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American Myopia About Afghanistan
There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the media about the recent American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Americans don’t like losing.
They want to win all the wars they fight.
They don’t like taking casualties. They want all their wars be American-casualty free.
They don’t like paying taxes. They want all of their wars to be financial-cost free.
They also want to tell all the other countries what to do. Americans don’t want other countries to have religions that are not Christianity. By the American code, Jews are honorary Christians, Buddhists are cute and harmless enough, Hindus are dangerous, and Moslems are absolutely unacceptable. Other countries are also supposed to adhere to American gender norms, protect ecological assets in their countries that we have destroyed in our own country, and allow American businesses to come to their countries and buy all the profitable assets. The workers in those other countries are not allowed to come to America to get jobs.
They don’t like learning anything about the country where they are fighting their wars. They are utterly indifferent to the concerns of the locals in these places. Everything is about whether Americans win or lose in that country. Foreign countries are merely holes in a mini-golf-game of America versus anyone-who-is-not-America. We want to win as many holes as possible. The fact that struggles in these faraway countries reflect real local economic issues and real local concerns is an irrelevancy. To understand these would mean having to learn the history and politics of faraway countries. Americans don’t have time for that.
Whenever America loses, it is like losing a sporting event. If that happens, fire the coach. If we had had another coach, we surely would have won, right?
Americans need to shake their Afghanistan-as-Sporting-Event mentality and look at the real issues involved. The war in Afghanistan was more than a made-for-TV event. It was a real war that involved the deaths of real people. It was something America needed to get out of as soon as possible. Shifting out of Afghanistan was one of the few bright spots in Donald Trump’s foreign policy. It is one of the few points in which there is continuity between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
1. No major world power has won a war in Afghanistan in the last 200 years. No major world power has been able to govern Afghanistan in the last 200 years. The Afghans fended off a British invasion in the 19th century and a Soviet invasion in the 20th century. A second British invasion in the 19th century was a draw. It led to nominal British control of Afghan foreign policy, a point of relative indifference to the Afghans. Local governance stayed resoundingly in Afghan hands.
America had no more prospect of winning in Afghanistan than Britain had in the 19th century or the Russians had in the 20th century.
2. Afghanistan is mountainous. It is very hard for occupying forces to conquer mountainous territory. Switzerland has been independent for the last 200 years. Not even the Nazis could take over Switzerland. Bolivia has never been conquered by a foreign nation. Tibet was conquered by the Chinese, but it had negligible military forces. The Afghans have a long history of armed conflict and are entirely capable of defending themselves from foreigners.
3. Modern light arms give overwhelming advantages to mountain rebels. In the British era, the Afghans would have been restricted to minor arms: cavalry, rifles and light cannons. In the present era, rebels have access to missiles powerful enough to shoot down planes, sophisticated landmines and lethal automatic weaponry. These are hard for conventional forces to deal with – even with access to drones.
4. Kabul has never controlled the entirety of Afghanistan. Local mountain valleys have historically been autonomous. This autonomy is based on the substantial firepower available to local forces. The same conditions apply to Pakistan. Islamabad has never controlled the mountainous Tribal Areas in the Northwest of the country. Those areas govern themselves using their own family rules.
5. The war in Afghanistan is an ethnic war. The Taliban represents members of the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. The Kabul government generally represented an unstable coalition of the remaining ethnic groups. Its platform was essentially “Anybody-but-the-Pashtuns.” In ethnically diverse nations, it is hard to keep the largest ethnic group out of power for an extended period of time.
6. The Kabul government was highly corrupt and had a mediocre record on both economic development and providing social services. Afghanistan’s economic performance was about on a par with poorly run countries such as Iraq and Syria. It was significantly outperformed by governments that actually put effort into economic development. Afghanistan had less than 25% of the economic growth rate of Ethiopia, a star sub-Saharan developer. It had less than half of the economic growth rate of Egypt, an average Middle Eastern developer. Afghanistan vastly trails Egypt in both health indicators and literacy rates. Ethiopia does poorly on those indicators as well. Ethiopia however, is raising the income of its population while Afghanistan is not. The Afghan government has few records of actual achievement that justify not being replaced.
Note that the Afghan army did almost no fighting to protect the Kabul regime from the Taliban. The populations of the non-Pashtun states did almost no fighting to protect the Kabul regime from the Taliban. In Afghanistan, local populations, if armed, would have tremendous defensive military power. If they chose not to make use of that military power, it was because they were not all that enamored of the status quo.
7. Afghanistan is overrun by drug lords. The largest export of Afghanistan is heroin. Opium is the leading cash crop. Both the government and the Taliban actively trade in narcotics. The Americans have had to implicitly tolerate this. There were few other sources of income for the Afghan peasantry. If the U.S. had tried to close down the poppy farms, the locals would have risen up to support any military force that promised to let heroin production continue intact.
Countries run by drug lords are not well-run countries. Countries run by drug lords do not have progressive social policies. Countries run by drug lords do not have honest elections. Countries that are run by drug lords are usually corrupt from top to bottom. The police, the army, the prison guards, the judges, the district attorneys and the ministers of security are all on the take.
The United States has been utterly unable to get the cartels out of Mexican politics. America has far more leverage that it can use on Mexico than it has on Afghanistan. If America’s ability to clean up Mexico has been negligible, America’s ability to clean up Afghanistan is even less than that.
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So why would America want to spend a vast amount of money and American lives protecting a nation that is steeped in narco-traffic, has a corrupt non-performing government and is nearly impossible to govern because of the formidable military force available to local rebels?
America has far greater geopolitical issues to deal with. China has become increasingly expansionary – notably in the South China Sea. Russia has been expansionary in the Ukraine and in the Caucasus – and has made its unhappiness with the Baltic states manifestly clear.
From a strategic standpoint,
a. America has to conserve its military manpower and defense budgets for defending the areas where opposing geopolitical opponents would be expected to make moves.
b. Expansionary tendencies in both China and Russia are restrained by having an active military force on China’s borders and on the borders of Russia’s Central Asian allies. China in particular has been concerned about Islamic militancy in its own Western provinces. China is likely to be strategically restrained by having a pro-Muslim and aggressive Afghanistan on its border.
c. The Pashtuns, and Afghans in general, are Sunni. They do not see eye to eye with Iran, the leading center of Shia. A strong militant Afghanistan is a giant complication for Iran. Iran would be otherwise devoting its attention to meddling in Lebanon, fighting in Syria, and representing a security threat to Israel.
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So overall, there are a large number of geopolitical advantages to the United States making its peace with the Taliban. It is hard to see a credible case for propping up the pre-existing Afghan government.
Global politics is not about creating made-for-TV happy moments. It is about making oneself the strongest relative power for the next year, for the next decade or for the next thirty years.
Both Trump and Biden saw the need for America to reposition itself in a new geopolitical era.
The mass media likes to focus on the latest 24-hour news-cycle.
How about thinking about America’s strategy for confronting the global economic and military challenges of the next 25 years?