(Lt. Hamilton VC at Kabul where he commanded Sir Louis Cavangnari's escort)
A year or so after the US intervention in Afghanistan began in 2001 I perceived that there was a danger that US public and government opinion might begin to favor the idea of "nation building" in Afghanistan. From long experience in and study of the area of Islamicate civilization and its history it seemed clear to me that such an effort would be doomed to failure at any price that one should be willing to pay in; expended effort over time, money and blood shed on all sides.
The basic problem with Afghanistan is that there "is no there there." Afghanistan is really a geographical expression rather than a country in the sense understood of the word in the post-Westphalian system of independent states.
Across the Islamicate world from Mauritania to Bangla Desh and beyond to Oceania there is a pronounced tendency to atomization in group perception of identity. Arabs do not identify with Berbers, etc., Tribes and clans within these groups regard all others as rivals and often enemies unless they are needed as temporary allies.
The Islamic religion which holds unity to be an ideal is often thought to be a unifier against the atomizing tendency in these cultures, but in fact there are many, many varieties of Islam, each one believing that it is uniquely favored by God. This often cancels out whatever unifying effect Islam, as religion, can have.
Afghanistan, created as a buffer between imperial Russia and British India, is an extreme case of atomization among the inhabitants of a state which has recognition in the world political system including membership in the UN. In spite of that status , a status that might deceive one into believing that there is such a thing as "the Afghan People,"the population of Afghanistan is actually made up of a number of different ethnic nations; Pushtuns, Hazzara, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turcomans, Arabs, etc. These different peoples all speak mutually unintelligible languages which often have such extreme separation in dialect that this amounts to uninteligibility as well. Some of these groups are Sunni and others Shia. This is yet another factor in the separation of the segments of the population.
The country has little substantial physical infrastructure. What there is was largely constructed in the 50s and 60s as part of Cold War competition between the USSR and the US. There is very little legal or governmental infrastructure. A commercial company investing its own or borrowed money in Afghanistan is taking a great risk of never being able to recover its investment from the local "pirates." Government is generally predatory in its attitude toward foreign investment funds. I tried to find a safe haven in Afghanistan for some of my company's funds and could find none. Senior Afghan government people would typically respond to questions about legal infrastructure with exhortations to "bring your project, all will be well." Needless to say …
US intervention in this place was inevitable after 9/11, but what was not necessary or wise were repeated US decisions for a COIN nation building campaign. As this tendency began to be evident I argued for a much more limited goal in which the US would keep about 20K troops in country to maintain a government controlled enclave around Kabul and Bagram. This would enable pursuit of located international terrorist groups through raiding operations from that base area. The basis for this strategy was my conclusion that the US could never "pacify" all of the territory of Afghanistan and that we would "break our teeth" trying.
I pressed this belief in various fora and with various individuals within the Obama Administration even as Obama endlessly contemplated the entreaties of the COINista generals, Petraeus, Mattis, McChrystal etc. for a country wide nation building COIN campaign. The most interesting of these encounters was at an IQ2 debate at NYU in 2009 where I (and teammates) argued that "The US can never win in Afghanistan." My side lost on points but the leader of the other team recently told me that he knows now that we were completely correct. Obama gave in to the generals, and gave them the COIN war that they wanted. I suppose that for "Barry" it was immensely flattering to have them "butter him up."
It is clear now that the COIN strategy has failed miserable and totally. Afghanistan is not one bit more united or modernized than it has ever been. The US has spent a sea of money there and many brave people have perished or been wrecked in chasing the idea of Afghanistan as a Central Asian Switzerland.
Trump has allowed Zalmai Khalilzad to attempt to achieve a negotiated peace with the Taliban, the former salafi takfiri, Pushtun rulers of Afghanistan, in the apparent belief that they could be "talked down out of the tree" just as his business competitors could always be talked down to meet at a "closing" table where his supposed "closing genius' would bring a DEAL.
Unfortunately this belief in his closing talent goes unrewarded in Palestine, Syria, Turkey,Yemen, Iran, China (not yet), North Korea and Afghanistan. IMO his difficulty in finding solutions lies in his entrapment within his own New York City business model, a model in which everything is for sale if the deal is structured skillfully to advantage the stronger party while all the while claiming that the party you are screwing is your friend.
Sadly for The Donald all those "stupid" foreigners do not understand that "everything is for sale." Among them, the Taliban, an army and religio-political movement are notable for a lack of belief in the commercial possibilities of selling out to Donald Trump for a "mess of pottage" or thirty pieces of silver whichever reference you prefer. They want to win, and they want to be seen to have driven the "crusaders" from Afghanistan and in the process to have humiliated the US as the leading infidel state. To that end they lie, prevaricate and await the day when they can crush the puny forces of "modernism" after the American departure. Zalmai Khalilzad is an Afghan pushtun Sunni by birth and rearing. Did he not know that they could not be trusted in dealings with the US? I do not blame the Taliban for being what they are. I blame all the American and NATO fools for believing that they could make the Taliban either go away or become "happy campers." They were never going to do either of those things. We should have known that. Some of us did, but Americans are addicted to all the melting pot, right side of history foolishness so common in "levelled" America,
What should the US do now that the scales have fallen from Trump's eyes and the time of "good faith" negotiation with the Taliban is "dead?" The first thing to do is to fire Khalilzad.
Last night, Col. (ret.) Douglas Macgregor told Tucker Carlson that the US should simply leave, and should have never intervened. IOW we should get the hell out totally and forever. This is a tempting thought. I have wrestled with the attractiveness of the idea but there are certain problems with it.
1. We should not want to give the jihadi movements proof of our feckless defeatability. IMO if we leave suddenly the Afghan government and armed forces will soon collapse. The country will then further disintegrate into a welter of jihadi factions and regional tribal strongmen, the strongest of which will be the Taliban.
2. We have encouraged modernist Afghan men, women and girls to emerge from the shadows. Shall we leave them to their fates under the rule of the jihadis.
3. What about all the translators, base workers and other people who have cast their lots with us. The Taliban and other jihadis will simply kill them as apostates. We abandoned a lot of such people in Iraq. Will we do it again?
On balance I would say Macgregor is right that we must leave. The time for a small remaining presence is past. The forces in the field are too strong for a small force to maintain itself even with massive long range air support. Think of Sir Louis Cavangnari. No, we should leave, but we should leave on a schedule that will enable us to control the timing of our going and to protect the departure of those who wish to leave with us. pl
BTW, SWMBO says that no mutually understood languages = no country.