America in Afghanistan: Foreign Policy and Decision Making From Bush to Obama to Trump

by Dr. Sharifulah Dorani [1]

Most Afghans, following the American intervention in 2001, were profoundly hopeful. Western leaders, especially President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, repeatedly told the Afghans that the international community would never again leave Afghanistan alone, that the Taliban was history, and that instead the international community would assist the Afghans to form a government with strong institutions to establish peace, prosperity, stability and democracy. However, more than 17 years later, Afghanistan seems to have gone from bad to worse.

The Afghans, including former President Hamid Karzai (as well as many Westerners), have numerous unanswered questions about American involvement in Afghanistan, which boil down to the following six. (1) What were U.S. motives in Afghanistan? (2) If they were to establish a secure and peaceful Afghanistan, why did it fail? (3) If ineffective governance was to blame for the failure, as most U.S. politicians told the Afghans, why did the U.S. support policies that visibly bolstered bad governance and pushed Afghanistan towards instability? (4) If the Pakistani Army’s support for the insurgency was to blame for the failure, as most U.S. politicians gave it as an excuse, why did the U.S. with all its extraordinary capabilities not decisively deal with Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism? (5) If Afghanistan’s ‘inherent characteristics’ were to blame, as many U.S. policymakers implied, why was there peace and security during the 40-year era of King Zahir Shah? (6) Why did ‘bewildering’ changes take place in American Afghan policy over the course of 17 years?

My book, America in Afghanistan, attempts to provide an answer.

During the research for America in Afghanistan, I noticed that Western perspectives had formed most opinions and interpretations of events in Afghanistan. These opinions and perspectives – in many cases ignorant of the social, political, cultural and religious realities of Afghanistan – in turn influenced decision making in Washington, D.C. My book, however, is written from an Afghan perspective; it explains Presidents Karzai and Ashraf Ghani as well as the ordinary Afghans’ responses to U.S. policies.   The book analyses key six decisions made by the Bush, Barack Obama and Donald G. Trump Administrations. It spells out what factors influenced these decisions at Washington, D.C., and why they failed (or succeeded) once they met reality in Afghanistan.

The Bush, Obama, and now Trump Administrations’ chief goal in Afghanistan has been twofold: to ensure Afghanistan did not turn into a terrorist base from which terrorists plotted another 9/11, and to weaken, and eventually defeat, al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Afghanistan and Pakistan to an extent that both were incapable of posing a threat to the U.S. and its allies. Despite the rhetoric, bringing stability, nurturing Western-style democracy, rebuilding Afghan infrastructure, and establishing an efficient centralized government, though desirable, have not been U.S. goals. The execution of these objectives – which required a large number of U.S. troops to conduct peacekeeping operations and plenty of U.S. dollars to rebuild the war-shattered Afghanistan – was beyond U.S. interests and means.

However, the Bush, Obama and the Trump Administrations desired a relatively peaceful, secure, stable, prosperous, and even democratic Afghanistan, because such an Afghanistan was necessary for the achievement of U.S. main goal, and America was willing to help the Afghans to secure such an Afghanistan by providing a light political, military, diplomatic and financial assistance. But the commission (and omission) of certain policies by the three administrations concerned laid the seeds of insecurity, instability, ineffective governance, corruption, criminality and an eventual war instead of peace.

Some of these strategies include the following. The Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq siphoned off most of the administration’s policy attention, awareness and military/non-military aids at the expense of the Afghanistan War. Handing over responsibility of establishing security and rebuilding the key Afghan institutions to North Atlantic Treaty Organization states resulted in the collapse of law and order since these states would not engage in conflicts and failed to train an effective Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), establish an efficient legal system, disarm ‘the powerful syndicate’, and curb opium production. The powerful syndicate consists of warlords, strongmen, drug lords, land-grabbers, smugglers, criminals, thieves and some wealthy individuals.

