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Peter Morici

Sept. 22, 2021, 7:25 a.m. EDT

Learning the right lessons from the Afghanistan debacle

Peter Morici

In Afghanistan, America took a  terrible   humiliation , but greater perils await if we take the wrong lessons from this debacle.

We went into Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda and depose the Taliban. In the process,  we took on   nation building  and inevitably, this was defined as establishing a Western liberal democracy and improving the status of women.

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Parallels with Iraq

The objectives were similar in Iraq—where considerable progress has been accomplished.  Its constitution requires an independent judiciary and rule of law, civilian control of the military and that at least 25% of parliamentarians be women .

Since 2004, Iraq has had four successful transitions of power. The United States maintains a small  troop presence , though  its role has been redefined to a support mission  to give political cover to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Both countries are rife with sectarian conflict, but in Iraq, the American-led coalition wholly defeated Saddam Hussein.

In Afghanistan, the  Taliban   took   refuge  in  Pakistan . Our  military needed access to landlocked Afghanistan  through Pakistan and could not violate Islamabad by tracking down and fully squashing the Taliban on its territory.

The United States maintains far larger troop contingents in  GermanyJapan  and  South Korea . Given the threat of terrorism projecting from the Middle East and South Asia, basing 2,500 troops in both Iraq and  Afghanistan  would not have been burdensome.

Before the withdrawal, the annual cost of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was down to  $20 billion . That’s far less  expensive  than the  over-the-horizon presence  to deal with  terrorists  that is now required.

Nation building was a tougher nut in Afghanistan.  

In 2001, it was a medieval, illiterate dystopia. Whereas, just before COVID and President Joe Biden’s blundering withdrawal, the  Afghan economy was growingover 9 million children were attending school  and 39% of those were girls.  Women at universities studied science, law and medicine .

Overall, Americans lament the  threat of Taliban 2.0 to the status of women  quite simply because the  American presence enabled so much progress .

U.S. presidents undermined Kabul

The government in Kabul was undermined by Presidents Barack  Obama ’s, Donald Trump ’s and Biden’s oft-stated intentions to leave. This begot corruption, which made Kabul ineffective among a population with strong tribal loyalties. That helped the  Taliban to maintain legitimacy and a  shadow government  in the countryside.

Biden  unfairly dishonored  the  Afghan military . It was structured by the U.S. military to require  air cover and modern logistical support   to function . When Biden withdrew those,  its collapse was inevitable .

The  Taliban’s hold on power is hardly guaranteed . A good deal of the fallen  government’s budget  was financed by  U.S. and other foreign aid and international organizations . The Taliban was not able to raise comparable sums in exile through the opium trade, extortion and bullying locals.

Afghanistan has  untapped mineral resources , including lithium, but the Taliban must establish a non-terrorist, stable order to attract private foreign investment. For now,  the United States has frozen access to Afghanistan’s overseas assets , and  cut off access to the U.S. dollar payment system —similar to sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

ISIS-K  poses an  immediate threat  to the regime, and  jihadists  will occupy its more remote mountainous territory and potentially threaten Pakistan,  India , western China and nations further abroad. The more Taliban 2.0 moves to accommodate Western expectations for women’s rights and general good international citizenship, for example by  banning opium production , the easier time terrorists will have recruiting young apostles in the countryside.

Wither Pax Americana?

From  Europe to Taiwan   epitaphs abound about the end of Pax Americana . We went through a similar season of doubt after Vietnam, but this time  Biden’s   behavior  and  questionable foreign-policy acumen elsewhere  make the challenge more daunting.

He hastily withdrew U.S. forces to serve  his ill-compassed political instincts . He  hardly consulted with our allies —who  risked troops and treasure in Afghanistan .

After Vietnam, America moved on to success in other theaters. From Taiwan to India, our friends are increasingly aware of the threat to sovereignty posed by China.  Responsible actions  to  cope with the refugee crisis , building Biden’s alliance of democracies—including  rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership , which he eschews—and investing in the Pacific fleet are the path forward.

America would like to be done with nation building— and we may be for a generation —but wholesale isolationism is not in the cards. Even if we are reluctantly pulled forward by the adventurism of Russia, China and Iran, America remains the essential nation and global security essential to American freedom and prosperity.

<STRONG>Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.</STRONG>

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