During one of my first trips to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, a Nato officer pulled me aside and urged me to do some reporting on Lieutenant General Valdas Tutkus. The Lithuanian army veteran had just been named the country’s chief of defence, and he was one of the first of the allies to commit to sending a “provincial reconstruction team” to help stabilise Afghanistan.
The Lithuanian commitment had caught my eye, because I had assumed the first non-American allies to send large-scale units to the stabilisation effort would be those with militaries more closely associated with the “pointy end of the spear” — such as the French or the British, who had far more extensive and recent warfighting experience.
But the Nato officer said Tutkus was a special case: as a young lieutenant in the Red Army in the 1980s, he had been a company commander in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s occupation. Three decades later, Tutkus felt it was his duty to return as a Nato officer to help rebuild a country the Soviets had done much to destroy.
It had all the makings of a great, colourful story, with a bit of historical sweep to boot. Once a foot soldier in the “bad” Afghan invasion, he was now part of a “good” one. Compare, contrast, add a few war stories and the piece, as they say, would write itself.
I filled my notebook, but time and the deterioration of the Iraq war intervened, and I never did get around to writing about Tutkus. Thinking about his story two decades later, however, makes me realise that his tale should have been a warning sign rather than a morality tale. Why did the American-led stabilisation effort think it’d have an easier time keeping warring Afghan factions at bay than the Soviet-led one? The well-thumbed copies of The Bear Went Over the Mountain, an English translation of a Soviet analysis of failed military tactics in Afghanistan that seemed to be in the rucksack of every Nato officer and war correspondent, somehow convinced me and a lot of US policymakers that this time it would be different.
One American policymaker who was not convinced was Joe Biden, who became a sceptic of the conduct of the conflict as a US senator from Delaware early in the war and actively pushed for a quick drawdown of forces as US vice-president. During Barack Obama’s 2009 review of war plans, Biden urged a shift from a troop-heavy counterinsurgency to a more focused counter-terrorism strategy, fought with small teams of special forces and unmanned drones.
Biden’s stance won him enmity in the Pentagon — former US defence secretary Robert Gates would later write that Biden had been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades” — where the uniformed and civilian leadership feared a precipitous withdrawal would plunge the country back into civil war.
But Biden has never wavered. Speaking last week after American forces departed Bagram Airfield, the main US military base outside Kabul, the president uttered words that he could have spoken a decade ago. US war aims had been accomplished, he said. Those who had plotted September 11 2001, including Osama bin Laden, had been killed or captured, and Afghanistan was no longer a base for attacks on the US or its allies. “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” he said. “It is the right and responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their fate and how they want to run their country.”
Many of those on the other side of the 2009 debate now agree Biden is right to end the war. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time and a leading advocate of a troop “surge” into southern Afghanistan in 2009, told National Public Radio last week: “I personally think it’s time to go. It’s been 20 years . . . there was no end in sight.”
But Mullen’s fears, which are still shared by many of the uniformed military leadership, were not unfounded. Already, US commanders report, Afghanistan appears headed towards another round of bloody factional warfare, with the Taliban advancing on multiple cities and towns controlled by the crumbling, US-trained Afghan military.
Which is to say that Biden may be right to withdraw American forces and end the US occupation after almost two decades — and still find himself presiding over the collapse of an American-backed government in Kabul and the reimposition of a brutal Islamist autocracy in the graveyard of empires.
That would be tragic for the Afghan people, and for the legacy of the 2,400 American servicemen who gave their lives over the past two decades to ensure the country’s 38m citizens could live free of the Taliban’s puritanical rule. I still happen to think withdrawal — even after decades of failed attempts to get the Afghan government and armed forces to stand on their own — is a mistake, both for the wellbeing of the Afghan people and for stability in a region bordered by powers that have come into conflict repeatedly since the Great Game 200 years ago.
But these are the tough decisions presidents are elected to make: send more American troops and treasure to fight a “forever war” for Afghan stability, or watch the country, and perhaps the region, collapse into sectarian violence.
Tragically, what Tutkus’s story also teaches us is that, in the near term, Biden might not face political consequences for such a collapse. Famously, after the CIA-backed mujahideen forced a young Tutkus and his comrades in the Red Army out of Afghanistan, Americans forgot about the place. The country’s descent into chaos and civil war fell off the Washington agenda for more than a decade — until September 11.
Which leads to my question for you, Rana: if Afghanistan collapses — and President Ashraf Ghani becomes Biden’s Nguyen Van Thieu, the former South Vietnam president — will this president pay any price, politically or otherwise? Or will it take Afghanistan becoming another haven for international terrorism, and another attack on US interests from Afghan soil, for Biden to reap the whirlwind?
Speaking of Obama, he recently tweeted out his “summer reading list”, an annual ritual he’s done since his time in the White House. Which has inspired me to offer my own, Swamp Notes-themed recommendations. I suspect mine will be somewhat less influential on sales than the former president’s, but here it goes:
Peter, this is a fabulous summary of the last 40 years of Afghan history (I smell a book here for you, or at least a long essay for the FT Weekend!). It’s also reflective of the ambivalence that many Americans feel about troop withdrawal. As this recent Brookings analysis of various poll results on the topic found, US opinions about the issue are all over the place. Lots of people polled couldn’t even answer basic questions about Afghanistan, because they were so confused about the particulars. Veterans themselves were split on the issue. Interestingly, the public sentiment tended to clarify in favour of withdrawal if it was posed as being part of a hypothetical executive order — which is, of course, exactly what has just happened for real.
My own feeling is that while US economic sentiment is up, and most Americans are feeling more optimistic about their own prospects, which tends to lead to a greater willingness to engage in the rest of the world, we are still at a major turning point in foreign policy. China is ascendant. The US is no longer a sole superpower. And it will be very difficult for any president to take us back to a time in which the majority of Americans are willing to support expensive wars in faraway places. I think this decision will be a net positive for Biden. And given that the future of warfare in general will be less about boots on the ground, and more about drones and cyber attacks, I’d be stunned if he or any president in the future took heat for removing troops from, as you so eloquently put it, “the graveyard of empires”.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to: ‘Why Amazon is wrong to fight Lina Khan’:
“It strikes me that there is a great deal to be done in ‘practical theorising’ about the large companies that now dominate much of everyday life. We have entered a fourth stage of economic development — beyond extractive, manufacturing and service economies — to find ourselves where customers of these large corporations are also their feed-stock. The provision of information, entertainment and the means of interpersonal communication are all interlinked in a way that they never have been before. For western-model societies which have not yet resolved the governance problems of the companies of the first three stages, the fourth stage poses an existential challenge in respect of rights, wealth-creation and wealth-sharing and the structure of society.” — Stephen Bloomfield, Essex, England