Columnist and author
Columnist and author
The Pentagon still has not determined how it will combat terrorist threats after American troops leave Afghanistan.
And sooner or later, each optimistic US president has discovered that even the best-intentioned Afghan fixer-upper ended up looking like it had been cobbled together by his departments of Unforeseen Developments and Unintended Consequences.
Today we’ll start by trying to finally learn from the entire history of flailed and failed US initiatives in Afghanistan. In the process, you will read about one US initiative that may surprise not just you, but also those who consider themselves experts because they know about every miscalculation that has been on the whole sad list, ever since 9/11.
This week, President Joe Biden, who probably spent more eras grappling with Afghanistan than all other modern presidents combined, has been seeing military and diplomatic info that seems to be warning him that, despite all his experience and optimism, he may be joining that exclusive club of commanders-in-chief who produced woebegone Afghanistan outcomes.
On Wednesday, Washington’s policymakers awoke to a warning-siren blaring from the upper-right corner of The New York Times’ front page. A news article reported that Biden’s administration and NATO intend to have their troops withdrawn from Afghanistan by early to mid-July; that’s later than Trump’s pledge to withdraw totally by May 1, but well ahead of Biden’s pledge to be gone by Sept. 11.
“The Pentagon still has not determined how it will combat terrorist threats like Al Qaeda from afar after American troops leave,” The Times reported. “Nor have top Defense Department officials secured agreement from allies about repositioning American troops in other nearby countries. … The rapid withdrawal has exposed a variety of complex problems that have yet to be resolved and are provoking intense concern.”
On May 6, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued this chilling non-assurance: “It’s not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls.” As the general was briefing reporters in the Pentagon, Taliban troops were attacking seven depleted rural Afghan military bases. On Thursday, The New York Times reported, the Taliban had captured all seven bases.
We know well what to expect (see also: what to fear) if the Taliban re-conquer Afghanistan. When The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth asked Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani about the Taliban’s subjugation of women, including assassination attempts on women journalists in Kabul, the Afghan president explained how and why the Taliban’s followers accept such horrific acts against women:
“They’ve grown up outside normal families in madrassas in the absence of women, so women have been construed as a threat to them.”
There is an unbelievably wacky, yet entirely true, backstory behind the role those madrassas played in the making of today’s besieged Afghanistan. The United States played a once-secret role in the molding of the boys in those rigidly Islamic Afghan schools. It happened two decades before Al Qaeda terrorists planned and launched its 2001 attack on America from sanctuaries in the Taliban-run Afghanistan.
President Ronald Reagan’s administration developed a plan to stealthily promote freedom-fighter militarism among Afghanistan’s youths, hoping they would someday rise up and run the godless Soviet communist troops out of their country. Reagan officials decided to flood rural Afghanistan’s madrassas with millions of schoolbooks designed to foment militancy. The US Agency for International Development gave $51 million in grants to the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Center for Afghan Studies. Soon young Islamic boys were learning math by counting pictures of soldiers, tanks, guns and land mines.
And lo, the Soviets wound up wasting a vast fortune in a failed war to control Afghanistan. President Bill Clinton’s administration canceled the program in 1994. And we didn’t even find out about it until The Washington Post wrote about it in 2002. (Even then, the freedom-fighter image molding master plan wasn’t really made clear until it was detailed in a book on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction — “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future. Our Choice” — that I wrote in 2003.)
Those militant young Afghan boys in the mid-1980s were men in their 20s and 30s when the Taliban was ruling Afghanistan and giving Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida the sanctuary from which they attacked America’s homeland, half a world away.
Time out! President Biden would be wise to slow his rushed withdrawal, which is now just a slightly recalibrated version of Donald Trump’s withdrawal from America’s longest war, in which 2,442 US troops have died since 2001. Biden will regret it forever if the Taliban takes control, subjugates women once again — and gives al-Qaida and other terrorists sanctuary once again.
If both of those foreseen but unintended outcomes happen, history will judge him harshly. And accurately.
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