On September 1, Providence hosted a conversation between Paul Miller and Jon Askonas on Afghanistan.
Mark Tooley: Welcome everybody to this conversation on Afghanistan hosted by Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. I am Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and editor of Providence. We’re delighted that we have two well-informed perspectives being presented here. One by Paul Miller, a contributor to Providence and a professor at Georgetown University with deep knowledge and experience regarding Afghanistan, which he will share with you. Our other spokesperson, conversation partner, is Jon Askonas, a professor at Catholic University, also with deep knowledge and experience in international relations. They come from different perspectives on America’s role in the world, so I don’t know, but I expect they will have some differences of opinion about recent events in Afghanistan and lessons that should be drawn from them. But we will have a vigorous conversation you can be assured. This is being broadcast live on Providence’s Facebook and the video will be downloaded onto YouTube, so if you have friends who would like to view it please encourage them to do so. If you’re here for the first time at a Providence event and you’re not on our invitation list, please let me know so I can add you. Our next event will be September 10, next Friday, regarding recalling the events of 9/11. That evening’s conversation will be hosted by our executive editor of Providence and Just War scholar, Marc LiVecche. And the guests will be…
Marc LiVecche: Victoria Clarke, who used to be the Under Secretary of Defense for Communication under Donald Rumsfeld, and Lieutenant Colonel Joe Chapa, who is a pilot in the US Air Force.
Tooley: So, join us next Friday evening if you’re able. I don’t think we’ve ever hosted a Friday evening event before, so this will be a test… are Washingtonians willing to come to a Friday evening public policy event? We don’t know the answer to that question. Our speakers will speak each for ten minutes and then each will have five minutes to respond to the other. And then we’ll go directly to questions and comments from the audience and hope to conclude by 7:30. But you’re all welcome to linger afterwards for further conversation and to consume what’s left of the food and drink within reason, and I commend you for your boldness and not being intimidated by the weather this evening. So, Paul Miller, if you’re willing to go first, and we appreciate you being here.
Paul Miller: Thank you, Mark and IRD and Providence, and thank you, Jon, for talking with all of us tonight. Mark asked me to talk for ten minutes about Afghanistan and I reminded him I can talk five hours about Afghanistan, and there are podcast episodes out there to prove it. I also reminded him that there’s a tornado watch tonight and he said, and I quote, “Exciting.” How to kind of summarize my reaction to what’s happening in Afghanistan: the mission is not over. The mission is not over. Al Qaeda still exists unfortunately. That’s the shortest way I can put it: al Qaeda exists. Now ISIS-K exists. The mission is not accomplished. The suicide bombing at the Kabul airport demonstrates the continuing threat of international terrorism in Afghanistan. Our presence for the past twenty years I believe helped keep jihadists on the run, helped keep the lid on that problem, helped keep them focused on avoiding our own airstrikes and special forces, and now they will have time and space to breathe. Which means room to plan, recruit, train, fundraise, and attack. That’s my main reaction to what’s happening in Afghanistan. We were not losing this war and the ending as it unfolded these last few weeks was not inevitable. The main message from the Biden Administration has been that this was inevitable; we had in fact already lost this war a long ago and he just needed to rip the band-aid off to acknowledge the reality that we had lost. And he claims that the chaos proves his point, that it was always going to be this way. It’s not true. From 2014 onward as we began to withdraw from the war, the Taliban did not make rapid gains or control more territory. Far more territory was contested, that’s true, but the Taliban only marginally increased its control as we withdrew. We had 30,000 troops in the country in 2014, then began to draw down from there. According to the Special Inspector General Afghan Reconstruction, they charted how many districts each side controlled, and the government didn’t lose its control. Some were contested, but that’s to be understood. That’s understandable when you have a brand-new Afghan Army that has just been stood up beginning to take leadership of security in the country as we transition to them. And so, there was an ongoing civil war but the war was not lost. And it’s false, and it’s even mendacious, for the Biden Administration to claim that it had been lost. To pretend as if they could see into the future to borrow that future knowledge and to use it to justify the decisions in the present, which then bring about the very situation they predicted and they caused. They can call themselves vindicated; their predictions of loss became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, there were important successes. There were no large-scale international terrorist attacks coming from South Asia for the past twenty years, in part because of our military presence there. We can also credit our improved homeland defense of course, but the fact that our presence was there, again, kept the bad guys on the run. We can also see that the Afghan government, while corrupt and had plenty of problems, stood on the foundations of a constitution that was widely popular with the Afghans. You hear sometimes now that we shouldn’t do nation building and democracy wasn’t a good fit in Afghanistan. That is nonsense. The Afghans wrote their own democratic constitution. We did not do that. And they held repeated rounds of elections, marred by corruption, but they loved the principle of majority rule, of human rights, of representative institutions. Year after year, survey after survey, the Afghans always said