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What Bolton Got Wrong On Afghanistan

John Bolton, who was served as US ambassador to the UN during the Bush presidency and as national security advisor during the Trump presidency, criticized President Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by 11 September.

According to Bolton, the US was not defeated in the war. It just run out of patience and simply walked away from Afghanistan.

Bolton says Biden’s decision was a grave mistake since it will expose the US to attacks on its homeland in the years to come. Third, the Taliban would carry out such an attack. Fourth, contrary to a widely held view, the US had not gone into Afghanistan to engage in nation building but simply to remove the Taliban from power since they had refused to comply with the US demand to hand over Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

All four statements are wrong. While the US did not lose a single battle to the Taliban, it lost the war. The Taliban were no match for US firepower and were deposed from power within a matter of months in the fall of 2001 when the US invaded the country.

In many ways, the Afghanistan War was akin to the Vietnam War. After that war had ended, an American colonel, Harry Summers, met with his counterpart in Hanoi. Colonel Summers recounts the incident in his book, “On Strategy,” which is a scathing and widely cited critique of the Vietnam War. Summers writes that he told his counterpart, ‘you never defeated us on the battlefield’ to which the Vietnamese Colonel replied: “That may be true but it’s irrelevant.”

The same is true of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not losing in battle does not equate to not losing the war.

Second, Bolton implies that the Taliban will begin planning an attack on US soil. This overlooks the fact that the Taliban never attacked the US homeland. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by Al-Qaeda, which had been given sanctuary in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Al-Qaeda has receded into the background. There is always the possibility it could regroup and resurface or it could morph into other groups, like ISIS. US intelligence has to be on the alert. It has to monitor activities by terrorist groups and take them out before they even develop the capacity to carry out another 9/11.

General David Petraeus, who had commanded US forces in Afghanistan, made that point recently. The job of protecting the US from terrorist attacks should be left to the intelligence agencies, not to the military. Having US troops in Afghanistan only aggravates the Afghan people who are tired of having foreign forces on their soil for decades. It breeds resentment and makes terrorist attacks more likely.

Third, it is not clear that the Taliban have an interest in carrying out an attack on the US. They will be busy trying to remake Afghan culture. That will be their number one priority. A secondary priority could be to influence events in Pakistan.

Fourth, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the US had gone into Afghanistan for three purposes. One, depose the Taliban from power. Two, track down and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Three, bring democracy to Afghanistan and institute human rights, especially to the women. The first objective was accomplished within months, as noted earlier. The second objective took a decade and was only accomplished when Osama bin Laden was found across the border in Pakistan and taken out. The third objective, denied by Bolton, was recently restated by former President Bush who said he was concerned what would happen to the Afghan women when “brutal people” return to power.

By putting all the blame for the withdrawal on Biden, Bolton has conveniently ignored the fact that during the Trump presidency, the US was engaged in peace talks with the Taliban for facilitating the US withdrawal. It had realized that it could not afford to stay indefinitely in Afghanistan. American stay for two decades is making this the longest war in American history. A trillion dollars had been spent and thousands of war casualties incurred. It was not clear what staying longer could have achieved. More importantly, the American people had lost all interest in the war.

Over the past few years, the Taliban were retaking the high moral ground in Afghanistan and retaking territory, one village at a time. Their advance towards Kabul appeared to be inevitable, just a matter of time. If the goal was to change, de-Talibanize Afghan culture, restore human rights, and institute democracy, it was clear that the US had failed.

John Bolton is not the only one in the US stating that the withdrawal is a big mistake. There are some other hardliners who hold the same view. Let us hope it remains a minority view.

By now it should be clear to any unbiased observer that the US decision to stay in Afghanistan beyond a year or two was a costly blunder, just like the decision to linger on in Iraq was an even costlier blunder. At least Afghanistan had a connection to the attacks of 9/11. Iraq did not. It was alleged to possess weapons of mass destruction but none were found. Deposing the Saddam regime led to the birth of ISIS.

America’s wars have yielded one consistent lesson: the US has the firepower, including unmatched air superiority, to remove its opponents from power in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. But it cannot win over the hearts and minds of the people living in those countries through force alone. One hopes that the US will refrain in the future from indulging in similar misadventures. Otherwise, the time will come once again to quote the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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