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After 20 Years, the Establishment is Still in Denial About Afghanistan

The Afghanistan Study Group has a new report out and its recommendation remains ever the same: more troops.

With the 20th anniversary of the Afghanistan war now just around the corner, Americans might reasonably wonder whether the nation’s longest war is ever going to end. After carefully considering the question, two retired four-star generals, two former U.S. senators, three ambassadors, a former national security adviser, and several other august personages have weighed in with an opinion: not if they can help it.

Policy wonks who have been waiting with bated breath can now exhale: the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group (ASG) has published its findings. The panel of grandees comprising the ASG has produced a most handsome document. Just days after its appearance, however, their handiwork already appears likely to disappear without making any serious impact. Given the temper of the moment, with Washington preoccupied with Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial and the early doings of the Biden presidency, this hardly rates as a surprise. In the larger constellation of American politics, Afghanistan just does not rate as a pressing matter.

Yet before this report vanishes altogether, let’s pause to examine its principal findings. Doing so offers insights into the collective mindset of a foreign policy establishment clinging desperately to the residue of American global primacy even as evidence showing that the unipolar order is gone for good continues to accumulate.

Interested in knowing what members of that establishment learned from the serial disappointments of recent decades? The ASG offers an answer: not much. In Afghanistan, the study’s authors write, “The United States and its international allies have made mistakes that are well documented,” yet they never bother to identify any of those mistakes or explore their significance. The ASG passes over in silence any lessons policymakers might have learned from past errors in judgment or from initiatives that went awry. They wipe the slate clean.

The ASG’s perspective is relentlessly forward-looking and upbeat, with the authors insisting that the policy objectives that the United States and its allies have been pursuing since 2001 remain well within reach. Indeed, if Washington plays its cards right, “a sovereign, independent, democratic Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors that is not a threat to international security” may well be just around the corner. This would be an Afghan state that

exercises sovereignty over its borders and internal affairs and governs in terms that reflect the popular will and self-determination of the Afghan citizenry while managing conflict peacefully through accountable civilian institutions … that supports and protects minorities, women’s rights, the democratic character of the state, and a free press, [while offering] the citizens of Afghanistan…the prospect of year-on-year improvements in their prosperity, security, and well-being.

Afghanistan, in other words, will compare to Denmark or Sweden, just bigger and landlocked and the world’s principal heroin supplier. The ASG does not explain why after 20 years of effort the United States and its allies have made negligible progress toward these admirable goals.

Further, the ASG suggests that the key to achieving such a happy outcome is to persist militarily. While offering assurances that achieving policy objectives will not require “a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan,” the ASG nonetheless wants the United States to renege on its commitment, as provided by the February 2020 Doha Agreement, to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by May of this year. Extending the U.S. military presence, according to the ASG’s authors, will “give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.” Lest anyone interpret this as a device for perpetuating our combat role indefinitely, the ASG emphasizes that the mission of any American troops staying on past May will be to “support a peace process rather than prosecute a war.”

What this might mean in practical terms is at best obscure. Supporting peace processes is not a standard mission found in military field manuals. One could imagine that a residual U.S. force, by its very presence, might incentivize the Taliban to negotiate in good faith with the government in Kabul. Yet given that Taliban forces appear to be winning their fight against government security forces—the ASG report provides an abundance of evidence on that score—expectations of a small U.S. force having a positive effect on Taliban behavior appear improbable at best.

To further muddy the waters, the ASG urges that any final peace deal signed between the Afghan government and the Taliban provide for the continuation of a “limited U.S. military presence with counterterrorism capabilities.” In other words, even in the event of peace (however loosely defined) being achieved, U.S. warfighters will stay on, more or less in perpetuity. Why the Taliban, which has been fighting to oust foreign troops from Afghanistan ever since 2001 (or since 1979 if you count the years of Soviet occupation) would agree to this arrangement is a bit of puzzle. The authors of the ASG apparently assume that an Afghan government formed as a result of the peace process (and presumably including the Taliban) can be persuaded to view an ongoing U.S. military presence as benign, with Afghan sovereignty and sensibilities taking a back seat to American national security concerns. The question of why an ongoing occupation by U.S. forces would be palatable to Afghans remains unexplored.

If the ASG has an overarching theme, it’s this: wishful thinking. “The way forward will be difficult,” the ASG’s mandarins write, “but it has the virtue of being clearer than ever before.” What’s actually clear is the Afghanistan Study Group’s stubborn reluctance to face up to facts.

Among the most relevant are these: 1) the United States and its allies have failed in Afghanistan; that failure is irreversible; 2) as a direct consequence of 20 years of war, Afghanistan is a failed state; the United States has neither the will nor the capacity to redeem it; 3) Afghanistan’s destiny will be decided by the Afghan people, which is both right and necessary; 4) the only permissible response by members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment is the one thing they are incapable of: repentance.

Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer-at-large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.