The latest episode in an ironic reversal of the roles of the foreign powers that have tried their luck in Afghanistan is unfolding before our eyes. Britain’s profitless involvement (1839-1919) is ancient history, but more recently the Soviet intervention (1979-1989) and America’s subsequent “longest war” (2001-2021) have both ended in strategic failures.
Because the United States failed to know its enemy, it appears to have cleared the ground for China’s grand entry into the geopolitical game in Central Asia. That entry may well be successful, in the medium term at least, because it will not be accompanied by Beijing’s attempts to establish an ideologically friendly government in Kabul, or to conduct experiments in social engineering in the tribal lands, as the U.S. has a history of doing.
Back in the early 1980s, following the deployment of the Soviet army in an operation which completely lacked strategic clarity, the nascent Islamic resistance movement was used by the Carter Administration as a tool of undermining Moscow’s credibility and getting it bogged down in an unwinnable war. In a memorable 1998 interview with France’s news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski described how he advised President Carter in the summer of 1979 to draw the Soviets into military intervention.
“That secret operation was an excellent idea,” Brzezinski said. “It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap…. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.”
Asked if he regretted having armed future terrorists, Brzezinski was adamant: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” He further rejected the notion that Islamic fundamentalism was a global menace as “nonsense.”
Three years later Afghanistan was used as the base for the 9/11 attacks. For the ensuing 20 years, between October 2001 and August 2021, the United States fought an unwinnable war of its own in the country. Its cost in blood and treasure was less draining for America than Leonid Brezhnev’s misadventure had been for the Soviet Union, but its inglorious finale was all the more shocking for that.
The Taliban’s morale held throughout those two decades. It was fortified by the jihadists’ belief that they had brought about the collapse of the USSR and that in the end Allah would help them defeat the other, even stronger, infidel power as well. Pakistan’s continuous logistic and financial assistance was almost equally important, but in Washington this scandal is still a closely guarded secret. The root cause of America’s defeat in Afghanistan, however, is the failure of successive national security teams to pay heed to Sun Tzu’s famous advice from The Art of War:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.… If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
“Knowing the enemy” was absent in Afghanistan because no sound intelligence was desired or welcomed by America’s politicized generals, greedy contractors, career diplomats, corrupt aid workers, or their Afghan partners in crime. Their incessant and deliberately mendacious claims of “progress” were a substitute for coherent and reality-based analysis. Calculated deceit meant that the enemy remained an enigma to the Americans even more so than to their Soviet predecessors. That much was clear almost two years ago, when The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War was published by Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock. They showed that successive administrations had systematically disinformed the nation about the nature of the conflict, its course, and prospects.
Military leaders stuck to a script for years. Gen. John Abizaid told reporters in 2005 that Afghanistan had shown “interesting progress.” In 2007, it was Gen. Dan McNeill’s turn to mouth the phrase “significant progress.” In 2010, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez told reporters in Kabul, “We are steadily making deliberate progress.” That year his commander, Stanley McChrystal, used the “P” word three times in a single sentence. Gen. David Petraeus kept repeating the progress mantra after he took over in 2011. In 2015, future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, assured everyone that the progress was indeed continuing. In 2016, the new commander in Afghanistan, John W. Nicholson, had news for the American people: progress, it was happening. The list could go on.
Afghanistan was not just a crime of the Deep State but an ongoing joint criminal conspiracy of the American state-as-such against the American people. It was eloquently summarized in President Joe Biden’s telephone call to his soon-to-be-deposed Afghan colleague Ashraf Ghani on July 23. “I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan … is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” Biden told Ghani. “And there’s a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
So much for knowing the enemy. Knowing thyself proved even more problematic for the U.S. To Sun Tzu it was inconceivable that you could go to war without knowing your strengths and weaknesses, without defining your strategic objectives and tactical capabilities. Doing so meant that you were a deluded ignoramus, doomed to defeat. That is exactly what happened to America.
The key questions—what is America’s objective in Afghanistan, and how does it measure success—remained unanswered. Was it to defend America from future attacks, to punish the Taliban for 9/11, to eradicate it altogether, or to deny their protégés a base? Or was it to unify the Afghan nation, to bring human rights to the hills of Tora Bora, and democracy to the Panjshir valley? Was it to make Afghan schools safe for its girls, to bring women into legislative chambers, to make Kabul’s streets safe for gay pride parades? All and none of these appeared to be America’s objectives at varying times during the two decades.
From a realist perspective, a rational excuse for the continuing U.S. military and political engagement in Afghanistan would have been the desire to maintain a foothold in Central Asia and control future pipelines connecting the oil and gas rich Caspian Basin to the Indian Ocean. To that end, it would have been necessary to make a series of local agreements with the tribal leaders, especially in the north of the country. It would have meant spreading the rich cake of U.S. taxpayer largesse more evenly, possibly even to the Taliban courtesy of Pakistan’s military intelligence, and refraining from flying the rainbow flag from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. After all, before 9/11 Washington was happy to keep quiet about Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s violations of human rights while it seemed that a pipeline deal was possible.
China is likely to take over that unfinished job in pursuit of strengthening its overland connection to the Middle East. It is also vitally interested in having a stable security situation along the developing transport and pipeline China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which connects China’s southwestern border in the Himalayas with the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman. This link bypasses the maritime choke point in the Straits of Malacca and provides China with long-term access to a deep seaport well to the east of the Strait of Hormuz.
The Taliban government will rely on China both because it is the only likely source of substantial funding and because its Pakistani mentors are keen to see it happen. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared on Sept. 3 that China’s One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative is “held in high regard by the Taliban.” There are “rich copper mines in the country, which, thanks to the Chinese, can be put back into operation,” he said. “In addition, China is our pass to markets all over the world.” In return the Taliban has announced that it would cut all links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is a major concern for China.
The weakness of the developing Chinese position is that it has to rely on the pragmatism of the Taliban leadership, which should not be taken for granted in perpetuity. Beijing is aware, of course, that the Taliban is a millenarian Islamic movement which does not regard permanent peace with the infidel as legitimate or even possible. For the time being, however, the benefits of geopolitical expansion outweigh the risks. The Chinese will rely heavily on Pakistan to keep the Taliban in check, and both sides have a vested long-term interest in keeping India locked out of Central Asia. This in turn will make India even less inclined than before to become the southwestern pivot in a U.S.-led effort to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region, which would include Japan at the northeastern end.
The endgame in Afghanistan has a thin silver lining for the American people: the possibility that the strategy of global interventionism will be further discredited. After all the lies, gross errors of judgment, and terminal ineptitude displayed by those in the military and the intelligence agencies, it will be more difficult than before for this or some future administration to return to the pernicious theme of American exceptionalism, her leadership of the “international community,” and her alleged obligation to uphold the “rules-based international order.”