Jeremi and Zachary along with their guest, Aaron O’Connell discuss America’s longest war, the Afghanistan War, and the implications within our proposed withdrawal on the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Zachary sets the scene with his poem titled “When a War Lasts 20 Years”.
Dr. Aaron O’Connell is an Associate Professor of History at UT Austin and Director of Research at the Clements Center for National Security. He is a military historian who focuses on military strategy and culture. His first book was entitled, Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps. His second book was a collection of essays entitled Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts & Minds in Afghanistan. Dr. O’Connell served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, with the current rank of colonel. He served as a Special Advisor to General David Petraeus in Afghanistan. Later, he served as a Special Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he wrote on issues of terrorism and strategy. Dr. O’Connell also served in the Obama Administration as Director of Defense Policy & Strategy on the National Security Council Staff.
- Aaron O’ConnellAssociate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
[0:00:05 Speaker 2] This is Democracy, a podcast about the people of the United States, a podcast about citizenship, about engaging with politics in the world around you. A podcast about educating yourself on today’s important issues and how to have a voice in what happens next.
[0:00:23 Speaker 1] Welcome to our new episode of This is
[0:00:25 Speaker 2] Democracy.
[0:00:26 Speaker 1] This week we’re going to discuss the war in Afghanistan. America’s longest war and award to which americans are now leaving. Uh President biden just a few days ago, announced that as of september 11th 2021 the 20th anniversary of the attack uh on september 11th 2000 and one. On the 20th anniversary, the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan after almost 20
[0:00:52 Speaker 2] years in country.
[0:00:53 Speaker 1] What has the Afghanistan war meant to the United States? Why were we there? And what can we learn from this war for future conflicts and for the future of american democracy. We’re very fortunate to have with us, I think one of the best, most thoughtful and interesting people writing about this topic. My colleague and good friend erin O’connell, Aaron, welcome to this is Democracy.
[0:01:17 Speaker 0] Thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure to be here.
[0:01:19 Speaker 1] Erin was with us I think more than a year ago on an earlier episode in american military history. Erin as many of you know, is an associate professor of history here at the University of texas at Austin. He’s also the director of research at the Clements Center for National Security. Erin has written a lot about american military history, american society and policy and he’s written quite a lot about Afghanistan as well. He’s a military historian who focuses on policy making and strategy, but also on culture and society. One of the reasons I find his work so exciting. His first book was on the Making of the Marine Corps. The title is Underdogs. His second book, which was equally impressive, was a collection of essays he published and edited on our latest longest war losing hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Uh He’s now working on a new book on the global war on terror called nation Breaking the global war on terror at home and abroad. Uh In addition to being a distinguished scholar and teacher, Erin is also a distinguished policymaker and uh a military veteran. He served for 26 years in the U. S. Marine Corps at the rank of Colonel. He also served as special advisor to General David Petraeus in Afghanistan. Later served as cheap as a special adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Where he wrote actually on issues of terrorism and strategy. So he has that direct policy experience he brings the topic and then he served in the Obama administration is Director of defense Policy and Strategy of the National Security Council staff.
[0:02:49 Speaker 0] So it’s fair to say that
[0:02:50 Speaker 1] Aaron knows these issues inside and out and it’s the best person to talk about them today. I think with us. Before we turn to our conversation with Aaron of course we have Zachary series poem, What is the title of your poem Today
[0:03:04 Speaker 2] Zachary when a war last 20 years?
[0:03:08 Speaker 1] Let’s hear It
[0:03:10 Speaker 2] When a war last 20 years. Does anybody remember when they slurp their corn flakes that a soldier eats his breakfast from the commissary of a fortress slurring into the desert? When a war last 20 years do people as they float in morning traffic begin to forget that bombs are exploding thousands of miles away, floating to until they fall When a war last 20 years. Does anybody remember when they sit at their smooth desks that a child walks through the ruins of their home, rough and broken in on itself? When a war last 20 years? Do people sleeping on the city bus begin to forget that a drone flies? The breath of a valley in a minute. A valley twice the size of the interstate When a war last 20 years. Does anybody remember when they sit down in an armchair and open up a book that a plane lands on asphalt across a dozen sees each more vast and insurmountable in the tome. You’ve been meaning to read When a war last 20 years? Do people startled from an evening? Does think of the same moment in a refugee camp on a borderland somewhere far away? The same shock at seeing a world form from blackness When a war last 20 years? Does anyone even remember the first groove of the first boots scraping the soil? But the first weapon that dropped from a plane to awaiting arm? But the first saber that crossed the deserts only cloud.
[0:04:38 Speaker 1] I love the ruminating quality of your poems accurate. What is your poem
[0:04:43 Speaker 2] about My poem is really about what it’s like to live in a society that has been perpetually at war for for for my entire life for for two decades. And and and and how strange it is that we can be at war. Uh and and and and our decisions can have such a huge impact on the lives of people thousands of miles away and and we at home who are directly involved, never really feel it and never really see it.
