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What will America’s legacy be in Afghanistan?

April 7, 2020

Summary: How do you define or judge “legacy” in the context of the Western military intervention in Afghanistan?  Was it invasion or liberation?  Does it simply depend upon who “wins”?  Does it depend upon the actions of the last American president to touch Afghanistan?

Note: This article first appeared on the 9 Dash Line blog on 3 April 2020.

By early 2002, I had been an intelligence analyst in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence for almost ten years.  However, I could muster a mere five months as an Afghanistan analyst when I first set foot in Kabul.  I had scrounged a fleeting familiarisation trip on the back of a British General’s own visit to the British contingent if I promised to act as his “bag carrier”.  The minimalist ISAF international headquarters that, over the years, was to blossom into a huge target-rich environment in the centre of the city, was then run by the Brits, under General John McColl.  As a result we were hosted by him for dinner in one of the dark green military tents (no Wi-Fi-equipped ISO container accommodation, coffee shops or ice-cream machines in those days) spread around the small compound.  Dilapidated former armoured personnel carriers of the former Soviet Union, long since stripped of anything useful, had been pushed against the walls to make space for a new wave of foreign forces.  But was it invasion or liberation?  Perhaps “legacy” is determined by the victors?

General McColl was a charming host.  He told us about a recent social occasion he had presided over, inviting Afghan military commanders to dinner.  If memory serves, with British military humour, it was to commemorate the battle of Gandamak, the last stand of the British Army in Afghanistan during the retreat from Kabul in January 1842.  McColl greeted General Fahim Khan, a notorious Tajik warlord, with an apology.  McColl confessed he felt slightly embarrassed for being in Afghanistan, given that the British Army had invaded Afghanistan on three separate occasions.  Without batting an eyelid, General Fahim put McColl at his ease:

“But that is ok”, he said, “because we beat you every time”.

I wonder whether an ex-Taliban army officer or politician might say something similar to an American ambassador during future anniversary commemorations (battle of Tora Bora? signing of the US/Taliban peace deal?) in the decades to come.   Could legacy be as simple as that?

For the moment, however, we are a long way from such idle speculation.  Afghanistan remains a complex and multi-layered conflict.  The political and security situation is highly volatile and likely to remain so for the next five to ten years.  No one knows how this will end.  Analysis from all directions concurs: the agreement between the Americans and the Taliban is a significant opportunity but large doses of realism are essential.  Not far from anyone’s thinking is the risk of collapse into a multi-factional civil war, such as was seen in the 1990s.  Spoilers, such as Islamic State, and even neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, may cloud and complicate further.

Asking about America’s legacy fifteen years ago was relatively simple, given the sudden collapse of the Taliban in late 2001.  The goals, albeit mutating through “mission creep”, became the elimination of corruption, reconstruction of the government and military, education, justice, human rights and eradication of poppy.  In a video conference between Kabul and the UK around that time I recall a Foreign Office official bristling and defensive when asked directly by a British general:

“What are we actually trying to do in Afghanistan?”.  The Foreign Office representative was indignant:

“Well, I hardly know where to begin, develop governance, counter-narcotics, security sector reform, democratic elections, a justice system…”.

This list, which we had all learned to recite, was meant to be the legacy.

Assessing the performance of the ISAF mission in assisting with the delivery of this shopping list through the decade and a half of its existence is tricky.  ISAF’s role expanded greatly.  This was sometimes planned, sometimes in response to events and sometimes because particular parts of the coalition wanted to do certain things in certain ways at certain times for their own reasons.  Afghanistan’s leadership, people and outlook also mutated due to the massive (and often poorly thought through) and blunt application of international military, political and financial power.  Theo Farrell’s excellent, forensic, look at Britain’s war in Afghanistan, describes the challenge ultimately as “unwinnable”.  As I reflect back on my nearly twenty years (and counting) of studying Afghanistan, I wonder whether “undefinable” is perhaps a better term.  The ISAF force did, I believe, keep factions from each other’s throats for a useful period of time.  It created a breathing space in which many encouraging foundations were laid – governance, education, elections and so forth.  But these roots were not strong enough to resist the corruption of warlords concurrent with the violence of the Taliban.  Many mistakes were repeated, exacerbated by the continual coming and going of new generations of western personnel.