they loved it, they just wanted it to work better. The Afghan economy showed consistent growth by virtually every single metric. Afghan life was better a month ago than it had been 20 years ago. Those were all successes that will now be undone. The war was sustainable, the war was low cost, it was low risk, there was no meaningful anti-war movement in the United States, there was no domestic political pressure to withdraw, and no election was going to hinge on whether or not we had 2,000 or 5,000 troops in Afghanistan. There was no prevailing need, no compelling reason, for this withdrawal. President Biden claims that his choice was to leave completely, which he did, or to escalate dramatically. He said repeatedly in his speeches these past two weeks that to sustain the war he had to send in tens of thousands of more troops, implying that we had to go back to the situation about ten years ago when President Obama had a hundred thousand American troops in Afghanistan. Again, this is false. I’m going to bore you with some statistics here, but bear with me, in 2014, we had 30,000 troops in the country and that year there were 55 Americans killed in action in Afghanistan. I do not say that to make light of the loss of life, that number includes a friend of mine, but I do want to give you some historical perspective that this was barely a war on the American side in the six and a half years since then. From the end of 2014 forward until just last month, there was only 66 Americans killed in action in all six and a half years combined. We were not in harm’s way. We were not at the front lines. we were not in ground combat in large numbers. This was a very small military action for the United States, and so for President Biden to suggest that it was unsustainable is false. And even at an earlier stage in 2014 when there was ten times the number of troops as were there just earlier this year, it was still a sustainable war. Now I don’t know what the magic number is. I don’t know how many troops we needed. It certainly was not a hundred thousand, but if we could have stabilized the war at 30,000 troops at the cost of a couple of dozen casualties, I’d say that’s a sustainable war. And so, the president was wrong to suggest this was unsustainable and he had the choice to either completely withdraw or escalate dramatically. That’s simply not true. The president also said that the Afghan Army didn’t fight, and he used that to justify his claim that this war was lost. “If they hold it like a house of cards after twenty years of training, how much longer did he want to give it?” “It’s clear that they weren’t going to fight to defend their country.” I’d observe that they did stand and fight for ten years from the time the United States took leadership of the effort to train the Afghan Army until this spring. The Afghan Army stood and fought our common enemies. For the president to suggest otherwise, his casual, flippant dismissal of their sacrifice, is appalling, it is unpresidential, and it’s racist. The Afghan Army collapsed when he took away their air support, when he catalyzed a collapse of their morale by saying that we’re leaving before the job was done. It is him, not the Afghan soldier, who’s responsible for the performance of the Afghan Army in the final weeks of the war. Now I understand critics say we can’t stay forever, but I respond: we can’t fight wars on timetables. There is not a single field manual, a single strategist, a single book of military strategy that says, “Go to war on timetables.” I’ve read these books; they don’t say that. Timetables equal losing wars. The next time you hear a president say, “I’m going to end the war,” what he’s really saying is, “I’m going to lose this war.” When you started hearing that language of withdrawal, timetables, exit strategies, we’ve lost this war in Afghanistan. It was lost as early as December ‘09 when President Obama first began that language of withdrawal, of ending the war on a timetable. If you see an importance here to defeat international terrorism and al Qaeda, to keep ourselves safe, you have to understand that to fight that war smartly it does necessarily have to be open-ended. You know what also was open-ended? World War II was open-ended. When we declared war on Germany and Japan, we didn’t do it with a timetable. We didn’t say we’re going to fight as hard as we can for two and a half years. We didn’t say that. We said we’re going to fight until the job is done. And so, yes, this has to be an open-ended commitment. I don’t think it would be forever. Imagine for a moment if twenty years ago we had said, “We’re going to go to war for twenty years,” instead of saying every single year we’re going to fight that we’re probably leaving pretty soon, right. I can imagine that would look very different. We telegraphed our eagerness to get out every single year, and that undermined the progress we were otherwise making. Finally, I just want to say this has nothing to do with nation building. Some people will say that this proves that nation building doesn’t work, we shouldn’t have promoted nation building, it was too hubristic, it was too ambitious. Look, we didn’t do any nation building in Afghanistan except for a very short window from 2007 to 2011 where we put a lot of money in the place. But before that and after that, there was no nation building. It was just counterterrorist. So, let’s just remove that from the debate altogether. This is not a discussion about whether or not nation building was a good idea, a bad idea, effective or ineffective, because we just didn’t do it. So, take that out of your minds. This is not a debate about nation building. The myth of the inevitability of our loss is a comforting myth because if it’s true, it says we were actually powerless all along and we could never have prevented this and it’s not our fault. We, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, were actually powerless and we couldn’t have done it. It’s much easier to believe that comforting myth than to believe the reality of our agency, and therefore our responsibility and therefore our moral betrayal of the Afghan people. Thank you.
