Yet another U.S. nation-building venture appears to be on the brink of failure. Earlier this month, Taliban forces overran much of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. Although government troops eventually retook most of the city, they were able to do so only with substantial assistance from the U.S. combat units still in the country.
General John Campbell, the U.S. commander, then urged President Obama to delay the planned withdrawal of the remaining 9,800 American troops and to keep a permanent garrison that is much larger than the president’s original plan for 1,000 military personnel, mostly operating out of the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The president has now unwisely complied with that request, deciding to keep at least 5,500 troops past the original 2016 deadline. As I argue in a new article in the National Interest Online, Afghanistan threatens to become an endless nation-building quagmire for Washington.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has asked the question that occurs to many Americans: why are we still in Afghanistan more than 14 years after the initial invasion in response to the Taliban regime’s decision to shelter al Qaeda? There is almost no al Qaeda presence in that country any longer, and U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden more than four years ago. Yet Washington continues to cite an alleged need to prop-up the Kabul government against the Taliban. Senator Paul is absolutely correct that it is well past time for anti-Taliban Afghans to step up and defend their own country without relying on the United States.
Unfortunately, what is happening in Afghanistan is typical of the results of U.S. foreign policy initiatives over the past half century. U.S. administrations seem to have a knack for picking corrupt, unmotivated foreign clients who crumble in the face of determined domestic adversaries. The Obama administration’s fiasco of trying to train a cadre of “moderate” Syrian rebels to counter both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS is only the most recent example. Despite spending more than $400 million, the scheme produced only a handful of trainees—many of whom defected to ISIS or at least turned over many of their weapons to the terrorist group or to al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. That embarrassing training debacle, now wisely abandoned by the Obama administration, may well set a new record for expensive, ineffectual government boondoggles.
The events in Syria, though, were similar to the earlier fiasco next door in Iraq. The United States spent a decade training and equipping a new Iraqi army at great expense (more than $25 billion) to American taxpayers. Yet when ISIS launched its offensive last year to capture Mosul and other cities, Iraqi troops seemed intent on setting speed records to flee their positions and let the insurgents take over with barely a struggle. ISIS captured vast quantities of sophisticated military hardware that Baghdad’s troops abandoned in their haste.
That episode was reminiscent of the pathetic performance of the U.S.-backed ARVN—South Vietnam’s so-called army–in early 1975. Although the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had waged a bloody war against both South Vietnamese communist insurgents and North Vietnam for more than a decade, which cost over 58,000 American lives, the results were dismal. President Nixon’s Vietnamization program—training and equipping the ARVN and gradually transferring responsibility for the war effort to the South Vietnamese government–was a total failure. When North Vietnam launched a major offensive in early 1975, the collapse of the ARVN was shockingly rapid and complete. Indeed, it occurred so fast that the U.S. embassy in Saigon was barely able to evacuate its diplomatic personnel before North Vietnamese troops captured the city.
These and other incidents confirm that U.S. leaders habitually choose foreign clients that are utterly inept. They are characterized by thin domestic support, poor organization, and terrible morale. Their domestic adversaries always seem to be better organized, more competent, and far more dedicated. Given the extent of the failures in so many different arenas, Washington should realize that lavishing funds on preferred clients cannot make them credible political and military players in their countries. And continuing to backstop such inept clients with U.S. troops merely wastes American lives. Unfortunately, it appears that we are on the verge of being taught that lesson yet again—this time in Afghanistan.