Apache attack helicopter in approach | Photo by Andre Klimke on Unsplash
In analyzing the military and human tragedy that is unfolding in Afghanistan, George Santayana’s warning rings loud and clear: “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” In trying to justify the U.S.’ sudden and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured the American people that the withdrawal “will not be another Saigon or another Bay of Pigs fiasco.”
Alas, televised news from the Afghan airport showed a grim spectacle that was eerily similar to the Vietnamese evacuation from the US Embassy’s rooftops by US military helicopters during the fall of Saigon. Thousands of Afghan civilians stormed the airport and tried to climb aboard the US transport planes however way they could. Some held on to the underbelly of the plane and fell to their death. About 650 Afghans were allowed to board the US Air Force C17s and flown to safety.
But the optics from the chaotic evacuation were gruesome and did not bode well for President Biden and his administration, who are now being blamed for the catastrophe. All they could offer for the intelligence failure that led to the rushed evacuation is the lame excuse that the fall of Kabul came much faster than expected and that the 300,000-strong Afghan army whom they had funded, trained, and armed to the teeth for 20 years just gave up without a fight. The result was not surprising but still shocking. The Taliban occupied the entire country effortlessly in just a few days.
World historians have a lot of sympathy for the people of Afghanistan, which for centuries carried the dubious name “graveyard of empires.” Most generations of Afghans never saw their country at peace. It was always at war and always occupied and oppressed.
Although the Afghan crisis is now Biden’s problem, at least six past US presidents share part of the blame. A brief historical perspective may help in understanding how we came to this. Unbeknownst to many, Saddam Hussain of Iraq and Osama Bin Ladin of Al-Qaeda were original creations of the US Incredible but true. Saddam and Iraq were supported and supplied with massive military equipment by the US during the Iraq-Iran War. Before that, the US under Ronald Reagan supported Bin Ladin and the Afghan warlords against the occupying Russians. Then they ended up turning against America, biting the hands that fed them. Such is the history of American foreign policy that always relied on the myth of military supremacy, which in the end is no match against the enemies’ enormous and fanatical will to fight.
“Although the Afghan crisis is now Biden’s problem, at least six past US presidents share part of the blame. A brief historical perspective may help in understanding how we came to this.”
The US should have learned from the painful lesson of South Vietnam that folded against the inferior military but ferocious fighting spirit of the North Vietnamese. In retrospect, in Afghanistan, President Obama, while celebrating the US victory against the Taliban and the eventual elimination of Osama Bin Ladin, should have started the withdrawal process from the God-forsaken country 10 years ago instead of perpetuating the nation-building strategy of his predecessors. The trillions of dollars wasted could have been better spent rebuilding America.
A few decades ago, Ronald Reagan funded the Mujahideen “holy warriors” in their fight against the Russians. After the Russians were defeated and driven away, the US government under George H. Bush allowed the Taliban to take power. Bill Clinton adopted an appeasement strategy and did not stop the Taliban from their oppressive rule and extreme implementation of Islamic laws that were detrimental to women and children. The Taliban, at the same time, harbored the Al-Qaeda who exported terror to the US mainland. George W. Bush started the 20-year US war in Afghanistan by invading the country after 9/11 and driving away from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
“While giving undeserved legitimacy to the murderous Taliban at the meeting at Doha, Trump and then State Secretary Pompeo promised the complete withdrawal of the US troops by the end of March 2021 and agreed to release 5,000 Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners who quickly re-joined the Taliban army.”
What followed was 20 years of civil war and nation-building that cost the US billions of dollars every month, propping up corrupt regimes and building a huge military machine to keep the Taliban at bay, invoking memories of South Vietnam and pre-Castro Cuba. After Osama Bin Ladin was killed by US special forces 10 years ago, Barack Obama chose to stay in Afghanistan and fight the Taliban, and in fact, ramped up the US presence with troop deployments of more than 100,000 at its peak, continuing the nation-building, and coddling of corrupt and ineffective leaders. Biden claims that he was consistently and vocally against the US’ policy of nation-building.
Then came the infamous “capitulation meetings” in 2019 and again in November of 2020 between the Trump administration and the terrorist organization (deliberately excluding from the negotiations the inept but legitimately-elected Afghan government whom they sold out and demoralized). While giving undeserved legitimacy to the murderous Taliban at the meeting at Doha, Trump and then State Secretary Pompeo promised the complete withdrawal of the US troops by the end of March 2021 and agreed to release 5,000 Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners who quickly re-joined the Taliban army. Trump even wanted to invite the Taliban leader to Camp David in the US, but his advisers objected. What concessions did Trump and Pompeo extract from the Taliban in return? Practically nothing. The prospects of a Taliban re-invasion of Afghanistan that eventually ensued were not even discussed.
So, since Biden has always been against nation-building in Afghanistan, strongly going against his boss Obama 10 years ago, he made his unfortunate choice of honoring Trump’s agreement to withdraw in 2021 instead of keeping the already minimal 3,000 US forces in place and preserving some stability and preventing the escalation of hostilities. Biden’s mistake was underestimating the Taliban, ignoring the CIA’s warning, and his misplaced confidence in the US-built and funded Afghan security forces. Only last month, he said: “How can an insurgent force of 70,000 defeat a well-trained and well-equipped Afghan army of more than 300,000?”
“But nation-building in current times and countries deeply entrenched in medieval ideology will not work and can be self-defeating.”
In conclusion, Biden undoubtedly owns the Afghan problem, including the refugee humanitarian crisis that could soon follow. But historians will agree that his six predecessors from both parties were also to blame. All the way back to Reagan who armed the warlords against Russia, to Bush Sr. and Clinton who did nothing about the ruthless reign of the Taliban, to George W. Bush who ordered the invasion and started the nation-building process, to Obama for ramping up the military occupation to more than 100,000 US troops only to draw down later as the enemy became stronger, and finally to Trump who essentially gave the country back to the Taliban last year by all accounts unconditionally. Understandably, the truth is often hard to accept for some who are mainly focused on current events and what they see on CNN.
Nation-building in a devastated country and re-molding it according to western values and ideology might have been successful in the Philippines, Japan, and Germany after World War II and South Korea after the Korean War. But nation-building in current times and countries deeply entrenched in medieval ideology will not work and can be self-defeating.
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About the Author: Gus Mercado is a 40-year resident of Texas and a well-known Fil-Am business and civic leader in Dallas, Texas. He founded the popular Filipino Leaders Coalition of North Texas (FILCON). He is a recipient of the Presidential BANAAG award for outstanding community service.
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