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Beware of Cut-and-Run in Afghanistan

Beware of Cut-and-Run in Afghanistan

Friday, 23 April, 2021 - 04:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

A specter is haunting the United States’ foreign policy: the specter of Donald Trump, at least as far as some of the questionable aspects of the former president’s choices is concerned.

On China the new Biden administration has ratcheted the hostile rhetoric, blaming Beijing for a raft of misdeeds while praising it as a strategic partner in “saving the planet” whatever that means. On Russia the new US president has triggered a series of diplomatic gesticulations while talking of close cooperation on issues such as persuading the mullahs of Tehran to return to the infamous “nuke deal” concocted by Barack Obama. At different level Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is designated as something of a gang leader while courted as a partner in chasing the mirage of peace in Afghanistan.

It is precisely on Afghanistan that Biden has adopted Trump’s hare-brained scheme for total troop withdrawal in exchange for a vague promise by the Taliban, one of the larger terrorist groups, to tone down their deadly attacks. Interestingly this is precisely the policy that Biden, as Obama’s vice president, opposed as “premature.”

To be sure, Biden has taken care to dodge any charge of “trumpization” by postponing the planned troop withdrawal by three months, from May to September 11. His cheerleaders in part of the US media and political elite have also forgotten their opposition to Trump’s initial plan which they dubbed as a “shameful cut-and-run” number and praise Biden’s wisdom of choosing a highly symbolic date for the withdrawal.

But what if Biden’s plan means giving hostage to fortune?

The coming 9/11 will mark the 20th anniversary of the deadly terror attacks against targets in New York and Washington, regarded by most Americans as one of the darkest days in the nation’s history. But what if the Taliban or kindred terror groups such as ISIS, Khorasan and the Haqqani network choose precisely that date to remind the world that they are still alive and kicking?

Who could guarantee that parts of Afghanistan would not , once again, be turned into bases for “exporting” terror beyond the region and, why not, as far as the United States?

The excuses that Biden uses to justify his adoption of the Trump plan are either absurd or disingenuous. Biden says US presence in Afghanistan has lasted “too long” and that he does not want to be the fifth president to continue that sorry saga.

To start with, US involvement in Afghanistan started under President Jimmy Carter who sent his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to organize a jihad against the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul. President Ronald Reagan intensified the jihad by providing more effective weapons to Afghan mujahedin and their “Arab Afghan” auxiliaries. President Bill Clinton tacitly endorsed the Taliban seizure of power by sending his National Security Adviser Bill Richardson for an infamous rendez-vous with Mullah Muhammad Omar in Kabul.

The next chapter of this sordid saga saw Mullah Omar escaping Kabul on his motor-cycle chased by US troops sent by President George W Bush. At the time some of us argued that the US should avoid wading deeper in the Afghan imbroglio and let the Afghans sort out the post-Taliban situation on their own. Instead both Bush and Obama opted for nation-building strategy that led to a troop build-up of up to 130,000 and the pouring of vast sums of money in the war-shattered country. Obama baptized Afghanistan as “the good war” in contrast with the “bad war” in Iraq.

Two decades later the “nation-building” strategy has proved more successful than we thought in 2002. This is why, having argued for a speedy disengagement from Afghanistan in 2002 or 2003, we now believe that continued engagement is in the best interests of the United States.

US military presence is now down to around 2500 advisers, training officers, and technicians, no longer involved in combat. Their presence is a morale booster for Afghans and a guarantee of support for 8000 troops from other NATO members. It is also a strong signal that the US does not abandon its allies and does not leave a position unless asked do so by an allied government.

As for the cost of involvement it is now in the peanuts category compared to what the US spends in Europe or the Far East.

Biden’s dwelling on the length of US involvement is bizarre when we remember that American presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea started eight decades and 13 presidents ago. Ironically, a day after fixing the date for withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden ordered the sending of more troops to Germany.

Deciding a major national security issue on the basis of a vague and necessarily shaky deal with a terrorist group that is hated by a majority of Afghans is a signal to other terror outfits that their best option is to stay in the ring until the “Great Satan” is overcome by political doubt and moral fatigue.

Is there a way out of the impasse built by Trump and Biden?

I think there is. Biden could link withdrawal to the formation of a transition government that is part of the deal. That task cannot be left to Erdogan whose failure in dealing with Turkey’s own problems does not qualify him as a peacemaker. The US and NATO allies should be involved together with the United Nations’ Security Council. Remember that US involvement in Afghanistan happened on the basis of a UN mission.

The transition government cannot be concocted through traditional conclaves of tribal chiefs, mullahs and elders known as “loya jirgah”. Afghanistan now has a constitution and new political culture shaped over the past two decades with several referenda, local, parliamentary and presidential elections. To ignore all that would be wrong and unjust, a betrayal of both Afghan and American peoples.

The names already circulated as members of a would-be transitional government all belong to men in their 70s and 80s, mid-ranking bureaucrats under the monarchy, wheeler-dealers based abroad and former warlords with thick dossiers of crimes and misdemeanor.

Biden aides talk of a withdrawal with honor. To me, unless transition takes place within the parameters of the Afghan constitution and the participation of a new political generation that reflects today’s Afghan realities, the Trump-Biden scheme would be nothing but a cut-and-run number unworthy of America.

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