- (august 2021)
Was is Worth it? The Bush/Rice Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq 20 Years Later
First, a simple consideration: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush I were presidents who had served in the military (one a general, three decorated).
After Bush I the USA has had presidents who never served a single day:
Clinton, Bush II, Obama and Trump.
(Reagan cheated: he was in the army but only as a bureaucrat).
Second, another simple consideration: the USA has losts (or at best "not won") all the wars after World War II: Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq.
In three cases it withdrew abandoning the country to the enemy. In Korea it
surrendered half of the country. In Iraq it leaves a regime dominated by allies
of its arch-enemy Iran.
And, to be fair to all combatants, World War I was largely won by the British and the French (the USA entered the conflict only at the very end) and World War II was largely won by the Soviet Union and China, the two countries that wore down (respectively) Germany and Japan at the cost of millions of casualties.
The USA is a military superpower that is awfully bad at fighting wars: it wins
when it fights alongside countries determined to fight to the last man, and it loses when it's on its own.
I suspect that Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush I were fully aware of the limitations of the USA; whereas Reagan, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and Trump were simply indoctrinated to repeat that the
USA is "great" without quite understanding the reality.
Clinton and Obama learned from Bush I:
the first Gulf War of 1991 against Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a win for Bush I,
as was his Panama invasion of 1989, but in both cases Bush I made sure that
there would be little or no fighting, and he stopped short of turning an
invasion into a real war.
And so Clinton in Serbia and Obama in Libya "won" by making sure that no US soldier would engage in actual battle.
Bush II made the biggest possible mistake: he truly believed that the US military (that had not won a real war since World War II) was invincible and started not one but two wars: Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Bush II had no experience of war and his chief advisor,
Condoleezza Rice, was an expert in "fighting" the Soviet Union, a kind of
"fighting" that had nothing to do with actual shooting.
In other words, the two were clowns.
The team was completed by Donald Rumsfield and Dick Cheney, two liaisons of
the military-industrial complex that profits from such wars.
These were not clowns, but were dangerous businessmen dressed like ideologues.
Iraq first became a hotbed of terrorism, and then was almost overrun by ISIS,
and is now run by a corrupt, unpopular and unstable regime that at times looks
like an Iranian protectorate. And the country is still bitterly divided among
Shiites (who run the government), Sunnis (a minority that resents Shiite domination) and Kurds (who basically have their own autonomous state in the north).
The defeat of the USA in Iraq is strategically even worse than the one in
Afghanistan because Iraq is a bigger prize and the "liberation" turned out into a gift to Iran and the nation-building effort failed spectacularly.
The USA now faces another incredible defeat in Afghanistan. It's not about losing the war to the Taliban (as i have written here these are not the same Taliban of 2001) but about watching the government and army of Afghanistan simply melt away: the president of Afghanistan flew to the United Arab Emirates and the various generals simply disappeared. The real defeat is that 20 years of training and about a more than 100 billion dollars were not enough to create a real government and a real army.
Last not but least, the USA seems incredibly bad at exiting a lost war.
Vietnam: pathetic exit of the USA.
Lebanon: pathetic exit of the USA.
Afghanistan: pathetic exit of the USA.
Whether it's Nixon, Reagan or Biden, the USA just doesn't seem to get it right.
Clinton and Obama were smart: they only bombed from the sky and avoided boots on the ground in Serbia and Libya.
Bush I was the best strategist: very clear goal, very limited, quick implementation, no occupation (Iraq 91, Panama).
Did the USA benefit from these wars?
The military-industrial complex certainly did. The US taxpayers did not: they are fooled every year into paying federal taxes that mostly fund the military-industrial complex. If you think that the market value of the big tech companies
(Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple) is ridiculously high, check the market value
of the corporations that make weapons.
More importantly, did anyone benefit when the USA exited these wars?
Once you start a war and cause massive destruction for so many years,
it would be nice if you left behind a better country.
Biden subscribed to the idea promoted by Donald Trump that the war in
Afghanistan was an "endless war". Trump kept repeating it until it almost
sounded true. It never was true. The USA maintains soldiers in Korea since 1950 and nobody calls it an "endless war". Ditto in Japan since 1945.
Until last week
there were 2,500 US soldiers in Iraq and 2,500 US soldiers in Afghanistan.
