September 6, 2021
The next LeBron… the next Amazon… the next Donald Trump… the next…
Even before the last boots had left the ground in Afghanistan – and when the second-guessing, finger-pointing, and blame-allocation processes were just at the bottom of the first inning – the race was on to identify “the next Afghanistan.”
Whether we’re talking about generational, transformative success – or devastating, humiliating, epoch-defining failure – it’s human nature to skip to the last page of today’s best/worst ever… and start the next chapter.
And identifying, and heading off, the next Afghanistan is worth the trouble. The 20 years of American effort and time and humiliation cost $2.3 trillion (that’s a thousand times a billion, if you’ve lost track of all the zeros)… the lives of around 6,500 American soldiers and contractors, and many times more Afghans… and a multiple of both in terms of missed opportunity.
How much? America could have used that money for a lot of things. The price tag in today’s dollars of the Apollo project to send a man to the moon: $640 billion, according to Money magazine. Ending global hunger by 2030 would cost a bargain $330 billion. Everyone on Earth could be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 for $20 billion – that’s less than 1% of the price of America’s longest war. The greenbacks spent on the war in Afghanistan could buy 575 billion Big Macs – enough for 72 double-patty burgers with mystery sauce for every person on the globe (probably not the best way to end global hunger, though).
And even that pales in the context of the cost of the broader two-decade war on terror, of which Afghanistan was a part. Brown University’s Costs of War project estimates the all-in cost (everything from war expenditures, to veteran care, to increased domestic security spending, to interest payments for funds spent) of the hydra of the war on terror to be $8 trillion… and 900,000 lives, including militaries on all sides, civilians, journalists, and aid workers – but excluding indirect deaths caused by displacement, disease, and poverty.
So understanding what went wrong… thinking about how to avoid the “next Afghanistan”… and imagining where it might happen nevertheless is a small-effort exercise – with a potentially big payoff.
What Went Wrong in Afghanistan
If there is an over/under on the number of books – by recently retired generals, journalists suffering from PTSD, sour-grapes former intelligence officers, and guys named Ike who run Tet Offensive reenactments – to be released over the next year about what happened in Afghanistan… just take the over, whatever it is. And a lot of those will focus solely on what went wrong.
In a nutshell: It was a failure of planning, of execution, and of strategy… of military might and of nation building… and more than anything, a failure of intelligence.
As every self-help guru worth his mindfulness exercises will tell you, you can’t succeed if you haven’t defined success. Initially, the United States was aiming to get back at Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on America – and to prevent future terrorist attacks. That was a difficult but attainable objective.
But somewhere along the way, the goalposts moved. Over time, the U.S. shifted its focus from terrorism to instead eradicating every potential seedling of terrorism in Afghanistan, which entailed changing the very fiber of the country… to turn it into a kind of Idaho of Central Asia, only without the strip malls, and with better kebab.
That was only possible by building institutions, instilling democracy, creating a foundation for the rule of law, and doing all sorts of other things – like altering the makeup of an ancient tribal society – that were… impossible.
Why? As Henry Kissinger – a veteran of the fits-too-easily comparison of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, which he had a front-row seat for as Secretary of State – wrote in the Economist last week…
Afghanistan has never been a modern state. Statehood presupposes a sense of common obligation and centralisation of authority… Building a modern democratic state in Afghanistan… implies a timeframe of many years, indeed decades… It was precisely Afghanistan’s fractiousness, inaccessibility and absence of central authority that made it an attractive base for terrorist networks in the first place.
In short: America was never going to succeed in Afghanistan (it’s worth noting that no one else has either… more on that below). What’s more, changing things in someone else’s country – while everyone knows that eventually you’ll go home – turns it into a waiting game. All the Taliban had to do was wait, because sooner or later, the Americans would leave. And, sure enough, they did.
