- My conversation with Dr. Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University and a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law.
The Kabul airport massacre, the drone strike and the Taliban’s attacks on women’s rights are a reminder that the geopolitical consequences of America’s Afghanistan debacle — one of the biggest foreign policy failures under any U.S. president since World War II — will likely play out for years. President Trump’s strategy to keep the Afghan government out of all negotiations while aligning with the Taliban will have repercussions that successive administrations may have difficulty executing. The damage to America’s reputation and credibility could plausibly precede a paradigm shift in global geopolitics.
I spoke with Dr. Christopher Swift, who is an adjunct professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University and a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law, to find out what, when and how it all unraveled. Dr. Swift regularly appears as a guest analyst on leading media outlets, including ABC, Al-Jazeera, the BBC, Bloomberg News, CBS, CNN and NPR.
Excerpts from the interview:
Meera Kaul: Why is America where it is with the Afghanistan issue?
Christopher Swift: The simple answer is because the previous administration, gave legitimacy to the Taliban. You might have heard the Secretary of State, speaking in his testimony to the US Congress telling them that they inherited a timeline for withdrawal from the previous administration, but they did not inherit a strategy. I agree with the first part of the Secretary of State’s statement about the inherited timeline. Going back on Trump Administration’s decision would have put our forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region at risk. The point about not inheriting the strategies may be a weak argument. Once an administration assumes office, regardless of the mess that you’ve assumed, you become responsible for implementing the US policy and the implementation here was less than stellar. When I look at the sort of the failure to plan for the withdrawal, what I see is a failure of interagency communication, plus the tendency within each of these agencies to do the thing that was easy for them, rather than the thing that was hard but necessary.
Meera Kaul: Do you think that the institutional personalities of the U.S. government are imperfect for collaborative missions like this one?
Christopher Swift: The State Department’s institutional personality is to negotiate with everyone and be friends with everyone. They are not necessarily rewarded for solving the problem. The Defense Department is rewarded for solving the problem and they have the most resources and personnel. But they’re not set up to solve political problems, only military problems. The U.S. intelligence community is highly incentivized to look for risk. We have a sort of personality breakdown within the U.S. government, and it is really ossified over the last 20 years with the Defense Department being asked to do more and more political things that they’re not designed to do; the State Department not having the resources or the personnel to implement the political things that they should be doing because Congress keeps moving the money to Defense, and the intelligence community trying to send up a red flag and tell everybody that things aren’t quite right, but everyone ignored them because that’s what they’re incentivized to do.
Meera Kaul: Do the Afghans see our strategy in Afghanistan just the way we see it, or is there a gap?
Christopher Swift: When the Taliban took over Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, it was done in a similar way — coming out of nowhere, through the rural Pashtun regions in the south and east of the country, and slowly going through the country by co-opting the local elites, the local security elites, the local economic elites, in a village by village and a district-by-district basis. This is how they did it now. It really should be a surprise to anyone. What was surprising to me about it was that it took 11 days for them to take Kabul, rather than taking a couple of months. Even our Intelligence community was taken by surprise because we had evaluated that the U.S. will have enough time to force the Taliban into political dialogue and bolster our allies.
One of the things that’s important for Americans to understand is that when we think about the war in Afghanistan, we think of it as a post 9/11 event, which triggered the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. When Afghans think about the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan is that the United States and its NATO allies, intervening in the Afghan civil war, and the Afghan civil war has been running since 1988- 89. The internal Afghan conflict has always been exposed to external actors like the United States or the Soviet Union, Pakistan, or even Iran trying to project their own image of what’s happening on to Afghanistan. But the folks running the Afghan civil war only look to the outside world to leverage these outside influences to get the upper hand locally.
Whatever the United States thinks about what’s going on in Afghanistan, one thing is certain — we did not go in and overthrow the Taliban to install democracy. The United States intervened on the side of the Northern Alliance and the urban Pashtun who are interested in having a successful, stable country, so they can conduct business productively. At no point did we push the Taliban out of power in Kabul or eliminate them. The Taliban which is the primary political and military movement for the rural Pashtun has existed since 1996. It never went away. It just took some time to go over the border of Pakistan and recoup recover and then redeploy.
