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When democracy dies in Afghanistan
On January 20th, 1961, in his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy Jr. made clear the pledge of the American people: the nation “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."
Today that goal seems lost to time.
“America’s only vital national interest in Afghanistan is ... preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland,” President Joseph Biden said on August 16th, 2021.
The videos and reports coming out of Afghanistan in the last week define a new American interpretation of what it means to protect, promote, and preserve democratic values. Rather than exert that system of beliefs on those who may not yet possess them—preventing discrimination and inequality and senseless violence—it is only the duty of a democratic nation to protect, promote, and preserve itself.
In this way, President Biden has undermined his campaign to uphold democratic values in a country that saw, under U.S. presence, the first generation of Afghan women receive a full education.
But perhaps there can be a balance.
“We can’t fix the world, but our national security interests are larger than preventing a terror attack. We have reinforced perceptions of America as a declining and unreliable power,” said Paul Kolbe, Director of The Intelligence Project at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “To counter, we must patiently rebuild the alliances that are central to our security. When we make commitments, we need to stand by them, even if longer and more costly than we expected, even if our chosen partners are not perfect. One first but important step is to rescue those Afghans to whom we made promises, just as we resettled Hmong allies after our loss in Vietnam. Honor demands it.”
Vietnam is used as a common denominator in all references to the images of fleeing Afghans as it recalls the helicopter evacuations from the roof of the U.S. Embassy during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Veterans and journalists alike have watched and listened to Afghans who once worked alongside them. Those Afghans, who upheld tenets of democracy and independence, fear for their safety and the safety of their family, if not their nation.
Members from Veterans for Responsible Leadership (VFRL) signed a petition urging the Biden Administration to speed up the relocation of Afghan refugees and eliminate all barriers in the Special Immigrant Visa program and any and all other barriers that are slowing down resettlement of thousands of journalists, interpreters, women entrepreneurs, and others who supported the United States during the war.
“As veterans, we believe that our nation must show our Afghan allies that the faith they had in the United States was not misplaced, and if they cannot realize a peaceful and just future in their country, we will enable them to do so in ours,” said Dr. Daniel Barkhuff, VFRL president and a retired Navy SEAL. “Journalists, women and translators now face terrible new threats to their safety. Our leaders in Congress and the White House must work together to protect the brave Afghans who fought for a better future. We are beyond the time for talk. It is time for action.”
Understanding what American involvement or intervention will look like in the years ahead (part of Biden’s reasoning is that the U.S. should refrain from meddling in another nation’s civil war) starts with acknowledging the country’s losses. But defining what the U.S. has lost during its twenty-year war in Afghanistan—the men and women who died, the failed democracy, the inability to modernize Afghan society—is not easy.
In a two part report published by the National Security Institute (NSI) at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, visiting fellows Mike Nelson and Jennifer Cafarella argue the importance of learning from the mistakes and successes made throughout the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
Not doing so would incur an even higher price.
“Americans are right to be outraged at the failures of America’s leadership to achieve success in Afghanistan,” the authors write in part one (find part two here). “More accountability earlier in the war might have enabled a better outcome. As Americans try to move on, we must ensure that such failures do not recur.”
Jennifer and I exchanged remarks over email during the start of the American and NATO withdrawal.
You note that the U.S. squandered an opportunity to succeed in Afghanistan, as it would elsewhere, by not having a firm vision for reshaping the country. Would being less reactionary as a nation, using more soft power before leaning on hard power, lead to more deliberate interventions in the future?
Soft power is as likely to fail absent a coherent strategy as hard power. Our experience in Afghanistan demonstrates that open-ended development and governance-building activities can fail just as easily as military operations if they are not organized into campaigns that pursue clear objectives with measurable thresholds for success. In soft power as in hard power, the United States has tended to fall into the trap of measuring activity (i.e. how many roads have been built) over measuring progress (i.e. whether the quality of governance improving).
