PARIS—The Washington Post’s vast investigative report about the delusions and lies of successive American administrations in Afghanistan reads almost like a celebration of superpower humiliation. Drawing on hundreds of internal U.S. government interviews about “lessons learned,” it would reinforce anyone’s belief the best lesson would be to get the fuck out. Like, yesterday already.
Certainly the documents dovetail with U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s promise that he’ll be the one to end this “endless war.” Amb. Ryan Crocker, one of the diplomats quoted extensively in the articles, told me after the series came out, “the Post has just helped [Trump] immensely.” And sure enough, NBC and other media reported Saturday night that Trump is preparing a drawdown of 4,000 more troops, to a level of 8,000 to 9,000 boots on the ground, with the aim of "ending" the war (for Americans) before the 2020 election.
But is complete withdrawal—what the Taliban call a full American “evacuation”— really the best option? In fact, the president has vacillated on that score. His preferred option is negotiation, he says. He even invited Taliban leaders to Maryland for his own historic "Camp David accords" just before the anniversary of 9/11, then rescinded the invite and canceled talks amid an uproar.
On Trump's surprise Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops at Afghanistan's Bagram Airfield, he announced talks with the Taliban would resume. “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal [with the Taliban], or we have total victory.”
To achieve that second option, he's hinted at nukes: "If I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be gone, it would be over literally in 10 days,” he proclaimed in July, then said, “I don’t want to go that route.” In September, he returned to the same theme: “If we wanted to do a certain method of war, we would win that very quickly, but many, many, really, tens of millions of people would be killed, and we think it’s unnecessary.”
So, what is the madman's plan?
Trump being Trump, he has left the Pentagon, the commanders in the field, and the Afghan government wondering when he will pick up his cell phone, punch in a declaration like the one that betrayed U.S. Kurdish allies in Syria, and let the blade fall that cuts all U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. As counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen puts it, they all “sit under the tweet of Damocles.” Even if he then tries to reverse course, as he did with the Kurds, Trump will just amplify confusion, and that is the last thing Afghan policy needs.
Kilcullen, an Australian "soldier-scholar" recognized internationally as an authority on asymmetric conflicts and small wars, worked as an often contentious consultant with the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He is the author most recently of The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, due for publication in March.
Ironically, since few people have a more granular sense of the problems faced in Afghanistan and their causes, Kilcullen was not among those interviewed for the U.S. government’s “lessons learned” project that is the basis for the Post series.
For my part, I have been of the GTFO school regarding Afghanistan for about 17 of the 18 years since the U.S. invaded. But in phone conversations over the last few days, Kilcullen and Crocker offered several potentially useful insights to the current situation that I think deserve consideration.
They talked about not only what went wrong, but what could still go right—or at least right enough—to support a peace settlement without leaving Afghanistan entirely to the wolves, whether the Taliban or terrorists with global ambitions.
Separately, Kilcullen and Crocker said the current level of commitment by the U.S., with 12,000 to 13,000 troops on the ground, possibly being drawn down to 8,000 to 9,000, is about right. So is the greatly reduced American spending. (“There is less to steal,” says Crocker.)
Kilcullen notes that while each American soldier’s death is a tragedy, the numbers are nothing close to the levels of 2011 when there were some 100,000 troops in the country, and hundreds of them were killed. Since 2016, American combat deaths in Afghanistan have numbered fewer than 20 a year. The troops in place are there mainly in advisory and support roles.
The U.S. presence is “an insurance policy” that is sustainable, said Crocker, speaking before reports of the latest drawdown. Trump, he said, "is a minimalist in terms of overseas involvements. ... That is not a bad thing,[but] minimal is good. Zero is bad."
"For us to do a complete withdrawal would be idiotic given the low costs we have now," said Crocker. "Do we think the Taliban and al Qaeda have become kinder and gentler during their years in the wilderness?”
From a Washington policy point of view, defeating defeatism was always going to be tough to do.
Maybe going into Afghanistan we read too much of what Rudyard Kipling wrote about the disastrous British experience there in the early 19th century. The poet laureate of British militarism and imperialism—the author of “If” and “The White Man’s Burden”—had a feel for the place and for the cost paid by the British troops who tried to subdue it:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Blander histories of more recent events are full of lessons learned too late about the intractability of Afghanistan’s terrain and tribes. In the 1980s the Soviets broke their empire trying to hammer the country into a “modern” socialist mold. Americans gloated that it became Moscow’s Vietnam.
