Hindsight on Afghanistan

From The Washington Post:

Twenty years ago, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were still smoldering, there was a sense among America’s warrior and diplomatic class that history was starting anew for the people of Afghanistan and much of the Muslim world.

“Every nation has a choice to make,” President George W. Bush said on the day that bombs began falling on Oct. 7, 2001. In private, senior U.S. diplomats were even more explicit. “For you and us, history starts today,” then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told his Pakistani counterparts.

Earlier this month, as the Taliban raced across Afghanistan, retired Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, a two-time veteran of the war, stumbled across Armitage’s words. To Dempsey, the sentiment was “the most American thing I’ve ever heard” and emblematic of the hubris and ignorance that he and so many others brought to the losing war.

“We assumed the rest of the world saw us as we saw ourselves,” he said. “And we believed that we could shape the world in our image using our guns and our money.” Both assumptions ignored Afghan culture, politics and history. Both, he said, were tragically wrong.

The near-collapse of the Afghan army in the space of just a few stunning weeks is prompting the military and Washington’s policymakers to reflect on their failures over the course of nearly two decades. To many, the roots of the disaster go back to the war’s earliest days, when the Taliban were first driven from power and the United States, still reeling from the shock of the 9/11 attacks, set about building a government in Kabul.

The Afghanistan Papers: Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were dogged by incompetence and corruption

Some two dozen prominent Afghans met in Bonn, Germany, with officials from the U.S. government, NATO and the United Nations to form a new Afghan government crafted in the image of the United States and its European allies.

“You look at the Afghan constitution that was created in Bonn and it was trying to create a Western democracy,” said Michèle Flournoy, one of the architects of President Barack Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan in 2010. “In retrospect, the United States and its allies got it really wrong from the very beginning. The bar was set based on our democratic ideals, not on what was sustainable or workable in an Afghan context.”

Flournoy acknowledged in hindsight that the mistake was compounded across Republican and Democratic administrations, which continued with almost equal fervor to pursue goals that ran counter to decades — if not centuries — of the Afghan experience.

By 2009, when Obama took office, it was clear to just about everyone that the United States was losing the war.

To reverse Taliban momentum and give U.S. officials a chance to build up the Afghan government and security forces, Obama signed off on a surge of troops that more than doubled the size of the American force in Afghanistan.

Flournoy said she was initially hopeful that the plan could work. On trips to Afghanistan, she met frequently with young Afghans, including women’s groups, who shared America’s vision for the country. They wanted to send their daughters to school, serve in government, start businesses and nonprofits. They wanted women to be full participants in society and craved a predictable political and legal system. “We found all kinds of allies,” she said.

But those individuals were no match for the rot that had permeated the Afghan government. She and other U.S. officials understood that with all the U.S. money floating around in Afghanistan, there would be “petty corruption,” she said. What U.S. officials discovered in 2010, after the surge was already underway, was a corruption that ran far deeper than they had previously understood and that jeopardized their strategy, which depended on building the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

“We realized that this is not going to work,” Flournoy said. “We had made a big bet only to learn that our local partner was rotten.”

Now, as Taliban fighters race toward Kabul and the Afghan military crumbles, Flournoy said her thoughts often turn to the Americans who sacrificed for the mission and to those “wonderful allies” who shared the U.S. hopes for a democratic Afghanistan. “That’s what makes me so sick to my stomach,” she said. “We invested in this whole generation that is about to suffer through this very horrible chapter.”

As Taliban widens its grip, Afghans reckon with life under militant rule

Meanwhile, current and former U.S. officials are trying to make sense of why a government and security forces built over two decades at a cost of more than $100 billion dollars are collapsing so quickly.

Carter Malkasian, a longtime adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, has pegged the weakness of the Afghan forces on their lack of a unifying cause that resonates with Afghans, as well as their heavy dependence on the United States. By contrast, the Taliban were fighting for their culture and Islam. They “exemplified something that inspired, something that made them powerful in battle, something closely tied to what it meant to be an Afghan,” Malkasian writes in his new book, “The American War in Afghanistan.”

It’s an observation that speaks to the limits of American power and raises the broader question of how the catastrophic and embarrassing failure in Afghanistan might constrain U.S. foreign policy moving forward.

“We know what happens when we fall to imperial hubris. What does one do with imperial heartbreak?” asked John Gans, who served as a civilian in the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

So many of today’s rising military commanders and foreign policy experts were drawn into government service by the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan. After the relatively low-stakes peacekeeping missions of the 1990s, America and U.S. foreign policy suddenly seemed to be at the center of the world in the years after 2001. A whole generation of leaders driven “by ambition, ego and a desire to shape world events” ran toward the action, Gans said. . . .

