Can America Learn Lessons From Afghanistan and Ukraine?
If recent U.S. foreign policy had musical accompaniment it would be “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.”
Since 2001, the U.S., while pursuing terrorists and promoting the “freedom agenda”, has habitually failed to negotiate before taking up arms, so has wasted a lot of money and lives on failed projects.
In the wake of the 9-11 attacks by al-Qaeda, then-President George Bush demanded the Taliban deliver Usama bin Laden to American justice. The Taliban replied they were ready to negotiate, but Bush wasn’t having any of it. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan ensued and the cure-all nation-building project (really an effort to reform Pashtun culture) was a 20-year, $2 trillion bust at the cost of almost 180,000 dead NATO troops and Afghans, ending with the live-streamed retreat of U.S. forces from Kabul on 15 August 2021.
Bush may have wanted to not legitimize the Taliban by negotiating with them, but the Taliban have claimed legitimacy by defeating America and its NATO partners in combat, and are back in charge in Kabul while Bush paints watercolors in retirement. And some countries are hedging their bets as over a dozen capitals still maintain embassies in Kabul (though none have recognized the Taliban government…yet.)
It wasn’t the first time the U.S. fumbled seizing bin Laden: The Taliban made the same offer in 1998, but backtracked after U.S. cruise missile attacks, and Sudan, which hosted bin laden from 1991 to 1996, unsuccessfully offered to hand him over to the U.S., according to Dr Gutbi el-Mahdi, the former spy chief.
The fact that Islamist regimes unfriendly to the U.S. were anxious to be rid of bin Laden was both a warning and an opportunity that Washington ignored.
Aside from its penultimate failure, the Afghanistan war caused a refugee crisis, fostered a culture of corruption that fatally injured the central government, failed to stop poppy cultivation, which showed steady growth during NATO’s tenure, and dampened economic activity in Central and South Asia. And it presented Pakistan’s ruling generals an opportunity to extend their influence in the region, and make a few bucks, besides.
Iran cooperated with America’s punitive expedition against the Taliban and soon an Iranian intermediary was regularly meeting with U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker. Qasem Soleimani, then-commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force reportedly mused, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans” but that opportunity, which could have changed the trajectory of Eurasia, was dashed by the Bush Axis of Evil speech.
After that, Iran buckled down and helped usher America out of Iraq in 2011, claimed a pre-eminent position in Baghdad, continued developing its ballistic missile and nuclear power programs, and encouraged its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories.
The U.S. retreat from Kabul may have encouraged Russia in December 2021 to make offers to the U.S. and NATO about limiting the expansion of the alliance, but Washington and Brussels showed little interest and two months later Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) commenced.
The U.S. responded with unprecedented sanctions on Russia’s government and private sector, a $100 billion spending spree to support Ukraine, and has been steadily escalating the level of military technology it gives to Kyiv. This hasn’t halted Russia’s operation which has already killed almost 160,000 Ukrainian fighters – a fraction of Russia’s 16,000 to 20,000 dead – as the Pentagon hints time is short and the State Department signals to Russia that it will soon be time to negotiate, assuming Russia’s upcoming offensive fails – a big “if.”
The Ukraine war has caused Russia and Iran to strengthen their defense relations. Iran sent Russia drones and experienced Revolutionary Guard troops, and Russia has offered Iran advanced combat aircraft and missile systems. The Wall Street Journal reports that Russia and Iran are advancing plans for a factory that can produce 6,000 drones for the war in Ukraine, news that brings to mind the warning of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter: “Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an ‘antihegemonic’ coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.”
Though China isn’t taking an active role in supporting Russia’s operation, despite their “no limits” partnership, Chinese defense companies are sending Russia “navigation equipment, jamming technology, and fighter-jet parts,” according to The Wall Street Journal, and Beijing recently announced mutual political trust with Moscow has deepened after its enjoy met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
China should be America’s priority #1, not deciding which group of Slavs governs the Donbas. The U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan distracted Washington and caused it to waste $4 trillion (most of it borrowed), instead of investing in education, scientific R&D, and infrastructure to better compete with China. In fact, while the U.S. was futilely campaigning in the Hindu Kush, China grew its GDP from $1.34 trillion in 2001 to $17.73 trillion in 2021.
The Russian and Ukrainian leaders view the SMO as an existential conflict: the only way out is through. But it’s also reputational life-or-death for members of America’s “war party:” government officials and their pilot fish in the media, defense contractors, and think tanks. Another strategic defeat, close on the heels of Afghanistan, may call into question pet projects like NATO’s next out-of-area venture: confronting China.
Aside from finally getting that victory over the Kremlin that escaped their grasp when the Cold War just ended one day, a win in Ukraine will hopefully make the public forget about the serial disasters in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan. Historian Michael Vlahos suggests the war party members are seeking the “emotional uplift” that accompanied World War II and that they see themselves as the “lineal descendants of the people who fought World War II,” a comical thought if you compare today’s placemen to Marshall, Hull, and Eisenhower.
Is it late for the U.S. to press Ukraine to seek a diplomatic solution? Probably. Ukrainian president Zelensky is refusing to negotiate with Russia’s Putin, hoping regime change in Russia delivers a pliable Kremlin leader. That’s no surprise after American president Joe Biden declared, “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power,” and Former British prime minister Boris Johnson reportedly scuttled a peace deal between Russia in Ukraine in April 2022 – a move recently confirmed by former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet who was then trying to mediate an agreement.
However, Washington may finally be looking for an offramp, as the Swiss German newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung reported that the U.S. offered Russia 20% of Ukraine as an incentive to cease and desist. Moscow called the report a “hoax” but, following earlier U.S. media reports of an American proffer, it may signal the U.S. is moving away from “no Ukraine without Ukraine” as it moves to clear the decks before the 2024 election season and as popular support slips for the proxy war of choice with Russia.
If America’s luck holds and the world survives this crisis, hopefully a wiser U.S. will commit to seeking diplomatic solutions in the future, even if the deals don’t deliver 100% of what Washington demands – the traditional U.S. definition of “diplomacy,” though others would characterize it as delivering surrender terms.
Other than benefitting defense contractors and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Warner PMC, the Ukraine war has caused higher prices for food, fuel, fertilizer, and industrial metals, fueling world-wide inflation, and lent unhelpful credibility to just about any critic of U.S. foreign policy, regardless of their motivations. It has also encouraged many African, Asian, and Latin American governments (many of them former colonies) to abstain from the latest iteration of the West’s “rules-based-order” as the Europeans are settling their disagreements in Europe for a change.
It is important that the U.S. political class finally realize: (1) negotiating, while not as exciting as warfare, especially when your kids aren’t in the military, should be the default reaction to potential future crises, and (2) prudent economic management is more essential to the country’s future prosperity (as it stares the abyss of a $32 trillion national debt) than the Pentagon’s latest weaponry wish list or quixotic “democracy promotion” crusades, which have failed to secure lasting post 9-11 gains for the U.S., and opportunity for future generations.
James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
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