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September 2, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 310

Handing Over Afghanistan To The Taliban Does Not Advance America's New Strategic Priorities; It Sabotages Them

September 2, 2021 | By Y. Carmon*
Afghanistan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 310

Betrayal is not the crux of the Afghanistan tragedy. Great powers like the U.S. and even small countries like Israel have betrayed and will continue to betray their allies if they believed that their own interests mandated such a betrayal. It is a doleful but historical fact of life: Realpolitik at its worst. Yet in the end, even the betrayed understand it, and knowing it, they still return to their failed protectors when they believe that their own interests dictate it. Take the oft-betrayed Kurds, for example. Therefore, moral judgements on the Afghanistan withdrawal are immaterial. No one can expect or want his country to sacrifice its own interests for the sake of others. It is time to invoke the aphorism "it is worse than a crime; it is a blunder" – attributed to the French diplomat Talleyrand. America's betrayal of its ally, the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, by both the Trump and Biden administrations, should be condemned less for its moral failing and more for the damage that the ill-conceived withdrawal inflicted on America's strategic interests.


Qatar's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban's political bureau, in Doha, Qatar, August 17, 2021. Photograph: Qatar News Agency

If higher strategic interests prompted the withdrawal, it could be justified. Unfortunately, the Afghans were evidently betrayed by both American administrations for domestic political considerations. When Biden justifies the withdrawal by saying, "We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021. Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us,"[1] he is either being deceptive or practicing self-deception. Although America captured Afghanistan in response to 9/11, American interests in that country predate the terror attacks. Afghanistan's value was always a strategic interest without reference to terrorism.

Afghanistan, ever since the days of the Great Game between Russia and Great Britain and continuing through the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR, was considered a strategic prize and for this reason the rival superpowers invested so heavily in Afghanistan. Currently, Afghanistan's strategic value is exponentially higher, because the American presence is a bone in the throat of Russia, China, and Iran. However, Western leaders prefer domestic considerations over overarching strategic interests. Biden has publicly declared that the U.S. is in competition with Russia and China, but his decision has weakened the U.S. in this competition. Furthermore, the mechanics of how the actual withdrawal was handled have only made it worse. Russia, China, and Iran can breathe easier now that their main adversary has quit the field.

Therefore, the real question is: Could the U.S. have maintained its position in Afghanistan as dictated by strategic necessity beyond the two-decade occupation? The answer is definitely affirmative; America could have maintained its presence without boots on the ground by delegating responsibility to a sympathetic allied regime that would have enjoyed full military, political, and economic support such as air, intelligence, and logistics support. When this support was hurriedly canceled, the collapse of the Afghan army occurred, in the same way the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) collapsed when the U.S. pulled the plug on such support.

Keeping our local proxy viable would not have been a stroll in the park for reasons enumerated below but was nevertheless a feasible option, provided that such a policy was predicated on familiarity with the arena and a willingness to cope with difficulties. It would then have been a natural way to withdraw the soldiers from Afghanistan. The last two administrations, however, chose the opposite way: They chose the innovative option of abdicating power and control to their enemy: the Taliban.[2]

For two years, the Trump administration conducted negotiations on America's withdrawal and Afghanistan's future not with the legitimate Afghan government, which was excluded from the talks, but with the terrorist movement the Taliban. The U.S. even forced the Afghan government inter alia to release thousands of Taliban terrorists from government jails. Biden was not constrained by Trump's agreement with the Taliban. He could have discarded or adjusted it as he has done in numerous other cases across the board, even on international agreements.

What were the difficulties to be surmounted had the U.S. chosen to pursue its strategic interests in Afghanistan? The first difficulty was that the U.S. had to contend with a terrorist Taliban insurgency that killed and maimed numerous Americans over the past 20 years. What is most inexplicable is that in all those years that the U.S. coped with this difficulty, it never dealt with the problem at its source, namely that the Taliban were the creation of those who pretended to be an ally: the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

America's ignoring of this fact borders on insanity. It was not always like that. After 9/11, the then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage delivered a clear warning to Lt.-Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, the then director of Pakistani ISI: "Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the stone age."[3] The ISI chief was visiting Washington at the time, as recalled by Armitage in an interview.[4] Pakistan did think carefully and while it did not openly interfere with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, sub rosa it sustained the Taliban as an active, incessant insurgency. At some point in 2007-08, President Bush even suspended intelligence cooperation with the Pakistanis, but soon enough it returned.[5] Now, the ISI is savoring its sweet payback to the U.S.: Via its Taliban proxy it expelled the U.S. from Afghanistan and via this proxy it expects to rule it.