It seems certain that in coming years the use of military force will be informed by this searing experience. U.S. foreign policy will be guided by more modest ambitions, especially when weighing the use of military power. Flournoy imagines a future in which military force is limited to more sharply defined objectives and informed by far greater humility when it comes to spreading democracy or changing societies.

In many cases, it’s a vision in which force is used to manage chronic problems, rather than solve them.

Another possibility is a U.S. foreign policy that is increasingly focused more on issues such as pandemics or climate change, which require U.S. leadership and a global response. Gans noted that more than 600,000 Americans have died of covid-19, far more than the number of U.S. lives lost to terrorism and war over the past 20 years.

For now, though, it seems unlikely that these threats will take center stage in U.S. foreign policy. The Pentagon, with its $740 billion budget, still sucks up a larger share of discretionary spending than any other government agency. Meanwhile, the foreign policy establishment has shifted its focus increasingly to the competition with the likes of Russia and China.

“After 9/11 everyone raced to become a Middle East or counterterrorism expert,” said Gans. “After covid, you don’t see many foreign policy people racing to become global health experts.”

On one subject most foreign policy experts agree: America needs to temper its faith in its armed forces. “We had so much faith in our military that we were inevitably going to overstep,” said Dempsey, the Afghanistan veteran. “A military bureaucracy unchecked never yields good outcomes.”

A Few Choice Paragraphs

From “God and the Don” (CNN):

Two days before his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump greeted a pair of visitors at his office in Trump Tower.

As a swarm of reporters waited in the gilded lobby, the Rev. Patrick O’Connor, the senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Queens, and the Rev. Scott Black Johnston, the senior pastor of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, arrived to pray with the next president….

It was clear that Trump was still preoccupied with his November victory, and pleased with his performance with one constituency in particular.

“I did very, very well with evangelicals in the polls,” Trump interjected in the middle of the conversation… 

They gently reminded Trump that neither of them was an evangelical.

“Well, what are you then?” Trump asked.

They explained they were mainline Protestants, the same Christian tradition in which Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, was raised and claims membership. Like many mainline pastors, they told the President-elect, they lead diverse congregations.

Trump nodded along, then posed another question to the two men: “But you’re all Christians?”

“Yes, we’re all Christians.”

From “Why Are Republicans Getting So Little Done? Because Their Agenda Is Deeply Unpopular” (The Washington Post):

Is there anything — anything — on the agenda of the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress that enjoys the support of the majority of the public?

… The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll finds that an incredible 84 percent of Americans say that it’s important that any replacement of the Affordable Care Act maintains the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid. Even 71 percent of Republicans said so. Which is a problem for the GOP, because rolling back the Medicaid expansion is the centerpiece of the Republican repeal plan….so that they can fund a large tax cut that mostly goes to the wealthy.

The Senate is right now tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to pass something that satisfies the GOP’s conservative principles but that the public won’t despise, and it may be slowly realizing that this is impossible. “I don’t see a comprehensive health-care plan this year,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said yesterday, and he’s probably right.

Let’s move on to taxes. At yesterday’s speech announcing his pullout from the Paris climate agreement, President Trump made this little digression:

“Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it’s doing very well. I think a lot of people will be very pleasantly surprised. The Republicans are working very, very hard. We’d love to have support from the Democrats, but we may have to go it alone. But it’s going very well.”

It was certainly interesting to hear that the tax bill is moving along in Congress, because there is no tax bill, neither moving along, standing still or spinning in circles. The administration has produced nothing more than a one-page list of bullet points on taxes, and congressional Republicans haven’t written a bill, either. There have been no hearings, no committee votes, nothing. This is one of those moments when it’s hard to figure out if Trump is lying or genuinely doesn’t realize what’s going on; earlier this week he tweeted:

Yet nothing has been submitted, nothing is moving along and nothing is ahead of schedule.

[Republicans] know that whatever bill they come up with is going to be hammered by Democrats for being an enormous giveaway to the wealthy. They could solve that problem by not making it an enormous giveaway to the wealthy, but then what would be the point?…

Are there other Republican initiatives that the public is behind? If there are, they’re awfully hard to find…. 

The deep unpopularity of this agenda goes a long way toward explaining why Congress has gotten almost nothing done this year… All Republicans feel nervous these days … That’s enough to make a lawmaker skittish about doing anything that might make the voters even more disgusted. So the legislative process gets dragged out for longer and longer.

Congressional Republicans complain that all the drama and scandals in the White House suck the air out of Washington… But the real problem is that the public just doesn’t want to buy what they’re selling.

