The Afghan debacle

Taliban in the presidential palace, Kabul (AP photo)

I certainly didn’t think that this would be the topic that got me back to the blog, but here we are.

Let me caveat this by acknowledging that I’m no expert on Afghanistan, and looking back over the archives here, I see I’ve not written much about it, beyond noting some of the more recent absurdities, like dropping a $16 million “mother of all bombs” on a cave to target a few dozen ISIS-affiliated fighters, or mercenary Erik Prince’s proposal to privatize the war and pay for it by stealing Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Almost exactly three years ago, in August 2017, I noted that President Trump, with his first policy speech on Afghanistan, was taking ownership of a foreign policy failure that was at that point three presidencies in the making. A year later, his administration entered into peace negotiations with the Taliban (tellingly, the actual Afghan government was not included in the talks), which culminated in a Feb. 2020 agreement in which Trump pledged to remove all US troops by the end of May 2021. In return the Taliban agreed to play nice.

This April President Biden announced that the withdrawal would be carried out in full, but pushed the timeline to the end of this month. We know the rest of the story.

Unlike me, actual experts have had some smart things to say. For example, my friend and fellow academic Steve Saideman, who has written books about the NATO mission in Afghanistan and Canada’s experience there, has two new posts over at his blog where he looks at some of the big questions emerging from the Taliban’s victory.

Another academic blogger, Dan Drezner, is well worth reading on the international relations and US foreign policy implications of the fall of Afghanistan. His big takeaways, that the damage to the US here is not in terms of raising doubts about American resolve but rather policy competence, are ones that fully agree with.

I was on the radio less than a week ago repeating what was then the conventional wisdom, that the Afghan government would likely only be able to hold off the Taliban for 90 days or so once the US withdrawal was complete. Turns out it only took six days, with our withdrawal still in process.

What has perhaps been the most shocking to observers, pundits, and policymakers alike is the stunning collapse of the Afghan National Army, one we spent 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars training and equipping.

The explanation for the largely bloodless conquest of the country over the last several days may lie less in American or Western failures of training or equipping than in a collective failure to understand Afghan society. As Anatol Lieven writes in Politico, the pattern witnessed over the last several weeks, in which Afghan government security forces surrender to Taliban units, often without firing a shot, is one that has persisted since the Soviet occupation and the decades of civil war that followed:

I remembered this episode three years later, when the Communist state eventually fell to the mujahedeen; six years later, as the Taliban swept across much of Afghanistan; and again this week, as the country collapses in the face of another Taliban assault. Such “arrangements” — in which opposing factions agree not to fight, or even to trade soldiers in exchange for safe passage — are critical to understanding why the Afghan army today has collapsed so quickly (and, for the most part, without violence). The same was true when the Communist state collapsed in 1992, and the practice persisted in many places as the Taliban advanced later in the 1990s.

This dense web of relationships and negotiated arrangements between forces on opposite sides is often opaque to outsiders. Over the past 20 years, U.S. military and intelligence services have generally either not understood or chosen to ignore this dynamic as they sought to paint an optimistic picture of American efforts to build a strong, loyal Afghan army. Hence the Biden administration’s expectation that there would be what during the Vietnam War was called a “decent interval” between U.S. departure and the state’s collapse. 

While the coming months and years will reveal what the U.S. government did and didn’t know about the state of Afghan security forces prior to U.S. withdrawal, the speed of the collapse was predictable. That the U.S. government could not foresee — or, perhaps, refused to admit — that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years.

A lot of smart (and not so smart) people are now going to pivot to the “lessons learned” portion of the American adventure in Afghanistan. Lieven, I think, has the most important part figured out:

The point is that America’s commanders and officials either completely failed to understand these aspects of Afghan reality or failed to report them honestly to U.S. administrations, Congress and the general public.

We can draw a clear line between this lack of understanding and the horrible degree of surprise at the events of the past several days. America didn’t predict this sudden collapse, but it could have and should have — an unfortunately fitting coda to a war effort that has been undermined from the start by a failure to study Afghan realities.

This week in terrorism history: March 2-8

Taliban fighter with captured US equipment, shown in a 2017 propaganda film. (Credit: Military Times)

Two days ago, the leaders of the Taliban signed an agreement with the United States designed to end bring to an end a war that the US has been fighting for nearly two decades.

But that was Saturday. Now it’s Monday, and there’s this:

A deadly blast shattered a period of relative calm in Afghanistan on Monday and the Taliban ordered fighters to resume operations against Afghan forces just two days after signing a deal with Washington aimed at ushering in peace.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack at a football ground in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, where three brothers were killed, officials told AFP.

The blast occurred around the same time the Taliban ordered fighters to recommence attacks against Afghan army and police forces, apparently ending an official “reduction in violence” that had seen a dramatic drop in bloodshed and given Afghans a welcome taste of peace.

Whether this will scuttle the agreement, which lays out a timetable for the final withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan, or not remains to be seen. But the pact, negotiated without the participation of the Afghan government itself, had already suffered one substantial blow.

