CoverStory

The Afghanistan syndrome

The United States bounced back from Vietnam, but it is unlikely to reassert its global leadership role after its latest setback

By Scott Smith

As soon as US special forces hit the ground in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government three weeks after 9/11, talk of a potential “Afghanistan syndrome” was revived on the opinion pages of the New York Times, echoing the “Vietnam syndrome” of the 1970s. 

The “Vietnam syndrome” was essentially a reluctance to use military power to achieve national interests, but it was accompanied by a cultural shunning of the men and women who had fought in Vietnam. It was a strategic reappraisal but tinged with an almost emotional trauma that briefly exercised a paralysing effect on US foreign policy. Ronald Reagan, in a 1980 presidential campaign speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars group, coined the phrase as a critique of predecessor Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. He suggested a more aggressive, but still cautious, remedy: 

“There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to allow them to win.” 

What had been shocking about the failure in Vietnam was that it challenged a belief shaped by decades of American history that US power, if decisively applied, could achieve anything, anywhere, if it wanted to. America had not experienced military defeat since 1812, when it was still, in Brewster Denny’s phrase, the “triumphant weakling” of a successful revolution. 

According to President George H.W. Bush, the syndrome was buried in the Arabian sands following the decisive victory over Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. World order was restored, American prestige was elevated, and its troops came home to effusive victory parades. That was followed by another decade of arguably successful, if smaller and contained, military interventions. Not only was military engagement to defend military interests relegitimised, but a doctrine of “humanitarian intervention,” where US military force was deployed to right global wrongs, also gained currency. 

The intervention in Afghanistan could be easily justified under any of these doctrines: it was a response to a direct attack, it conformed to US interest, and it was a chance to right a long-running humanitarian disaster. But as an Asian land war against an indigenous armed movement claiming to act in the name of national liberation that drew in increasing numbers of US troops by a military establishment that claimed victory was around the corner, Afghanistan also began to look a lot more like Vietnam, as the early pundits noticed. It is not too early to begin wondering what effect the bipartisan-supported “good war” in Afghanistan will have on America’s view of itself in the world, now that the United States is withdrawing without being able to claim any sort of victory. 

 

The impact of the Afghan intervention on America will partly depend on what the United States will leave behind in Afghanistan. What Afghanistan will look like several years from now is a perhaps surprisingly open question, given the intensity of America’s involvement, the breadth of its alliance, and the endless plans and communiqués that described the Afghanistan it intended to build. 

Having quietly given up on the more ambitious of those democratic nation-building plans, the stated policy of the United States is to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer become a haven for international terrorism, nor a threat to its neighbors, in particular to an increasingly unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan. US policy has reconciled itself to the fact that this might require a negotiated solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency. 

Should the policy of a negotiated end to the war fail, the most likely scenario is of ongoing instability in rural Afghanistan but little chance the Taliban will be anything more than a literally bloody nuisance in the cities, and no real chance that they topple the government in Kabul. This may be enough to prevent Afghanistan from being a terrorist haven, but that is perhaps irrelevant given that anti-US terrorist groups have found other havens. 

The Taliban run local shadow governments that exert some authority over some parts of the rural south in particular. But they do not have the military capacity to take and hold ground and they do not have a governing ideology that has any meaning beyond the village level, nor allegiances that extend beyond the Pashtun south.

 Their program is essentially negative: to contest the government and to deny it space. Their strategy is denial, their terrain is psychological and their tactic is fear. This paradoxically makes them the ideal vehicle to accommodate various armed groups, mostly Pashtun like themselves, who have felt dispossessed and harassed by the Kabul government. 

What holds the insurgency together is a combination of several factors: a hard ideological core that is pure enough to attract sufficient foot soldiers willing to die in spectacular asymmetric attacks that gain no territory; sanctuary provided by Pakistan; and an organisational structure that is effective and flexible enough to empower other non-ideological groups who share their rejection of the legitimacy of the Kabul government. The Islamist ideology provides the inspiration for the spectacular attacks, and their effective propaganda that portrays the Kabul government as installed and controlled by foreigners inspires the embittered but less ideological guerilla groups. The presence of international troops and their use of tactics such as house raids that infuriate Afghans is another factor in the frustration-driven armed opposition to both the government and US soldiers. The US’s use of the military to pursue two simultaneous and sometimes-contradicting goals, “nation-building” and “counter-terrorism,” contributed to the lack of effectiveness on the ground and confusion in the minds of Afghans. 

The government that the Taliban are fighting against is a government in name only. State institutions have been set up with international assistance and sustained by international money. The Afghans who preside over these institutions are linked by a web of mutual corruption, as they vie with each other to maintain access to financial opportunities the state-building project has got. President Hamid Karzai presides over this nucleus. His strength has been to ensure sufficient access to patronage by those who would otherwise be the most dangerous spoilers, but the cost of this has been a massive increase in corruption, a loss of faith in his government, a stifling of the efforts of genuine reformers, and a discrediting of the democratic instrument, which is now largely perceived as a cynical means of legitimising a ruling elite which is delegitimised by every other move it makes. 

