A War We Couldn’t Win, But Should Have Better Managed

Late 2001, when 9 of 10 Americans supported Mideast invasion, I submitted work to Poets Against the War, a website anthology of anti-war poems with which 160 public readings were coordinated nationally. Running for Congress in 2008 and 2010, familiar with the region’s history, and studying analyses by Col. Andrew Bacevich (RET) and other experts, I considered the Afghan War unwinnable. I thusly advocated for complete, urgent, but orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops, military contractors and collaborators, who might be targeted for Taliban reprisals. When that and other position statements were archived in the Library of Congress, BBC News took notice because Greens were already ascendant in Europe and sentiment supporting the war had waned.

Still, many in the U.S. believed large-scale “interventions,” rather than special-ops surgical strikes, would better protect the homeland from terrorism. Killing or capturing Osama bin Laden also was paramount, even if it meant sticking fingers into leaking dikes to nation-build. Yet, regardless of exit strategies, given the Mideast’s perpetual tribal and religious sect clashes, one outcome seemed inevitable. Despite our 100,000 troops, overwhelming firepower and air superiority, the Taliban would be poised and ready to fill the power void whether we withdrew in 5 or 50 years, just as North Vietnamese and Vietcong persevered generations ago. Total U.S. drawdown would either precipitate a Tet-like blitzkrieg and immediate collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government or, equally undesirable, perpetual civil war.

Afghanistan’s sobriquet, ‘graveyard of empires,” is no misnomer. Gateway for invaders between central Asia and India, neither Cyrus nor Darius the Great, Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Asoka or Babur held Afghanistan for long. The British failed twice to conquer the country. After a decade, 1 million Soviets were driven out in 1989, repelled by mujahideen and Maoist guerillas Ronald Regan helped arm, starting America’s involvement. Now, our own invasion, ostensibly to crush al Qaeda, has been reduced to a “Saigon-like” bug out. Only Attila was victorious because the Huns never intended to stay, protect Afghan women and gas lines, or empire-build.

Afghanistan was a war we couldn’t win, but should have better managed. When armies retreat, rear-guard actions avert routs. As ignominious as our “wheels up” departure has been, President Biden’s assessment was spot-on. There was no good time to leave Afghanistan because we never should have been there shouldering arms security forces were unwilling to carry alone. After spending billions training and equipping 300,000 indigenous soldiers, they caved. That Intelligence failed to detect Taliban amassing arms and personnel during negotiations underscores illusory preconceptions about linking Afghan combat readiness with forging a functioning nation and politically arbitrary timelines to bail.

The war was launched two decades ago in moods of vengeful bipartisanship after 9/11 jihadists shattered myths of US immunity from third world theocratic emirates retaliating against our foreign policies. Both major parties own the mismanaged consequences of that failure and should be called-out for them: 2,500 troop deaths, 3,800 contractors, 2,700 international forces, 900 foreign aid workers, 100,000 Afghan civilians, countless wounded; $2 trillion of debt. Trump and Biden did exactly what US citizens, exhausted by quagmires and propped-up foreign governments, wanted. Execution was poor. Now, only questions remain.

Why didn’t Biden and Trump extract more Taliban concessions after 40 years of US hawkish involvement? Will vastly altered needs of 38 million Afghans lessen the fanaticism marking Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001?  The “law & order” Taliban are rebranding, acting conciliatory, assuring amnesty, talking about international rules and human rights in conjunction with Sharia. Only they, however, have discretion on when and how to apply force.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.

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