When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
From Kipling, The Young British Soldier
A little over two years ago, now, I wrote a column on what was then Trump’s newly articulated Afghanistan strategy.
In a lengthy policy address full of relatively lucid phrases and coherent thoughts betraying its origins in something hauled out of a drawer in the Pentagon and jazzed up by Stephen Miller, Trump promised that America would enlist more help from allies, stay the course, fight on, stop announcing departure dates, and leave only once certain unspecified conditions on the ground could be realized – basically, bla bla bla, yadda yadda yadda, and let’s all enjoy the indefinite prolongation of America’s Forever War. The speech mixed in a few pleasing fantasies, among them that there would be new steeliness in America’s relations with perfidious Pakistan, and that – somewhat bizarrely – India would be enlisted to help more with the war effort, but overall it was boilerplate that could have been uttered by just about any American President. Change a few place names and such, and make it a little more upbeat, and it could’ve been given in 1967 by General Westmoreland.
Nothing much changed, of course. A few thousand more troops were sent, reaching a total of something over 14,000 (down from a peak of close to 100,000 early in Obama’s tenure), nowhere near enough to make a difference, and the stalemate ground on, with the Taliban slowly gaining turf in many areas. While maps of the situation on the ground vary somewhat, this is a good recent example:
This was all very predictable, and was predicted, yet it’s hard to find villains in the whole sorry fiasco. Bush, certainly, was foolish to let the hubris of Cheney, Rumsfeld et al spur him into conquest and nation-building, as even a cursory review of the history of the “graveyard of empires” would have made clear. Somebody should have read some Kipling, or at least attended a briefing or two on the doomed Soviet intervention of the late 1970s and 1980s. Yet some sort of military reaction to the attack on the homeland was unavoidable, and would have been ordered by any President, once the Twin Towers had fallen; the trick would have been to pay greater heed to the intelligence and prevent the attacks in the first place. Failing that, it was bound to be war, and a limited action to nab Bin Laden must have seemed inadequate, given that the Taliban had turned all of Afghanistan into the international equivalent of a crackhouse on the block, rife with terrorists who were more than welcome to keep using the country as a base for assaults on the West.
Looking at the whole mess dispassionately – difficult, but not impossible – it’s hard to avoid a depressing sense of futile inevitability. The battle was sure to be joined, and was bound to prove un-winnable. Here’s how you win in Afghanistan: you vow never to leave, permanently garrison the place with 250,000+ troops, and enjoy the next two centuries of attrition warfare. Actually, even then you probably lose. The British fought, off and on, for about 80 years before packing it in, and it’s hard to imagine that another 80 would have turned the tide.
None of this, it must be remembered, can be laid at Donald’s doorstep. I hate to excuse the bastard for anything, but it’s not Donald’s fault that they’re there, and it’s not his fault that a variety of strategies, from troop surges to an attempt to train an indigenous army and hand the battle over to a friendly regime (in a spooky echo of the “Vietnamization” effort that also came to nothing), have repeatedly failed. It’s nothing new for Trump to attempt some sort of negotiated withdrawal, either – talks with the Taliban have proceeded in fits and starts for many years, almost from the beginning.
It’s not that Donald wants to negotiate that’s the problem – it’s that he’s the worst, most undisciplined negotiator in the world. His Achilles heel in the latest fiasco was, as usual, his unquenchable urge to showboat and brag about achieving some sort of diplomatic coup the like of which eluded his predecessors. It seems he’s still bucking for that Nobel Prize. Thus with typical impetuosity he jumped the gun, hoping to make timely headlines by capitalizing on a new round of negotiations that has been gaining traction for over a year, managed by Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. The official Afghan government has not yet been involved, a crucial shortcoming of the effort to date, but an agreement of some sort was getting closer. The end result was shaping up to be an American withdrawal under circumstances that would leave the Taliban in a position of power, sharing the country with the elected government, and would include a Taliban pledge to stop the country from turning back into a terrorist base. Many things remained to be worked out, but some sort of end was perhaps coming into sight, so Donald decided that a stunt involving a summit at Camp David was in order.
Without doubt, the planned Camp David meeting would have been little more than a farcical photo-op, much like Trump’s much-ballyhooed, absolutely substance-free summit with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore in 2018. Donald would doubtless have emerged touting peace in our time, and claiming to be the most diplomatically and geopolitically adept stable genius ever to grace the American stage, which perhaps would have momentarily diverted attention from the ongoing clown car parade of Trumpian scandal. Yet it would have been hollow. No real deal could have emerged – there’s far too much yet to be done to wrap it all up now over a weekend in the Maryland woods. As with everything in Trumplandia, the point would have been to appear to have actually accomplished something, just in time for the heating-up of the 2020 Presidential campaign, during which Donald would have added “Bringer of Afghan Peace” to a long list of equally empty titles that includes Saviour of Coal, Restorer of Manufacturing, Preventer of Brown Invasion, Master of China, Drainer of Swamps, and Mother of Dragons.
For some reason, though, he got cold feet. Maybe somebody suggested that the optics of legitimizing a bunch of Taliban warlords by having them over for tea, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks they facilitated no less, would tend to undermine the hoped-for perception of triumph. Great. But then he went and tweeted that he’d nearly had them over, but decided against it, using a recent terror attack, which was merely the latest in a long chain, as the excuse. Of course it would have been better to say nothing at all, but you know, our Donnie has to tweet, even about the most serious matters of state, and even when it’s decidedly counter-productive. He did the same thing when he called off the airstrikes on Iran. As John Heilemann noted during his appearance on Nicolle Wallace’s show yesterday, Donald appears to want credit for being Presidential enough to set the gears in motion, even if he finally called the whole thing off. Look at me! I wield the levers of power! Judiciously! Am I not as wise as I am magnificent? In the result he looks every bit the idiot that he is.
Now, says The Donald, attempting to seem as mad as a wet hen, the negotiations are dead and all talks are off. Don’t count on it. After the better part of two decades America has to extricate itself somehow, and leaving with a peace deal to tout is better than just pulling out in the dead of night. Some sort of peace accord will emerge eventually. Make no mistake, though: the eventual treaty with the Taliban, whatever it says, will be meaningless. It will give the Americans an opportunity to withdraw with some semblance of honour. That’s all. Once they’re gone, the Taliban will, perhaps after a decent interval, resume its war on the elected government, and this time, in the absence of countervailing American power, it will win. The graveyard of empires will then, in all likelihood, go back to being a safe harbour for various terrorist groups, except the Americans will try to pretend it hasn’t in order to save face.
This bleak outcome, too, will not be Donald’s fault. If it doesn’t occur on his watch, it will on his successor’s. The die was cast long before he stumbled into the Oval, and long before Obama took charge too, and nothing can stop it now. It can only be delayed. All Donald can possibly influence is how foolish America appears in the process.