[0:05:09 Speaker 1] You know, that it blows my mind Zachary that every day of your life we’ve been at war in Afghanistan, Aaron. What’s the backstory on this? How did we come into this war and why have we been there for so long?
[0:05:20 Speaker 0] Thanks for that question, Jeremy and Zachary. What a marvelous poem I was thinking as you were reading it, the fact that yes the US. has been at war for your entire lifetime. But Afghanistan has been at war uh for 40 years since 1979. Um so it’s actually all the more sort of doubly interesting to me just to think about it from the perspective of being an American and then to try to think about it from the perspective of the Afghans. So the back story to our war, the war that begins shortly after 9 11 is basically there’s sort of two or three major stages. We have a long relationship with Afghanistan and all through the Cold War we had a very limited role but but in the fifties and sixties we were effectively giving them dollars for development which for our purposes helped in containing the soviet union. So there was a modest amounts of funding but but regular funding to improve agriculture, to build irrigation systems, water and sanitation, basic services. It’s very successful. Afghanistan is an incredibly safe place in the 60s. It’s it’s people go there on holiday. No kidding. Um now foreign policy changes in the 1980s and this is sort of the second the middle stage. Um but the reason our foreign policy changes is really because Soviet foreign policy changes and here I am speaking about the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the decade long occupation during those years, we switch from just giving agricultural and development sport to an Afghan government and now we shift to giving military weapons and ammunition and later training to Afghan militias in order that they might fight the Soviets on their behalf and on our behalf. But here’s the key thing, even though we fund this massive endeavor known as Operation Cyclone, the CIA runs it. It’s the pakistanis who choose to get the weapons and that’s really important because over the 19 eighties, about $4 billion goes to the Pakistani I. S. I the Inter services Intelligence, their version of the CIA, half of it from us, half of it from the Saudi from Saudi Arabia. And that money is meant to fight the Soviets. But the pakistanis have a second purpose. They use it to fund Islamist anti hindu militias that they think will be useful in a fight in Kashmir which is disputed between India and Pakistan. So what this means is throughout the 19 eighties, american dollars and weapons are going to the most religiously extreme, most religiously conservative tribes in Eastern Afghanistan, which is being picked by the Pakistani government for their own purposes. Uh, so did that work well. It works in some ways and not in others. It certainly helps to drive out the Soviets. By the time we start giving them stinger missiles to shoot down their helicopters, it’s just becomes rather costly for the Soviets to stay in Afghanistan. But it also leaves a heavily militarized and emboldened Pakistani intelligence services because they are the ones channeling the weapons and the dollars. And there’s a certain degree of skimming that occurs. So, this means when we leave Afghanistan and others, when we stop funding these militias in the late 1980s, What you have is a rather dangerous situation where there are large numbers of religiously motivated pashtun extremists with strong connections to the Pakistani government, all of whom are beholden to a degree to that Pakistani government. Once the Soviets leave, and this is stage three of the relationship, Afghanistan descends into a horrible civil war. From 1992 to 1996 all those militia groups turn on each other. They fight against each other. There’s a siege of Kabul that lasts for over a year and this only ends when Pakistan intervenes yet again and this time with their own dollars funds, the Taliban, a small religiously extreme group from Southern Afghanistan, which with Pakistani help takes over the country. There is a war that war is, there are at times Pakistani pilots flying in that war. It is a Pakistani proxy force and they are successful in taking over all but the northeast of the country and in the northeast of Afghanistan is a Tajik and Uzbek coalition, known as the Northern Alliance. That’s where we are right up until 9 11. With the only thing that I’ve left out is that once the Taliban does take over the country, they then invite Osama bin laden a Saudi into Afghanistan as an honored guest. Almost certainly at the behest of the pakistanis, we have pretty good information that the pakistanis asked the taliban, will you take Osama bin laden? Who can no longer stay in Sudan and is no longer allowed in Saudi Arabia? And so uh bin laden sets up shop in Afghanistan. Uh and it’s from there that the 9 11 attacks are planned. So that’s the backstory,
[0:10:18 Speaker 1] Aaron, that’s that’s a really helpful summary you’ve given us and you’ve captured so much of the story there and there’s so much to ask about. I think the key question is
[0:10:28 Speaker 0] obviously
[0:10:29 Speaker 1] the United States learned about Bin laden’s movement to Afghanistan. What did the United States do when this individual who had a lot of resources moved to Afghanistan pledging to attack the United States? What what did the U. S. Government do?
