The gratuitous surrender of Afghanistan, an allied nation of 40 million people in one of the world’s worst neighborhoods, was the biggest defeat for America and the West since Vietnam. The “forever war,” a cliche advanced initially by then-President Donald Trump, was a false characterization. Wars are either won, lost or fought to a stalemate. Because we faced a stalemate in Afghanistan, we deserted a nation we had assisted for 20 years and was making substantial progress for its people. More important, it was not in our national security interests to surrender Afghanistan to jihadists and the Taliban.
Afghanistan had solid bipartisan support in Congress. American women’s organizations worked closely with their Afghan counterparts on behalf of 20 million Afghan women, perhaps the major achievement of the government in Kabul. Key advisers to the president from the Department of Defense, Department of State and intelligence community urged President Biden to accept the stalemate and remain in Afghanistan. That advice went unheeded.
Sometimes stalemate is the best situation among bad choices, particularly when you examine the alternatives. Think about North and South Korea and the successes of our South Korean allies when compared to their downtrodden counterparts in America’s virulent adversary in the North. With the kind of thinking behind Mr. Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal, we should have left South Korea to the whims of a monster communist regime to their north. Stalemate worked on the Korean Peninsula, and, for similar reasons, it was working in Afghanistan.
The fighting in recent years was mainly in the hands of the Afghans, particularly the Afghan Special Forces. Our job was intelligence, air power and logistics, and those technology-intensive efforts were key to the Afghan fighting forces. The Taliban enjoyed a safe haven in Pakistan and material support to wage war, meaning weapons, ammunition, food, medical supplies and treatment, R&R, etc. Our military and civilian planners knew exactly what Pakistan was up to. They just couldn’t stop it and weren’t willing to do much about it. A stalemate was the best we could do under the circumstances, and this should have been explained to the American people by both Democrat and Republican presidents. Perhaps, because of the fear of stalemate not being politically acceptable by the public, it never was.
Pakistan, a nation of 225 million people with a powerful, nuclear-armed military and a porous 2611-kilometer border with Afghanistan, was playing a double game with us, collaborating at times, making big money off the war and all the while supporting the Taliban. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the formidable ISI, had given birth to the Taliban in the mid-1990s, and ISI officers served in Afghanistan as the key administrators of the country as they are today. The three major Shuras, the organizing bodies behind the Taliban fighters, were in Quetta, Miran and Peshawar. Those were where Taliban leaders lived openly and comfortably.
Pakistan never wanted a free, prosperous and independent Afghanistan. A successful Afghanistan next door would make it look bad in comparison, especially with a major presence of its archrival, India. It wanted Afghanistan as its own backyard for “strategic depth” in its conflict with India, and now it’s got it.
Considering all of the obstacles to a clear military victory over the Taliban, staying in Afghanistan still afforded America and the West substantial national and global security benefits at a reasonable cost, especially considering what it will cost us down the road. By leaving, we vacated our advantages in intelligence, proximity to adversaries and military modernity. All our NATO allies in Afghanistan were against leaving. They were willing to endure stalemate, and although their contribution was far less than ours, they were committed.
Surrendering Afghanistan and its people to Taliban acolytes, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia was an enormous geostrategic blunder giving up critical assets in America’s competition with those adversaries. Vast multibillion-dollar airbase/logistical/intelligence-gathering hubs — such as Bagram, not that far from Russia and China, Shindand, 75 miles from Iran, Mazar-i-Sharif, to the south of Russia, and Jalalabad, bordering Pakistan — gave America and NATO allies significant deterrence in the region or launch pads for military action, should it become necessary. For example, with Taiwan threatened, Bagram Airbase located outside of Kabul would have significantly reduced the negative impact of the “distance factor” between our mainland and the straits of Taiwan.
So now we have to deal with Pakistan’s man, Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, with a $10 million FBI terrorism bounty on his head. As interior minister in the Taliban government, he’s likely the most powerful person in the country. He is a known partner of al Qaeda, lived one house away from the recently dispatched al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and is known for an abiding hatred for America. With this kind of leadership, stalemate makes a lot of sense.
Today, without us, Afghanistan has reverted to an impoverished terrorist state, terrorizing its own people as well but this time with more sophisticated weapons, left for them as we departed. Al Qaeda and ISIS are rebuilding their capacity to wreak havoc on their perceived enemies, the biggest one being the United States of America.
How does that stack up against stalemate?
• Former Rep. Don Ritter has been engaged continuously in Afghanistan. He founded the Afghanistan Foundation in the 1990s, was a founding member of the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce in 2002, served that organization as president and CEO for nine years and served as senior adviser to the AACC-initiated Afghan International Chamber of Commerce.
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