Part of the deal calls for the Afghan government to release as many as 5,000 Taliban fighters as part of a prisoner swap in exchange for 1,000 captive members of the Afghan security forces. But on Sunday

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, that a prisoner release was not a promise the United States could make, according to The Associated Press. “The request has been made by the United States for the release of prisoners and it can be part of the negotiations but it cannot be a precondition,” said Ghani.

More than 2,400 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan since the United States invaded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, toppling the Taliban from power and hounding al Qaeda from its camps and hideouts. If the peace deal holds, we could see all 12,000 US troops currently deployed there, and the nearly 7,000 NATO forces, leave once and for all. What happens after that remains anyone’s guess.

Now for this week’s look back.

  • March 2, 2001 — Corbett, OR: Federal and local law enforcement agents, as part of an ongoing probe into a white supremacist group, raid a home, seizing weapons, racist literature, and marijuana growing equipment. They also recover a binder notebook entitled “Army of God, Yahweh’s Warriors” containing what officials call a list of targets that include a local federal building and the FBI’s Oregon offices. 
  • March 3, 1991 — Cappagh, Northern Ireland: The Ulster Volunteer Force carries out a gun attack on a pub in County Tyrone, killing four Catholic men. Some time later the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announces that three of its members had been killed in the attack. The fourth person killed was a Catholic civilian. 
  • March 3, 2003 — Davao City, Philippines: A bomb attributed to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, hidden in a backpack, detonates inside an airport terminal, killing 22 and wounding 148. The organization denies responsibility.
  • March 5, 2018 — Beaver Dam, WI: A 28-year-old food company technician is killed in an explosion at his apartment. Bomb-making materials were subsequently found throughout his home, including a 40 gallons of acetone, a highly volatile substance that is commonly used as a component of terrorist bombs worldwide. Police recover white supremacist materials from the apartment.
  • March 8, 1995 — Karachi, Pakistan: Gunmen kill two US diplomats and wound another. The attack took place as the diplomats were being driven to work at the US embassy. No claim of responsibility was made and suspects were never identified.

About that Iranian general

(Credit: Getty Images)

Remember that Iranian general the United States assassinated back in January? The one whose killing the Trump administration justified as necessary to stop imminent attacks on American targets?

Just kidding on that imminence thing.

In the legally required notice outlining the legal and policy rationale behind the killing of Qassem Soleimani delivered to Congress today, the Trump administration dropped all assertions that the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force was assassinated to prevent an imminent attack.

While the notice argues that under Article II of the Constitution the president has the power as commander-in-chief to authorize military in the face of an imminent threat of attack against the United States, the notice carefully avoids making any such claim of imminence in its statement of the facts surrounding the Jan. 2 operation:

The President directed this action in response to an escalating series of attacks in preceding months by Iran and Iran-backed militias on United States forces and interests in the Middle East region. The purposes of this action were to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran’s and Qods Force-backed militias’ ability to conduct attacks and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks on, and threats to United States interests.

No mention of an impending attack there. Nor in this later passage:

Iran’s past and recent activities, coupled with intelligence at the time of the air strike, indicated that Iran’s Qods Force posed a threat to the United States in Iraq, and the air strike against Soleimani was intended to protect United States personnel and deter future Iranian attack plans against United States forces and interests in Iraq and threats emanating from Iraq.

So, to summarize, why did the United States kill Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 2, bringing us to the brink of war with Iran?

  • In response to prior attacks
  • In response to an escalating series of attacks
  • To deter Iran from making future attacks
  • To deter future Iranian attack plans
  • To degrade the capabilities of Iran and its Iraqi militia proxies

None of this amounts to the kind of immediate threat that the Trump administration claimed required it to assassinate the highest-ranking military leader of a rival government. Instead, it sounds like a deliberate, premeditated, act of war. Looks like I was right when I wrote this a month ago:

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

Just Security has posted a lengthy and detailed analysis of the Trump administration’s notice to Congress. You can read it here.

That the Trump administration lied about its justification for killing Soleimani is probably the least surprising fact in the whole sordid affair. The most surprising is that they complied with the law and reported to Congress at all.

Cue Inigo Montoya

The last week of nail-biting US foreign policy and flirtation with all-out war against Iran has served to highlight a couple of basic concepts that the Trump administration clearly does not comprehend. I’m going to touch on one here.

Let’s talk about the concept of “imminence.” The assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in Iraq a week ago was justified, according to President Trump, because Soleimani was planning “imminent and sinister” attacks that would kill Americans. The president elaborated:

“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump said during brief remarks at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “We did not take action to start a war.”

Without divulging details about what led to the early morning airstrike that killed Soleimani and nine others, the president said the United States “caught” the general “in the act and terminated him.”

OK, sounds serious. After all, the standard definition of “imminent” is that something is “likely to occur at any moment.”

Unless you’re Secretary of State Mike Pompeo …

Apparently the secretary also doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “consistent.”

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

At least that’s the implication of a new report in the Washington Post this afternoon:

On the day the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, U.S. forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.

The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.

If this latest report is accurate, then what the United States did in assassinating Soleimani was not a defensive use of pre-emptive military force, but an aggressive act of war. One which, so far, has not spiraled out of control.

So far.