President Trump’s muddled and reactive approach to foreign and strategic policy regularly distracts the media and commentators away from the geopolitical consequences of America’s actions under his stewardship. The coverage of the negotiations with the Taliban and proposed withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is a perfect example. After eighteen years of war the US is understandably keen to extricate themselves from a costly conflict. When they do peace will continue to elude the Afghans.
The 2002 National Security Strategy’s declaration that ‘Afghanistan has been liberated’ was premature. As was the confidence that ‘the humanitarian, political, economic, and security assistance necessary to rebuild Afghanistan’ provided by the US and its partner would ensure that no Afghanistan will ever again ‘abuse its people, threaten its neighbours, and provide a haven for terrorists’. The effort has fallen well short of early ambitions. The capacity for self-delusion persists.
The Special Inspector General for Afghans Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in June that the US had appropriated $US83.3 billion for security-related assistance to Afghan Governments over the past 17 years, 63 percent of the $133 billion of US reconstruction funding. To put it in context, this is more than three times the Australian annual defence budget.
The report identifies shortfalls in control, coordination and planning between US organisational elements and among NATO partners in their approach to security building. SIGAR found that by not adequately involving ‘the Afghans in key decisions and processes’ the US has ‘implemented systems that the Afghans will not be able to maintain without U.S. support’. After nearly two decades they haven’t been able to get it right. The Afghans are set up for disaster and it remains to be seen how much longer the US can sustain this expenditure.
Speaking to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in July the SIGAR said ‘Afghan security forces cannot survive without external donor support’. In an earlier address to the same organisation in March, he warned that policymakers ‘should be planning for what may come in the days, weeks, months, and years after any peace agreement is reached’. He added, ‘It does not take an advanced degree in mathematics to recognize that if donor support is decreased or eliminated – whether there’s a peace agreement or not – the Afghan government and its military in particular, will be in dire straits’. After all the expenditure, effort and deaths, Afghanistan’s institutions are insufficiently robust to provide security to its citizens and to maintain a democratic political system. This is the US’s legacy.
While the domestic security and political challenges facing the Afghans after a US pull-out are daunting enough, the situation post the inevitable peace deal between the Taliban and America will tempt other states into the power vacuum left behind. Afghanistan’s contiguous neighbours – Iran, Pakistan, China, and the Central Asian ‘Stans – will have concerns about instability on their borders and be keen to exploit opportunities. More distant regional powers – Russia, India, and Saudi Arabia – will seek to draw the Afghans into their orbit. China and Russia in particular have important strategic, security and economic interests in Afghanistan.
Today we are accustomed to thinking of the Middle East and Central Asia as distinct areas. However, in 1946 US officials saw the region as a strategic system that encompassed ‘Turkey, the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean Islands, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Egypt (including the Suez Canal), Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, the Persian Gulf area, and Afghanistan’. Regarded then as ‘a breeding ground for international misunderstandings’, contemporary transport and communications technologies and the proliferation of modern power projection capabilities just tighten these strategic relations.
The initial sense of mission and the policy zeal of early Cold War Eisenhower Doctrine has slowly ebbed across succeeding generations as Arab nationalism and the Israeli-Palestine conflict confounded policy initiatives. In 1977 Zbigniew Brzezinski was still exhorting President Carter ‘to complete the third phase of the great architectural task undertaken by the United States after World War II’ by shaping ‘a more flexible framework for regional security in the Middle East’; one adapted ‘to the realities of intraregional conflicts’. Brzezinski’s Middle East extended to Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as including the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf states, and Egypt. The goal was always unattainable.
There have been many convolutions, reversals, false starts and some successes over the seven decades of US involvement in the postwar Near East. But the overall trajectory, the line of best fit, has been downward. Democracy has not taken hold, often violent intra-regional rivalries persist and wars, invasions and the emergence of global extremists have plagued the perpetually hostile and unstable region. The report card on Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Iran, must show a column marked US objectives not achieved. The failure in Afghanistan transcends the rest and will have reverberations well beyond Central Asia.
It is against this background that the US now plans to withdraw from Afghanistan and cede the battleground to the Taliban. Australia should follow suit. This is neither right nor wrong but simply the inevitable outcome of previous actions by the US, and before them the Soviets. Sadly, the accumulation of past blunders and fatal military hubris has created a situation in Afghanistan that seems irrecoverable in the short to medium term. America’s longest war ends, not with the unconditional surrender that has characterised its victories, but with the ignominy of another failed mission.
Although the American Near East project’s legacy falls far from its aspirations, with a dying fall its last gasp can be heard in President Trump’s ill-conceived Middle East Strategic Alliance. At each point in this long sorry period the leaders and policy advisers involved undoubtedly believed that in the situations that confronted them they were adopting sound positions, or least worst options, in light of their national interests, even perhaps Trump does.
Strategic policy making is not easy and it’s not a science. But we’ve done enough damage to the Afghans.