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A Retreat without Peace

American withdrawal from Afghanistan will leave the region subject to tyranny and terror.
May 19, 2020
A Retreat without Peace
A US soldier looks at a mountain range in Afghanistan's Logar Province from a US Chinook helicopter on May 28, 2014. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

After the Taliban was forcibly removed from power in the autumn of 2001, Christopher Hitchens declared that the United States had “just succeeded in bombing a country out of the stone age.” For years before America’s intervention, Afghanistan had been under the rule of Islamic law imposed by an austere clan of religious “students.” The Pashtun tribesman who comprised this squalid regime issued from fanatical madrassas (Islamic theology schools) and had been weaned on a rigid interpretation of sharia.

Among the most pronounced features of the Taliban’s backward state was the subjugation of women. Afghan girls and women were forced to endure the worst imaginable repression and enslavement and torture. They were thwarted from every educational pursuit and their social presence was effectively erased by the burqa. The mullahs were sworn enemies of modernity, and they banned nearly every form of entertainment and culture, including music, philosophy, and kite-flying. It was logical that the theocratic fascists of al Qaeda, waging an escalating war upon American interests and eventually American civil society, would find safe harbor under their tyrannical dominion.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the United States launched war in Afghanistan to vanquish the jihadist cadre that had perpetrated that outrage. After the Taliban leader Mullah Omar refused the Bush administration’s demand to turn over Osama bin Laden (as he had refused on dozens of previous occasions, citing the duty owed to “Islam’s prestige”), Washington proceeded without making any meaningful distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban, treating both as enemy combatants to be defeated and destroyed. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was promptly overthrown, a new democratic government swept into Kabul, and al Qaeda and its former hosts scattered into the hinterlands of Afghanistan (and Pakistan).

The war to displace a reactionary terror-sponsoring regime was thus rapidly superseded by a bitter war of attrition in which the Taliban and their al Qaeda associates have struck relentlessly at American military outposts and the central government in Kabul, as well as against the softer targets of the Afghan military and police. This insurgency has wrecked havoc on Afghanistan’s fragile new order, but it has not posed a strategic threat to it. America, meanwhile, has stayed on to “hunt in the shadows” for Arab mujahideen and local reactionary seminarians against a backdrop of impassable mountains and an unforgiving culture of bandits and warlords. It has been a grim mission by any standard, but not without its share of successes.

As this conflict approaches its third decade, however, the public mood has plainly soured. Popular opinion lost patience with both the mission’s imperial contours as well as its endless mounting costs. The palpable weariness has been amply registered by and reflected among many in the governing class. In the badlands on both sides of the Khyber Pass, the enemy has concluded from years of vacillation that Washington lacks staying power in this fight. “You have the watches,” according to a familiar Afghan aphorism regarding outsiders, “we have the time.”

President Obama laid bare this deep ambivalence in his own prosecution of the Afghan campaign. Despite his adamant declarations of support for this “necessary war”, he belittled the challenge that jihadism posed to American security and only dispatched reinforcements to the Afghan theater of war along with a promise to bring them home by a date certain. Some conservatives raised a fuss over this “uncertain trumpet,” but many more objected to “the wrong war.”

By the appearance of things, President Trump has decided to break with this pattern of incoherence and unseriousness by inaugurating a novel kind of incoherence and unseriousness. Like his predecessor, he has long indicated a desire to bring an end to the “endless war”; as if that choice would ever be the prerogative of a single party involved in a fierce and protracted fight––unless it was a chosen defeat. But Trump now seems determined to fulfill that pledge, withdrawing American arms from the struggle and handing victory to the Taliban.

The counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations that have been a constant feature of American policy in Afghanistan for almost two decades, as well as the ambitious humanitarian efforts to construct roads, build health clinics and repair bombed-out girls’ schools, have been a squalid and thankless business. This Sisyphean mission has fostered total fatigue among Americans, without any countervailing presidential leadership to remind them about the requirements of national security and national honor.

What happens next is hard to predict with precision, though some educated guesses may be ventured. The foreign policy specialist Max Boot envisions three potential scenarios for Afghanistan after the American withdrawal is complete: good, bad, and ugly. The good scenario would look like Colombia after the government signed a deal with the FARC insurgency. The rebels agreed to lay down their arms and to be reintegrated into civilian society, and so far the agreement remains intact.

The bad scenario would look like Lebanon, which was spared further bloodletting in its devastating civil war by the Taif Accord. This agreement brought a much-needed respite by altering power-sharing among the major sectarian groups, but only at the expense of an emboldened Hezbollah that drives sectarian mayhem and foreign aggression to this day.

The ugly scenario would look like South Vietnam after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords brought an end to the U.S. military presence. Hanoi began violating its terms at once, and soon Saigon was overrun by a North Vietnamese blitzkrieg–with nasty results for America’s abandoned allies and, it follows, American credibility.

It must be said that the rosy scenario is by far the least likely to come to pass in the wake of American withdrawal, as demonstrated by the staggering violence unleashed by the Taliban since the deal was announced. A Taliban ambush last month killed 24 Afghan security forces in southern Afghanistan. Last week, gunmen stormed a maternity ward in a Shiite neighborhood of Kabul, killing at least 24 people including newborns, mothers and nurses, in an attack that has not yet been claimed.

Without the staying hand of American power, it is likely that the Afghans will revert back to what they know best: civil strife and religious barbarism. It would be the gravest of blunders for the United States to allow the Taliban to reclaim control of the state without first renouncing and extirpating al Qaeda.

For the entirety of this conflict, Taliban forces and their al Qaeda allies have believed they could prevail simply by not being defeated, since America was (in their plausible narrative) a fickle superpower that might fight fiercely in the short term but was destined to head for the exits. By brokering a deal with this dangerous foe, President Trump has not achieved anything like peace. He has instead vindicated the central contention of our enemies, and in so doing he will give the stone age a new lease on life in the Hindu Kush.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.