[0:10:43 Speaker 0] Right. Very good question. And one that’s important as we discussed the present because there’s been a lot of references to if we just leave, we will be where we were with Afghanistan circa 2000 and 1998. So just to remind your audience is of course, Osama Bin laden had fought in Afghanistan as one of those foreign fighters that came in. We did not fund him. CIA officers have testified in front of Congress, insisting under oath that the United States did not fund Bin laden, but we knew about him and we were funding groups that were quite close to him and we were funding groups that sometimes he funded as well. So you already had a history in Afghanistan. He left. And then when he comes back, when the Taliban take power, we at that point, our first concerned about him as a terrorism facilitator, a thunder and facilitator. But in 1998, after he directs the twin attacks on the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam Tanzania, then we get rather serious about trying to get rid of him. So we try a few different things. We try cruise missile strikes. Operation Infinite reach happens in 1998 and we failed to kill bin laden and do some small amount of damage to his camps and kill a number of Pakistanis that are in the camps. Uh, we also set up or re reinvigorate some of our funding relationships with the Northern Alliance and try to pay them to go kill him. But that doesn’t work very well for a number of reasons. So, on the eve of 9 11, when the Bush administration came into office, they were presented with a more robust plan to try to kill bin laden, involving arming this new weapon we had called the predator drones in common parlance and increasing funding to the anti taliban northern Alliance and perhaps even trying a few more of these killer capture operations, which we tried or considered. But we’re not successful with prior to President Bush’s arrival in office and
[0:12:38 Speaker 1] just briefly, Aaron, why didn’t any of the other measures work? I mean, we have so much power. He’s a fugitive, Why weren’t we able to kill him?
[0:12:46 Speaker 0] Good question. Um, there are a few reasons we actually had policy difficulties and policy incoherence at in some of these early efforts, we were trying to figure out whether it was even legal to kill Osama bin laden or to have our proxies kill him. Now, that, that incoherence and that policy question went away after september 11th when President Bush signed a specific CIA finding authorizing that kind of activity. But when clinton was in office, it was very much an iffy legal question on whether you could pay proxies to kill an enemy of the United States in a foreign country. So that was one problem. The second problem was that we had very poor intelligence. We could often get information indicating that bin Laden had been somewhere. But in order to launch a strike or whether a cruise missile strike or to launch a raid, you need to know where they’re going to be 10 hours, 24 hours from that time, we never could get that information. Furthermore, we had very poor ability to put bombs on targets uh, in all the places we wanted to, it was just a bad economic bet to throw cruise missiles at everything. Uh, and there are really just countless places, caves, mountain ranges, other areas, ways that that that Bin laden and his followers could hide so that we couldn’t ever know where he was at a given right. This is a really
[0:14:09 Speaker 1] important point, that it’s it’s actually very hard to kill someone like that in those circumstances.
[0:14:15 Speaker 0] Uh, there’s one more crucial point. I’m so sorry. Um, a third reason we couldn’t find bin laden was that we didn’t have an afghan government cooperating with us in that endeavour. These were the taliban years. They were protecting him. They were harboring him, even our Pakistani allies at times we think we’re giving a heads up about our attempts to find or kill bin laden. So we were operating blind with no afghan government, supporting our intelligence networks and supporting our spies or even cooperating with us on this shared endeavor to find Al Qaeda And that made it even harder in the years before september and I think
[0:14:52 Speaker 1] Erin this brings us to the moment in the days and weeks after the terrible attacks of September 11 2001 When everything changes and I know you’ve written and spoken at length about what what you call. I think very helpfully the five acts of the tragedy that follows that basically bring us from September 11 2001 to where we are today. What are those five acts?
[0:15:16 Speaker 0] Yeah, it’s a it’s a it’s a device for telling a story. Right? Um, the first act is is we might call it overthrow. It’s very short. It goes from october 2000 and one to december 2000 and one. Uh, and that is the absolutely magnificent operation of the CIA paramilitary officers and US air power two Electricing route the Taliban and it’s 40,000 troops with just a few 100 Americans and about $70 million dollars in spending. Now that is an extraordinary victory. Even the military didn’t think it would happen that soon. But to be fair, I must admit that the taliban is not decisively defeated in that two month series of battles. Most of them are local, most of them are afghans and so they take off their uniforms and they go back to their ordinary lives. A large number of the leadership cadre and it’s important to say the al Qaeda transnational terrorist network that was embedded with them. They just slip over the border into the pashtun regions of Pakistan. So we do not completely mitigate the threat. We just remove Afghanistan as a open and acknowledged safe haven for al Qaeda and we removed the Taliban government that had protected and Harvard bin laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, that’s act one at two, I think I’ll call nation building light that goes from uh december 2000 and one and perhaps all the way through the Bush years. Um And so in these years, the Taliban is technically gone, but they’re still there. Um and we make an enormous amount of political and diplomatic progress within weeks. Indeed, even before the Taliban has fallen, we are assembling Afghan exile groups and the region, diplomats from Iran, from Pakistan, from Russia from all over. And we we create an Afghan government almost on the spot. Um that that leads to President Karzai being named the first the interim chairman of the transitional council and later the President of Afghanistan. Uh In those years, there is an entire new constitution written, There is a flawed but workable power sharing arrangement between