Afghanistan may be evolving into the newest territory for the fighting among those vicious, unruly tribes in the Trump White House. Given all the years in which Americans have been engaged in fighting in that unhappy mountainous nation, as well as Afghanistan’s long history of ultimately defeating foreigners intent on ruling them, the Trump administration may just become the presidency that ends up holding the bag when things go south there for Americans. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks to history as a guide for the Trumpians’ struggles over who controls policy.
The active American engagement in Afghanistan has become America’s lengthiest foreign conflict. After more than a decade and a half of direct engagement, it has been a core part of three presidencies – and in five terms of office. In fact, this conflict has been longer than America’s Revolutionary War and Civil War, and the nation’s participation in both world wars – all together. And it has cost at least a half a trillion dollars or so, along with thousands of lives, mostly Afghan of course.
In fact, Afghanistan had been the focus of intense attention and more covert forms of participation (such as supplying those ground-to-air, hand-held Stinger missiles that proved to be so lethal to Russian Hind helicopters) for years. This was well before the commitment of active duty military forces there, beginning in 2002.
The combat troops phase of the US engagement in Afghanistan came about as an integral part of the campaign against al-Qaeda, in retribution for that group’s responsibility for the Twin Tower disasters of 11 September 2001. But that fight soon morphed into a multifaceted action against not just those al-Qaeda irregulars, but also many elements of the Taliban fighters, ironically virtually the same group that had been so central in the fighting against the Red Army just a few years before.
The Red Army’s ignominious defeat, its embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the disaffection this eventually produced among the general Soviet population, as well as among veterans and the families of those who had died in the fighting, were contributing factors in the sapping of the energy and stamina of the former Soviet Union. This led, ultimately, to that state’s demise shortly after its final withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Back in October 2010, in the early days of Daily Maverick, in writing about the similarities between the catastrophic American involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s and the US’s participation in Afghanistan’s continuing agonies, I had looked back to history for a guide to the possible future. That history lesson may even be even more compelling now than it was back then – especially as “victory”, at least the way Americans would generally characterise it, seems at least as far away as it has even been. As our earlier article described it:
“In the mountains of Afghanistan, 133 years earlier, an even more tragic military evacuation [than in the final days of Saigon] took place. Concerned about the threat of Russian encroachment on India from the north in the early days of “The Great Game”, a British Army entered Kabul for what they thought would be an easy regime change, replacing one emir with a more pliant, sympathetic one. Their 19th century version of ‘shock and awe’ in 1839 included 9,500 soldiers of the Bengal Army, 9,000 Bombay or native troops and 38,000 followers who brought with them hordes of camels, horses and even a pack of hunting fox hounds. One brigadier-general is noted to have used 60 camels to bring his personal belongings for this walk in the park.
“Once they were ensconced in Kabul, the British formally declared ‘an end to the distractions by which, for so many years, the welfare and happiness of the Afghans have been impaired’. The British had entered Kabul to replace the then-Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, when he started to tilt towards the Russians, after first having been the UK’s man in Kabul. The British determined that warding off the Russians just north of the Pamir Mountains now required replacing Dost Mohammed with a still-earlier ruler, Shah Shuja, who had himself been forced from power before.
“But Shah Shuja’s control of Kabul, let alone the surrounding countryside, was sufficiently dodgy that the British kept significant military forces in the country to bolster Shuja’s rule. But Shah Shuja didn’t want it to look like the British were in charge of his regime so the British were quartered in a 19th century version of the Green Zone, rather than the ancient but still-hard-to-attack fortress that overlooked the city. Not a good choice. And so, when the inevitable revolt broke out against Shuja’s rule, in January 1842, the British were forced into a retreat with 16,000 soldiers, camp followers, women and children struggling through the icy wasteland to reach the safety of Jalalabad.
“Having survived Afghan snipers and the ice, just one man, assistant surgeon William Brydon, finally staggered into Jalalabad on a wounded horse, He had actually lost part of his skull to an encounter with an Afghan sword. The Afghans later claimed Brydon had been allowed to survive as a warning to the foreign invader: “Leave, and never return”. The British had tried to reach the more secure garrison at Jalalabad just 140km away. A few decades later, Rudyard Kipling would give future generations contemplating an entry to Kabul, or Kandahar, or Jalalabad, or Helmand, cautionary advice:
“ ‘When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,
And go to your Gawd like a soldier.’
