From Hong Kong to Kabul, Belt and Road of Rot

What has gone wrong is not that the war in Afghanistan was not won but rather that America took too long to defeat itself in an unwinnable war

By Anil Madan

There is no denying that America’s exit from Afghanistan is a debacle. But despite the fact that it has long been clear that America’s half-hearted involvement was over, and that the US never fought to win in Afghanistan, that its involvement in that country would come to an ignominious end, the disengagement has been lamented by the American people as a colossal failure of the Biden administration, and criticized by hysterical American media types and their strident counterparts the world over as an American defeat.

White House CHAOS: Officials blame each another for the debacle in Afghanistan. Pic – AP

Sadly, the real story being missed here is that this is a defeat for the Afghani people at large and, indeed, for Democracy, human dignity, and freedom around the world.

One hundred fifty-eight years ago, in November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous speech dedicating the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He observed that the Civil War was a test of the question whether America—or any other nation—conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can long endure.

In 2021, we can say that for Hong Kong, Belarus, and Afghanistan the answer to Lincoln’s question is a resounding No. Until the Communist Chinese takeover, Hong Kong had what all sensible persons knew was only a temporary reprieve for its people hoping to live free in a Democracy. No one seriously expected the Chinese communists to honour their commitment to let Hong Kong be a free society, and no intelligent person was taken in by the false reassurance of the rhetoric of one country two systems. For the last twenty years, the Afghani people have had a fleeting taste of potential freedom but always tempered by the realization that their so-called government was corrupt and that the Taliban, an evil force, lurked ready to pounce at any moment. 

Lincoln’s Gettysburgh address

In 1950, four score and seven years after Lincoln’s Gettysburgh address, the answer to his question about America’s endurance seemed a resounding yes. We had just come off a triumphant victory in World War II and a time of peace and prosperity lay ahead. Americans saw their country’s founding principles extended to, and enthusiastically accepted by Western European countries, and as well by Britain, Japan, India, South Korea. There seemed no impediment to expanding the noble idea. Reaching the world seemed possible. The notion that America had some special ability to export Democracy to other countries took hold.

Today, the answer to Lincoln’s question for America itself has become clouded and indeed, is in some doubt. On January 6, 2021, an American president provoked a mob into demanding that his sitting Vice President ignore his constitutional duty to certify the results of the electoral college. And also, in the America of 2021, we have Republicans across the nation doing whatever they can to cling to power by imposing obstacles to ballot access.

As for the rest of the world, often the practical reality is that people should expect to live under repressive governments, without basic freedoms and with no say in how their countries will be governed. For them Lincoln’s question is largely irrelevant.

China is at the forefront of a belt and road structure of this human rights rot, ringing the world. Now, Afghanistan joins that expanding chain comprising China, Russia, North Korea, Pakistan, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Belarus, Venezuela, the Philippines, and other nations with predatory governments. Notches along the way on that belt are made by many other countries.

It is not only the American public and media that have soured on America’s leadership in evaluating the ignoble exit from Afghanistan. The leaders of the countries along the belt and road, notably China and Russia, rejoice at what they see as America’s defeat.

But what has happened and is happening should not surprise anyone. That America was never going to win the war in Afghanistan has long been clear. In 2014 President Obama announced plans for greatly reducing US forces in Afghanistan by the end of the year and ending the US military commitment altogether by 2016. Notably, his statement contained no declaration of victory.

At bottom, there has been a failure of the American public to realize that we cannot create democracies around the world by propping up corrupt regimes and sending troops to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. There is a fundamental misunderstanding that a superpower is only as strong as the quantum of power it actually uses.

Worse yet, American president after American president has engaged in rallying the American people to support military adventurism, backed by jingoistic cheering from members of Congress, the military brass, and their cohorts in the lobbying machinery who promote wars and military spending. America is not about to use the full force of its power because the American people will not stand for it. They expect better from their leaders than a ruthless wielding of power particularly given the extent of the lethality we can project if we wish.

On the other hand, we have not understood that sloganeering about “the will of the people” means nothing if foreign governments do not abide by the same norms that American Democracy and its western counterparts do.

Worse yet, unless we change our approach drastically, America will have lost not just another war in a streak that includes Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but we risk that the belt and road of rot will strangle us.

