The double tragedy of the U.S. failure in Afghanistan | Opinion: Dallas Morning News | September 19, 2021


You can read the original article at the Dallas Morning News.

“In chess, there’s an evergreen debate about the proverb that it’s better to have a bad plan than no plan at all. Is a doomed strategy, based on a faulty evaluation of the position, actually better than charging forward and relying on your wits in the moment?

My answer has always been yes, the bad plan is better, because while both circumstances are likely to lead to immediate failure — at least without considerable help from your opponent — you learn from a bad plan. It teaches you about your process, the flawed methods and motives that led to an inferior decision. This is vital information to improve your planning for the next opponent, and for your development as a player and as a thinker.

There are many lessons to be learned from America’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan. It was a bad plan, poorly executed, the worst combination of all. Now comes the postmortem, the analysis phase where we see what went wrong and why, so we can do better next time. But should there be a next time? What if the best strategy is never to play at all, as many are now suggesting? Is the lesson that using force is always unacceptable, that there is never a military solution that won’t just make things worse?

Not over just yet

Wars don’t always have winners, but they always have losers. The war in, and for, Afghanistan isn’t over just because the United States left. The Taliban are in charge, but internal conflicts and the foreign actors battling for influence and riches in the beleaguered Afghan nation guarantee that any peace will be the silence of a prison and the quiet of the grave. This is the deceptive calm of authoritarianism, so often lauded by isolationists from the comfort of the free world.

As for the other touted “winners,” even should superficial stability return in the form of a Taliban medieval terror state, there is no certainty that China, Russia or Pakistan will benefit any more from their collaboration with the terrorists than the U.S. did from fighting them.

While we cannot yet say who won the geopolitical struggle, it’s easier to say who lost. Foremost this means the Afghan people, women and girls especially, who briefly touched a world in which they determined their own fates. As dangerous as the world’s dictatorships are to their neighbors and the world, remember that it’s their own people who suffer the most.

America did not only abandon Afghanistan, it retreated once again from its role as leader of the free world and its responsibility to protect those in it from its many enemies. While the Afghan withdrawal debacle is the responsibility of President Joe Biden, it’s the continuation of over a decade of American retreat and retrenchment spanning administrations from both parties. Former President Donald Trump made the deal with the Taliban, but Biden was elected to undo the damage Trump did to America’s policies and its reputation, and has tried to do so in many other cases. So why not in Afghanistan?

The obvious answer is the correct one, that Biden agreed with the policy of leaving Afghanistan quickly. I disagree with the decision, but it was also clear that the status quo of a small U.S. force keeping the Taliban at bay was unsustainable. The U.S. never developed a long-term plan that would allow the local government to defend itself, so it’s no surprise that government collapsed as soon as the U.S. left.

Best bad option

Pundits living without accountability — myself included — have no way to know what would have happened in the alternate universe where their recommendations were followed to the letter. Failure cannot mean you don’t keep doing what is necessary. Getting it wrong doesn’t mean you stop trying to do what is right. Sometimes there is no winning move, only the best bad option. We must guide ourselves by principles and strive to do better, not abandon those principles when we falter.

Foreign policy is real life, not a game, especially where military interventions are concerned. It’s life and death, as the 20 years of the American presence and the chaotic days of the U.S. exit attest. Thirteen U.S. service members and over 170 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing during the evacuation at the Kabul airport.

Those who say it was an appropriately grim finale to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan miss the real symbolism of the horrific crime. Thirteen Americans died while helping people who were desperate to escape brutality and oppression few can imagine. The U.S. was still in Afghanistan, 20 long and costly years after 9/11, to prevent more attacks on Americans, but also to prevent the Taliban reign of terror that those 170 Afghans were trying to escape.