“By now, it is probably no longer necessary to describe the travails of every army that has tried to conquer – and hold – what is now Afghanistan, in a list that at a minimum includes Alexander the Great’s army, the Huns, the Persians, the Mongols, the Mughals, the British, the Russians and now, most recently, the Americans and their Nato colleagues. But maybe no one learns from Afghanistan’s past any more.
“Fast forward, then, 150 years after the British disaster, and consider the end game of the Soviet Union’s fairly recent intervention in Afghanistan. After nine years and the death of at least 13,000 Soviet troops (plus thousands upon thousands of Afghans), the Russians left President Najibullah in charge when Gen. Boris Gromov, the last commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, walked across the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan on Feb. 16, 1989, after nine years and 50 days after Soviet troops first intervened.
“Gromov told reporters from the Soviet Union, ‘There is not a single Soviet soldier or officer left behind me. Our nine-year stay ends with this,’ this after an intervention that had brought 115,000 Russian troops into Afghanistan.
“Of course, the departure of the Russians didn’t bring the fighting to an end either. Despite a wealth of Russian military assistance and supplies to Dr Najibullah’s government, that regime proved unable to resist the western-supplied, insurgent Mujahedeen (insurgents who, curiously, look very much like today’s Taliban) in the next few years.
“Najibullah’s regime ultimately collapsed in the winter of 1992 when Kabul’s food and fuel supplies started to run out and the Taliban were about to enter Kabul. To salvage a collapsing situation, Najibullah stepped down and took refuge in the UN compound in Kabul. Regardless, the victorious Taliban captured him in September 1996, took him away, killed him and then hung his body – Mussolini-like – from a traffic signal. For the then-victors, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Rabbani, said about Najibullah, ‘He killed so many Islamic people and was against Islam and his crimes were so obvious that it had to happen. He was a communist.’
“This time around, another foreign military force has been in Afghanistan for close on seven years [Americans and their allies], and perhaps yet another end game is on the distant horizon….”
I have reprised this sombre extract from our earlier story, now that it is becoming clearer that one of the big winners of all those decades of conflict may well be Iran. That nation is now extending its influence and connections to parts of Afghanistan that are over their common border and where the people share much common heritage and language.
As an aside, ironically, in Iraq, beyond the military success of the current, post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government, as it is finally rolling back ISIS areas of control after years of defeats and humiliations and the spending of uncounted US dollars and so many thousands of casualties, the geopolitical winners appear to be China and Iran, rather than the US. China’s national petroleum company has now apparently bagged a lion’s share of the oil exploration and exploitation contracts in Iraq, and Iran has become an overwhelming influence on the shape and policies of the Iraqi government through their joint Shia religious heritage.
And this entire complex historical and geopolitical burden – after the Bush and Obama administrations – has been bequeathed to a new administration that is uniquely ignorant and oblivious to history and the complexities of international relations. As long-time Middle East observer Robin Wright wrote in the New Yorker the other day,
“ ‘Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did,’ Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, reflected. ‘He has an almost studious rejection of the type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors eventually gained or had views on.’ ”
Or, as the New York Times reported this past weekend on the consequences of the evolution in Afghanistan,
“President Trump recently lamented that the United States was losing its 16-year war in Afghanistan, and threatened to fire the American generals in charge. There is no doubt that as the United States winds down the Afghan war — the longest in American history, and one that has cost half a trillion dollars and more than 150,000 lives on all sides — regional adversaries are muscling in.
“Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remain the dominant players. But Iran is also making a bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor. Over the past decade and a half, the United States has taken out Iran’s chief enemies on two of its borders, the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iran has used that to its advantage, working quietly and relentlessly to spread its influence.
“In Iraq, it has exploited a chaotic civil war and the American withdrawal to create a virtual satellite state. In Afghanistan, Iran aims to make sure that foreign forces leave eventually, and that any government that prevails will at least not threaten its interests, and at best be friendly or aligned with them.
“One way to do that, Afghans said, is for Iran to aid its onetime enemies, the Taliban, to ensure a loyal proxy and also to keep the country destabilized, without tipping it over. That is especially true along their shared border of more than 500 miles. But fielding an insurgent force to seize control of a province shows a significant — and risky — escalation in Iran’s effort….