The United States, having supported the jihad against Moscow, walked away and watched as the Taliban, the “students” of radically retrograde Islam, rose to power in the 1990s. Then the U.S. government professed shock and horror when the Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden, one of many Arabs who had volunteered in the U.S.-backed Afghan jihad.
After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, if the Taliban had surrendered Bin Laden and his minions their Afghan regime might have been allowed to survive, no matter the cost to the Afghan people. When the Taliban refused, it took only a few weeks of war at the end of 2001 and beginning of 2002 to end their rule and smash al Qaeda’s infrastructure. That done, there was little semblance of government left in Afghanistan, and the U.S. and its allies, faute de mieux, started trying to cobble things together.
Again, Kipling’s poetry about frustration and failure among those who try to “build” occupied nations seemed as prescient as it was arrogant. In 1899 he had warned that “the savage wars of peace” may come to nothing because of “sloth and heathen folly.” And there certainly are echoes of that judgment 120 years later in the narrative developed from documents obtained by The Washington Post.
But Kilcullen, for one, takes issue with the notion that the war in Afghanistan was, from the beginning, “unwinnable.”
Over the phone from Norfolk, Virginia, where he had been talking at a NATO conference, Kilcullen spoke about Afghanistan with the kind of direct, unvarnished language Americans tend to appreciate from Australians.
From Kilcullen’s point of view, watching developments on the ground since the early days of the U.S. presence, there were plenty of mistakes, but there could have been much better solutions. The problems lay with the U.S. and its allies and their confused, often self-defeating approach to the conflict.
The Post' Afghanistan Papers series, starting with the headline "At War With The Truth," makes the case that U.S. officials deceived the American public with false tales of success on the battlefield.
"I don't think they were lying to the public, I think it's actually worse than that," said Kilcullen. "We are like a gigantic dinosaur with 60 million brain cells that don't talk to each other and every six months when a unit rotates out or every two years when a policymaker changes we forget everything that we learned and we go back to square one."
Taking issue with those who've written that the war in Afghanistan was "unwinnable from the outset," Kilcullen said. "Frankly, that's a cop-out. The war was not 'unwinnable,' it's still not 'unwinnable,' we're just not winning it. ... In fact, we just suck."
Kilcullen proceeded to cite several granular examples.
It was generally understood by counter-insurgency mavens, for instance, that the war would have to end with some kind of negotiations, but the "kinetic" action didn't support the diplomatic and political objective.
"We have focused on the military defeat of the Taliban and on disrupting Taliban networks, essentially. And then we say, okay now we want to negotiate with the Taliban. Well, we just spent 10 years disrupting their ability to control their own people," said Kilcullen.
He worked closely with Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. "At one point when Petraeus was commander, and it wasn’t him doing this, we reduced the average age of Taliban commanders in the south of Afghanistan by a full decade," Kilcullen said. "We took them from an average age of 29 in 2010 to an average age of 20 in 2011. So that means we killed an entire generation of junior and middle level Taliban guys. And then the year after that we were, like, let’s start a negotiation process. And the senior Taliban said, 'We can’t deliver a peace deal because you killed the middle ranking guys. We don’t have a unified structure anymore.' So, our kinetic targeting approaches didn’t support our negotiating or political objectives for much of the war."
Later, it turned out that Taliban leader Mullah Mansour had been telling his rank and file that he was just following orders from Taliban founder Mullah Omar for more than two years after Omar’s actual death in 2013. Not surprisingly, this revelation caused considerable dissension, even rebellion, in Taliban ranks and according to Kilcullen they were coming apart at the seams—until the U.S. tracked Mullah Mansour into Pakistan and droned him. “We whacked the guy,” said Kilcullen. “We basically fixed the Taliban’s internal cohesion problem overnight with a Hellfire missile.”
Another problem: at the beginning of the war, the American strategy for aid was to go into the hottest “red” areas to try to build infrastructure, education and prosperity. But that wound up being a thankless task, less effective than going into “green” areas that could be held up as positive examples.
Kilcullen noted that many of the most-cited interviews in the Post series are from 2015, relating to the surge and its aftermath: “historical problems that are no longer relevant.”
Okay, I said, asking him the same questions I asked Crocker: What about corruption? What about opium production? What about the huge losses in the Afghan National Army? And is it really possible to negotiate with the Taliban at all?
Next: Trump’s Afghanistan Policy? Talk Tough, Then Just Pull the Plug