This elite has been backed by a US–led international military coalition whose efforts have been thwarted by the complexity of Afghanistan’s operating environment. Both its physical terrain and its “human terrain” have made it difficult to distinguish friend from foe and support the former while attacking the latter. Most insurgents are not fighting to restore a Taliban government in Kabul, but have taken up arms against the Karzai government, whose representatives at the local level have used their formal power to settle long-standing informal disputes, leaving the losers a choice between acquiescing to this abuse of power or joining the insurgency. There are too many guns in Afghanistan and too many opportunities for resistance for abuses of government power not to turn into armed opposition. 

The failure of the international coalition to defeat the insurgency comprehensively at an early stage has itself fed the insurgency. Among those who are not fighting the government are those hedging their bets, cooperating with insurgents out of calculation or of fear. As the British general and former commander of the International Security Assistance Force David Richards, pointed out, “The Afghans, until you can prove that you can militarily win, are not going to give you their hearts because they just cannot afford to take the wrong decision, back the wrong horse.” 

The only hope now — and it is a slim one — of maintaining enough stability to allow more constructive political actors to emerge, including the 75 per cent of Afghans who are under the age of 30, who have been exposed to the modern world, and who have the most to lose from the short-sightedness of their elders, is a credible election in 2014. Karzai is constitutionally unable to run again. The emergence through a genuine election of a new governing team might not only re-legitimise the government and take away some of the Taliban propaganda points (as will the withdrawal of international troops), but begin to implement some of the obvious reforms that could undo the worst of the current abuses. Such a government would give something for the still uneven Afghan army to defend, as long as the international community kept paying its costs. If this were combined with a decisive shift in Pakistani policy, which we may be beginning to see due to Pakistan’s growing fear of its own instability at the hands of its homegrown insurgency, there is a chance for a minimal political order to emerge from the fighting. Unfortunately for the modern forward-looking Afghans — and there are many — the endurance of that order will probably ultimately depend on some form of political accommodation with the Taliban, dashing the democratic dreams with which this enterprise began, but perhaps re-defining Afghan political order more in line with the country’s unfortunate realities and its traumatic historical legacies. 

 

That is a rather meagre outcome for the significant investments made in blood, money, and prestige. Not only have the “nation-builders” failed in Afghanistan, so have the “counter-terrorists.” The alleged “decimation” of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the spectacular killing of Osama bin Laden have done little to thwart the reach of the movement.

Despite this, the US foreign policy establishment, in both parties, seems committed to the Global War on Terror (GWOT) mentality that instability almost anywhere, let alone in the strategic areas it is now occurring — the Sahel, the Maghreb, Syria, Egypt, Yemen — represents a strategic threat to the United States, and therefore demands a response. The universalisation of sense of threat leads to a lack of discrimination in analysing security threats, and this makes the articulation of true strategy — which must combine means with ends — impossible.

The fact that there is no such strategic thinking has led to the ad-hoc approach that we have seen recently in the Middle East. The restraint exercised by the Obama Administration in Libya and Syria was driven more by reflexive war-weariness rather than strategic calculation. The implosion of order in the former and the all-out civil war in the latter will fuel the arguments of critics who pushed for a heavier intervention, and who will argue, despite the evidence of Afghanistan and Iraq, that a more significant intervention would have impeded a descent into anarchy. 

The domestic reaction, however, against the proposed use of force in Syria, even when defined as minimal, and even in response to the grotesque use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, shows that the GWOT mentality shared by political elites is not shared by many Americans. After Vietnam, both elites and the people drew the same conclusions about the wisdom of future security engagements. The domino theory, by which the fall of Vietnam to Communism would lead to the fall of Asia to Communism, exercised in the early 1960s the same grip on policy that the GWOT mentality does today. It was discarded after the failure to prevent the first domino from falling. Because the GWOT deals with more existential threats to the American homeland, and lacks any policy rivals, it maintains its grip despite the clear failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Today there is a divergence between foreign policy elites and a substantial part of the voting public about the wisdom of the GWOT mentality. The fact that the security imperatives of the latter have spilled into the domestic realm — whether in the form of intrusive and bothersome security checks at airports or the more sinister revelations of a national security apparatus possibly being used against US citizens — has deepened the sense of distrust between the government and its people. The government’s inability to attain its nation-building objectives in the places where it has most invested in the GWOT contributes to this distrust. 

At an instinctive level, as our government lurches from crisis to crisis, Americans might begin to confront the possibility that their inability to bring stability, democracy, and prosperity to Afghanistan is to some degree a reflection of what they have forgotten about the sources of their own stability, democracy, and prosperity. President Obama was appealing to this instinct with his re-election refrain about the need for “nation-building at home.” And that may be the main difference between the post-Afghanistan and the post-Vietnam era. While Vietnam had deeply affected the credibility of the military establishment, Reagan was able to win an election five years after the fall of Saigon by tapping into the optimism of the electorate, hinting, as in the speech cited in the beginning of this article, that the failure was due to a lack of determination. Now there is a sense that either the nation does not have the capacity to resolve problems like Afghanistan, or that the resources it would take would be so significant that Afghanistan-like stabilisation efforts can no longer be contemplated as a means of effectively addressing the myriad threats the United States faces from multiple zones of instability. The plaintive conservative calls for “another Reagan” during the soul-searching after the 2012 presidential defeat miss the point. We are dealing with another America.