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There is an old saying: “Success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan.” The debacle that is U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is the exact opposite: It may be now owned by the Biden administration, but our failure is built upon decades of poor policy decisions.
Our first policy failure was not to confront radical Islam during the Iranian Islamic Revolution 42 years ago, when our embassy in Tehran was overrun and our diplomats held hostage for 444 days. Then, as now, international norms and diplomatic niceties were useless. Rather than confront radical Islamists head-on, our foreign policy establishment willfully ignored this threat. Yes, we were locked in an ideological battle with the Soviets, but we should also have begun to engage in an ideological fight against radical Islam.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the threat of radical Islam grew in terms of ideological appeal and capabilities. It culminated on September 11th, 2001. In response, our elite foreign policy and military establishment – from both political parties – pushed forward short-term military solutions to a problem that needed to be confronted philosophically and ideologically. A radical ideology can never be defeated militarily. Our (the West’s) inability to confront the ideological aspects of radical Islam – and defend and advance our core values while doing so – exposed to our enemies everywhere a lack of confidence in the tenants of Western civilization, and severely limited our policy toolset.
Absent an ideological fight, we were left with only military options, even as the tasks we asked our military to do diverged wildly from their core mission-set. Our military is built to fight and win wars, not to engage in humanitarian work and nation building. That was the painful lesson of Somalia and Bosnia. The fact that the military agreed to these changing missions, goals, and objectives was a failure. They ceased to be outcome oriented and were instead captured by the political process and fight in DC.
Diplomatic failure. Can anyone convincingly enumerate our diplomatic successes in Afghanistan and the region over the past two decades? Without an ideological fight, our diplomats had nothing to do.
In July, President Biden startled the world when he announced that the United States would withdraw our forces from Afghanistan. Our NATO allies were dumbfounded; the Afghani government shocked. The United States failed to coordinate our withdrawal or the announcement of our withdrawal with either our allies or our host government. Complete failure.
Intelligence failure. The decision to depart Afghanistan reflected the intelligence establishment’s estimate that it would be at least 6-12 months before there was a possibility that the Taliban would defeat Afghan Security Forces, or they would fight to a stalemate. The Afghan army dissipated into thin air and the country fell in less than two weeks. Why no contingency planning? Why leave at the height of fighting season rather than in winter?
Even after the President’s announcement of our withdrawal, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, all carried reports of the Taliban’s tactical plans and strategies. Why do news organizations know more about what is happening in Afghanistan than the intelligence analysts who have been there for two decades?
Humanitarian catastrophe. International news organizations are reporting that Taliban fighters are going door-to-door and taking girls as young as 12 to be the sex slaves of fighters. Women and girls, who were able to get an education and had a glimpse of human rights, will be once again subjugated and abused by the Taliban as the country slips further into a medieval hellscape of theocratic dictatorship. We are also soon sure to see the systematic execution of those brave Afghans who worked for us for the past 20 years. This is a moral obligation we have failed.
Beneficiaries. Who gains from our failure in Afghanistan? China, for one. They began talks with the Taliban weeks ago. China wants access to rare earth minerals and other natural resources. They also want to ensure that radical Islam is not exported to China. Other beneficiaries include Russia, radical Islamists, and despots everywhere who can point to our abject failure in Afghanistan as proof that the Western ideals of democracy and human rights are a mirage, and that we are an unreliable partner who will cut and run when the going gets tough.
Yes, the Biden administration owns our failure in Afghanistan, but that failure is built upon decades of poor policy decisions by the elites in our military, diplomatic, intelligence, and governing establishment. Rigid, process-oriented groupthink and a lack of imagination have failed us. It is imperative that the establishment commits to a clear-eyed examination of, and learn from, the policy mistakes of Afghanistan: Our future depends on it.
Michael Krull is President & CEO of CRA, Inc., and an adjunct professor teaching politics and public policy at Georgetown University. He also participates as a lecturer for the Georgetown Global Education Institute, which brings senior government leaders from the Pacific Rim to the United States for short-term study tours.