April 2021, in a nondescript room in Virginia, analysts tried to make sense of the reality faced by the new US administration. The longest war in US history was drawing to a close and the US was, at best, an observer as non-US-led regional alliances seem to chart a course for Afghanistan’s regional integration.
The questions raised were reactive in nature. What could be done to limit the impending regional fallout? How could rivals be persuaded to play roles conducive to US interests? Could the US-India alliance limit future progress by mutual rivals? Could at least some concessions be negotiated with regional rivals that would allow the US to play a relatively significant role in the forthcoming geopolitical and geo-economic future of Central Asia?
The situation had changed drastically since a similar meeting took place in the same building, late 2004.
Read more: What’s next for Afghanistan after US exit?
The United States was victorious in Afghanistan. Its allies, both domestic and regional, had secured pre-eminence in both military and diplomatic theatres. The State Department was in a position to dictate the coming structure of government. US military presence in Central Asia and Pakistan through bases and alliances, though tentative, even weak, could provide the springboard for it to remain the most important international actor in the region.
The US was on the cusp of mid-wifing a Greater Central Asia, linking a US-led security structure encompassing both traditional Central Asia and South Asia. The US, working in close cooperation with India, could dominate the region for decades to come. Russia seemed conciliatory, China contemplating its integration into US led regional initiatives, Iran seeking avenues for cooperation, and Pakistan reluctantly accepting India’s expanded role under a US umbrella. The victory seemed destined to be comprehensive.
Compromises, but at what cost?
That victory was lost. Not at bilateral summits, multilateral conferences, or through misguided articles & op-eds written by propagandists, lobbyists, venal scholars & Washington social climbers. Neither was it lost in the theatre of battle through periodic surges. It was lost in another unassuming room; one floor above and two corridors down.
In late 2004 that room held a debate centered around a distributed, decentralized & inclusive government structure for Afghanistan to be implemented over three years, allowing ISAF, & eventually, NATO, to drastically reduce forces in the country. It considered multilateral actions to support the resultant Afghan government with the US spearheading diplomatic efforts, working with allies, tentative allies, and rivals in the region, to ensure Afghanistan’s continued stability.
The solution proposed was complex with an array of actors playing their role in the North, West, and South of the country, securing relative but effective stability in their spheres. The weakened Taliban, already reeling from military and political defeats, were to be included in the political solution.
Read more: US-Taliban Deal: An elusive peace?
It would involve significant compromises. Those compromises were deemed too many and too extensive to reflect the real victory already achieved on the ground. A much simpler & unilateral course, to capitalize on existing gains through continuity of policy would be taken. Adversaries & rivals would be tamed, not included. That decision set in motion a series of events, some predicted other unforeseen, that eventually led to the hard-fought victory being lost, over almost sixteen years.
Over the coming decade, the US found itself defending unpopular minority Afghan governments riddled with corruption and mired in local conflicts with warlords and the Taliban. Every time Afghan forces faltered, US supportive actions increased dependency & took the US further from its intended mission.
US regional interference to cultivate more compliant regimes led to unceremonious exits from key Central Asian Republics and an ineffective US-brokered regime change in Pakistan; ceding US gains further. By the time the US considered reducing its military presence in Afghanistan, the prospect of a US-led peace had all but withered away. One by one the compromises earlier deemed too extensive were nonetheless offered but were now unworkable in the face of new realities.
On the eve of US departure, other international and domestic actors in Afghanistan had secured those concessions, and more, through their own military, diplomatic or economic means. Inside Afghanistan, the US was unable to affect a meaningful settlement and outside Afghanistan, the US-India alliance had been outmaneuvered diplomatically and economically by almost every regional rival.
Epic policy failure by the US
Much will be written about the mistakes made, justifications provided and blame apportioned. While this exercise plays out, it is important to consider what decision-making mechanisms led to the US squandering a potentially comprehensive victory.
The decisions made were not evidence-based but judgment-based. Participants focused less on facts or reality and more on narratives and aspirational grand plans. The world was being viewed as it ought to be, not as it was. Regional and domestic rivals were to be tamed, not included. US and Indian capabilities were overstated, those of rivals, underestimated. An aspirational narrative of the inevitable dominance of the US-India alliance in the region took precedence over complex analysis of available evidence that might have, eventually, lead to such a reality.
Narrative-based policy decisions rely heavily on biases; Dunning-Kruger and confirmation. Pre-existing views take precedence over analysis, current policies take privilege over dynamic proactivism, and preferred facts overshadow inconvenient ones. Simplistic solutions that support wish-postulates undermine complex solutions underpinned by facts.
Lobbyists propagating interests overwhelm analysts deciphering the impact of possible events. Narrative-based policies are easier to sell, they are designed to do so, and can be supported by all manner of selective facts and anecdotes. They incentivize continuity, not empiricism, and encourage simplicity not complexity. They breed overconfidence in decisive unilateralism and demonize collective compromise.
The victory was lost because the policies pursued were governed by narratives, not evidence. This is the aspect of US policymaking where introspection is needed, to avoid turning future victories into defeat.
The writer is a former management consultant focusing on the Energy Industry and writes on Energy Security and the Politics of Energy Resources. He is conducting research related to the role of Central Asia’s energy resources in China’s Energy Security at the University of Westminster, UK. The views expressed in the article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.