The chaotic and deadly way the evacuation played out was a blow to the American reputation for competence, another significant element of deterrence. To be a trusted partner or a respected foe, it is necessary to have both credibility and capability, the “will you?” and “can you?” of keeping your promises. Also vanishing is any consistency across administrations, commitments driven by principles and national interest instead of political opportunism and the desire to reverse everything done by the opposing party.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan is an unfortunate exception to this trend. The “America first” policy taking hold in both parties is a long-term nightmare for a globalized economy already shaken by the pandemic. A shift to regional spheres of power — Russian, Chinese, American — will force threatened states like Taiwan and South Korea to fend for themselves with potentially explosive results. Abandoning Ukraine to Vladimir Putin’s war on Europe is a small taste of what the world looks like without a robust and united defense of the rule of law.

The freedom of dreams

Whether or not America should have left Afghanistan—and when, and how—will be debated forever. But do not overlook the luxury of being able to leave at all, an option unavailable to those who will suffer the most. Americans will go back to arguing about the “repression” of cancel culture and “stolen” elections while enjoying a level of freedom and self-determination that a majority of the world’s citizens can only dream of. And trust me, they do.

Imagine what it’s like for a Russian to hear Americans talk about rigged elections and voter suppression when anyone opposing Putin is banned from the ballot, jailed or worse. Americans can and must fight for their rights and their democracy, but I wish they would appreciate what they have before burning flags or attacking the U.S. Capitol. The free world has enough enemies without attacking itself from within like a cancer.

Pulling out of Afghanistan was another step toward turning “defund the police” into American foreign policy. That ill-advised slogan came close to returning Trump to the White House for another four years. It turned out that most people like having the police around, even if they have legitimate concerns about abuses and equity.

That holds true in the many places in the world that still depend on the United States to provide security and stability, even decades after the massive military buildup during the Cold War. The world doesn’t become safer when the U.S. retreats. The world’s worst regimes eagerly step into the vacuum.

American investment in defending its allies and global stability was interpreted as charity by Trump, who understood only quid pro quo. The alternative is to see every nation forced to fend for itself against the predations of hostile neighbors and aggressive nuclear powers like Russia and China. The U.S. could abdicate its position, turn in its badge and gun and try to hide behind an “America first” wall for a while, but it wouldn’t last long.

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush still considered themselves to be the leaders of the free world. The moral clarity of the Cold War was gone, but the U.S. played a part in the calculations of every thug and dictator and was still capable of action, as Slobodan Milošević and Saddam Hussein discovered.

President Barack Obama heeded the U.S. electorate and his own instincts by rejecting George W. Bush’s attempt to restore the freedom agenda. Obama found out that unilaterally declaring peace can be as perilous as declaring war. Iran, Cuba, Russia and China expanded their internal repression and foreign aggression while paying lip service to Obama’s naïve resets and photo-ops.

Trump had no interest in anything beyond his personal interests, and foreign policy was no exception. His striking affinity for Putin and other dictators was already well-established, as were his connections to the global kleptocracy to which most authoritarians belong. The damage caused by Trump’s assault on American democracy is incalculable.

Republican attacks on the electoral process are being met by leftist attacks on the free flow of ideas and calls to meet fire with fire by subverting democratic norms. Biden’s selection in the Democratic primary and his general election victory were mandates to restore normalcy in a time of crisis, not to push an ideological agenda. He has as yet failed to find the courage to break the destructive cycle of backlash and overreach, but he must. A president must represent a nation, not a party, both at home and abroad.

The U.S. cannot lead the free world by example if its citizens cannot agree on what the country stands for, or if American democracy, long held as a model for the world, is worth saving at all. Leadership means more than doing what a majority of citizens say they want at the moment. It means doing what is necessary and what is right for the good of the country, not the good of the polls.

Leadership of the free world is even more: a duty that cannot be cast off without paying a price. The U.S. can walk away from Afghanistan, from Ukraine, from reality for a time. But sooner or later, reality will follow America home.”

Garry Kasparov, a six-time world chess champion and pro-democracy activist, is chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation. He is the author of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.” He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.


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