Four Ways to Avoid ‘The Next Afghanistan’
For a more complete list, see the last chapters of the soon-to-be-written books about the American defeat in Afghanistan. But for now, a few ideas…
Reorient the objectives of foreign policy. U.S. President Joe Biden has been less idealistic in his foreign policy objectives than some of his recent predecessors. In contrast to talk of nation-building and spreading the good word of democracy from war-on-terror granddaddy President George W. Bush, Biden has spoken of a “U.S. foreign policy for the middle class.” As Foreign Affairs magazine explains…
[It’s] a foreign policy supported by or attuned to the interests of the majority of American voters, not just the received wisdoms of U.S. foreign policy elites. Rejoining the Paris Climate Accord while sustaining trade tariffs on China and, to a lesser extent, Europe reflected elements of this new U.S. approach. Ending the “forever” intervention in Afghanistan was its litmus test…
The messiness of the shockingly poorly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan will forever stain Biden’s foreign policy legacy. But his down-to-earth foreign policy objectives will – should – prevent future Afghanistans… and future presidents would do well to do something similar.
Remember history. Afghanistan has a reputation that you’d think would be effective at keeping foreign powers out, like a police car parked in the driveway would be at deterring thieves. “Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan, giving the region the nickname ‘Graveyard of Empires,'” explained news magazine The Diplomat in 2017.
From the British army’s ignoble defeat in the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1842, through to the Soviet Union’s catastrophic misadventure from 1979 to 1989 – which played a role in the eventual collapse of the USSR – the “graveyard” narrative holds that Afghanistan has been the geopolitical equivalent of quicksand under a hornet’s nest for a procession of world powers.
But Afghanistan may have just been collateral damage, as Politico explained last week…
Afghanistan, in its long existence, has sadly been more like the roadkill of empires — a victim to their ambitions… Afghanistan’s strategic value for geopolitics often has been exaggerated by map room geniuses the world over. In fact, that importance has been very limited since the Spice Road trade routes began to disintegrate in the 15th century.
Whether it’s the main dish or the appetizer of imperial defeats, the message is clear: Stay out of Afghanistan. After all, if everyone who tries hot sauce Mad Dog 357 Plutonium No. 9 – at 9 million Scoville Heat Units (SHUs), the spiciest hot sauce in the world, compared with Tabasco at around 5,000 SHUs – is rushed to the ER for tastebud-refurbishment surgery… do you really want to be next in line (even if Politico says it’s not so bad)?
Probably not. Know your history and keep it moving.
In the United States, doing anything when you’re stopped by the police, other than sitting statue-still in your seat until given permission to move, is potentially worse for your health than a pack-a-day habit. And hopping out of the driver’s seat to meet the nice cop for a talk, while feeling around in your pocket for a few bills, could be an extinction event. (Staying in your car in Moscow and making the cop come to your car window will cost you – though probably not your life.) Wherever it is… it’s not Kansas. When I lived in Russia, if you were stopped by a cop while driving – for no reason other than being in a car on the road – the smart thing to do was to get out of the car, walk behind your car to meet the cop, shake hands, and have a chat. At some point, a few folded bills would change hands, and you’d be on your way.
All too often, Americans – and everyone else, too, but Americans do it more because they’re in more places trying to do what they think is the right thing – think that wherever they are is just like Kansas. They’ll do what they’re used to doing and what works back home… and get bad results since it’s not Kansas. As The Hill explained…
[The] dearth of critical cultural understanding enabled the ineptitude that was presented throughout our bungling management of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq… [these countries] have their own cultures, their ways, and instead of adapting to understand their culture so that we can help rebuild from within, we tried to change them and help from without.
Before going into a country… understand it. That’s a tall order. But it’s a good place to start.
It’s not different this time. Investors fall victim to what’s called the “status quo bias,” when they believe the four most dangerous words in investing: “This time it’s different.” As in: This time, the market will continue going up… and this time, the hot stock will continue to rise… and this time, I’ll know when to sell.
But in the end, nothing is different – the cycle always prevails, and an investor’s greed and fear always get the best of him.