Jon Askonas: All right, thank you, Paul. Originally, Mark had invited me to speak on a panel discussion about Afghanistan. He didn’t tell me he was going to pit me against one of the most eloquent defenders of a robust presence in Afghanistan. I really appreciate Paul Miller. He’s one of, in a town of a lot of people with a lot of empty talk and a lot of decisions made about other people’s money, other people’s lives, I’ve always felt that Paul put his money where his mouth is. He served in Afghanistan. He’s also always been very intellectually honest about the implications of his positions. He didn’t want to talk nation building tonight, which is fine, but he’ll defend it and he’ll defend it honestly. So, I appreciate talking with Paul, but and I should also say I know a lot less about Afghanistan. Paul is a real Afghanistan expert. When we were colleagues at the Clements Center, he would lament that he had a massive sprawling trilogy on the Afghan War planning to write but he couldn’t get a contract for it because the war wouldn’t end. It kept not ending. So, congratulations, Paul, we can finally get you your contract. You can finally write the history of the United States’s involvement in Afghanistan. But I think Paul is wrong about our presence in Afghanistan and about our withdrawal, and I think he’s wrong on moral grounds, practical grounds, and strategic grounds. At the very end, after speaking very eloquently for ten minutes, Paul actually didn’t say very much about why we should be in Afghanistan. He gave two recommendations: the need to fight international terrorism, and as he threw it out at the end there, a moral obligation to the Afghan people. Now I think our moral obligation to Afghan people cuts in the other direction. There is a direct correlation, negative correlation, between the sustainability of the war for us and the sustainability of the war for the Afghan people, right. The same SIGAR reports that spoke about Taliban advances also said in the plain language that the war was increasingly unsustainable for the level of losses that the Afghan National Army was taking. In addition, one of the reasons the war became so unsustainable for us is that we had so little presence on the ground. We were relying more and more by working through Afghan partners and using air strikes. That led to an over 300 percent increase in civilian casualties. This recent drone strike on our way out of Afghanistan, where it appears everyone involved is to be believed, we may have killed one would-be ISIS-K terrorist and killed ten civilians, including six children, is pretty emblematic of our presence in Afghanistan. So, I believe that jus in bello requires us to have a compelling reason to continue to inflict casualties and lead to loss of life, and that if there is a method by which peace understood as a reduction in loss of life could come to Afghanistan, we ought to take it. And I believe that this withdrawal furthers that effort, even if not in the political terms we would most like. The second point is a practical one. Paul said we need to be in Afghanistan in order to fight international terrorism and that if we don’t fight al Qaeda and ISIS-K in Afghanistan we’ll have to fight them on our shores. We’ve been hearing this tired rhetoric for over twenty years. Frankly, if there’s going to be one safe haven for terrorism in the world, I would pray for it to be Afghanistan, which is about as far away from any vital American interest as possible. If you read the 9/11 commission report, what you’ll find is that they spend very little time on, and put very little emphasis on, the possibility of an al-Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan. 9/11 happened because of major failures in American intelligence, criminal investigations, homeland security, border and immigration issues, intelligence fusion, our oversight of global financial networks, and frankly, political will. The Clinton Administration was incredibly confused in and apathetic towards the threat of terrorism in the second Clinton Administration. And the 2000 election delayed even minor action against al Qaeda after the USS Cole attack. And the Bush Administration unfortunately when it arrived didn’t make it as much priority as it might have in retrospect when it first began. This is not a problem we have anymore. Thanks largely to the major reform efforts undertaken since 9/11, we have a huge counter-terrorism apparatus of global surveillance capabilities and global straight capabilities which did not exist in 2001. So, if it’s a trade-off, if the question is what is it worth to forfeit the possibility of international terrorism, it’s on Paul, or those defending the war in Afghanistan, to argue that this loss of life is a necessary component of that. And I’m not going to say it is. In addition, we have a deal with the Taliban about al Qaeda’s presence, so you might not believe it’s credible, but you can certainly believe that the American people would support strikes in Afghanistan against al Qaeda if the intelligence supported that the lack of political will is no longer an issue. In addition, this is something that supporters, or detractors, of the Afghan withdrawal have really discussed, but as Paul said, this is not the end of our war in Afghanistan. This is the end of putting American soldiers in harm’s way needlessly. This is the end of supporting a feckless and corrupt and unworkable Afghan state. I agree with Paul actually, the problem is not Afghan democracy, the problem is not even an Afghan nation, the problem is the kind of state that we sought to build in Afghanistan, which has never existed in Afghanistan. And frankly, by everything we know in political science about state building, Afghanistan is about the least likely kind of place for the centralized states that we sought to build. We saw other elements of national power, including clandestine and covert options, and letting go of our obligation to support the Afghan state overtly opens up many covert options, which any top-ten American president would take. The other problem for Paul’s position is that the face of terrorism has changed. You could perhaps argue in the year 2000 or 2001 that you needed some sort of physical safe haven for terrorists to come together and scheme. Well, now we have a global safety net called the internet that terrorists and jihadis have shown themselves very able to use to recruit. Afghanistan is one of the most remote places in the world to meet and discuss, so that’s