Was it obvious that the Taliban would resurge in the way they did?  In hindsight, everyone seems to say yes.  I don’t have many telling anecdotes of my time in Afghanistan but I do vividly remember meeting a very senior Afghan politician in around 2003.  Suffice to say he is even more senior now.  He had expounded at length on all the challenges facing the Afghan government – reconstruction, elections, security sector reform.  I pointed out that he had not mentioned the Taliban once in his considerations and asked him why.  He curtly and dismissively waved his hand.

“The Taliban are gone”.

So, this was not just a case of Westerners who misunderstood the complex situation.

The “legacy” now depends very much upon which way a precarious and explosive mix of governments, militaries, insurgents and finances will be blended and poured.  Perversely, some ingredients will in fact be removed.  The Taliban are still in the field and confident.  The American army looks to be retreating, perhaps even taking its money with it.  After the February deal signed between the Taliban and the US government preparing for US military withdrawal, the difficult work of talking (Taliban) Afghan to (Government) Afghan must begin.  It will be harder and take longer (years) and be fraught.  There is little evidence the Taliban are interested in sharing power in a democratic and accountable government process once the Americans depart.  Outbreaks of violence are almost guaranteed and a civil war is a realistic, if horrific, possibility.  At the moment there are still two claimants to the position of Afghan president.  My concern is not so much that the Taliban can militarily seize the country, but that the unstable, corrupt and argumentative factions currently calling itself the Afghan government could spin out of control, transforming back to regional warlords sponsored by outside backers.  Most recently, Barnett Rubin pragmatically and bleakly believes that the long-term economic damage done to the US from the COVID-19 pandemic will cause American funding for Afghanistan to dramatically dry up, reprising the way the Soviet Union’s collapse abruptly curtailed Russian assistance to Najibullah’s regime.  Billions of US dollars are propping up the Afghan army.  The last thing Afghanistan needs is thousands of newly unemployed ex-soldiers roaming the land.

And I fear that the American legacy is going to be shaped by the last American president who touches it.  There is strong potential for the “Trump factor” to confuse, complicate and collapse the situation.  President Trump’s agenda is Trump-centric:  he is in this for personal and domestic political benefit.  Expect an invoice for a Nobel prize once the first US troops start withdrawing in the summer or he achieves a superficial photoshoot with the Taliban.  Trump has no knowledge, interest or patience for Afghanistan.  His loose talk of dropping nuclear weapons on the country was a worrying demonstration of this.  He will demand or engineer a timetable that aligns favourably (for him) with the US elections in November 2020.  This makes him a dangerous and unstable element where calmness, understanding and patience are essential.

If Afghanistan lapses into a multi-factional and multi-sponsored civil war, most of the flawed but real international progress made – women’s rights, human rights, children in schools, election processes, army, police and government reform – could unravel in a handful of years.  This would leave next to no western “legacy” of any sort beyond another few thousand unexploded munitions scattered around the irrigation canals of Helmand.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 7, 2020 8:01 pm

    I recently read a marvelous history of Modern Greece (Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation, by Roderick Beaton; 2019) He shows us, among other things, the tension between the vision of a nation (the people) and the state (the defined country with borders). The Greek people continue to live beyond the borders of the state, but still identify with it, or at least with being “Greek”, without having a direct part to play in the nation of Greece. (There are self-identified Greeks everywhere in the world, as they were also in ancient times before there were countries). So, I ask: does everyone who lives in Afghanistan feel, really feel, as an “Afghan.” Or are there groups who identify otherwise? Are there self-identified Afghans living elsewhere in the world? Assuredly they are. What makes them feel Afghan? With the Greeks it was the language and religion (first the Pantheon, then the Eastern/Greek Orthodox flavor of Christianity). Basically, I ask: is Afghanistan a state whose borders contain a nation, or part of one, and one only within its defined borders?

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