Of course, soft power initiatives do not come with the same costs in lives as military operations. But it is important to recognize that strategic failure is the inability to secure intended or at least desirable outcomes after the expense of large amounts of resources. Our experiences with soft power in Afghanistan contain numerous failures in this regard. As a nation, we are suffering from a gap in our strategic decision-making and implementation abilities. Leaning more on soft power will not fill that gap and could actually perpetuate it by decreasing the perceived urgency of remedying it.
Do time limits on military actions hinder U.S. forces overseas? If so, how? If not, do they offer commanders incentives toward completing a mission on deadline?
All wars contain limits on military actions, including intended timelines. The key issue is whether it is possible to achieve the mission under the constraints. Both elements must be evaluated. Is the mission sound? And is it achievable under the constraints, including time? During periods in Afghanistan, our mission became blurry. Constraints can add additional pressure, but we should take care not to fixate solely on constraints as the factor that caused our failure. It starts with mission and our ability to evaluate both the requirements for success and a realistic appraisal of our progress at any given time. Internally, timelines can prompt new decision points that should tee up careful and honest re-evaluations of the status and outlook of our war effort.
That said, communicating our intended timeline to the enemy is a major strategic mistake because it fundamentally affects one of the most essential power struggles in all wars: the contest of wills. It is especially disastrous to signal, as we did in Afghanistan, a faltering will to an insurgency in which the enemy is committed to a long-term fight that prioritizes surviving (and imposing) attrition.
In the second part of the report, you issue an indictment on an uninformed and engaged public, which allowed for anesthetic leadership. You write that isolationist narratives took root because of this lack of scrutiny and accountability. How was the US public, and by extension service members, misguided in the belief that a U.S. intervention would benefit Afghans and deliver justice for 9/11?
The responsibility here lies with U.S. leaders who failed to deliver the results most Americans expected in this war. The U.S. public does not have access to enough reliable information about the war effort to evaluate its success. Politicians worsen this gap by declining to provide updates to the public and by politicizing the war along partisan lines, which in recent years has effectively precluded a more informed and reasonable debate on Afghanistan.
That said, I'd argue that the public should also take more responsibility to hold our elected leaders accountable. Far too little pressure has been placed on U.S. leaders. As Americans, it is our duty to remain engaged citizens and to demand better from our leaders.
How can we engage the public more ahead of future interventions?
Right now, the most urgent requirement is to begin to bridge what are increasingly becoming distinct conversations in the United States about foreign policy. The polarization of our political landscape is having a devastating effect on the quality of our national security conversations, which should by nature be non-partisan. We are all Americans and it is our shared future at stake. Too often, this reality is lost, and the toxicity of politics precludes consensus on how to face shared threats. We need to start talking to each other again and asking hard questions.
One final and rather interesting takeaway, which I hadn’t considered before: aside from an entire generation of Afghan women receiving an education, the U.S. strengthened its special operations capabilities. How can those capabilities be better positioned in future conflicts against “rising powers”?
The United States has the most capable and experienced special operations capability in the world. We are unparalleled in our ability to find, fix, and finish high value targets at speed and increasingly at global scale. We've learned even more about how to leverage small contingents of U.S. special operations personnel to augment local forces to produce major military and political effects. These abilities, among others, provide significant advantages to the United States in competition with rising powers such as Russia and China.
In order to leverage them, however, U.S. leaders must figure out how to address the underlying strategic failures that doomed our effort in Afghanistan. Those failures will also cripple our competition with Russia and China, which requires the United States to set and pursue clear objectives amidst rising pressure on multiple fronts that threatens to overtake our ability to understand the geopolitical landscape in which we're competing and to align our use of many instruments of power - including special operations - to produce effects that disrupt our adversaries, strengthen our own position, and bolster our allies.
If you or someone you know worked with an Afghan national, the Twitter thread by journalist Azmat Khan offers several resources and channels through which to support those seeking to flee Taliban rule.