the practical consequence. The strategic consequence, a strategic dimension of this, is the United States only has limited resources. We need to use those resources as ably and as carefully as possible, and while a commitment of say 50 billion dollars a year may not seem unsustainable from the perspective of the overall American budget, it does still represent a significant commitment both of American combat power and, frankly, as a bargaining chip or even a hostage that an imperial adversary could use against us. While we now know that, and suspected at the time, that the rumors about Russian bounties to the Taliban were false, leaving a large presence very far away for a long period of time is asking for trouble. And whether the Taliban or others would take advantage of that is something only time would tell. And again, the impetus is on those defending the continuation of the war to make a strong case for its necessity. The last thing I want to leave with is this: Paul said that there was no anti-war movement, and that’s true in a sense. There’s nothing like the massive marches and protests of the Iraq War, but I don’t think it’s true in another sense. There have been some severe domestic repercussions of our ongoing support for the war in Afghanistan. Both President Trump in 2016 and now President Biden have made significant political gains by calling for an end to these wars, because the American people are sick of them. And a subset of people who have borne the greatest cost of these wars are very significant and increasingly willing to, I want to work carefully here, but increasingly desperate for a foreign policy which takes their lives seriously and the lives of their loved ones seriously. Research by political scientists showed that districts, electoral districts, that had higher rates of casualties wounded and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan supported President Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by statistically significant measures. And if the numbers that are believed are at least close in Michigan and possibly other states, right, this is having a significant influence on our domestic politics. As anyone who has read our founding documents, or what our founders believed about republicanism, would understand. President Biden was correct when he said that there’s no such thing as a low-cost or low-risk war. And so, even though the withdrawal was handled terribly, and we can discuss some of the reasons for that and what we might have done differently, what a better withdraw would look like, I am very glad that the war in Afghanistan is at long last over. Thank you.
Miller: Jon has asked me to explain why Afghanistan was important, somewhat dismissive of the idea that safe haven is meaningful to terrorists. I guess I would ask if it’s not that meaningful, why did they spend all this time fighting to get it back? It’s true that there are other terrorist safe havens in the world. Afghanistan and Western Pakistan together, South Asia, is unique on the jihadist map. It is the headquarters. It’s the location of the densest network of overlapping jihadist groups. Most people think that’s the Middle East; it’s not true. It’s actually in Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. This is where al Qaeda was born. This is where Lashkar-e-Taiba exists, which is actually one of the largest and most active of the jihadist groups. When they have a physical safe haven as opposed to the internet, they gather together like this. In rooms they create networks and relationships. That’s what originated 9/11. Yes, there were flaws in homeland security and failures along the way, but it originated in the relationships and networks of fervently committed jihadists who were able to develop those relationships over years of training together, fighting together, working together, and literally living together at Tarnak Farms in Kandahar and other training places. The physical safe haven really does matter. They take inspiration from each other. What happens with an internet setting are lone wolf attacks, self-radicalized individuals who read a message board, they get radicalized, and they drive a truck through a crowd or they buy an AK or an AR and they gun down a crowd. Those are terrible things but is worlds away from a 9/11. A 9/11-scale attack requires the imagination and the visionary output that comes from those overlapping networks. So, denying physical safety in the headquarters of global jihad is essential to our national security. That’s why Afghanistan is singularly important. That’s why it’s worth continuing military presence there. Jon raises another point about the effect of this war in our domestic politics and the sort of long-term consequences of a long-term military operation internationally. When I think about our presence on the international stage and I think about our presence in Afghanistan, I think that staying and fighting there would have been less damaging than leaving the way we did. So, if we’re worried about our stature on the international stage, I’d say staying was the lesser evil of the two options. Think about the damage done to our alliances and our friendships around the world through our departure. And even if you could imagine it was done competently, it was still done mostly unilaterally. The allies did not like us with the pace and timing of this withdrawal. We did serious damage to NATO and to our alliances through our unilateral withdrawal. I imagine that our adversaries have taken a heart from our apparent lack of commitment, from our lack of perseverance, and from the perception that the United States will tolerate losing. We will tolerate losing if winning just seems too expensive. What lesson do you think China is taking right now about Taiwan or Russia is taking about Ukraine? I think our adversaries are taking note. Finally, let’s talk about at home. I think Jon is right that there is an effect that war has on the body politic we’ve got to be concerned about, but there’s also an effect to losing a war. When you lose a war as we have just done, there is a demoralization, loss of confidence, and a belief that we cannot and should not stand for something in the world anymore. That’s the world I’m afraid to live in, and I’m afraid we just took our first steps into that world. So, you need to weigh which cost you’re willing to pay: living in that world or the cost of enduring military presence to fight our adversaries overseas. That’s the question before us.