the different ethnicities of Afghanistan, who are at times at each other’s throats. There’s massive aid, not just from America but from the international community, which leads to thousands of km of roads being built, health clinics, a range of development projects. But in all these years, security declines really starting about 2004, when the United States basically indicates that it’s not leaving Afghanistan right away. So during these, the entirety of the Bush administration, you have this wonderful peace dividend from 2000 to 23 And during that period, the US refuses to lead on the security institution reconstruction. So a new army has to be created. A new Afghan police national Police force has to be created a peacekeeping forces required. All of this has decided in december of 2000 and one by Afghans and the international community. But the United States argues amongst itself and then later with its allies. And in the end, the US refuses to send troops to the peacekeeping mission. The US refuses to do police training that gets fobbed off onto the Germans and the U. S. Decides it will train the Afghan army but does so very slowly and very poorly. Those decisions are all made before the 2000 and three decision to invade Iraq and together the nation building light period when the US calls for massive reconstruction but will not lead on it. And then the decision to invade Iraq in 2000 and three just causes massive problems for security in Afghanistan, our special forces get pulled to Iraq, our civil affairs get pulled to Iraq. CIA personnel get pulled to Iraq, the president’s time and attention and dollars all get pulled to Iraq and Afghanistan declines badly throughout those those years. So we never have more than say 10 or 20,000 troops in the first five or six years of the of the Bush administration. By the end he’s added up to 30. And as soon as President Obama comes in, those numbers are going to go up again. But that’s Acts one and two. Right.
[0:19:36 Speaker 1] And I think this perfectly brings us to Act three, which would be the Obama presidency. Um Aaron. It seems from what you’ve said about Acts one and two about the Bush years. Um That Obama inherits President Obama inherits a situation in Afghanistan where the United States has a sizeable presence, but it doesn’t have enough of a presence to actually transform the country. And so what does President Obama tried to do?
[0:20:05 Speaker 0] Right. That’s a good summary. So candidate Obama campaigned on winning in Afghanistan. He thought Iraq was the wrong war and a foolish war, but that there was merit in the war in Afghanistan in preventing the taliban from returning and preventing Al Qaeda from having any kind of safe haven from which it could plan and launch transnational terrorist attacks. So Obama triples the troop levels in Afghanistan in his first two years in office. By 2000, late 2011, there are 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan and another 30 or 40,000 NATO and international troops. The idea here was to convince the taliban it could not win militarily to show the same massive military combat capability that drove them out in the first place and then hopefully transition to some kind of afghan led process whereby they take over running the security of their own country. Even if we had to fund some of the efforts, Well, it shows some progress. The the Obama surge certainly lead to some security gains. But the president undermined his own goal. And this is a story told in many books at this point. When he announced the surge, 200,000 troops, he said that once they’re in place, they’re only going to stay for a year and then they’ll start to come home. So it made it easy for the Taliban to just stall and to wait and not just the Taliban. Let’s remember the Taliban’s supporters, the Pakistani government. So after we get our troops to 100,000 President Obama starts ticking them downward and sort of 30,000 increments. So we have 60,000 and 2012, 30,000 and 2013. And then for the final two years of the Obama administration, there’s less than 10,000 about 8500 troops in the country. All while we continue to train the Afghan army and police fund certain elements of the government, send advisors and do non military development work, all that’s happening at the same time Now. Things really changed in 2011 when the United States kills Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. And I think that’s one of the reasons that President Obama starts ticking those troop levels downward is that he sees. There’s a window here where the military dangers of an al Qaeda attack are diminished. And his very reason for having a one year timeline was that he didn’t. He thought that the, the, the Afghan government needed sort of a push needed to know this won’t last forever. You better fix your rampant corruption. You’re terrible predatory behaviors and things of this nature. So that didn’t really change. Unfortunately, there was no major improvement in the Afghan security forces. The police remain horribly corrupt. The graft remains terrible. And even as that was going on, President Obama also tried peace talks. He opened up lines to the Taliban to say we can keep ramping up, we can keep smashing you militarily, shall we have peace talks and those talks collapsed for a number of reasons. There was massive intransigence on from the Republican Party inside the U. S. Government, which was a problem. But the bigger issue is that President Obama refused to capitulate to to demands. Uh The first demand from the Taliban was that Obama issue? A timeline for withdrawal is a precondition for talks. We wouldn’t even talk unless Obama said, we’ll have this many troops out by this date and that date in the state. Obama said, I’ll never do that 2nd. And more importantly, the Taliban insisted that the americans only negotiate with the Taliban cut the Afghan government out. Well, Obama refused to do that too. And wisely so because the whole exit strategy was to support the Afghan government as much as possible, while trying to transition responsibility over to them gradually and empowering them in the process. So they obviously wasn’t going to cut them out of the negotiations. So starting in 2014, both the United States and indeed, NATO agreed that 2014 is the year that the Afghan government will take over for security. We will continue to train them, we will continue to fund salaries and help and provide an extremist support. But starting in 2014, the Afghan government was in charge of its own security. That’s where it stayed until the Trump administration came in in 2017, Act four.
