Will the US's Answer to Failure in Afghanistan be More War?Roundup
tags: foreign policy, war on terror, Afghanistan, international relations
Stephen Wertheim is senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.
You don’t get to lose a war and expect the result to look like you’ve won it.
That is the terrible truth that the collapse of the Afghan government has proved but that some in Washington continue to refuse to accept. The United States failed to achieve the objective to which it devoted most of its 20 years of war and $2.3 trillion in expenditures: to build a Western-style Afghan state that could sustain itself and prevent a Taliban takeover. In the face of a poor but tenacious insurgency, the U.S.-backed Afghan army folded within weeks in historical fashion, not for lack of training, supplies, or numbers but because it had no will to fight — something two decades of American efforts could not instill.
After the Vietnam War, Americans undertook a painful national reckoning, and for decades after Saigon fell, U.S. leaders avoided large and prolonged military interventions. But to judge from the reactions in some quarters to recent events, we face the troubling possibility that this time no reckoning is forthcoming. Instead of accepting and learning from loss, some foreign policy leaders prefer to perpetuate the very myths that inspired the tragedy in the first place, beginning with the proposition that the United States should and could transform Afghanistan, if only it tried long and hard enough.
In the past week, as one provincial capital after another surrendered to the Taliban, prominent voices advanced a dangerous form of denial: We can still fix it, through still more war. On Aug. 13, Brookings Institution President John Allen, a retired Marine general, called on President Biden to reverse his decision to withdraw ground troops and intervene to prevent the Taliban from entering Kabul. If the Taliban crossed that red line, he proposed “a concerted military response against Taliban forces and leadership across Afghanistan.” The neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol tweeted his support of Allen’s plan. “Is it too late to salvage Afghanistan?” he asked. “ … The Iraq surge worked. Could an analogous effort in Afghanistan?”
The answer is no, because we tried it. In the Obama surge, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan rose to 100,000 in 2010 and 2011, double the total of May 2009. As The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” project revealed, military brass subsequently exaggerated the potency of the Afghan soldiers they were training. (“Afghan security forces are increasing in number and quality every day,” Allen wrote in 2012.) U.S. civilian leaders made rosy assessments in public even as they privately doubted that America could win. Obama, souring on the war, lowered troop levels below 10,000 by the end of his presidency, but he failed to fulfill his hope for a full withdrawal. The war was given so long to work that advocates of a new surge hope Americans have forgotten the last one.
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