For years in the Afghanistan war, many experts complained that the United States was “moving the goalposts,” adding objectives, and allowing “mission creep.” If that’s true, then the peace agreement signed with the Taliban on Feb. 29 moves the goalposts all the way back to the one-yard line, and relies on the other team to score the touchdown for us.
The accord formally gives up on the out-of-fashion U.S. goals of building a democracy based on the rule of law, and promoting civil organizations to bolster the society for the future. Even the desire to provide Afghan women with western-style rights, or anything close to that, is being left to the Afghans to determine.
It’s important to remember that the United States did not invade Afghanistan to help the Afghan people. We invaded to protect ourselves — to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base for attacks on the United States as it was on 9-11. For decades, the belief had been that the only way to do that over the long term was to add the “mission creep” goals. The “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” is an admission that it is beyond our ability to achieve those goals. We leave them to the Afghans. But what’s really worrying is that we would also leave the original, core objective — American security — to the Afghans.
One can almost hear any Americans who still care about Afghanistan sighing. They understandably hate to think that more than 2,400 American deaths, $2 trillion dollars and countless disrupted lives have achieved little. But they know that in America, from voters to presidential candidates, there’s no stomach to continue, especially with the outcome of even another 18 years highly uncertain.
Why couldn’t U.S. military power, foreign aid, intelligence operations and all our other capabilities get us past the one-yard line? Because our goals never aligned with Afghan goals, not even among our allies there.
It is impossible to overstate the cultural divide between the United States and Afghanistan. Even among our Afghan friends, concepts that are basic to us are seen very differently, including honesty in government, loyalty among members of the armed forces, and the need to achieve goals in a timely manner and then build on those achievements. Corruption and family or tribal nepotism are rampant and widely accepted. While many Afghan soldiers and police officers are brave and forthright, many others bristle at authority and rules, and hold their first loyalties to their family, tribe and God, not so much to their commanders or the central government.
And those are our friends.
Our Afghan adversaries, like the Taliban, have all that, and also a fierce loyalty to fundamental Islam, which they believe they can only fully serve by taking political power and creating a strict Muslim society.
It reminds me of an interview I did with a Hamas official in Hebron, on the West Bank, in the mid-1990s. At the time, moderate Palestinians were telling me they wanted peace so their children could live better lives than they did. The Hamas official rejected that view. His exact quote was lost over the years, but its substance is reflected in how the terrorist leader in my novel Sandblast explains the level of commitment he expects from a class of new recruits. “It does not matter if you die, or if I die, or if we all die, or if our families live in poverty for one hundred generations. What matters is that we work to do Allah’s will, to bring His Holy Koran and His Sharia Law to the world.”
As deep as our desire might be to bring democracy to the world, if we’re honest, we must admit it is not as deep as that.
This is not to make a value judgement on Afghan society, but rather to say its values are so different from America’s that any assumptions about shared goals must be treated with skepticism when dealing with our friends, and suspicion and disbelief when trying to bargain with our adversaries.
U.S. officials have admitted as much, telling NBC News they have intelligence indicating (Surprise!) that the Taliban has no intention of living up to its commitments. Indeed, the Islamic view of ceasefire, known as hudna, is a temporary cessation of hostilities to enable the righteous forces to regroup and attack again. There are Taliban peace talks in Sandblast. No spoilers, but you can imagine how that goes.
Traditionalists in Afghanistan, embodied by the Taliban, have proved they are more patient and more committed than we are (and than the Soviet Union was), and prepared to endure more hardship over a longer period. That’s not surprising. It is their country, after all.
Any U.S. policy driven by timelines and domestic political concerns only tells them how long they have to hold out. But any U.S. policy that requires a long-term foreign commitment and doesn’t have strong domestic support, is likely doomed to fail. Americans have demonstrated many times that they are good at responding to imminent overseas threats, and not so good at long-term foreign commitments absent such a threat. Part of the current U.S. calculation seems to be that the United States can deal with any future Afghanistan-based threat as necessary, without maintaining a long-term presence, and certainly without engaging in the costly and uncertain business of “nation building.”
The positions of the presidential candidates make that clear.
In the Democratic candidates’ debate in September, Joe Biden said, “The whole purpose of going to Afghanistan was to not have a counterinsurgency…The point is that it’s a counterterrorism strategy.” In other words, he would limit U.S. goals to those specifically related to our security, not to building Afghanistan. And he said he would do that in conjunction with a troop withdrawal. In Foreign Affairs in June, Bernie Sanders also called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops, and said the United States “must seriously reinvest in diplomacy and development aid,” exactly the kind of thing the congress has proved it is not good at doing over the long term.
President Trump, meanwhile, wants to withdraw the troops before the Democrats have the chance, except for a small counterterrorism force. He seems to believe that American support for the Afghan government, coupled with the Taliban’s commitment to the agreement, will be sufficient to keep the peace and protect some version of democracy—a view contradicted by the officials who spoke to NBC.
All three approaches boil down to, “It’s their problem, unless and until it becomes our problem again.” And if that’s the position across the political spectrum, it must reflect the views of the American people, to the extent that they think about Afghanistan any more at all.
So, perhaps this agreement for a possibly graceful exit from Afghanistan is the only thing we can do. It’s not peace. It’s certainly not victory. At best, like in a novel, it’s just “The End” — at least for now.
Al Pessin’s debut novel, Sandblast, is the story of an American soldier who goes undercover inside the Taliban. Pessin was a journalist at the Voice of America for 39 years, including 15 overseas and five covering the Pentagon. www.AlPessin.com