Issue of the Week: War
Miscue After Miscue, U.S. Exit Plan Unravels, cover story, Sunday New York Times, 8/23/21
As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, sights that are like hallucinogenic Alice-in-Wonderland from hell images have flooded every screen on every device.
From where it all began.
On March 1st, we posted a piece on Afghanistan with Dexter Filkin’s article in The New Yorker, Last Exit From Afghanistan. Here’s the introduction:
It’s difficult to believe that what is often described as America’s longest military engagement, although nowhere near it’s most substantial, but which signaled the beginning of global conflict and enormous consequences ever since 9/11, is like so many global issues generally out of sight and out of mind. The US now has only a virtual handful of troops left in Afghanistan and whether they stay or go to zero could have enormous consequences.
The full history, nuances and magnitude of this situation is for another time. For now we focus on Dexter Filkin’s critical article today in The New Yorker on the current situation in Afghanistan and the US at the crossroads, Last Exit From Afghanistan.
After the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 by Al Qaida, based in Afghanistan under protection of the brutal fundamentalist government of the Taliban, the US invaded and attacked the Taliban in force on October 7, 2001, overthrew them, and began a process of hoped-for democratic government and economic development. For many years, it was generally referred to as the “good war” across the political spectrum and largely in the public mind, until for various reasons war-weariness by the US set in. Violence for the Afghanis was far worse than what the coalition forces suffered, particularly in an age of military sophistication that reduced deaths and injuries for soldiers on a scale never seen before, with every death and injury nonetheless being tragic. But for Afghanis, death and bloodshed on an epic scale was in recent times at least normalized back to the virtually genocidal invasion by the Soviets, blunted and defeated by the Afghanis eventually with US arms and assistance, and contributing to Soviet defeat in the Cold War. Tragically, as often was the case, US follow-up was to abandon rebuilding and creating economic social justice, especially at the village level, leaving a generation of Afghanis armed by the US, without future prospects and deeply resentful, which in no small part led to the Taliban take over to begin with and the fueling of increasing extremism and tribalism of various kinds.
The post 9/11 project had been hurt by deflection of resources and focus to Iraq–and lack of sufficient focused resources on basic needs for the majoriy of Afghanis, even with later escalation. Then came de-escalation–now to a low of only 2500 US troops. It ceased being a war in any real or major sense for most US, NATO and coalition troops some time ago. The fight now is mainly between the government and the Taliban, who have been in peace talks with each other, but few believe peace will be the outcome. Over 20 years, democracy and civil society have gained some tenuous ground, with the usual attendant corruption, while the liberation and rights of women, children and other advances in human rights have often been astonishing, if still with miles to go, and the countryside particularly remains woefully underdeveloped. Nonetheless, its a very different nation than 20 years ago. While there has been or is disillusion with the government, the majority supports women’s rights and certainly does not support Taliban positions, while still hoping for a peace settlement. That seems unlikely at the moment in any meaningful way as the Taliban has increasingly been assasinating government officials, journalists and activists–hundreds of them–notably women. The few US troops remaining may determine whether a path forward can continue (although the US posture under Trump of basically abandoning the field to the Taliban–not because the Taliban is any match for US force if applied, but for political reasons–has contributed during peace negotiations to the situation becoming more tenuous), although even with a small force, likely at a price of increased Taliban attacks and some American lives (and the possibility of at least some increased US involvement), or whether all-out civil war dwarfing in blood anything in decades before will occur, which further destabilizes the region, including the nuclear powers that have helped keep the region unstable.
As we often remind, one-dimendional ideological views from right, left or center are just that–one-dimensional, and a disservice to reality.
For a taste of reality we turn to the renowned war correspondent, Dexter Filkins and his article today, Last Exit From Afghanistan. Don’t think you can have an informed opinion without reading his perceptive, instructed by long experience, brilliant article:
By Dexter Filkins, A Reporter At Large, March 1, 2021
Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?
Question answered in 22 weeks.
Although not unimaginable by many in the know, not listened to.
No one more importantly than Sarah Chayes, who was featured tonight on PBS NewsHour. Her story, her experience and the facts she brings to our attention, are partly widely-understood by anyone with a modicum of education on the subject. But even for those of us paying attention, much of what she has revealed is as shocking as anything could be, and given the impact on the world for the past two decades–and before, and to come–this is a story that is going to make and break many, and eventually, as it becomes more broadly understood, have historic impact.
We are posting it here, followed by a just posted New York Times article (updated here on August 21) which will run in print on Sunday on the cover, Miscue After Miscue, U.S. Exit Plan Unravels. As in some ways only the Times can do, written by nine of their best reporters, this is their in-depth report on what has happened to date in Afghanistan over this momentous week.
Here’s the PBS NewsHour story:
The U.S. ignored corruption within the Afghan government. Did that lead to its fall?, Aug 20, 2021, PBS NewsHour
As the Taliban faces protests and dissent across Afghanistan, William Brangham explores the collapse of the country’s government — built and supported by the U.S. and allies for 20 years. For a deeper perspective, Brangham speaks with Sarah Chayes, who covered the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 for NPR and served as advisor to several senior U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.