Debacle in Afghanistan

President Biden, facing criticism over the optics of the debacle in Afghanistan, has come to the microphone twice to stumble and mumble that he stands by his decision. Of course, this is a deflection. Standing by his decision to withdraw American troops begs the question whether the withdrawal could have been better managed and indeed, whether the war itself had to be lost even as it started. Of course, he wasn’t President then, but there is no question that his primary policy once he became President was one of capitulation. 

President Biden’s most telling comment either admitting a lack of attention to detail or revealing that he wishes he had done it differently was this in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News: “I– I don’t think it could’ve been handled in a way that there — we — we’re gonna go back in hindsight and look, but the idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how that happened.” When asked if, for him, that was always priced into the decision, he responded: “Yes. Now, exactly what happened — is not priced in.” Since then, President Biden, in the face of humbling poll numbers showing his popularity dropping, has made three national addresses to the nation. When a President tries to defend his actions repeatedly in such short order, you can bet something has gone wrong.

Of course, there is little recognition that what has gone wrong is not that the war in Afghanistan was not won but rather that America took too long to defeat itself in an unwinnable war, and the biggest losers are the vast majority of Afghani people who have no desire to be ruled by the Taliban.

Putting aside the Biden administration’s utter incompetence in failing to avoid predictable chaos, the takeaway from that interview is President Biden’s concession that intelligence reports stated that a Taliban takeover was likely. The President found solace in the idea that intelligence estimates thought such a takeover was likely by the end of the year and not as quickly as it happened. But such intelligence reports were unnecessary; it has long been clear that the end of US involvement in Afghanistan meant a return of that country to Taliban control and not to the so-called government of Ashraf Ghani, a Captain Schettino redux who abandoned the ship as soon as he could.

Let us step back for a moment and revisit why this outcome was inevitable, even invited by America. Back in 2019, President Trump started negotiations with the Taliban, yes, the Taliban about the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Absent from those meetings was the government of President Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan. Why? Because the Taliban said they would not negotiate with an American puppet government. So, President Trump let the Taliban set the basic conditions for the negotiations. He allowed the Taliban to dictate to him what he would dictate to the government of Afghanistan. Perhaps the Taliban had a point about a puppet government.

It is not rocket science to conclude that President Trump would not have agreed to negotiate with the Taliban unless it was clear that the Taliban were a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, he agreed, with the Taliban, to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by May 2021. In return, the Taliban agreed not to attack American troops. And, he committed Ghani’s government to releasing 5000 Taliban prisoners even though Ghani’s government was not a party to the talks.

Trump’s former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster compared this deal to the infamous Munich agreement of 1938 that enabled Adolf Hitler’s rise. McMaster minced no words: “Our secretary of state (Mike Pompeo) signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” he said in an interview with Bari Weiss. McMaster added: “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”

An article in The Economist noted: “It is true that Mr Trump was so desperate to strike a quick deal that he accepted preposterous terms, agreeing to end America’s deployment without even securing a ceasefire, let alone a clear plan to end the civil war. He had already reduced the American presence to little more than 2000 soldiers by the time Mr Biden took office, and had promised to get the rest out by May 1st.” 

Heart-wrenching self-examination

This is not a war that needed to be lost. In 2014, Lt. General Hamid Gul who served as the Director General of Pakistan’s ISI (the Inter Services Intelligence) that nation’s premiere intelligence agency, not quite so jokingly stated: “When history is written, it will be said that the ISI, with the help of America, defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The next sentence will be: With the help of America, the ISI defeated America in Afghanistan.” The sad truth revealed here is that the US allowed the Pakistan ISI to support and nurture the Taliban. We had the ability to destroy the supply lines from the ISI to the Taliban that kept the Taliban in business. We failed to do so.

Now, America is engaged in a heart-wrenching self-examination, not about how or why it lost the war and how it could have won so that the same mistakes are not repeated, but rather about what we owe to the Afghanis who want to get out from under Taliban repression. This is evocative of the evacuation from Saigon and the exodus of thousands of Vietnamese people to the US. 
But America cannot transplant 37 million Afghanis or almost 8 million Hong Kongers to the US. Nor can we go into any future conflict with the tacit understanding that if we lose again, we owe an obligation to the citizens of that third country, safe passage to America.
We need to figure a better way to stop the rot that is the belt and road of oppression spearheaded by China and now inhabited by its latest denizen, the Taliban. 


* Published in print edition on 24 August 2021

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