“Iran has conducted an intensifying covert intervention, much of which is only now coming to light. It is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.
“ ‘The regional politics have changed,’ said Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, a senior intelligence official who recently took over as the governor of Farah Province. ‘The strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.’ Iran and the Taliban — longtime rivals, one Shiite and the other Sunni — would seem to be unlikely bedfellows. Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban when their militias notoriously killed 11 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian government journalist in fighting in 1998.
“After that, Iran supported the anti-Taliban opposition — and it initially co-operated with the American intervention in Afghanistan that drove the Taliban from power. But as the Nato mission in Afghanistan expanded, the Iranians quietly began supporting the Taliban to bleed the Americans and their allies by raising the cost of the intervention so that they would leave. Iran has come to see the Taliban not only as the lesser of its enemies but also as a useful proxy force. The more recent introduction of the Islamic State, which carried out a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament this year, into Afghanistan has only added to the Taliban’s appeal.”
Inevitably, from the perspective of the US, this potentially disastrous downward spiral in Afghanistan can easily become entangled with the chaos in the White House as National Security Advisor Lt Gen H R McMaster is coming under increasingly heated attacks from the alt-right and pro-Trump media, in a kind of proxy struggle over the shape of the foreign policy agenda of the Trump administration.
On the one hand, McMaster is being criticised as a “pawn” of world Jewry, even as some of his other attackers are accusing him of being too weak on support for Israel, too sympathetic to Iran and the P5+1 nuclear agreement with that nation, and insufficiently aggressive against other global threats.
As Newsweek (among many others) has described this confusing battle, even as the president threw his metaphorical arms around McMaster, calling him a “good man”, the magazine had reported,
“McMaster has come under attack by conservatives aligned with the White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, including the far-right Breitbart website that Bannon formerly edited. Contradictory attacks accused McMaster of both being controlled by Jews, and not being sufficiently supportive of Israel. Alt-right journalist Mike Cernovich has shared links to a site called McMaster Leaks on Twitter, devoted to attacks on the general.
“The website contained an anti-Semitic cartoon showing McMaster controlled by the Rothschild banking dynasty and investor George Soros, reported Haaretz. Breitbart attacks quoting ‘administration officials’ alleged McMaster opposed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appearing alongside Trump at the president’s recent visit to the Western Wall.
“The hate campaign was sparked by reports this week that McMaster was seeking to purge the National Security Council of allies of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after it was revealed he held undisclosed meetings with Russian officials. McMaster also reportedly backs the U.S.’s continued support of the Iran nuclear deal while Bannon and White House deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka are vocal opponents of the 2015 agreement.
“Some conservatives have also criticised him for granting security clearance to Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser. Rice has been accused by the president, who has cited no evidence, of involvement in attempts to unmask Trump officials wiretapped by U.S. intelligence agencies during last year’s election. ‘H.R. McMaster Promised Susan Rice She Could Keep Security Clearance in Secret Letter,’ declared Breitbart.
“A senior administration official defended the move to CNN, and said the security clearance had been extended to all former security advisers, so they could discuss with the administration national security issues that occurred under their tenure. The campaign has been characterised as part of an ongoing war in the White House between an ‘America First’ nationalist faction led by Bannon, and a centrist Republican faction which has coalesced around McMaster and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.”
Taken together, the warring tribes of the Trump White House, despite the new chief of staff’s efforts to impose some semblance of order, continue to slug it out, semi-publicly, through leaks and innuendo by their alt-right allies. This time around, the declining circumstances in Afghanistan and America’s continuing engagement there, even with only modest support forces and air support, open up the possibilities of yet more casualties in the White House power game.
With actual decision-making and coherent planning and policies less important than the struggles of those Washington tribes, the Trump administration may eventually need to steel itself for the possibility of owning an inevitable collapse of American influence in that nation, after all that expenditure of blood and treasure. And then the bloodletting can begin as Trumpian tribes duke it out over who lost Afghanistan and what that means for every other foreign policy challenge. Meanwhile, the Afghans will be left with yet more devastation, even as they prepare to confront yet newer antagonists from among those seeking to control that much-fought-over territory. DM
Photo: Afghan security officials check people and vehicles on a road side check point, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is due to visit the families of the victims of Jawadia Mosque bombing in Herat, Afghanistan, 04 August 2017. EPA/JALIL REZAYEE