September 2021


Retreat from Kabul

By William Maley

Afghans try to flee Kabul on August 16, 2021. © Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

America’s failure in Afghanistan and its contempt for Australia as an ally

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” So spoke the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address. A clarion call, and rather different from the recent “no regrets” reaction of President Joe Biden to the disaster over which he has presided in Afghanistan. Biden, alas, is no Jack Kennedy, and for countries such as Australia that have willingly, and some would say blindly, allied themselves with US missions, it is timely to reflect on what the lessons of the Afghanistan experience might be – not just for the United States, but for states and peoples that have put their trust in US rhetoric only to find themselves sold out when it suited Washington to cut and run.

The images coming out of Afghanistan have been truly awful, a Dante’s Inferno of despair and misery. The spectacle of desperate Afghans falling to their deaths from the undercarriage of departing US planes is more harrowing than anything associated with the evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon in April 1975. The tragedy is that there was nothing inevitable about this catastrophe. While Biden and his apologists are predictably hastening to pin all the blame on the Afghans, a clearer ­perspective was offered by Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, just before Kabul fell: “What makes the Afghanistan situation so frustrating is that the US and its allies had reached something of an equilibrium at a low sustainable cost. It wasn’t peace or military victory, but it was infinitely preferable to the strategic and human catastrophe that is unfolding.”

Of course, there were long-term factors in play that undermined the position of the Afghan government. The constitutional framework established in 2004 was seriously overcentralised, just as the range of responsibilities that the state was committed to assuming far exceeded its capacity. The choice of a presidential rather than parliamentary system encouraged fiercely competitive “winner take all” politics. The operation of democratic political institutions, in which polling evidence suggested people in Afghanistan retained some confidence, was weakened by the evolution under president Hamid Karzai of a neopatrimonial system, in which patronage networks became alternatives to the state or markets as devices for controlling resource allocation. President Ashraf Ghani’s overwhelming self-confidence, obsession with micro-management and chronic inability to work congenially with key figures in the Afghan political elite dramatically magnified the adverse effects of these structural weaknesses.

But above all, the Afghans faced the ongoing threat of a terrorist enemy, the Taliban, that enjoyed sanctuaries in Pakistan and support from that country’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which was driven by the conviction that a stable pro-India Afghanistan should not be permitted to emerge. (Once Kabul fell, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan – too brazen even to bother hiding his tracks – claimed that the Taliban was “breaking the shackles of slavery”, a lie of which Dr Goebbels would have been proud.) The knowledge that Pakistan was up to no good, and more seriously the culpable failure of the US and its allies ever to make effective use of diplomacy to address the problem, had an insidious effect on popular confidence in Afghanistan about the country’s future. Thus, while survey evidence in 2019 showed that 85.1 per cent of Afghans had no sympathy whatever for the Taliban, there was an increasing danger that this could be overwhelmed by prudential calculations about how to survive.

The US failure in Afghanistan was not simply a military failure; it was a failure to ensure that military action was complemented by tough diplomacy. This was something long known. In 2009, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, retired lieutenant general Karl Eikenberry, hit the nail squarely on the head: “More troops won’t end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain. Pakistan will remain the single greatest source of Afghan instability so long as the border sanctuaries remain, and Pakistan regards its strategic interests as best served by a weak neighbor … Until this sanctuary problem is fully addressed, the gains from sending additional forces may be fleeting.”