It’s the same in geopolitics. As a Financial Times correspondent who’d spent time in Afghanistan explained in July…
Why did the American-led stabilisation effort think it’d have an easier time keeping warring Afghan factions at bay than the Soviet-led one? The well-thumbed copies of The Bear Went Over the Mountain, an English translation of a Soviet analysis of failed military tactics in Afghanistan that seemed to be in the rucksack of every N.A.T.O officer and war correspondent, somehow convinced me and a lot of US policymakers that this time it would be different.
It’s not different. Inertia, bureaucracy, groupthink, faltering will, stupidity… they’ll all get the better of you in the end. Every. Single. Time.
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Just like bored sportswriters looking to fill column inches will tout the next Tom Brady, and stock analysts searching for sufficient hyperbole will hype the next Microsoft, geopolitical analysts looking for clicks will spout off about “the next Afghanistan.”
What does that look like? It’s a military quagmire that America is sucked into, bit by bit. It’s a misadventure where the objectives morph from something clear and easy-to-sell (get the terrorist) into something obscure and difficult (build schools for Afghan girls so that… wait, what about Osama bin Laden?).
It’s a conflict that election-cycle-focused politicians will kick down the road indefinitely, hoping to keep it under control just enough so that the next guy in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue can deal with it.
It’s a situation where military might doesn’t translate into victory… and where gains are illusory and are subject to collapsing as fast as a house of cards in an earthquake, or the Afghan army over the past few weeks.
There have been a number of candidates in recent years: The eastern African nation of Somalia (where the U.S. already has some interventionist history)… Basilan, an island in the southern Philippines that was home to an extremist Islamic movement… Bangladesh (a suggestion floated by an Indian academic)… or Ukraine, where restless Russia continues to make trouble.
No comparison will fit perfectly. But within the broad contours of “potential conflict that could drag on indefinitely and trigger a spate of the next [insert site of disastrous American defeat here]” articles two decades later, two candidates stand out…
Taiwan. China has long had its eye on “reclaiming” independent Taiwan, which it views as a wayward province. “Solving the Taiwan question and realizing the complete reunification of the motherland are the unswerving historical tasks of the Chinese Communist Party and the common aspiration of all Chinese people,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in early July.
Taiwan doesn’t harbor terrorists, but – perhaps even more critically – it accounts for more than half of the global semiconductor industry, an essential piece of the technological infrastructure of modern civilization. The things that rely on semiconductor chips (computers, cars, cellphones, appliances, gaming hardware, for starters) are also central to the lives of the American middle class that features so prominently in Biden’s foreign policy.
Taiwan is not China’s Ukraine. The U.S. wouldn’t stand by if China were to become more aggressive towards Taiwan. Though there are few similarities between Afghanistan and Taiwan – many parts of which are more developed than the United States – the scope for America to be drawn into a conflict where the stakes steadily escalate are high.
West Africa. “Twenty years after September 11, [jihadi groups] are expending their war of terror in large portions of [Africa],” warned a report by thinktank Brookings Institution last week.
One of the areas it cites as being a potential hotspot is the Sahel region, a broad swathe of land that stretches across more than half a dozen countries in western and north-central Africa, including Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The U.S. has around 6,000 troops in Africa, the United Nations has 18,000 staff in Mali – which was nearly overtaken by extremists in 2013 – and France also has thousands of troops in the area.
It’s the sort of scenario where things go from bad to worse, a terrorist attack spurs the U.S. to action… and suddenly it’s got a foot stuck in a new quagmire.
When it comes to defining its national interests, the United States has applied broad strokes – and has never been good at keeping to itself. According to one estimate, it intervened 41 times in Latin America from 1898 to 1994 to change a government. Add in its meddling – overt and covert – in the rest of the world, and America has been involved in, and influenced, changes of power hundreds of times across the globe.
The glass-half-full interpretation of that is the U.S. has a lot of experience with meeting its objective – whatever it may be – and getting out.
But the pessimist would note that America has more than once thrown good money into badly executed plans and worn out its welcome… and left in humiliation, 20 years later.
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September 6, 2021