In a few days there will be zero in Afghanistan but there will still be
2,500 US in Iraq and nobody calls it an "endless war".
It was Donald Trump that invented the refrain of the "endless war" in Afghanistan and everybody started nodding.
In reality, those US soldiers were hardly at war and could have easily coexisted with the Taliban, just like US soldiers are not at war in Korea, an unfinished war.
Unfortunately when Donald Trump signed the uncondictional surrender of the USA to the Taliban in May 2020, he didn't think of imposing the condition that US soldiers would remain in Afghanistan just like they remain in many other places. He could have
asked the Taliban to provide protection instead of telling them "don't shoot us while we leave" (the only condition attached by Trump to the unconditional surrender).
On the other hand, Trump forced the Afghan government to release five thousand Taliban fighters.
Most of what Trump did during his four years as Putin's puppet in Washington
served the interests of Russia. The "peace treaty" with the Taliban was no exception.
Ultimately, it left Afghanistan to Russia, exactly like Trump left Syria to
Russia and Venezuela to Russia.
Biden is either naive or stupid if he doesn't see this simple truth: the US
surrender to the Taliban was engineered by Russia, implemented by Russia's
man in Washington, Donald Trump.
In reality, The US soldiers in Afghanistan had a function, and it was a useful one, and it wasn't an "endless war" at all.
The USA failed to create a viable government and army but, over 20 years,
dramatically changed the nature of the Afghan nation.
The Taliban themselves had to adjust to this new modernized Afghanistan:
they entered Kabul not like conquerors but like policemen focused on
preventing looting. They have provided safe passage for the thousands of
Afghans who wanted to reach the airport.
The standard of living in Afghanistan is much higher today than it was in 2001.
Women have been getting an education for 20 years and work in many have jobs.
The people of Afghanistan got used to so many freedoms (from listening to music
to shaving their beard regularly) that it will be virtually impossible for the Taliban
to return to their austere form of Islamic dictatorship (in which both music and shaving the beard were forbidden).
Incidentally, South Korea was not a democracy for a long time: the fact that
the Afghan government was not a perfect democracy was not a failure, it was a fact of life, but it was far better than the governments that preceded it (the Taliban and before them the Soviet-sponsored communist dictatorship).
The "endless war" achieved many goals that are now easily forgotten.
There was also one obvious benefit for the USA: Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks of 2001 were "useful" for the USA to expand its influence into Central Asia at a time when Russia was retreating and China was still weak.
the USA opened military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and
created a supply line
stretching from the Baltic republics to Afghanistan
(the Northern Distribution Network).
This doesn't change the real nature of the defeat. The most shocking element of the Taliban's re-conquest of Afghanistan was the non-existent resistance of the government's army, which theoretically employs 300,000 soldiers. Twenty years of US training and billions of dollars achieved absolutely nothing: Afghanistan didn't have an army capable of stopping a ragtag army of poorly funded, poorly armed army of 80,000 Taliban with no air force. They conquered Afghanistan's capital Kabul without shooting a bullet. They basically simply drove from one corner of Afghanistan to the other corner. Someone will have to explain how 300,000 soldiers surrendered without fighting. Biden is right that the Afghan government and soldiers showed no will to fight. For 20 years they had let the USA fight the war for them. When the USA withdrew, they simply didn't know how to fight.
Russian commentators correctly pointed out that in 1989 the Soviet puppet communist government of Mohammad Najibullah survived for three years after the Soviet Union withdrew, despite the fact that it received no help from the Soviet Union after 1991 (when the Soviet Union disbanded). In 2021 the US puppet government dissolved in less than a week.
While Western diplomats scrambled to flee Kabul, the Russian ambassador, Dmitry Zhirnov, and his entire staff remained in Kabul, protected by the Taliban themselves.
Obviously there was something very wrong with the US approach to Afghanistan,
with demobilizing the warlord's armies and creating a centralized state while fighting a counterinsurgency with a local partner that was corrupt and (de facto) not motivated.
Remember that in 2001 the USA could count on the Northern Alliance as a local
partner willing to fight the Taliban. The USA disarmed all the warlords to
build a national army, but the result has been an army is not meant for fighting a real war.
