Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Fighting and Losing: Thinking About Afghanistan

 20 years after the US and then its allies got into Afghanistan, they are getting out, and it may be that the Taliban will return to power.  Maybe the government of Afghanistan will hold on, but much of the terrain over which NATO and its partners fought is falling into Taliban hands.  This week, some of the places where Canadians died have fallen.  What to make of it?  

Lt. General Eyre, the Acting Chief of Defence Staff had a very good statement:

My perspective, of course, is very different as I only spent a week in Afghanistan, and I didn't lose friends in battle.  The starting point, I guess, is thinking about what the troops and civilians were doing there.  In my book, I argue that the primary objective was to support an ally that had been attacked, that Canadians had no intrinsic interests in Afghanistan, but joined the effort to support the US and to support NATO.  And in that effort, Canadians, in and out of uniform, were mostly successful for the time they were there.  Canada left Kandahar before its allies left other combat zones, but while it was there, the CAF was more flexible and more helpful to the allied cause than almost any other ally.  And Canadians paid a higher price as a result.  

While the Canadians were in Kandahar, conditions improved, but there was a limit to what kind of sustainable impact they could make.  As Eyre says in his note, the job of the foreign militaries was to create the space for the political stuff.  No matter the Kandahar Action Plan or the Helmand Plan or the Uruzguan Plan and on and on, the outsiders simply could not change the politics of the place.  Ok, they could affect it, and did so often quite badly as the constitution was a poor fit for the place and as the outside forces often got played by the Afghans, with our "allies" providing tips that often were aimed at hurting their rivals for land, drugs, and power.  As I keep saying, third party counter-insurgencies are third-party for a reason--that the government of the place is not up to the task and that becomes pretty hard to fix.  

Was defeat inevitable?  I am still not sure as there were so many big mistakes early--the US going too light, becoming too quickly distracted by Iraq, putting into place a crappy constitution, and on and on.  But wars get lost--as far as I can tell, no country is undefeated.  How one grapples with that reveals as much or more character than the winning or losing.   The old saying is that victory has many parents but defeat is an orphan.  Everyone will try to disown this war, but we can look at the conflict and figure out what are the limits of power, what are the mistakes that we ought to avoid in the future, and what we do really well.  Trying to forget about this war and moving on, back to Great Power Competition, will only ensure that we are poorly prepared the next time.  The lessons of Vietnam came late to the battlefields of the Mideast, the lessons of Afghanistan may come too late down the road.

The focus now should be on helping those who helped us--the interpreters, the drivers, and the others who are at greatest risk of retaliation.  Of course, this will be one last bit of damage we do as we will be taking from Afghanistan some of the folks who might best contribute.  But our responsibility is to those individuals who we made promises to, more so than the long-term prospects of the place.  With all things in Afghanistan and in counter-insurgency, the choices are between bad and worse.   

It is natural to be angry and sad. The days ahead are going to be full of bad news.  In terms of the big Biden decision, I am not sure how this would be much different if it happened next year or the year after.  Sticking around would have made much more sense if there was evidence that there was progress being made, that the outcome would be different with a bit more time and investment.  I don't think Trump was wrong about wanting to get out of all of these wars--just about how to do it.  Nobody wants to lose a war on their watch, but deferring so that someone else can lose it on theirs is quite problematic.

There is much more to stay about all of this, so I will probably come back to it eventually.  Right now, I am just sad for the Afghans who were let down by their own leadership and by the outsiders. 

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