[0:24:19 Speaker 1] And so how do we understand the trump administration? Because it also surges. American force in Afghanistan. Right?
[0:24:27 Speaker 0] It’s true they look similar but they’re very different. It’s correct. Both presidents came into office surged then withdrew and tried to get an agreement. That’s the similarity but the that’s where the similarities end. So president trump had a truly parra pathetic approach to Afghanistan. He did a mini surge. He added 4500 troops to Obama’s 8000 which got us up to somewhere around 13 or 14,000. Not really a surge, just just a symbolic surge. And he also vowed he had a very conflicting message. He vowed to win. He said that’s it, we’re going to win, we’re going to destroy the terrorists. We’re not going to nation build, we’re not gonna do development, we’re not gonna do water and sanitation, we’re just gonna destroy the terrorists. But he also said, and sometimes in the same breath he said, this war is worthless. It’s none of our business. It doesn’t matter for us. I’m going to bring all the troops home. So there was just utter confusion for the first two years of his administration. And in 2019 he abandoned all pretences of winning and he just gave away the store to the Taliban which produced the withdrawal agreement. He called it a peace agreement. It is a withdrawal agreement. President Trump abandoned both of Obama’s preconditions. He issued a timeline for withdrawal. He completely cut the Afghan government out of the negotiation and he made no effort to put any verification mechanisms into the agreement so that the US could ensure the most important thing that the US was pushing for in the agreement that the Taliban would break with al Qaeda and would in no way cooperate coordinate with them or allow them to use afghan soil for planning training attacks or anything. President trump abandoned all of that. So from a negotiating standpoint, President trump had a fairly strong hand that he played very badly. And in the end he just handed the taliban a massive victory which was a withdrawal agreement with no strings attached. And that was exactly what they want.
[0:26:20 Speaker 1] And as I remember it, that withdrawal agreement actually said American forces would leave by May 1 2021.
[0:26:27 Speaker 0] That’s correct.
[0:26:28 Speaker 1] So when President biden inherits this situation, uh in your fifth act, he’s already inheriting a withdrawal. So why are we even talking about a biden withdrawal? It sounds like it’s trump’s
[0:26:40 Speaker 2] withdrawal.
[0:26:42 Speaker 0] That’s correct. I mean what President biden has done so far is commit to continuing the withdrawal, but on a longer timeline. So a few more months which is probably mostly symbolic, but there are a few important differences here. Remember President trump just said, bring them home. That’s that’s that’s the end of my agreement, that’s all I care about. Biden has not done that. He has pledged to continue to fund the Afghan national defence and security forces to pay for the recruiting training, equipping and salaries of the very forces that are fighting the Taliban. That’s a sizable sum. It’s about $5 billion dollars per year. But biden has stated publicly, we’re going to continue funding. That’s important. He also, Biden also has made statements showing that he is perfectly willing, indeed eager to going back to funding non military development, the education, the water, the sanitation, the roads, the bridges, things that by the way, we actually know work. So he has not cut and run on the Afghan people quite the same way that President Trump has done. But the effect in terms of total military forces on the ground is the same. There will be no operational military forces in the country by the end of 2020
[0:27:57 Speaker 2] one. And how much of a threat is terrorism in Afghanistan? To the United States today?
[0:28:04 Speaker 0] That’s a you’ve asked that question very well, Zachary, because you asked how much of a threat is terrorism in Afghanistan? And that’s important because let’s be clear, the US. government has a goal indeed, an obligation to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. Uh and so that means paying attention to al Qaeda to be sure. But al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group that threatens Americans. Indeed, if in the last 10 years the terrorist groups that have killed more Americans than al Qaeda are domestic, far right and white supremacists extremists in the United States. So the first question is, are we taking an approach to terrorism? The use of political violence against civilians? Or are we talking about Islamist al Qaeda, Jihadist terrorism. If the former, if we’re talking about all terrorism, you certainly would not spend the bulk of your resources in Afghanistan, Uh, that bulk of those resources, by the way to maintain what we have now of sort of the 5000 troops and paying for all their salaries and things of that nature is at least 25, if not $30 billion dollars a year. That’s an extraordinary sum of money. If your goal is to go after all terrorism, you would of course focus on Islamist terrorism, but pay quite a lot of attention. Perhaps more attention to the threats that are killing more americans in the United States. And that’s domestic terrorism. But if you, even if you want to focus just on Islamist terrorism, Al Qaeda and IsIS, Yes, the pashtun lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are notable for being hospitable to Islamist insurgents. It’s partly because of Pakistan’s explicit strategy of trying to Islamist size those regions as a hedge against India. But it also has to do with how questions view their role, their life and they’re really requirement to eject foreigners through jihad. That is part of pashtun culture, it’s fair to say, but they’re not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The greater threats now from Al Qaeda come from Somalia and Yemen. Where is Al Qaeda really growing? It’s in the Sahel in West Africa, not in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So terrorism exists all over the world. It is a threat we deal with. It is nowhere near the existential threat that a potential massive cyber war with Russia or china would inflict upon the U. S. Economy. Indeed the total deaths from terrorism every year are are so low that they wouldn’t even be ranked as a military problem at any other time except for our modern american present. So terrorism is a concern. It’s nowhere near as big of a concern as some other security threats. And even if terrorism is your concern, Al Qaeda of today is not the al Qaeda of 1999 and 2000 operating with full safe haven and the backing of the pack of the Taliban state in Afghanistan.