There are now simple facts in Afghanistan:
the Taliban will need help from the regional and world powers if they want to maintain the current standard of living in Afghanistan, and, in particular, it will need the foreign aid mostly coming from the West;
the ultimate beneficiary of 20 years of the US investment is the Taliban, who inherit the army, the air force, and whatever highways the USA built;
the Taliban's main enemy is not the West but ISIS;
Russia (which has already built diplomatic relationship with the Taliban, even advising them on how to structure their new government)
inherits control of the country from the USA and can tell all countries of the world that the USA cannot be trusted (you can "sleep" with the USA if you want, but sooner or later the USA will cheat on you - get it, Ukraine?).
Last but not least,
Russia and China inherit control of Central Asia now that the USA has closed its military bases in the region and abandoned the Northern Distribution Network.
Central Asia will now be an open contest for control by China (with its One Belt One Road initiative, by far the largest economic event in the history of the region), Russia (which maintains troops in Tajikstan and Armenia, by far the largest military presence in the region), Turkey (that has troops in Azerbaijan and ethnic links with most "stans"), and Iran (that has historical links with Central Asia including Afghanistan).
See Nations in Crisis: Afghanistan for more details.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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- (july 2021)
Nations in crisis: Afghanistan
The withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan after 20 years and the continued
expansion of the Taliban forces Afghans to face a different future.
Afghanistan has one of the younges populations in the world which means that
most of its people were too young or not even born when the Taliban were in power.
It also means that many of the Taliban themselves
were too young or not even born when the Taliban ruled, and very few were around
in 1993 when the Taliban movement was started in Pakistan.
The Taliban are a different movement and the people of Afghanistan are a different people.
Incidentally, the population of Afghanistan today is much larger than it was when the Taliban ruled: it almost doubled in 20 years, from 20 million to almost 40.
Whether the Taliban conquer Kabul and install a new Islamic dictatorship or
the Taliban join a government of national unity,
nobody quite knows what this mix of new generations will produce.
Superficially, one tends to think that the Afghan people are much more "westernized" than they were in 2001 and that the Taliban are much more practical than they were in 2001.
In 2001 Afghanistan was fundamentally a client state of Pakistan, which had plotted for decades to destabilize Afghanistan and install an Islamic dictatorship.
See Afghanistan as a Pakistani war of conquest).
The USA had contributed to Pakistan's success because it viewed it in the larger scheme of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Saudi Arabia had contributed because it viewed it as a religious mission.
The unholy alliance of the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan caused the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan and Afghanistan to become an Islamic state under Taliban rule and a friend of Saudi-sponsored fundamentalists, notably Osama bin Laden.
The USA ended up paying a price when those Saudi-sponsored fundamentalists staged the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Since then Pakistan's influence on Afghanistan has waned, Saudi Arabia has become a more secular state, and the USA, exhausted by two lengthy wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), has lost interest in that part of the world.
The international context in which Afghanistan develops its new form of government is therefore as new as its internal dynamics.
All eyes are on the Taliban because the Afghan government is widely viewed as
simply a US puppet government, incapable of defending itself.
The Taliban never negotiated with the Afghan government.
The regional powers behave as if the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are irrelevant.
The momentum is clearly on the Taliban's side: they have captured
at least 50 districts since May 2021, despite the presence of the USA. It is hard to imagine that they will lose that momentum now that
the USA cuts and runs.
It is not clear where the US investment went ($837 billion to fight the Taliban and assorted terrorist groups and $145 billion for nation-building). Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries of the world with one of the poorest infrastructures. It depends on more than $4 billion a year in foreign aid. The Afghan government was almost entirely paid with foreign aid. Meanwhile, the Taliban have been getting money from the trade routes that connect Pakistan to Iran (and, indirectly, China to Turkey). Add the traffic in opium, hashish, methamphetamines and other narcotics and you get a lucrative business. After conquering the entry points into Afghanistan, the Taliban don't depend on foreign aid the way the Afghan government does.
While it is unlikely that any external power can decide the outcome of the Afghan civil war, there are four obvious interested parties: Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran; while India and Turkey are more distant observers with little or no leverage over the future of Afghanistan.
Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan.
Iran was and probably remains the top enemy of the Taliban. It was the only country to openly oppose them in the 1990s, when they were supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Iran is a Shiite country and the Taliban are Sunni fundamentalists, and therefore their hostility has increased in the age of global Sunni-Shiite tensions.
