concept of war fighting through “by, with and through,” local forces. Basically, the Afghans are supposed to do the fighting, the US advises and assists. This is how the US fights wars in dozens of countries, including many conflicts that no one hears much about. US special operators through SOCOM are deployed to around 90 countries, according to reports to Congress. That means some larger missions such as in Niger, or air strikes in Somalia. But Afghanistan is still one of the old crown jewels of this policy, along with Syria and Iraq. Trump’s instinct is to wrap up Syria and Afghanistan. In Syria he wants US forces to fade from 2,000 or so down to several hundred.  In Afghanistan the last 5,400 are supposed  to leave. Maybe, maybe not.

The end result of the Afghan war is that it has become a catch-22. Part of this is also the result of US policy’s blind spots. For instance after the initial invasion that went well in 2001 and 2002, the US faced a problem. Al Qaeda members and Taliban were clearly moving into areas bordering Pakistan or into Pakistan itself. Pakistan had supported the Taliban and yet the US was at war with these terrorists who had for many years received some kind of succor from US allies. It took Washington a long time to seem to understand that with one hand the US was fighting groups like the Taliban, and with another it was working with countries that had a relatively positive view of things like blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas or executing people for “blasphemy.” Everyone was supposed to pretend that the killing of Bin Laden in Abottabad, Pakistan wasn’t a bit odd. What was the most wanted terrorist behind 9/11  doing living a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy? Why did the US have to launch a raid, not telling its Pakistan “ally,” to kill Bin Laden, using stealth helicopters because Pakistan couldn’t be trusted to take out Bin Laden? It was clear in 2011 that US allies were actively working against the US role in Afghanistan, just like other US allies have often fanned extremism and anti-American elements, while receiving aid and lip-service support from the US. And yet the Afghan war went on and on without any road to Damascus moment of wondering whether the US was sort of fighting itself in Afghanistan, sending troops to fight while working with countries who support and host the Taliban. Under the guise of “peace” talks the Taliban went from being sort of international pariahs to hosted in Qatar and other countries. US troops go back and forth to Afghanistan without much fanfare or thanks, while Taliban members appear to be living large and getting the red carpet. So the catch-22 is two-fold in Afghanistan. One the one hand the longer the US stayed the more it was “needed” to keep the country fighting the Taliban. On the other hand US allies were probably aiding and abetting the Taliban and seeking quietly to undermine US policy.

Fears in policy circles that a withdrawal will lead to chaos in Afghanistan are well-founded. Fears that Trump and his team could be signing a bad deal, having telegraphed to the enemy that they need the deal, could embolden  the Taliban or other adversaries. But the war may have also transformed the Taliban. They too have gotten older over the last twenty years. And they are being outflanked by more extreme groups like ISIS. What appears clear is that between the isolationist tendencies on the far-right in the US, and the tendency to critique the US global role on the far-left, there is a growing consensus in the US that 18 years in Afghanistan is enough. There are 200 other countries in the world, if the instability of Afghanistan is indeed a  global threat, then they can do something as well. That might break the catch-22 that has developed. It also might be a strategic blunder, as US Senator Lindsey Graham and General Jack  Keane argued last week.

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