[0:30:49 Speaker 1] And as you said, Aaron, even if you are concerned about al Qaeda, Afghanistan is not the primary place to look correct.
[0:30:55 Speaker 0] That’s correct.
[0:30:56 Speaker 1] So our podcast is about using history to better understand our world. And you’ve given in your five act description of the history of american intervention in Afghanistan over the last two decades. You’ve given really a brilliant description of the various things we’ve tried that have not
[0:31:14 Speaker 0] worked. And
[0:31:16 Speaker 1] um President biden inherits that he also inherits a set of circumstances you’ve described so well. Where the threats to the United States are not centered on Afghanistan. Maybe they were 20 years ago. They aren’t. Now. Uh
[0:31:28 Speaker 0] did he have any
[0:31:28 Speaker 1] Choice? Or or was Biden’s announcement recently that the United States will withdraw by September of 2021? Was it the obvious
[0:31:36 Speaker 2] prudent choice?
[0:31:38 Speaker 0] I think so, obvious. No, but I think it was the prudent choice. But but let me try to summarize um a critical approach, someone who disagrees with me and thinks he’s making the wrong choice. Um, The argument for staying I think is a very difficult one to make. But it goes as follows our military operations in Afghanistan and occasionally in the question regions of Pakistan have mowed the grass for many years. In other words, we have kept the terrorist threat at bay. And if we don’t have enough forces in the country to launch military operations and indeed enough intelligence personnel to know about which people are doing dangerous things and preparing attacks against us, then two things could happen that are both very bad. Number one is Al Qaeda could reconstitute in without any pressure from the US through drones or manned bombings or what have you. And therefore they could be successful in launching another attack. That’s obviously a depressing possibility. The second is that the whole Afghan government could collapse, that the taliban will march on Kabul and once the government collapses, then there’ll be some kind of new taliban government or chaos. And in either one of those situations, it will be easy for Al Qaeda to once again set up shop, have safe havens, plan attacks and indeed, you know, will be even more empowered than they were, say, 1999 or 2000. I think both of those are overstatements. Now, we’re both just predicting the future with our best guesses. So neither one of us, I nor the critics can be definitively proven right until history unfolds. But here’s why I think that that those those two threats are overstatements. The first one was the idea that If we’re not pressuring them and dropping bombs on them, then they’ll just reconstitute. They’ll be just like as powerful as they were in 2000. I disagree. First of all, even when we had some 10 to 15,000 troops in the country in 2015, we found the largest Al Qaeda base ever found in Kandahar province in Afghanistan, right under our noses. So even when we were there, that can still have their camps. 20150.1 point to early in the war, in Afghanistan around mid 2000 and two, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld writes a quick note asking, we need to know if we are destroying more terrorists than we’re creating, No one has been able to answer that question. We have no way of knowing whether our constant pressure of drone strikes or targeted raids or what have you? Yes, they’re obviously taking out some portion of the leadership cadre, maybe taking out that most successful bomb maker and that that’s that’s decreases the threat to America. But every time one of those bombs falls, it also has the potential to recruit To 550 new people to an Islamist transnational terrorist cause. So, the first argument critics make of why leaving is dangerous for the United States is that al Qaeda will be empowered and I’m not sure that’s true. The second thing that I hear from critics is that if we leave, the Afghan government will just collapse. I think that’s an overstatement as well. President Ashraf Ghani, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with and having a meal with even once uh spoke on the sunday shows just weak and he said quite clearly that the Afghan government won’t fall. We are in a military stalemate and have been in one For at least 10 years where the government can hold the population centers and control about 50-60 of the districts and the Taliban can control about 10-12 of the districts. We can’t route them out and defeat the Taliban, they can’t march on Kabul and top of the government. I firmly believe that even with the U. S. Gone, the likelihood of a wholesale collapse of the afghan government is small, but I might be overly optimistic, reasonable people can disagree on that. Isn’t that
[0:35:33 Speaker 1] Really that latter point? What’s motivating a lot of the critics, the remembrance of the fall of Saigon in 1975. And many of our listeners have seen the photos of american embassy officials and american allies on the ground grabbing onto the last helicopter As as we leave in such an embarrassed situation after a long war in Vietnam. Uh, isn’t that really what’s motivating a lot of this today? That that 20 years of effort, even if not successful, that if we leave it will all collapse and it will look like failure.