Potentially, a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan could become a major problem for Iran if it allied with Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, Iran's influence in Afghanistan is natural, as the two nations are ethnically and linguistically related.
Iranians speak farsi and Afghans speak a similar language. The two countries have been one many times in the ancient past.
Afghanistan's third-largest city, Herat, was the capital of the Persian Empire.
Many poets, scientists, artists, and kings of the Iranian/Persian civilization were born in what is now Afghanistan.
Between two and three million Afghan refugees moved to Iran in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of the "mercenaries" sent by Iran to Syria are actually
Shiites of the Hazara branch from Afghanistan.
So far Iran has shown pragmatic intentions. In early July
it leaders hosted rare direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government: the fact that the Taliban agreed to attend shows that the Taliban, should they seize power, are willing to normalize relations with Iran.
After the rise and fall of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Iran may now view the Taliban
as a lesser evil. In fact,
Iran and the Taliban collaborated to annihilate ISIS (its branch named Islamic State of Khorasan) when it tried to infiltrate Afghanistan.
Putin never missed an opportunity to take advantage of US distractions, whether in Syria, Libya or Venezuela, so it is legitimate to expect that Russia is already plotting a role in Afghanistan's future.
(Virtually everything that Trump did during his four years in the White House
ended up benefiting Russia and signing the "peace treaty" with the Taliban, which was really an unconditional surrender of the USA, is no exception: the main
beneficiary was again Russia).
In fact Putin has already achieved something that the USA never achieved:
in March 2021 Russia hosted a peace conference between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Russia has certainly been successful in ending the civil war in Syria by de-facto partitioning it into different spheres of control
Afghanistan is one place where Russia and the USA could find a way to cooperate: both have interests that Afghanistan achieves some form of stability and does not shelter terrorists.
China has possibly been the most active of Afghanistan's neighbors.
It looks like China's "One Belt One Road" initiative that has created roads and railways all over Central Asia looks appealing to the pragmatic members of the Taliban. In July
the Taliban's spokesman Suhail Shaheen gave an interview to a Chinese-language newspaper in which he pledged friendship to China, welcomed
Chinese investment in Afghanistan, and pledged not to interfere in China's
Uyghur region (where China is accused of oppressing the Muslim majority).
It looks like the Taliban view China purely as an economic partner.
A couple of weeks later, China's foreign minister Yi Wang hosted Taliban senior leaders in Tianjin
(including the Taliban's co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar).
Most likely they discuss extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan.
It is of course telling that China would discuss this project with the Taliban instead of the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
China has, in a sense, surrounded Afghanistan: China has
created the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China has signed a
$400 billion bilateral agreement with Iran, and has widespread investments in
Central Asia. Afghanistan is an island in the middle of an ocean of Chinese
Compared with Iran, Russia and China, Pakistan has been relatively quiet about the future of Afghanistan. The simplest explanation is that Pakistan wouldn't have to do much if the Taliban win: the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns
(and there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan),
they were formed in Pakistan, and they have been funded by Pakistan's secret services.
On the other hand, if the Taliban lose, Pakistan wouldn't want to be associated with them too closely.
India has done little more than support the government of Afghanistan.
There is one outcome that few analysts seem to consider: that the Taliban and the Kabul government, extremely distrustful of each other, will not find a way to form a unity government, and each will retain control over its territory, de facto splitting Afghanistan into two relatively peaceful countries.
The truth is that almost all the regional powers would accept the status quo, and probably would do business with both entities.
However, the most likely outcome is that the new Taliban will conquer all of
Afghanistan and will turn out to be far less fanatical than the Taliban of 2001.
Haibatullah Akhundzada, formally the leader of the Taliban since 2016,
is not Mullah Omar, the original leader. Abdul Ghani Baradar belongs to the
generation of Mullah Omar, but he was
arrested in Pakistan in 2010 and released in 2018 thanks to pressure from the USA and then negotiated the "peace treaty" in Qatar with the USA: he hardly
sounds like a sworn enemy of the USA (more like someone who owes his freedom
to the USA).
Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Taliban's first leader Mullah Omar, sounds very
different from his father (very little interested in Islamic studies).
The one extremist could be Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the powerful Haqqani network, but the bulk of the Taliban leaders may be more interested in pacifying
the country and in the lucrative trade route between China and Iran.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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- Articles on Afghanistan before 2021