Prompted by some discussion on Twitter, a few random thoughts:
- The US has spent 100s of billions of dollars in its longest war and Trump has had it and wants out. He is not wrong in regarding this as a colossal waste of money. But Trump being Trump, he will probably end up wasting whatever gains the US DID make in the region in the process. Zalmay Khalilzad may be sincerely interested in a viable Afghanistan, but his boss has neither the interest nor the ability. Without knowing ANYTHING about the various layers of secret planning and execution going on right now, just on general principles (losers don’t get to dictate terms, winners are not bound by promises they made, Trump is an ignorant conman, etc) this is not going to end well. There WILL be blood.
- The waste is going to get blamed on “corrupt Afghans”, but really, the Afghan elite (while undoubtedly corrupt in many cases) is not the main actor here. The United States is simply not a very effective imperial power. Much of the corruption is on the US side (contractors for the most part) and all of it is ultimately the responsibility of the imperial power cutting the checks. The US has a frighteningly capable military and a huge war chest. For the US to spend 100-1000 billion dollars and be unable to manage Afghanistan is a tribute to American incompetence, not Afghan resistance or corruption. If they were fooled by Pakistan is it Pakistan’s fault? if they were fooled by Afghans, is it all the Afghan’s fault? Beyond the obvious corruption on the US side there is the issue of ideological incompetence; the US is neither a capable imperial power, nor an innocent spectator with no interest in meddling in far away countries. And somehow its processes are so designed that it is easier to waste a 100 billion per year than it is to sit back and figure out what the aims are, where the carrots and sticks are most likely to work and now to apply them.
- The threat of withdrawal is not necessarily a bad idea. There is an obvious moral hazard in this situation, where Afghan (and other anti-Taliban parties, including India, Iran, Russia, China etc) have limited incentive to shape up or step up as long as the US is walking around with a generous checkbook and a tremendous fighting force willing to act on their behalf. In better hands, this might have been exactly the way to make everyone shoulder their own share of the burden.. but these are not “better hands”. Trump has no plan and less interest in any good (or bad) outcome. I find it hard to imagine that this could end up as a US “win”. As a US citizen, I will be happy if it does, but I am not holding my breath.
- Pakistan, supposedly the “winner” in this war, will not find victory too satisfying. The Taliban will not take orders (I mean they probably WILL entertain requests to kill X or Y as a favor to us, but they won’t do things they don’t want to do anyway), anti-Taliban Afghans will not roll over and play dead. India will continue to support them and Indian support is not insignificant. Russia, Iran and even China probably do not want a Taliban govt either. Instead of peace, we will have renewed civil war and more violence, not less violence. (Including blowback IN Pakistan). While the US may pay us (directly or more likely, indirectly via Gulf allies) for help in getting out, they will not keep paying once they are out. And they may not leave either. They may stick around to support the rump Afghan regime, and may pay troublemakers in Pakistan. And China will never be as generous as Uncle Sam used to be. Our troubles will not end with “victory” in Afghanistan.
- It would have been better to work WITH the US to stabilize a pro-US Afghan regime back in 2002 instead of playing double games. The cost of these games may extend beyond “victory”.