Tragedy in the making

The rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban this past week is a humanitarian crisis, as Dan Rather described in a serious and thoughtful piece. Afghanistan… – by Dan Rather, Elliot Kirschner, and Steady Team – Steady (substack.com). As Rather pointed out, regardless of the politics, we can all feel terrible for the tragedy that has befallen innocent people in Afghanistan, especially women.

However, Donald Trump and other Republicans who are so quick to try to blame this unhappy result on President Biden are engaging in partisan politics of the most cynical kind. Don’t forget, it was Trump himself who railed against America’s “endless wars” and promised to bring all of our troops home. It was Trump who invited the Taliban to Camp David on the anniversary of 9/11 just a couple of years ago; he rescinded that invitation only after powerful blowback from the American public and politicians alike.

And it was Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who reached the Doha agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, wherein the U.S. pledged to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by May 2021, that is, 3 months ago. It was Joe Biden who extended that deadline to September 11 of this year, and then moved it back a bit to August. While Trump agreed that it was good that Biden was completing his deal, he objected that Biden wasn’t moving fast enough to get our troops home.

Now Republican revisionists, including Trump and the pompous Pompeo, act like Trump had negotiated some unspecified conditions that would have ensured that the Taliban wouldn’t brutally overrun the country. An analysis by David French in Time Magazine in March 2020 demonstrates that this is just not true.

French points out that there were no specific conditions in the agreement for the Taliban to meet, and that Trump unilaterally agreed to seek the release by the Afghanistan government of 5000 Taliban prisoners by March 20, with an additional goal of “releasing all remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months.” The released prisoners are now fighting for the Taliban.

Moreover, the U.S. committed to a goal of removing sanctions such as travel bans, an arms embargo, and a freeze on assets for Taliban members. In exchange, the U.S. received “promises” from the Taliban that they would not allow terrorists to threaten U.S. security from within Afghanistan. However, the agreement didn’t provide any verification or enforcement provisions to ensure the Taliban promises are kept. Imagine how candidate Trump would have derided a different President who had negotiated such a weak deal.
A 2020 photo of Pompeo himself meeting with a Taliban prisoner Trump had released in 2018, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the new President of Afghanistan, has been widely circulated on social media, thus undercutting Pompeo’s current bleatings about how tough he and Trump “would have been” with the Taliban if they didn’t live up to their vague “promises” in the agreement.

It is appropriate for Americans to be concerned about the fate of those Afghanis who had assisted our efforts over the years, whether as translators, guides, or fellow soldiers. However, the notion that Trump would have been more solicitous of their well-being than Biden is undercut by Trump’s actions in October 2019, in precipitously withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, thus leaving our Kurdish allies (who helped us defeat ISIS) totally vulnerable to vengeful Turkish forces.

Rolling Stone reported that over 130,000 Kurds had to abandon their homes and hundreds were killed in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s rash decision (made after a phone call with Turkish dictator Recep Erdogan, without consulting military or diplomatic experts). So despite his revisionist rhetoric, Trump has already shown himself to be callous towards allies who helped us fight terrorism in the Middle East.

The Washington Post has observed that the process of Afghani military and police forces seeking to reach an accommodation with the Taliban began as soon as Trump reached the Doha deal with the Taliban – an agreement that, by the way, was done without the participation of the Afghan government.

The announcement of this agreement immediately led to side deals between the Taliban and Afghani security forces, leaders, and individuals in various regions, in which the Afghanis essentially handed over their U.S. weapons to the Taliban in exchange for their lives.

David Rothkopf has also explained succinctly the seeds of the ultimate failure in Afghanistan.  It is important to remember that, aside from the appropriate and necessary retaliation the United States launched against the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who plotted and carried out the deadly 9/11 attack on the U.S., the ultimate mission in Afghanistan initiated by President George W. Bush was always murky and fraught with problems.

President Obama was right when he campaigned on the premise that the Bush Administration had taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan by diverting its attention and resources to the ill-founded attack on Iraq and the incredible challenges of the ensuing occupation of that country. Unfortunately, President Obama did not solve the Afghanistan war.

While the speed with which the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal has been stunning, it shows that the reported $88B the U.S. spent on training and equipping Afghan forces did not produce anywhere near the results Americans had a right to expect for that price tag. Instead, it revealed that we had essentially built a Potemkin Village, merely the façade of security self-sufficiency for Afghanistan, and it collapsed the first time the winds of change blew through the country. By no means did it show that staying in Afghanistan longer, against the wishes of the American people, would have resulted in a different outcome.

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