Askonas: So, Paul raises the question of international credibility, which is the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels in foreign policy. I’ll say this: the academic consensus, the historical consensus, on this is that credibility doesn’t work that way. In 1967, the intelligence community produced an eyes-only national intelligence estimate for President Johnson where this question was posed. What will happen to our credibility if we leave Vietnam? And the answer, the consensus answer from the intelligence community, was not a thing, because our credibility does not reside on the fact that people like us who think that we’re loyal. It resides in the fact that other allies believe they understand our interests and they understand what we do with our resources, right. Now it’s been said that this is unilateral. I think of sort of the story of the red hen where if you aren’t baking the cake, you don’t get to eat. You don’t get the benefit at the end. Our allies were free to step up at any point in this long campaign. Some of them did more than others, and many of the ones who are complaining most loudly, with the exception maybe of the British, were not so helpful. But also, I’ll believe it when I see it when it comes to concerns about NATO credibility and whatnot. I’m keeping a close eye on the percentage of GDP spent on defense and my bet is that it does not budge a lick, because you cannot stand up in the Bundestag and make the case for expanding German defense based on America pulling out of Afghanistan. And to the last point about the heart our enemies might take from this, I’ll note that both Russia and China have complained about the security vacuum we’re leaving in Afghanistan, which I hope one of them will be generous enough to fill so that we can return to the days of 1980. But in any case, we spent twenty years in Afghanistan and I don’t know what more you want out of perseverance and endurance, right. Now to the question of international terrorism, again, I think we have to point out two things. One, there is a question of tradeoffs. There’s no question that we should do what we can to prevent a recurrence of 9/11. The question is at what costs. And what cost and using what means, right. If we have 30,000 troops on the ground and are spending 40 or 50 billion dollars a year on this, you can buy a lot of intelligence, you can buy a pretty substantial human intelligence network for 40 billion dollars in Afghanistan but not one of the world’s leading developed countries. So, if anything if you want to be particularly cynical, you could argue this is our chance to start taking gloves off in a sense. To the point about planning and the utility of safe havens for planning, I’m just simply not as convinced as Paul is of their importance. You’ll note that of the 9/11 plan. And Paul said that al Qaeda was founded in Afghanistan. That’s technically true. It was founded by Saudi nationals who were fighting in the war against the Soviet Union. It was funded by the Saudis. President Biden still has not released classified documents about the role of Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East in funding the 9/11 attacks. None of the major plotters or planners of the 9/11 attacks were Afghan as far as I can tell with the potential investigation. Only maybe one or two were caught in Afghanistan, but the vast majority of people involved in 9/11 that were captured or killed by the United States were captured and killed elsewhere in the world: in Germany, in Yemen, in the Philippines, in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq. Hardly any of them in Afghanistan. The Taliban and some of the other groups that Paul mentioned are primarily indigenous movements aimed at building an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan and serving the interests of the Pakistani ISI. I expect they will continue to do that. And if they venture into transnational jihadist terrorism again, well our B-52s haven’t gone anywhere. So, again, I feel like the impetus is on those wishing to defend staying in Afghanistan to do so forcefully after the cost of twenty years, many lives, and literally trillions of dollars. Thank you.
Tooley: Questions for Paul and Jon?
Miller: So, questions?
Questioner: This question is for Paul. I share a lot of your opinions both that I’ve heard tonight and over the last few weeks. I am disgusted with the Biden Administration and the way we pulled out. But I was confused about what you said about World War II, as you said we fought until the job was done. Well, because in World War II we knew from the get-go what it would look like when the job was done, and even though I opposed, and I’m sure will oppose for a long time, how we pulled out of Afghanistan, it wasn’t clear to me that anyone knew what it would look like when the job was done. Every administration since the Bush Administration hadn’t basically been able to articulate what the job was like, really what it would look like when it was done. They all basically said sometimes almost that the job would never be done.
Miller: Thanks for the question. First, the point of the World War II analogy is just to say we don’t fight wars on timetables. No strategy just recommends that we should try that ever. Again, what would victory look like in Afghanistan? The sort of lowest level of success I’d say is an Afghan Army that can fight on its own. Now you might think well, right, there I just admitted defeat because we saw what the Afghan Army did in the last few weeks. I want to tell you the story of how the Afghan Army was improving. In 2001, the Afghan Army did not exist. There wasn’t one. There was no Afghan Army. We defeated the Taliban and they left. They collapsed, right. For five to six years, the Germans, the British, and the UN failed in their effort to lead the reconstruction of the Afghan Army. We finally took over around 2007, and it was improving. The Department of Defense truthfully reported every single year they’re not ready yet, they’re making progress, they’re not ready yet. We never said they’re ready to stand on their own. President Biden knew that; he pulled the plug anyway. Then they collapsed. That’s why they collapsed. We knew that was going to happen. They had been making progress. What I’m saying is that vision of success and the Afghan Army fighting on its own, we have been making slow, fitful, incremental progress towards that goal.
Questioner: Can I ask a quick follow-up question? Someone wrote a piece last week basically saying that the army that we were attempting to construct in Afghanistan was never going to succeed and that we should have attempted to construct a military that looked very different from the one that we were trying to do. Do you think that it would have ever been capable on its own?
