The US political scientist: «The biggest mistake? We have been in Kabul too long “

L September 11, 2001 Stephen Wertheim, today one of the most highly regarded American foreign policy analysts (he is a senior fellow of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) was still a high school student. «I remember an announcement on the intercom of the school instructing us to turn on the TV and watch the events unfold. I only remember the pain and anger and relief when the United States started bombing Afghanistan. Much of what happened next I think was contained in those early moments, when President Bush and American commentators very quickly defined the significance of the events.

Twenty years after the war in Afghanistan and the US withdrawal. Can it be called a success as Biden said?
“Yes and no. It is certainly not a success, America lost a 20-year war with a horrible result, because the Taliban regained control. And it is perfectly understandable that people in the West and elsewhere are horrified by what has happened in Afghanistan over the past month. At the same time I think Biden is right when he says he made the right decision to get out of the war, that there was no nice or clean way to do it. For months, for years, there had not been a beautiful picture that could accompany the end of military operations, precisely because the war was a losing effort and the Taliban were deeply repressive people. It was clear that there would be no smooth transition of power. I also think that no matter how chaotic the retreat has become, once the Taliban unexpectedly took control of the entire country, the end of the war could have been even worse. “

In what sense?
“What most people in Washington were hoping for was a decent ‘gap’ like the one that followed the US withdrawal from Vietnam, one or two years. Would it really have been better for the people of Afghanistan if there had been thousands more Afghan civilians and soldiers killed and wounded in the next year or two, fighting only to get the same result in the end? It might have seemed nicer to those who wanted to ignore Afghanistan once the Western troops left. But it wouldn’t have been a better result ».

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Was there any serious intelligence mistake? Or is it Biden’s fault and before him Trump and Obama?
“I think the most important failure is that of the successive American presidents in not accepting defeat many years ago, when the mission of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan was over. The war turned into what I think was correctly described as an “eternal war” because the objectives were unattainable. And the choice really became to fight forever or not. If you’re not going to, you better leave now. ‘

When was it necessary to leave?
“This is the fundamental problem. We have to go back to 2002 or 2003. It is possible that if the Allied forces left at that time, then there could have been a Taliban-free future for Afghanistan. By that time they had been defeated, many militants were trying to be reintegrated into Afghan society. Al Qaeda had largely been kicked out of the country. If you want to think of a turning point, it was very, very early in what has become a two-decade war. A turning point where potentially the political outcome in Afghanistan could have been much better. What happened is that the United States continued to wage war and the Taliban insurrection was created largely in opposition to the occupation of foreign troops on Afghan soil. And since then, for 15 years, the Taliban have only gained territory and consensus. I think if indeed the United States, if Obama, but also Trump, Intelligence, the military, the national security community, had aligned themselves in trying to shape the most auspicious exit possible much earlier, then perhaps the Afghan government would have had a better one. possibility of defending oneself “.

Finally, a decision taken by Trump with the Doha agreements.
“I think there has been a lot of reluctance to the end both in some sectors of the Pentagon and in the community that drives foreign policy in Washington. Despite the years available to plan their exit, the possible withdrawal actually begins only with the Doha agreement of February 2020 between the United States and the Taliban. But even then it was extremely uncertain, it was not known whether the United States would actually withdraw until the moment when Joe Biden, just months ago, officially announced the decision and the date of the withdrawal ”.

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What went wrong in the planning?
«It was better used all the time they had once they decided to retire. One thing that absolutely could have been done differently is that by the time the Trump administration became serious about withdrawing, the United States could have made a total effort to come up with a special immigration visa for “vulnerable” Afghans who they wanted to leave the country. This didn’t happen, not fast enough, and it was a clear failure. What I think was more difficult was projecting how exactly the Afghan civil war would end and therefore what needed to be done to plan for this eventuality. ‘

Twenty years ago all Americans (or nearly all) were about to bomb Afghanistan. Then after less than two years the war in Iraq began, which divided the US. Was Iraq the main mistake?
“No, I still think the big mistake started with the war in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq was an unforgivable mistake. It was an illegal war, a war of aggression, which Americans would have no problem denouncing had it been launched from any other country. But it is the war in Afghanistan that was the beginning of the problems with the American wars after 9/11. Although President Biden suggested that the United States had a clear initial goal, to decimate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for hosting Al Qaeda, I think it’s closer to the truth that the goal was to transform Afghanistan, c ‘was already the idea of ​​the so-called nation building, a concept that was doomed to fail. To be successful it had to be done with much more attention and sensitivity to the realities of Afghanistan, which a distant superpower was probably unable to provide. It should have been done with a willingness to reintegrate former Taliban members and Afghan society. Instead, the United States had a black and white mentality: either you are with us or you are against us ».


Source: L'Espresso – News, inchieste e approfondimenti Espresso by espresso.repubblica.it.

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