US Marines during the change of command ceremony at the Task Force Southwest military field in the Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanistan. File/Associated Press
During the summer of 2002, US Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President George W. Bush against invading and occupying Iraq. “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.” Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage called this the “Pottery Barn rule” — “You break it, you own it.” (The Pottery Barn is a US and international home furnishing chain which stocks pottery).
Bush did not listen to Powell. His war on Iraq was a Pyrrhic victory and his occupation of Iraq unmitigated disaster which has destabilised the Eastern Arab World by opening the region to infiltration by Al Qaeda and its spawn.
A career military man, army general and former chief-of staff, Powell was a reluctant warrior who had challenged Bush Junior’s father, George H. W. Bush, as well as his notoriously hawkish entourage over the conduct of the 1991 war against Iraq. Powell believed that before going to war the US needs to build a global coalition to deal with multiple front lines besides those on battlefields: banking, policing, security, intelligence and international law, justice. And, of course, there had to be a plan for occupation if conquest was the result of US armed intervention.
Bush Junior did not have Powell’s multiple fronts organised or a plan for the post-war scenario before he invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the attack by Al Qaeda on New York and Washington. His objective was to exact revenge and overcome “America’s humiliation” by uprooting Al Qaeda — which he failed to do — and defeating the Taliban — which he accomplished only temporarily.
Twenty years later, the US has withdrawn most of its remaining 4,000 soldiers from Afghanistan, the Taliban is back and has taken over 50 districts in the north and, experts predict, could oust the US-backed Afghan government within six months.
President Barack Obama sustained the war effort, perhaps, because he had the “Pottery Barn rule” in mind and felt morally compelled to try to finish putting Bush’s broken Afghanistan back together again.
Some progress has been made during the US occupation after decades of warfare and warlord and Taliban misrule. Infrastructure was repaired, schools opened, rights granted to women who had been confined to their homes, and a 20th century-style life had been built in cities and towns.
Afghanistan now faces the Taliban once again and potential reversion to the desperate conditions prevailing before Bush’s war when Afghans were severely suppressed and compelled to live under the Taliban’s strict religious, social and cultural codes, and the country was ostracised and isolated internationally. The Taliban has made it very clear this is its goal.
Nevertheless, in February 2020 Donald Trump made a deal with the Taliban for the withdrawal of US troops within 14 months. Under this deal the Taliban agreed not to allow al-Qaeda or any other extremist groups to be based in areas under its control and to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government which had not been party to the Taliban-US pact. The Taliban has not honoured any of its commitments.
Trump could not have cared less about the “Pottery Barn rule” and the fact that the US had, at the time he proclaimed his deal, not succeeded in ensuring a decent future for Afghans.
Once the US has pulled out its troops, they could be destined to live under the Taliban, Daesh and al-Qaeda. Trump’s motivation was self-centred and political. He was in election campaign mode. He decided to declare “victory and leave” although his action was, in fact, “cut US losses and run.” Trump saw the withdrawal from “America’s longest war” as a popular move, particularly with his base of supporters who prefer fantasy victories to repairing damage inflicted on countries attacked by the US. Above all, Trump wanted to be re-elected and was ready to do anything to achieve that end. He still is.
He lost the 2020 election but his successor, Democrat Joe Biden, has not reversed Trump’s policy of military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden does not abide by the “Pottery Barn rule.” The pullout is proceeding apace and should be completed well ahead of the deadline of September 11th, the 20th anniversary of Al Qaeda’s strikes on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Like Trump, Biden is perpetually in election campaign mode. He wants to proclaim “mission accomplished” on September 11th although this is far from the truth. Biden is not discouraged by Bush Junior’s “mission accomplished” declaration in May 2003 before the US conquest of Iraq went disastrously wrong.
During a White House meeting with Afghnistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and chief negotiator Abdullah Abdullah, Biden made the US position clear. He stated, “Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want” while pledging US help.
Afghans cannot decide their future because the US has failed over two decades to build an Afghan army and air force capable of defeating the Taliban and may not even be able to keep the Taliban at bay. While the US military presence has been receding in recent years, US boots-on-the-ground provide insurance and assurance for Afghan forces. They boost morale while providing training and backing when under attack.
US forces amount to more than a deterrent to the Taliban and its extremist allies. US troops constitute an on-the-ground US commitment to Afghanistan’s security and a moral commitment to its 38.4 million people. Afghan women, in particular, would suffer grievously if the Taliban returns and are terrified of this outcome. Many may flee the country with their families.
Afghans who have worked for the US as translators, fixers, and administrators, and served in the US-backed government and armed forces, taught in schools and universities, and established profitable businesses could be targeted by the Taliban. Some 18,000 Afghans who worked as translators have already applied for evacuation. With their families this will amount to tens of thousands. Recognising that they could be targeted if the Taliban return, Biden said, “Those who helped up are not going to be left behind.” Clearly, he is pessimistic about the country’s fate.
Biden did not have to capitulate to Trump’s selfish design. Biden should have taken the advice of the military instead of withdrawing a few months later than promised by Trump.
Like Iraq, this will leave Afghanistan prey to its own enemies and the extremist enemies of the US, the Western powers, and the countries of this fragile, volatile region.