Read the Full Transcript
We return now to our top story, as the Taliban struggles to rule amid protests and dissent in Kabul and across the country.
William Brangham explores the collapse of the country’s government, which was built and supported by the U.S. and its allies for 20 years.
That’s right, Judy.
For some deeper perspective on how we got here, I’m joined now by someone who’s had years-long involvement in Afghanistan.
Sarah Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 for NPR. She then started and ran several NGOs in the country. She served as adviser to several senior U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan and then to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
She is the author of several books. The most recent is “On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake.” And she joins us now from Paris.
Sarah Chayes, great to have you back on the “NewsHour.”
You recently published an essay called “The Ides of August,” and, in it, you laid out several factors that you argue helped get us where we are today. And the first element was corruption that you pointed to.
Can you explain the mechanism? How is it that corruption leads to the fall of the Afghan government?
In simple terms, why would a population take risks to fight the Taliban on behalf of a government that is treating them almost as badly as the Taliban do?
So, Afghan government officials would shake people down at every interaction. The massive international funding that was arriving in the country was being siphoned off or captured by government officials and their cronies.
And from Afghans’ perspective, it almost looked like the United States was in favor of this system, because our officials were always seen partnering with these venal Afghan leaders. And no matter how much the population complained, they really couldn’t get us to address the serious — the issues seriously.
What role did the U.S.’ actions play in this? Did we hinder the corruption? Did we help the corruption? Did we try to stop the corruption?
I have to say, on balance, we enormously helped the corruption, as I say, first of all, by allowing local strongmen to capture the revenue streams.
So, for example, you would have one local strongman who is providing security at that — at a U.S. base, and then he would only allow his people in to our contracting conferences, for example. We never held any of the officials that we were partnering with to account.
I would say that, toward 2009-2010, we began to catch on to this as a serious issue. And so a decision was made to do a test case, with plenty of evidence. It was brilliantly mounted, and it had to do with a haul of approximately $900 million in Kabul Bank, right?
So we’re talking a significant issue here. And the person targeted who was taking a bribe was in the palace, was close to President Karzai. Well, as soon as President Karzai threw a fit about the arrest from his henchman, warrants executed a U-turn, and the U.S. never took corruption seriously after that. That was in 2010.
In 2011, when I was working with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there was an interagency policy process that would arrive at a determination, how was the United States going to address corruption? And, explicitly, it was decided that we were not going to focus on any of the high-level corruption, only — quote — “street-level” police corruption, which, of course, was the purview of the military.
So, from my perspective, there was a real dereliction of duty on the part of civilian leaderships in the United States.
Another factor in the essay that you posted was the role that Pakistan played in all of this.
Can you explain? For people who are not familiar with the dynamics between the two nations, what role did Pakistan play?
The Taliban did not initially arise inside Afghanistan the way we have often heard, in 1994.
The Taliban were, in fact, basically concocted across the border in Pakistan. At that time, Afghanistan was a pretty chaotic, violent place, because it was after the Soviets had withdrawn and there were a lot of different PTSD-suffering militia commanders who were shooting at each other.
And Pakistan was very interested in the long-distance trade routes that crossed Afghanistan. And it was really hard to get convoys, get goods across the country. And so their idea for how to secure their own interests, which both were in trade and were in having some what is often called strategic depth with respect to India, right?
Like, India is their big rival, and they wanted a little bit of room behind them and control over territory and population. So they came up with this idea of Taliban. And they actually market-tested it. And I know this from interviews with locals over a number of years.
Golly, wouldn’t you — how would you feel about some religious students coming to bring this violence to a stop? And, frankly, people said, anything, you know?
This was Pakistani military intelligence doing this?
That’s exactly right.
And then, in 2003, I watched them begin reconstituting the Taliban. So, Pakistan was playing — or the Pakistani military intelligence agency was playing this remarkable double game with the United States, where they were playing at being our ally and helping us conduct operations, but they were also essentially arming, equipping, training, and directing the Taliban.
And if you look today at the reactions from Pakistani officials, I mean, they are crowing about the current results, the current outcome.
Your essay also touches on the role that former Afghan President Hamid Karzai played in this eventual undoing that we have witnessed. Again, how so?
Again, it’s very counterintuitive, but it was Karzai who initially negotiated the entry of the Taliban into Kandahar back in 1994.
He was basically operating on behalf to have the Pakistani military intelligence agency. Karzai got into a fight with his father about it. Others disagreed with him about it. But that was the role he played. And so, again, it stunned me when I learned this, that our choice to be the first president of Afghanistan was the very one who had ushered the Taliban into power in the first place.
And, today, we see him again emerging as the head of some coordinating committee. And so it makes me ask myself, has he not been conducting this type of negotiations, just like he did back in 1994, with the leaders of the northern cities, who all surrendered almost in unison, and all the other kind of local power brokers that we saw surrender in such quick succession?
That doesn’t just happen by itself. That was prepared.
Sarah Chayes, always great to see you.
Your latest book is “On Corruption in America.”
Thank you so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me, William.
. . .
Now to the article just posted for The New York Times, which will appear in print on the cover of the Sunday edition:
Michael D. Shear, David E. Sanger, Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Julian E. Barnes and Aug. 21, 2021, The New York Times