The second problem that the U.S. needed to overcome was that strategy of keeping its presence without boots on the ground required a national Afghan political force backed by a decisive majority that would constitute an effective nucleus for a durable U.S.-Afghan alliance. But, Afghanistan is not a country or a people or even an area bound by a common language. It is an artificial construct of the 19th century British-Russian rivalry. It is an ad hoc coalition of diverse ethnic groups comprising a Pashtun majority, and Shi'ite Hazara and other ethnic minorities. This problem, however difficult, could have also been overcome had the U.S. better understood the ethnic components of the regime, and predicated its policy on that foundation.

The U.S. could have built Afghanistan on the Pashtun majority and Pashtun nationalism to successfully compete with the Taliban that is also Pashtun and combines Pashtun nationalism with the Islamic option. Ashraf Ghani, the elected president, was a Pashtun and a modern Pashtun state could have been built with his cooperation in contrast to the Islamic alternative, the Taliban. This would have required different actions on the local and village level by the Americans, coopting Pashtun traditional Islam instead of heavy-handed democracy building overseen by USAID contractors. However, the U.S. chose two vacuous, contradictory, and self-destructive paths. On the one hand, it treated Afghanistan as a modern state that only required a helping of Western-style democracy to make it sustainable and not as an ad hoc coalition of tribes and ethnic groups. On the other hand, it preferred to throw Ghani under the bus and encourage the Taliban Islamic option. What were they thinking – that the Taliban would become an ally? Could they really hope to domesticate the Taliban and ally with this Islamist-jihadi movement?

Donald Trump thought he could do the impossible, influenced by the counsel of old time Taliban pal Zalmay Khalilzad[6] and the great champion of the Taliban: Qatar. Trump marginalized the Afghan regime created and supported by the U.S. itself, and now Qatar and Pakistan celebrate their victory over the U.S. This victory is especially rewarding for Doha, as not only did they help expel the U.S. from Afghanistan, but the clueless administration thanks them day and night for their help in expelling them from Afghanistan.

America's inability to distinguish between a friend and a foe was cruelly on display from Biden to Antony Blinken and the hapless generals too. The top U.S. strategists fail to grasp what even a child in the AfPak region knows – namely that the Taliban who killed Americans for years, were founded, funded, trained, and directed by the ISI of America's two-faced ally Pakistan.[7] Every winter Taliban forces retreated to their Pakistani safe havens to prepare for the spring fighting. The Americans knew that the Taliban's Shura Council is located in Quetta, not too far from the CIA's Shamsi base – both in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.[8]

Now, even those in the Middle East who are willing to ally with the U.S. maintain a safe distance from it because an alliance with such an obtuse country is a potential danger to their survival.

The Qatari case is most illuminating as Doha, by providing the U.S. with an important airbase, has secured for itself the status of an ally, using it as a free pass to support any Islamist terror organization in the Islamic world and beyond. This includes the most incriminating story of all: Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of 9/11, found sanctuary in the Doha municipal water department five years earlier. When the FBI came to arrest him in 1996 and informed the Emir personally, KSM vanished that very night. Richard Clarke, the chief counter-terrorism adviser in Bill Clinton's National Security Council wrote: "Had the Qataris handed [KSM] over to us as requested in 1996, the world might have been a very different place."[9]

It is doubtful that anybody in the American administration realizes that Qatar is providing the airbase not to pay its way as a U.S. ally, but to assure its own survival since without the U.S. presence the Qatari family emirate would have long ceased to exist.