[0:36:06 Speaker 0] I think so. I think what you’ve just described as a sort of a combination of a sunk cost fallacy that we’ve just been paying for so long, we can’t give up. And the specter of history, The specter of, of Saigon, the quote, unquote Vietnam syndrome. Uh, I think that is driving a fair amount of the criticism on the Vietnam analogy. I’ve written a fair amount on this. There are some things that are similar to Vietnam. There are a lot of things that are different. Uh, and what’s important here is the 1975 evacuation of Saigon is really like a wholesale departure under crisis as an invading mechanized army is banging down the doors of Saigon. That’s not where we are here. And importantly, the Afghan government is going going to continue to receive funding For their Afghan national defence and security forces. So, the Vietnam analogy will be important in this actually a plausible scenario, which is in the next five or 10 years. There’ll be a debate in the Congress about should we continue to fund the Afghan government to the tune of $5 billion American troops in the country, no lawmakers going to say we can’t give them the money. They obviously are fighting a war. And our boys are fighting that war to once there are no American troops there. You’re going to see the appetite for continuing to fund the Afghan government go way down. And if we do that precipitously, if we do that suddenly, if we do it stupidly, then yes, it could create panic and defections and what have you. But we’ve been there for 20 years and they have the Afghan government has the proper signals now from the by demonstration of what we find acceptable and what we don’t, and that gives the appropriate amount of breathing space to strike new deals to reduce or augment funding in, you know, in simple words, to cooperate rather than panicking. So I don’t think we’re going to see a repeat of Saigon unless something similarly hasty and rash happens as had happened in Saigon when the Congress cut off the funds, couldn’t turn it back on. And next thing, you know, there’s a mechanized army at the gates.
[0:38:23 Speaker 2] What about the experience of servicemen and women in Afghanistan? There’s been a lot of stories in the news and in the media about veterans of the war in Afghanistan, resenting the United States withdrawal. Where does that fit into this story?
[0:38:38 Speaker 0] Well, Zachary, I I’ve been talking with not only a number of veteran friends, but a number of afghan friends over the last two weeks and I’ve found that um there is some fear among Afghans that we’re just going to completely leave, cut the funding and and that has led to some sort of strong op ed saying, don’t don’t betray us, do not abandon us among veterans. It’s much more mixed, I’d say 50 50 people who think this is the right thing that that we we have reached a military stalemate. The military tool is not one that will get us to victory. Uh we’ve been for 20 years in some ways trying to build a house with a fish, in other words, using wrong tools for wrong results. And so there is a large group of veterans who are saying absolutely, it’s time to leave. I’m one of those, but I’m not the only one those that are it have been in opposition. It’s mostly the ones I’ve spoken to, its out of a broad based empathy for the afghan people and of fear that they will, that the society will degrade once we leave. That is the principal debate will afghan security degrade. Precipitously minute lee or into chaos if the US leaves. And as I’ve said, I’m a bit more optimistic than some critics. And so that’s led some of the veterans I’ve spoken to to just tell personal stories of people they cared about and who they now worry are in dangerous. So,
[0:40:09 Speaker 1] Aaron, as as you know, our podcast really tries to use this history that you’ve taken us through in such detail with such thoughtfulness and such fairness. Uh it tries to use this history to derive lessons that people who care about democracy today can take from this history going forward. And as we all know, our our fear is historians is that the wrong lessons will be learned. What are the correct lessons that Zachary’s generation in particular should learn that people who have only known war in Afghanistan? What lesson should they take from this, this long conflict?