Instead, the US ended up taking just about the worst course imaginable, and it is here that some hard lessons for Australia begin to appear. Instead of confronting the rot at the heart of its policy that resulted from Pakistan’s double game, the US opted instead for the pretence that Pakistan could be a good-faith partner in inducting the Taliban into good-faith negotiations over Afghanistan’s future. This “peace process” culminated in the February 29, 2020 signing by the Trump administration and the Taliban of a massively defective agreement that gave the Taliban a place at the high table, a promise of the release by the Afghan government (which was not even a party to the discussions) of up to 5000 Taliban “combat and political prisoners”, and a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces. It contained no commitment from the Taliban to a ceasefire, to a democratic system, or to respect any of the rights that had been hard won by vulnerable groups such as Afghan women. It was warmly received by isolationists and “peace industry” think-tankers in the US and beyond, but it left many Afghans thoroughly alarmed. Understanding the import of Hobbes’s observation in the 17th century that “reputation of power is power”, they instinctively grasped that the reputation of the Taliban
had been boosted and that of the Afghan government undermined. The architect of the deal, the US official Dr Zalmay Khalilzad, referred to February 29 as “A Day to Remember”. He seemed to have missed the echoes of the title of Walter Lord’s famous book A Night to Remember, which dealt with the sinking of the Titanic.

But beyond the signal that the February 2020 agreement sent to Afghans, it also had some unsettling implications for Australia. Australians had a hard war in Afghanistan: 41 killed, many wounded, many scarred by what they witnessed. The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) model of deployment that took Australian soldiers to Uruzgan was always a second-best response once the Americans’ attention drifted with the invasion of Iraq, which was a grotesque strategic blunder that the then senator Biden ardently backed. The sad reality – that it was impossible to stabilise Afghanistan on a province-by-province basis when the problem of Taliban sanctuaries remained unaddressed – had tragic consequences. Equally sobering, however, was how little capital it earned for Australia in Washington, even though successive prime ministers highlighted being a good alliance partner as a central objective of the deployment. In the February 2020 agreement, the US negotiator didn’t simply promise the Taliban that US forces would be withdrawn, he promised “to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies [emphasis added], and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel”. If, as I suspect, this promise was made without prior Australian consent, it suggested a pervasive contempt for Australia’s own sovereignty as a state; if it was made with Australian approval, it raised the question of what kind of Australian government would permit an unelected envoy of a foreign power to make promises about the deployment of Australian troops. In either case, the negotiator treated the Australian Defence Force as if it were little more than a company of the Alabama National Guard.

Worse, however, was to come. The Taliban, realising how desperate the US was to leave under the cover of the February 2020 agreement, suddenly demanded the release of the rogue sergeant Hekmatullah, who had murdered three Australian soldiers – “Rick” Milosevic, Robert Poate and James Martin – in their compound. Hekmatullah was a war criminal rather than a combat or political prisoner, and initially the US stood with Australia in opposing his release. But in September 2020, the Trump administration did a 180-degree turn, aiming (hopelessly as it turned out) to kickstart stalled negotiations, and it pressured the Afghan government to release him. Kabul had no desire whatever to do that, but its arm was twisted to breaking point by Australia’s ally. The highest representations from Australia to the US had no effect in shifting the US approach, and Hekmatullah was released to a form of house arrest in Qatar. As if to reassure the Americans that Australia could be taken for granted, the Australian foreign and defence ministers then issued a joint statement describing the Afghan government as “solely responsible for his custody”. As David Niven said of Errol Flynn, “you could always rely on Errol. You could rely on him to let you down.”

Biden, superficially sunny but at heart a cold and stubborn man, certainly seems to hope that the bleeding and abandoned Afghanistan will simply fade from view. No Good Samaritan, he. But of course, he has plenty on his mind, notably his “Summit for Democracy” scheduled for December 2021. One cynic has even suggested that in light of his Afghanistan policy, he could base his keynote speech on Kennedy’s inaugural address, albeit with some necessary amendments: “Let every nation know, even if it wishes us well, that we shall quibble over any price, dump any burden, squib any hardship, betray any friend, cozy up to any foe, in order to get away from all that liberty nonsense.” But if he does not want to be so blatant, perhaps he might invite a Taliban leader to give the keynote. Now that would be interesting.

William Maley

William Maley is emeritus professor at the Australian National University and author of The Afghanistan Wars and Diplomacy, Communication and Peace: Selected Essays.

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