Afghanistan’s collapse began with Bush policy screw-up
In 1983, Harvard-educated psychiatrist turned Carter administration bureaucrat turned conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote a remarkably prescient column for Time magazine about “the mirror-image fallacy” — the presumption of so many American policymakers and Americans in general that the leaders and residents of other nations shared our values.
“If people everywhere, from Savannah to Sevastopol, share the same hopes and dreams and fears and love of children...they should get along. And if they don’t, then there must be some misunderstanding, some misperception, some problem of communication,” Krauthammer wrote.
“If the whole world is like me, then certain conflicts become incomprehensible; the very notion of intractability becomes paradoxical. The more virulent pronouncements of Third World countries are dismissed as mere rhetoric. The more alien the sentiment, the less seriously it is taken. Diplomatic fiascoes follow. (The U.S.) might have spared itself [from debacles in Islamic nations] if it had not in the first place imagined that underneath those kaffiyehs are folks just like us, sharing our aims and views.”
America’s 20-year Afghanistan debacle is as precise a confirmation of Krauthammer’s insight as is humanly possible.
Yes, of course, President George W. Bush was going to exact retribution for the Taliban’s decision to allow Osama bin Laden to plan his 9/11 attacks in Afghanistan. But Bush’s commitment to not just punishing the Taliban but to taming and remaking Afghanistan was remarkable in its refusal to consider deeply relevant history.
Afghanistan — a remote, landlocked, mountainous, impoverished nation in west Asia — is built on tightly bound "kinship networks" in which extended families fiercely protect their own interests. A 2012 study found that in some provinces, a majority of marriages were “consanguineous” — among related men and women. The health risks are disregarded because of a desire by families to have first cousins marry so as to retain wealth and solidarity. This is one of many reasons why Afghanistan has never come close to having an effective central government. Kinship networks would perceive such a government as threatening.
Yet First World superpowers somehow have repeatedly convinced themselves that they could impose order on a distant, staggeringly different nation. In the 19th century, the British empire — then by far the most powerful force in global affairs — tried and failed twice to establish control of Afghanistan. In 1979, fearful that a new Afghan leader might switch his loyalties from Moscow to Washington, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. Though it was then at the height of its global influence, the Soviet Union had no more success than the British in dealing with the 14 tribes of Afghanistan. Soviet troops left in 1989 without accomplishing a single lasting change.
Now it is America’s turn as a superpower humiliated by Afghans who resist Western ways. The Taliban’s easy reconquest of Kabul and other cities − and the terrorist bonding Thursday that took the lives of U.S. military personnel − has produced a predictable political and media firestorm over the Biden administration’s failure to properly plan how to protect not just remaining U.S. diplomats, contractors and troops but the Afghan support personnel whose lives and families are at risk with militant extremists back in power.
But President Biden — a deep skeptic while vice president of President Barack Obama’s decision to increase the U.S. military presence in 2011 to a record 82,000 troops — is right to see this as a failure of the national security establishment, and not just Bush. A decade ago, when Biden warned Obama that Afghanistan was a "dangerous quagmire," he was opposed by both the Defense and the State Departments. He was right. More than 2,400 Americans have died, more than 20,000 were injured and more than $2.2 trillion in taxpayer money was wasted on a futile war.
In 2019, The Washington Post posted “The Afghanistan Papers,” an extraordinary investigation that showed the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations were fully aware of how corrupt Kabul was and how little credibility the central government there had. The lead: “A confidential trove of government documents...reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
In early 2002, six months after the war began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld privately warned the White House that disaster loomed if the U.S. couldn’t establish a strong central government.
But Bush listened to Vice President Dick Cheney, not to Rumsfeld or his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and somehow thought Afghanistan just needed nudging to become a bastion of American values. Call this what it is: the greatest, most grotesque policy screw-up in modern U.S. history.
Afghanistan has been around for more than 2,500 years. As three global superpowers discovered, its values are entrenched.Chris Reed is deputy editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial and opinion section.