So much blood, so little learned in US
Year after Afghan exit, policymakers yet to confront Afghan failures, experts say
After two decades of bloodshed in Afghanistan, the United States' haste to end the country's longest war came with little thought on both the plight of the Afghans and on what Washington policymakers got wrong, military experts say.
The withdrawal of US forces simply marked the end of a failed policy and, over the year that has passed since the chaotic scenes in Kabul, not much reflection has gone on in the US about Afghanistan, said Jack Midgley, the principal of global consultancy Midgley & Co.
"The withdrawal ended a failed policy, a failed war," Midgley, who is also an adjunct associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, said in an interview with China Daily.
In 2001, the US military entered Afghanistan in the name of anti-terrorism. On Aug 30, 2021, the Pentagon announced that it had completed the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. During their ignominious departure, many of them, as well as Afghan soldiers and civilians, were killed in a series of bombings and other terrorist attacks. The Taliban had seized power in Kabul in mid-August, immediately before the US-led foreign forces withdrew.
"If the interest of the United States requires, it will add any group to its list of terrorists. And if its interest requires it to exclude a group from the list, it will also do that," Abuzar Khapalwak Zazai, a professor at Kabul University, told Xinhua News Agency. The US left the Afghan people in a difficult position, and one they are still trying to get out of, the academic said.
Midgley said that for the US, the troop withdrawal meant that it cut its losses－in money and the lives of personnel. The exit benefits the US "in the short run" and "in a very narrow way", while "the long-run effects will be very hard to see", he said.
"There are so many weapons and military equipment left in Afghanistan, so many people who may be driven to extremism by the pressures they've been put under," he said.
Midgley said that Afghanistan has been experiencing "a total disaster". According to a World Bank report, the country's GDP has shrunk 45 percent since the US exit.
The US and other Western nations hastily evacuated more than 120,000 people, both foreigners and Afghans, during the exit in August last year, The Associated Press reported.
"They've lost almost all of the basic services including healthcare, education, but also law enforcement, the prison system, the correction systems … The money's gone, and those services and the experts that deliver them are all gone－no basic services," Midgley said.
"They can't get hard currency because of anti-money-laundering rules. So, about 70 percent of the people in Afghanistan don't have enough money to pay for food. This policy has been a failure right from the start."
Several dozen prominent US and international economists urged the United States earlier this month to hand over to Afghanistan $7 billion in frozen central bank reserves.
Midgley said that the US government should have learned good lessons after the troop pullout.
"There are some tactical lessons about the withdrawal," he said. "Things could have been done much better in terms of planning the withdrawal. But that's a relatively minor point."
For Midgley, the hard questions have yet to be answered in the US.
"The real lessons that have to be learned are about why we were there for 20 years to begin with," he said. "Why was this policy never systematically reviewed? Why did policymakers tell themselves that things were succeeding in Afghanistan when clearly they were not? When was the Taliban making the advances and being successful?
"No one on the US side was prepared to step up and say this is a failure and we need to get out until the very last minute. And then the withdrawal was handled poorly."
'Lessons not studied'
He added: "So, I would not say that those lessons have been learned. I'm not sure that the lessons have even really been studied."
The top Republican on the US House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee released a report on Aug 16 criticizing the administration of US President Joe Biden for the "chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal". The report claimed that about 100 US citizens were stranded in Afghanistan after the withdrawal and the administration failed to help the thousands of Afghans who aided the US during the 20 years of occupation.
However, Midgley describes this report as "a set of cheap political shots". He said it is time for policymakers to reflect on the extent to which the US leads with military policy and not with economic development or humanitarian assistance.
"May I say the China model of investment and economic development that we see in countries like Saudi Arabia has been extremely successful," Midgley said. "The main American relationship with many countries in the Middle East is the military.
"The example of Afghanistan tells us that when the Americans try to create a new government or a new system by focusing on military intervention, it doesn't work; it failed."
He said that the US has been spending too much on the military rather than on basic infrastructure, education, healthcare, and issues that matter to people in the US today.
Midgley sees worrying signs as the US shovels billions of dollars in military assistance for Ukraine during the conflict with Russia.