From “I Can’t Stop Laughing at the Trump Administration. That’s Not a Good Thing” (The Washington Post):

Rex Tillerson has given zero indication that he knows how to run the State Department. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross made clueless comments about Saudi Arabia that left the impression of him as a doddering fool. As secretary of homeland security, John F. Kelly keeps saying things designed to scare the hell out of people rather than make them feel more secure. He seems to have fallen victim to the worst pathologies of the Bush administration….. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn seem to be focused far more on pleasing the president than offering cogent advice…. Jared Kushner? Please.

The rest of the White House staff is busy trying to be more absurd propagandists than Kim Jong Un’s flacks. So far, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are the only foreign policy hands who have managed to retain their dignity, and that’s mostly because what they say contradicts Trump….

Then there’s the president himself. Just a glance at the decision-making process he used on withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord makes it clear how manifestly unfit he is to do his job….he’s getting played left and right….It’s hard to overstate just how badly Trump has navigated the global stage. The Chinese and Saudis have figured out how to buy him off with a couple billion dollars and some flattery. There is zero evidence of any appreciable policy gains. U.S. leadership is being constantly questioned…. Outside of the Persian Gulf, Trump’s approach has done nothing but alienate allies and bolster potential rivals….

Heck, I could be on Twitter all day and only pay partial attention to briefings and still do a better job than the current clown show.

Finally, from “Trump’s Pathological Obsession with Being Laughed At” (The Week):

If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the last couple of years, you know this is a topic he returns to again and again. Search Trump’s Twitter feed and you’ll find that who’s laughing at whom is an obsession for him, with the United States usually the target of the laughter. “The world is laughing at us.” China is “laughing at USA!” Iran is “laughing at Kerry & Obama!” “ISIS & all others laughing!” “Mexican leadership has been laughing at us for many years.” “Everybody is laughing at Jeb Bush.” “Putin is laughing at Obama.” “OPEC is laughing at how stupid we are.” “Dopey, nobody is laughing at me!” I could go on (and on, and on), but I’ll spare you.

This is nothing new for Trump; he’s been talking about us being laughed at for his entire career in public life. In his first major foray into politics in 1987, he spent nearly $100,000 to buy full-page ads … lamenting the fact that America helped defend countries like Japan without getting enough in return (sound familiar?). The last line of the ad was, “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.” 

It is Trump’s gift to future biographers that he makes so little attempt to hide his psychological issues, but the desire to avoid being laughed at truly stands out. Perhaps there was some childhood trauma that led to this obsession, a schoolyard incident in which a bully pulled down Donny’s short pants to the guffaws of the other tots (particularly the girls!). It would be only fitting if Trump, the world’s foremost avatar of anxious masculinity, lived in terror of women’s laughter, but he seems concerned with everyone’s laughter, whether it comes from people or governments. As much as he cares about winning and getting the better of someone, defeat is marked by the ultimate humiliation of being laughed at.

Yet ironically, no president in history has ever been laughed at as much as Trump….

In Foreign Policy, Smarter Works Better Than Tougher

The world will be a better place when normal relations are established between the United States and Cuba. But right-wing politicians disagree. They think we should treat Cuba even worse than we do now. If we tighten the screws on Cuba, the Cuban people will eventually rise up or their government will see the error of its ways.

Likewise, it will be a step forward when the United States and Iran establish better relations. Right-wing politicians disagree. They think we should treat Iran worse than we do now. We shouldn’t negotiate with Iran. We should tighten the screws even further and threaten military action. The Iranian people will rise up or their government will see the light.

The Atlantic has an interesting little article called “Why the Iran Deal Makes Obama’s Critics So Angry” that helps explain the Republican obsession with “toughness” in foreign policy:

When critics focus incessantly on the gap between the present [Iran nuclear] deal and a perfect one, what they’re really doing is blaming Obama for the fact that the United States is not omnipotent. This isn’t surprising given that American omnipotence is the guiding assumption behind contemporary Republican foreign policy. Ask any GOP presidential candidate except Rand Paul what they propose doing about any global hotspot and their answer is the same: be tougher. America must take a harder line against Iran’s nuclear program, against ISIS, against Bashar al-Assad, against Russian intervention in Ukraine and against Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea….

.[Behind Obama’s] drive for an Iranian nuclear deal is the effort to make American foreign policy “solvent” again by bringing America’s ends into alignment with its means. That means recognizing that the United States cannot bludgeon Iran into total submission, either economically or militarily. The U.S. tried that in Iraq.

It is precisely this recognition that makes the Iran deal so infuriating to Obama’s critics. It codifies the limits of American power. And recognizing the limits of American power also means recognizing the limits of American exceptionalism. It means recognizing that no matter how deeply Americans believe in their country’s unique virtue, the United States is subject to the same restraints that have governed great powers in the past. For the Republican right, that’s a deeply unwelcome realization. For many other Americans, it’s a relief. It’s a sign that, finally, the Bush era in American foreign policy is over.