Miller: Yeah, so I’m familiar with this critique that the way we built the army was maybe problematic. I have to be a little agnostic because that gets a little outside my expertise. But let’s assume that’s true. I would say let’s stay and reform our efforts to train the army, not just leave and give up. As long as you stay, you still have the opportunity to change how we’re training them, for them to try to change up what they need to change. Again, I’m not the expert here on exactly what the army should look like. I’m just saying don’t go.
Questioner: Do either of you know much about the status of Christians in Afghanistan today, particularly those that were raised as Muslims? And also, how much do you know about Islamic jihad as far as worldwide, thinking as far as what is happening to the Islamic mind, you know, those that are very serious about their faith?
Miller: Is the live stream still on?
Tooley: Yes, it is.
Miller: There are Afghan Christians and they’re still there. Global jihadists are celebrating. Al Qaeda’s chapters around the world are hailing this as a victory for their cause. To them it’s very clear that this is a victory not just for the Taliban but for all jihadist groups, including ISIS, including al Qaeda, all of them are celebrating this as a victory for their global movement.
Questioner: I read an interesting article about geography and how it played a role in the twenty-year conflict. Can either of you speak to the role that geography played in either the continuation of the conflict or of the success or what not?
Askonas: Sure. So, without being too reductionist, there are three places in the world that have been, four places, that have basically never had anything like a Westphalian state having any kind of serious power. They are the triple canopy jungle of the Northern Amazon, the Zomia so-called of the Southeast Asian highlands, the center of Africa, and the Hindukush, right. And the reason is that these geographies are highly isolating. They create an opportunity, a lot of opportunity, for linguistic proliferation. Which Afghanistan is one of the most dialectically dense places in the world. They create huge, easy opportunities for safe havens and flight across borders. It’s very difficult to build any large centralized states. Now, I don’t like to say that they are ungovernable because that’s not even true either. They have their own governance systems. The Afghan Constitution in 1964 was a pretty good constitution for that. It relied on a king with a lot of legitimacy and not a lot of practical power. The constitution that we equate to… the Afghans created a kind of president in place of a king that was very powerful and became essentially a dictatorial figure in Afghan politics. So, I think the kind of state that we tried to build made it impossible. Counter-insurgency experts will tell you that having a safe haven, and I would add a nuclear deterring safe haven, in Pakistan also makes counter-insurgency in the long term essentially impossible. The geographic challenges were very real. I recommend my friend Wes Morgan’s book The Hardest Place, about the American effort in Kunar, to get a sense of how geography interacted with our efforts.
Miller: Yeah, so, mountainous terrain makes governance super expensive and hard and difficult, and one possible way to overcome that is with roads and telecommunications. Which is why we should have done more nation building, right. That would have helped. I want to take issue with your characterization of the Afghan state. The 2004 constitution is literally copy-pasted from the 1964 constitution, with president substituted for king. The problem isn’t what powers were on paper; the problem is that Hamid Karzai actually tried to exercise the powers, when the king the generation earlier had the common sense not to try to do that. So, the problem wasn’t us. We didn’t write that constitution. The problem was Karzai being a bad politician rather, and the Afghan state has existed since 1747. It’s actually a more real state than most post-colonial states whose borders were drawn by global powers. That’s not the case for Afghanistan. So, it is a real nation and there’s a governability to it despite the geographic challenges. But it needed better politicians.
Askonas: Oh, one other thing I’d add is Afghanistan is also one of the most rural, one of the least urbanized, states in the world, which also makes governance more challenging.
Questioner: Yeah, I’m wondering since we’re sort of a counterfactual exercise at this point because we’ve already left, so, the question is should we have? I’m wondering if we broaden the scope of the counterfactual, for each of you, is there a point in the past, perhaps further in the past, where something else should been done. So, Jon, would you say that we were correct in going into Afghanistan but maybe we should have left in say the winter of 2001 when there was apparently some offer from the Taliban to surrender? And same question for you, Paul, what was the one thing that should have been done differently at some point in the past?
Askonas: Yeah, this year I got to interview a guy who was team lead for a Delta Force Squadron that was on the ground in Afghanistan, and he told me that he thought it was a mistake to stay past 2001. Now I don’t actually agree with it, but it speaks to the challenges between punishing the Taliban, or overthrowing the Taliban, and actually building something in its place. It’s hard to see politically how this would have worked, but in September 2001 President Bush essentially said, “the Taliban are not our enemy, al Qaeda are our enemy; the Taliban are protecting al Qaeda and that makes them our enemy. But that’s why they are our enemies, because they have protected al Qaeda.” Sometime between December 2001 and 2003, there were various opportunities to build an Afghan government that included the Taliban. That is what we should have built. That is one of the ways to end wars is to reintegrate the enemy into the state and be realistic about it. Any Afghan state that included a strong foreign presence and excluded this faction was going to be one in which civil war would continue. So, that is what we should have done. What that looks like practically, there’s a lot of questions there, but that’s my stake.