[0:40:44 Speaker 0] Okay, I think I have a couple. Um, the first I would like to offer is just don’t fall for easy hypotheticals. Uh, so, and this is actually more a lesson on how to talk about Afghanistan than it is on the war itself. But what I hear often are people that just say we never should have attempted nation building in Afghanistan. It doesn’t work. That’s not what the military does. And then with just, you know, that august statement hanging out there, they walk away proudly of what they’ve just claimed. Um, there’s no evidence really to support that nation building doesn’t work. You know this as well as I, we certainly successfully reconstructed Japan and Germany. We’ve done nation building in Panama in Kosovo. We’ve done things like nation building in Haiti. So the idea that we just can’t be done is belied by the facts. Um, the second one that the second sort of thing I I would advise people to avoid are sort of the easy if you just use more force arguments, these are, these are very common more often on the political right than on the political left that you just needed to bomb more. And that’s nonsense. I will offer as counter evidence the simple fact that Every single year in Afghanistan for the last 15 years, the civilian casualties of the war, the Afghan civilian civilian casualties have been largely stable at about 3000 killed every year and about twice as many as that wounded. So almost 10,000 casualties every year. That was true. And we had 100,000 troops in the country and we were bombing around the clock. It was true last year when we had Six or 7000 and we are only using military force in extremist situations. So my first lesson is just be careful of the easy analogies because they don’t work. You have to look at the country on its own terms. The second lesson I would offer is about the importance of synchronizing your tools and using the right tools for the right job. So what happened in Afghanistan in the We made a crucial mistake in the early years and mostly flowed from a campaign promise. President Bush got into one of the few foreign policy debates in the 2000 campaign between Vice President gore in candidate Bush was over whether the US should do nation building and Bush came out strongly against. It brought it up in more than one presidential debate. That was that was a wedge issue. He could say, I want to do hard power, none of this soft stuff, gour disagreed, because we were at that time doing nation building in Kosovo and that really trapped President Bush because what he had to do as soon as we defeated the taliban in december 2000 and one, is actually reconstruct Afghanistan, because he had moved away from it in the campaign and because his top cabinet officials, principally Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, believed that that was no appropriate mission for the troops. We really bungled it right out of the gate. We sent all kinds of signals that we’re not staying, we’re not going to do peacekeeping. We won’t even do these other missions, someone else can do them. That would have been hard enough to sustain on its own. But then we invaded Iraq and that completely destroyed the good faith coalition of NATO and being involved in Iraq and really set Afghanistan back as I have indicated earlier. So the lesson for that is that number one, you’ve got to use the right tools for the right things. And we there were books already written on how to nation build by the people who had done it and it needed to be state led. But with support from the military, that didn’t happen in Afghanistan and it didn’t happen in Iraq. And it could have that was simply as dumb as still using cavalry squares in the civil war when the Europeans had long ago figured that that’s an outdated technique. So you have to synchronize your power and you’ve got to use the right tools for the right end states and the U. S. Principally under President Bush and much more so under President trump, took a very narrow conception of power that thought the shock and awe of the bombing is what’s going to change minds and the rest of the stuff is all doors and windows and we don’t do that. We really have to abandon that kind of thing.
[0:44:57 Speaker 1] Erin. Do you think we’ll do better next time because we both know there will be a next time.
[0:45:01 Speaker 0] I I do think we’ll do better. And I think your point is the most important one that people walk away from. And what angers me the most when people say we just shouldn’t do reconstruction or nation building, no one makes a plan that in 24 months they’re going to do reconstruction crises happen and nations have to react. And I think the biggest lessons of the Cold War, which you and I have spent some time studying is that getting others to do your fighting and dying for you is a great move. If you can maintain a large and robust coalition, that’s why NATO worked. That’s why the Cold War was a shared endeavor between the U. S. And Western european countries and Canada and others. We really threw that out the window in the early Bush administration and uh we also took an overly militarized approach to many of the problems and that really did have a number of negative consequences. So we do have to get this right. And there are already books out there that will tell you how to nation build properly. If you’d like to prepare
[0:46:03 Speaker 1] for Zachary. Erin’s given us so much to think about here for for your generation that now has spent your entire life with the Afghanistan war and now will live through the end of that war. Um Do you have hope going forward? How do you how do you look at these issues?
[0:46:22 Speaker 2] I think I think there is hope going forward that the United States will not make necessarily the same mistakes when it comes to foreign policy. Uh but but maybe that’s just because we’ve tried everything and at this point we’ve seen so many of these mistakes. But but at the same time, I think that there’s a real recognition now that these issues are so complex. Just the fact that we’ve had four successive presidents who have tried and in many ways failed to handle these issues is evidence of that four presidents from the two different parties.
[0:46:54 Speaker 0] I think that
[0:46:55 Speaker 2] the complexity of these issues is really very suddenly becoming clear to so many of us. And I think that’s really the key point here is that these issues aren’t about binaries, they’re very they’re very complex and it’s very important that we understand those complexities.
[0:47:10 Speaker 1] And I think the most important point that underlines what you said so well, Zachary and what Aaron has shared with us is that studying this history is crucial because the experiences of the last 20 years they have to inform what we do next. They really do have to inform what we do next. And unfortunately much of our politics distracts us from the kinds of in depth analysis that Aaron was able to to share with us erin thank you so much for joining us and for really giving us this this tour de force uh in understanding this this really complicated history. Erin, thank you,
[0:47:42 Speaker 0] my pleasure. It’s always good to talk
[0:47:44 Speaker 1] and Zachary, thank you for your moving poem and for your thoughtful reflections on this important topic and thank you most of all to our listeners for joining us for this episode of this is Democracy.
[0:47:58 Speaker 2] Yeah. Mhm. Mhm. Yeah. This podcast is produced by the Liberal Arts, its development studio and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Okay. The music in this episode was written and recorded by Harris Komotini. Stay tuned for a new episode. Every week you can find this
[0:48:19 Speaker 1] is Democracy on Apple podcasts, Spotify
[0:48:22 Speaker 2] and stitcher.
[0:48:23 Speaker 0] See you next time.
[0:48:28 Speaker 2] Yeah