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05.10.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

US Defeated Itself in Afghanistan


The latest testimony of the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley has confirmed how the US lost its war in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the Taliban’s ability to withstand the combined might of the US and NATO forces for two decades, the US, according to Milley, lost the war due mainly to a series of bad decisions made by the Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden administration. Even though Joe Biden apparently fulfilled the commitments the Trump administration had made in the Doha pact, the US military was not in favour of fully withdrawing from Afghanistan. As Milley confirmed, the top brass of the US military had advised keeping a force of 2,500 troops in Afghanistan; however, Biden’s decision to still withdraw and leave the country open for the Taliban to takeover proved to be only the last nail in the coffin of the US mission to defeat the Taliban and build a ‘new’ Afghanistan.

As Milley contended, the war in Afghanistan “wasn’t lost in the last 20 days or even 20 months. There’s a cumulative effect to a series of strategic decisions that go way back”, including the US decision to invade Iraq and shift resources from Afghanistan. In a separate hearing in the US Senate, the US Central Command commander Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie called the war a US “strategic failure.” Milley’s and McKenzie’s testimonies have confirmed that the Biden administration misled the US public in saying that the US achieved its objectives in Afghanistan. The testimony also contradicts Biden’s claim that he did not receive any advice to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond August 31.

Even as Biden contended that the US achieved its key objective of defeating al-Qaeda, Milley had no qualms about toeing his commander-in-chief’s line. According to Milley, “We must remember that the Taliban was and remains a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with al-Qaida,” adding that “I have no illusions who we are dealing with. It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power, or if the country will further fracture into civil war.”

Beyond the testimony, which otherwise points to bad decision making as the key factor for throwing Afghanistan into a chaotic and uncertain situation, the saga of US mismanagement is not confined to some military decisions. The August 2021 report of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows how certain American political choices “increased corruption” and, thus, directly contributed to the collapse of the entire system the US spent billions to establish.” To quote the report:

“The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve. The U.S. government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs. Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built were not sustainable.”

The American CIA not only built militias, but also directly funded corruption. According to a 2013 New York Times report, the CIA delivered bags full of cash to the Afghan President’s office. The “ghost money” was used to buy political influence and thus, directly fuelled corruption. According to one official quoted in the report, the “biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”

So, while Biden contended that the purpose of the US war in Afghanistan was never ‘nation building’ and ‘reconstruction’, the SIGAR office established specifically to audit the very nation building and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan has documented the failure of the US mission in so many words. According to its August 2021 report, even the development projects the US started fuelled corruption. A key reason was the lack of oversight.

Most of the corruption that the US directly aided in Afghanistan and the money it pumped into the country under its occupation ended up back in the US. According to some reports, many corrupt Afghan officials have been able to buy houses in the US, a facility offered by the fact that the US happens to be the world’s largest destination for illicit finance.

According to Sarah Chayes, who formerly assisted the top US commander, Mile Mullen, and happens to be one of the leading US experts on corruption in Afghanistan, most of the corruption in Afghanistan was “made in America.” All the plans she made to curb corruption in Afghanistan were never implemented, suggesting a direct complicity of the US military and diplomatic officials in allowing corruption to permeate Afghanistan. A corruption ridden system could never be realistically expected to withstand the Taliban, a fact that was not lost on Biden, or anyone else in various US administrations. Therefore, Biden’s claim that the responsibility for Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban lies squarely on the Afghan National Security Forces is not only not sustainable in the face of these facts, but also happens to be a plain lie fanned out deliberately by the top US officials for public consumption to avoid any untoward political repercussions.

Therefore, even though Milley argued in his testimony that the ‘root cause’ of the US failure in Afghanistan was Doha agreement, systemic corruption and a hollow political and economic system the US itself built in Afghanistan – and failed to correct – in the past 2o years directly explain why the system collapsed within weeks of the US departure, and how the decisions that the US itself took directly contributed to its failure in Afghanistan.

So, even though the US did not lose the war in the typical sense of the word i.e., the US was not militarily defeated and it was not consequently occupied by the enemy forces, there is little denying the US failure to achieve its key objectives (defeating al-Qaeda), as well as reconstruction Afghanistan constitute a failure of the highest magnitude, one that cannot be semantically transformed into a victory, even if the person calling it a ‘victory’ happens to be the US president/Commander-in-Chief of the US military forces.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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