US withdrawal from Afghanistan: Lessons learned, not learned

Published August 16, 2023
Taliban members celebrate on the second anniversary of the fall of Kabul on a street near the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15. — Reuters
Taliban members celebrate on the second anniversary of the fall of Kabul on a street near the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15. — Reuters

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan was the right decision, but Washington understood it had “some enduring commitments” to meet in the war-torn country.

The United States quietly observed the second anniversary of its withdrawal from Afghanistan on Tuesday, with both officials and non-officials guessing what went wrong and how not to repeat those mistakes in future conflicts.

“The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was an incredibly difficult one, but also the right one,” Secretary Blinken told a news briefing in Washington. “Even as we continue to work on supporting the Afghan people, we have some enduring commitments when it comes to Afghanistan. Those haven’t changed.”

While underscoring the need to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, the chief diplomat said: “We’ve been very clear with the Taliban … that the path to any more normal relationship between the Taliban and other countries will be blocked unless and until the rights of women and girls, among other things, are actually supported.”

In his latest report to Congress, US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan John F. Spoko said the “US experience in Afghanistan continues to offer many important lessons for other conflicts in the world today, as well as future conflicts.”

And a former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, identified three such lessons at an earlier congressional hearing.

“The first is to be careful about what you get into. Military interventions bring consequences, … consequences that we cannot even imagine, let alone plan for,” he said. The second lesson, he said, was that “a withdrawal can have consequences as far reaching and as serious as those of an intervention, … (as) we simply cede the field to our adversaries.” The third lesson, according to him, is to show strategic patience. The US failure to do so in Afghanistan, he said, had “its greatest impact … next door in Pakistan” where “allies came to fear our lack of strategic patience.”

A US media report, published by The Hill on Tuesday, identified six other mistakes. The first was President Bill Clinton’s failure to kill Osama bin Laden, although he had nine actionable tips, from 1998 to 2000. The second was President George W. Bush’s failure to order a sustained kinetic campaign against militant hideouts in Pakistan.

The third mistake was also Bush’s who allowed the military campaign to morph into nation-building. The fourth and fifth mistakes were President Obama’s announcing the intention to leave and holding talks with the Taliban as early as 2010.

The sixth strategic mistake was President Joe Biden’s unilateral decision in 2021 to abandon conditions-based withdrawal, and leave.

This week, Zalmay Khalil­zad, the man who negotiated the settlement that led to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, offered a new proposal to pacify Afghanistan. The former US special envoy urged Afghan politicians, now living in exile, to return to their country, “make a unity government and negotiate with the Taliban.”

The suggestion aims at strengthening Afghan society and jump-starting the political process. But the State Department clarified that this was Mr Khalilzad’s personal position.

Instead, the department offered to help Afghanistan rebuild its economy if the Taliban respect human rights, allow women to study and work and ensure that the Afghan territory is never used again for launching terrorist attacks.

“Helping address Afghanistan’s ongoing humanitarian and economic crises, is an urgent priority for us,” a department spokesperson Vedant Patel said at Monday afternoon’s news briefing. This was also highlighted at a C5+1 in Astana, Kazakhstan, this week where — the United States and five Central Asian nations met to consider how to stabilise Afghanistan.

“The seriousness of the humanitarian and economic conditions in Afghanistan requires a strong and coordinated response from the international community,” said a joint statement issued after the meeting.

Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers also realise the seriousness of the situation and regularly urge the international community to resume its assistance suspended after the US withdrawal. Earlier this month, the Taliban called on

the international community to “transparently share Afghanistan’s developments, allowing the world to comprehend the actual situation in the country and the strides being made.”

The C5+1 statement also focused on the demand for “preventing the territory of Afghanistan from being used as a base for hosting, financing, or exporting terrorism and violent extremism to other countries.”

Recent reports by US think-tanks indicate that the Taliban may be more willing to oblige now than ever before, because of the growing rivalry between them and other militants, particularly the ISIS-K.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2023

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