Miller: I’ve heard this critique a lot that we should have tried to reach out and include the Taliban in the negotiating table – look, President Bush made that offer on September 20, 2001 and they rejected it. Karzai made that offer daily for years, and the Taliban rejected it. Actually, thousands of foot soldiers took him up on it and they reintegrated. The senior Taliban leadership by and large did not take him up on it. The former Taliban defense minister did, and he sat in the Afghan senate for years. A couple of other high-ranking officials did; they were appointed as governors, and the Taliban assassinated them. Okay, so, that tells you that the core of the Taliban consistently rejected being a part of the Afghan government. The onus is on them, not on us. We did our part to reach out and try to include them the best we could. They’re the ones who turned that away. Okay, what decisions could we have done otherwise? I’ll point to four of them. Number one: President Bush decided to go in with a light footprint. All kinds of reasons why, but he went in with as little force as possible and with an allergy to nation building. So, we approached the most failed state in the world and we said we’re going to do as little as possible. That created a security vacuum which was the enabling condition for the rise of the Taliban insurgency in 2005 and 2006. That was a big mistake. We adopted a partial counterinsurgency strategy after that. President Obama, decision number two, set a withdrawal timetable. I’ll say this on my dying day: that was dumb. That was a self-own goal, right. You don’t go to war and announce your own withdrawal dates. And he did it virtually every year of his presidency. Every speech he gave from December ‘09 forward was about withdrawing from Afghanistan. That is not more than leadership, right. So, get rid of those timetables. Mistake number three: Trump’s peace deal. It was a surrender. And mistake number four was Biden’s withdrawal. Four presidents; four mistakes. An impressively consistent track record of strategic miscalculation.
Askonas: We agree on that.
Questioner: Jon, question for you. I hear this narrative from a lot of people; the administration is saying a lot that sort of we really put Russia and China on the hot seat because now we’re not so tangled up in Afghanistan. Can you defend this conjecture? Because like to me, I just don’t see how on earth pulling a small force out of an obscure place, sort of the argument not to be there is that it’s so obscure and irrelevant that it helps us pivot to China, it just seems like total nonsense. And the administration spins, but I hear people repeating it and writing Wall Street Journal op-eds saying it. What is the real sort of thoughtful argument for this position?
Askonas: Well, in fairness, most people who make this argument do so as a counter-argument to the equally idiotic idea that we’ve created a real opportunity for China in Afghanistan. I mean, somebody trotted out this silly Pentagon statistic from ten years ago that there’s a trillion dollars worth of minerals in Afghanistan and now the Chinese will have access to it. The reality is that Afghanistan doesn’t matter very much to us or the Russians or the Chinese. Now, we all share an interest in preventing jihadism from emanating from Afghanistan, and what security cooperation looks like in the future is an interesting question. Does it help us pivot towards near peer competition? It’s small but it does a few things. It frees up some of our special operations assets, which are pretty critical to getting things to actually work in Afghanistan, which are a pretty scarce commodity. It frees up planning focus from the army staff and other staff functions, including Centcom. Centcom’s focus has been on Afghanistan and digital operations for the last twenty years, right. Centcom can be doing a lot more as part of the counterbalance in Russia and in China. And it also potentially frees up security force assistance brigades for operations that support our near peer efforts rather than just rotating through Afghanistan for a few years. I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on it. Again, I don’t think it matters very much for that one way or the other.
Questioner: Can I actually ask the same question to you [Miller], and hear your thoughts on the Great Power competition?
Miller: Okay, so, I recognize that, agreed, Afghanistan is not the most important thing in the world and the fall of Afghanistan isn’t like the decisive domino that’s going to penalize the collapse of the world. But it doesn’t have to be for us to care about it. Every straw is responsible for breaking the camel’s back if it’s broken. I’m worried not that China is going to move in and steal that square on checkerboard. That’s not quite the way in which it matters. A Great Power competition is more about how the character of world order has changed. If you play chess, you know that you can gauge who’s winning by material, by position, and by initiative. That last one is hard to quantify but it’s about who’s controlling the game, who’s setting the agenda, who’s driving things forward. We have lost the initiative. We the free world have lost the initiative. And it’s not so much about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is proof of our loss of initiative, which gives the opportunity to anyone else in the world, yes including the Chinese, but also including the Russians, the Iranians, the North Koreans, to pick up the tempo to gain initiative to push their version of world order forward and ours backwards. That’s the way in which this is a loss in Great Power competition.
Questioner: Yeah, I just wonder, thinking about the future now that the withdrawal has happened, thinking about Great Power competition, how do we counter the narrative that the United States is risk averse, cost adverse? I know within days of the withdrawal, the Chinese state media was already releasing propaganda in Taiwan like, “Hey, look at these Americans. They cut and run. They can’t be relied upon. Remember this if there’s ever a war.” Certainly, Putin is already looking at this and his ambitions in Eastern Europe. And so, how do we deal with the fact that that perception is very much out there that we are not willing to pay the cost of advancing our interests? And then also, what does the future of Afghanistan look like? There is certainly resistance to the Taliban that is popping up around Afghanistan. The Taliban does not have the absolute control that they are sometimes portrayed as having. Do we continue to support that or have we well and truly washed our hands of the place? Kind of where do we go from here, I guess?