Moreover, the U.S. could have gotten equal or superior facilities in the UAE or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But here the targeted Qatari "hospitability" that purchases the goodwill of high officials, the top brass and influential media and pundits comes into play. They feel beholden enough to set aside strategic logic and overlook clear cases of Qatari criminality in supporting terrorist organizations, for their own personal and organizational benefits.[10] Qatar has performed a diplomatic tour de force: It is the arch arsonist that persuades everyone to believe that it is a fire warden deserving of international acclaim and gratitude. It is poetic justice that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was relocated to Doha, as American Afghan policy in its entirety was downgraded to Doha, to deal with matters of terrorism only and again abdicating America's global strategic interests in confronting China, Russia, and Iran.[11]

It is still not too late. The U.S. must open its eyes and detach itself from the fetters of its own folly to reassume the status befitting a superpower in Afghanistan, confronting, as it claims, Russia and China. To do so, it will have to distinguish between its true friends and foes, and directly pressure Pakistan and Qatar, holding them responsible for the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. Currently, this prospect appears totally fantastic, but reality will impose this choice upon the U.S. unless it is prepared to accept relegation to a regional power status, a term that Barack Obama derisively used to describe Russia. In 2011, the U.S. withdrew troops from Iraq only to have them return in 2014 to fight ISIS. Now it hopes to somehow do the job from over the horizon.[12] As a superpower, the U.S. must project power, assure allies, and cow enemies. It must be present in strategic locations, at least via proxy representation, otherwise it too will descend to the status of a regional power. The withdrawal from Afghanistan in favor of the Taliban is the first step in this slippery slope.

* Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.

 

[1] Whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/04/14/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-way-forward-in-afghanistan, April 14, 2021.

[2] Israel holds the copyright on this innovative self-destructive approach when it transferred control of occupied territories to its enemy: PLO.

[3] Subsequently, in 2006, Pakistani ruler General Pervez Musharraf recalled Armitage's threat to bomb Pakistan to stone age in an interview Theguardian.com/world/2006/sep/22/pakistan.usa, September 22, 2006.

[4] Pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/interviews/armitage.html, accessed September 1, 2021.

[5] George W. Bush ordered the establishment of a parallel human intelligence network in the Pakistani tribal region after U.S. felt that Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was sharing info about impending drone strikes with the terrorists being targeted, helping them escape. In 2008, Bush expressed his displeasure about ISI's double role during a meeting in Washington with visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. Archive.indianexpress.com/news/annoyed-by-isi-information-leak-bush-asks-gilani-who-s-in-control/343043, August 1, 2008. 

[7] During the years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, top Afghan Taliban leaders maintained their hideout in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, where they came for medical treatment and recuperating and from where they ran the Quetta Shura, the main decision-making body. U.S. special ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke observed: "Quetta appears to be the headquarters for the leaders of the Taliban." Ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Vol2Iss5-Art2.pdf, June 2010.

[8] It is impossible that the U.S., which maintained the classified Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan the province whose capital hosted the Taliban leaders, did not know about the existence of the Quetta Shura and ISI's collaboration with the Afghan Taliban leadership. Nytimes.com/2011/12/12/world/asia/cia-leaves-pakistan-base-used-for-drone-strikes.html, December 11, 2011.

[9] Nydailynews.com/opinion/knew-qatar-trouble-article-1.3306729, July 6, 2017.

[10] For more information about Qatar's role for international Islamist terrorist organizations, see MEMRI MDBs and reports: The US-Taliban Negotiations: A Deadly Qatari Trap, September 1, 2019; Qatar And The American Syndrome, March 9, 2018; >Qatar, The Emirate That Fools Them All, And Its Enablers, January 18, 2018; Two-Faced Qatar Squirms – But They Shouldn't Be the Only Ones, June 2, 2017; Qatari School Curricula Promote Jihad And Martyrdom, May 25, 2021. Qatar: The 'Stealth' Pro-Islamist Subverter, July 15, 2021.

[11] Msn.com/en-in/news/world/a-new-chapter-has-begun-us-suspends-diplomatic-mission-in-afghanistan-moves-embassy-to-qatar/ar-AANUUYc, August 31, 2021.  

[12] Washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/08/17/daily-202-withdrawal-symptoms-biden-gambles-over-horizon-afghanistan, August 17, 2021.

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