Backing the powerful syndicate, notably the warlords, in the name of supporting the indigenous people as part of the counterterrorism strategy led to the syndicate playing an important part in weakening the Afghan Government. Rejecting arrogantly talks with the Taliban in 2002 to bring them to the government alienated the group. Refusing to engage U.S. forces in peacekeeping and nation-building operations and declining to deploy them outside of Kabul in the first few years of the intervention deteriorated the security situation in rural Afghanistan. The neglect to offer a coherent and unified economic and developmental strategy to spend effectively the resources (on infrastructure investments) meant that the spending boosted corruption and accomplished little as far as Afghanistan’s infrastructure was concerned. Creating security firms meant there was a parallel, yet not unaccountable, force to the Afghan National Police.

The Obama Administration’s policy of backing decentralized governance meant that the powerful syndicate became even more influential. Encouraging militias (local police) resulted in the powerful syndicate, bolstering groups of irregular fighters accused of human rights abuses. Not treating the Taliban as an enemy sent a message that Afghanistan’s enemy was not necessarily America’s enemy. Obama’s caveat to surge and drawdown and his haste in Afghanising the mission proved detrimental, sending a signal to the Afghans that the U.S. would again abandon Afghanistan. Obama’s constant reminder to the Afghans that Afghanistan would never see a good day and the U.S. would never be able to end the ‘civil war’ due to Afghanistan’s ‘complexities’ (ineffective governance, insufficient ANSF, poverty, extremism, drug mafia, regional interference and ‘Afghan inborn differences’) disheartened ordinary Afghans.

Changing the goal to leave a ‘good enough’ Afghan state defined by a stalemate was another damaging policy by the Obama Administration that widened the distance between ordinary Afghans and America. And most importantly, America’s refusal to take measures to deal with Pakistan’s aggression on Afghanistan and to shut the terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan angered the Afghans.

Keeping quiet about (most of) the above shortcomings/miscalculations in U.S. policies, the Trump Administration has equally made it clear to the Afghans that it is not interested in putting things right.

Seeing those policies, the Afghans could not ascertain whether the U.S. wanted peace and security or war and insecurity. Most Afghans, including Karzai, who disagreed with most of the above policies, however, concluded that the U.S. had other ulterior motives and thus employed policies capable of keeping the war on to justify its presence.

The analysis of the decision making of key six decisions by the three administrations nevertheless indicated that America neither was dishonest nor had evil intentions towards Afghanistan or the region. The three administrations supported the above controversial policies because they falsely assumed they were the right policies, and, most importantly, they were cheap. As for Pakistan, both Bush and Obama remained hopelessly (and frustrated) unable for a variety of reasons to stop Pakistan supporting a host of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as an instrument of its foreign policy. (The Trump Administration, however, has begun to rethink its policy towards Pakistan and is now reportedly considering the harsh measures against Pakistan if it continues to support terrorist groups and create obstacles for the peace talks conducted by the administration’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.)

Against what has been (incorrectly) said about the U.S. long-term goal to turn Afghanistan into a military base, both the Bush and Obama Administrations tried (unsuccessfully) to establish a good enough Afghan Government capable of defending itself against terrorist groups and leave the country at the earliest opportunity to, like Vietnam, avoid dependency. Given Trump’s tweets and remarks as well as his ‘America First’ principle, it seems that Trump is frustrated with the Afghanistan War and may end it prematurely.

However, the book warns that the Trump Administration must be careful in conducting its peace talks and does not repeat the history: Many Afghans feared that eventually the U.S. might ‘sell’ Afghanistan to Pakistan: that is (like the Soviet Union ‘sold’ the President Mohammad Najibullah Government to Mujahedeen/Pakistan a few decades earlier) America would use Afghanistan as a bargaining tool to achieve safety for America, that is, in return for the Taliban/Pakistan’s guarantee that Afghanistan would not become a terrorist base from which another 9/11 might take place.

While the book commends the peace talks, it also warns that true peace will only be established where all achievements, including all rights enshrined in the Afghan Constitution, made in the past 17 years are protected. Only leaving behind a fairly strong Afghan state with a sufficient military force can provide such protection.

[1] This article is a summary of the author’s book – Dorani, Sharifullah, America in Afghanistan: Foreign Policy and Decision Making from Bush to Obama to Trump (London: I.B. Tauris & Co and Bloomsbury, 2019) – that has recently been published.

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