Askonas: After Vietnam, Vietnam was really, in the way Afghanistan was not, was really a train wreck for our force posture in Europe, right. We were literally stripping forces out of Germany and France and sending them to Vietnam. So, how did we reassure our NATO allies after the Vietnam war ended, right? When the Vietnam war ended, France basically pulled out of NATO. There’s a huge defeat. The army was much more demoralized than it is today, and yet that actually was the foundation for us building a much more powerful military, successful military, and the end of the Cold War. So, the way you counterbalance the narrative is put your money where your mouth is, right. We could be doing a lot more to support Taiwan materially, diplomatically, and otherwise. We can do that, right. We can do a lot more to support our NATO allies, and we can put some of those resources we’re spending in Afghanistan needlessly directly supporting them. And that’s how you build credibility back, and that is also a way in which you can regain the initiative as possible. If you play chess, you know that holding down losing positions is the way you lose the initiative. I mean, one way you can regain the initiative is sacrificing a losing position and pivoting in a different direction. And let me see, the second part of the question on what’s the future of Afghanistan… yeah, I mean, it’s diplomatic. Like diplomacy has never been in the lead in Afghanistan. Hopefully we’ll have some of that. And it’s political. It’ll be through our intelligence apparatus, right, which we’ve spent many years building up. I mean, I don’t want to talk “we.” There are problems with our intelligence posture that come from our withdrawal. I’ll acknowledge that. But we’re still going to be involved in Afghanistan. We should be involved in Afghanistan for reasons Paul said.
Miller: So, I agree with you about how to pick up the initiative going forward, but in Afghanistan, I would doubt that we have much of an intelligence posture. I can’t say at all. And my deep concern is that we’ve lost our eyes and ears. We’ve lost our facilities, our listening posts, and we’ve probably lost quite a lot of our human sources, at least those relationships. So, if I was recommending, if I was advising the administration right now, I would say dump cash and weapons on the resistance in the north. Not because they’re going to win the war, not because they’re going to launch the nationwide insurgency, they’re not going to do that. But we need an island of autonomy from the Taliban, and that’s what they can do. That’s what they did in the 1990s. They were the core of the northern alliance. They’re the core of the Afghan army. And if they’re still there, and they are still there, they are bound to fight on. Dump money and weapons on them so they can defend themselves in exchange for which they become our eyes and ears and our intelligence so we can watch their al Qaeda reconstitution. That’s our number one intelligence priority right now. Yeah, we need to know about what the Taliban is up to, but I’m really afraid we don’t know what is going on with al Qaeda or ISIS-K in Afghanistan.
Questioner: You say that there is no safe haven, which by the way, as someone who tracks this on a daily basis, it’s not true. So, please. They say al Qaeda and the Taliban are two separate entities, that’s false. That’s false. The whole lie that al Qaeda is not there is a bad lie, and I hope that you’ll be aware before you say anything about what’s going on on the ground.
Askonas: So, I didn’t say there was no safe haven in Afghanistan, I just don’t think it matters. And there are other safe havens for al Qaeda. I think the biggest advantage of al Qaeda is in Pakistan, right across the border where Osama bin Laden was found hiding out in Pakistani West Point for ten years. I think the biggest falsehood though, and again, Paul and I disagree on this, is the relative importance of a physical safe haven in terms of the ability to attack Americans, especially at home. If you look at all of the failures that went into 9/11, the fact that Mohamed Atta got to hang out with Osama bin Laden in 1998 and 1999 is like a very, very small part of that failure. The failure to attack al Qaeda under the Clinton Administration and early Bush Administration was a failure more than anything of political will and of apathy because of a lack of understanding of the threat at high levels of American government. That is no longer a problem, so we can do a lot of other things to restructure our approach to counterterrorism that do not revolve on defending the existence of the Ghani government. Which includes pouring, dumping, money into the resistance, which includes recruiting some of those hundreds, thousands, of Afghan refugees who are very happy to be Americans today, recruiting them to work for the CIA. Many of them worked like this for many years already in Afghanistan, right. That’s a resource we did not have in 2001. A friend of mine was a sophomore at Texas A&M and was recruited by the CIA on campus because he was one of maybe a handful of eligible American citizens who were native Pashto speakers. We don’t have that problem anymore, so there are other approaches to attacking this problem. That’s what I said.
Miller: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that the Clinton Administration’s approach was a failure, because last week’s airstrike against ISIS reminded me of nothing so much as Bill Clinton’s strategy, his cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan in 1998. We just went right back to 25 years ago and strikes against terrorists, which didn’t work back then.
Tooley: Everyone, it’s 7:30 but there’s still plenty of time for you all to linger and ask questions of our speakers afterwards if they’re willing. So, I appreciate your intelligent listening and question asking, and most especially the intelligent and very informative presentations by both of our speakers, Jon Askonas and Paul Miller. So, thank you.