Meera Kaul: Many political analysts that supported the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan point out that the reason for the U.S. to be in that country had been achieved as we have succeeded in weakening the Al Qaeda and Taliban was never our target. Why was the United States still in Afghanistan after Al Qaeda was deemed non-existent?
Christopher Swift: Al Qaeda was always present in Afghanistan. After September 11, Al Qaeda was shattered and fragmented. It decamped to Pakistan and to other parts of the world like the Middle East and over time reestablished itself in places like Southern Yemen. At the same time, by virtue of the Iraq War, many Al Qaeda influence groups that temporarily joined Al Qaeda for the purpose of branding, decided that Al Qaeda is not sufficiently militant enough. They broke off and formed the Islamic State- ISIS. Taliban and Al Qaeda are close allies, but all influence groups use Al Qaeda to bring external resources in, and Al Qaeda exploits the Taliban to have a haven to operate out of. The relationship between Al Qaeda and Taliban as well as ISIS is based on mutual exploitation.
The folks that started ISIS were part of Qaeda realized that they could have more influence in Iraq and Northern-Western Syria on their own. They broke off to establish something more radical. There are also important class differences between who joins Al Qaeda versus who joins ISIS. Al Qaeda tends to be doctors and lawyers. It’s the country club set as they are the people who have a higher level of education or come from a higher status within society. ISIS is the angry street fighter. They are more likely to get somebody from the working classes or the middle classes, rather than the upper-middle class or upper class to join ISIS. These splinter groups have now formed their own group called ISIS K (Khorasan). They are radicalized online and are a break-off from the Taliban who think the Taliban is too local and parochial. This has created tension between ISIS-K and the Taliban where they fight and kill each other. Whereas Al Qaeda and Taliban are collaborators, Taliban and ISIS-K are competitors.
Meera Kaul: Apart from going after Al Qaeda, there is a perception that America made a lot of money in Afghanistan and is now leaving the people of that country to its devices. Did the United States make a lot of money in Afghanistan?
Christopher Swift: The reality is that the United States Government has hemorrhaged $300 million a day for the last 20 years in Afghanistan. The only people who made money in Afghanistan were the English-speaking expatriate Afghan elites who were taking money from the U.S. government, the contractors who were deployed to Afghanistan to support the U.S. and the allied forces’ mission. The Taliban have earned a tremendous amount of money over the last 20 years because they were able to develop and control networks for smuggling, not just weapons and insurgents across international borders but also heroin, and in some cases people as well. They were primarily an insurgent organization that became a criminal organization over time to keep itself funded. The gap between perception and reality in Afghanistan is vast.
Meera Kaul: Could the Biden administration have exercised the option of working back on the clauses of the Doha Agreement that Trump had committed the United States to.
Christopher Swift: There are three goals of the Agreement. The first goal was to get the United States out of Afghanistan because the last administration did not see any reason to be there. Surprisingly, the Biden administration also saw no long-term strategic value in the United States, spending $300 million a day to be in a place that wasn’t improving substantially. The second goal was to have the Taliban cease military operations against US and allied forces. So, the Taliban stopped attacking the United States and NATO because of that agreement. They however continued to attack the same people who were their adversaries in the civil war before the United States intervened. The Doha agreement recognizes that the United States intervened in somebody else’s Civil War and is looking for ways for the United States to get out of that intervention in a way that really reduces the risk to itself and its own forces on the way out the door. The Afghan government was left out of the process of the Doha Agreement. The objective should have been to get a peace deal between the Ghani government and the Taliban, and maybe some sort of power-sharing government, and in exchange for that peace deal so the U.S. and NATO could get out of Afghanistan. In that case, the U.S. would have kept its forces in Afghanistan for longer with the understanding that we were going to incur more casualties. But the Trump Administration’s negotiated the exit quickly intending to execute it before the 2020 elections to showcase the Afghan exit as an achievement. Even when most people in Washington agree that the Doha Agreement is flawed, there is a lot of consensuses that there was not much value in the United States being involved in Afghanistan indefinitely.
Meera Kaul is a Silicon Valley-based author and contributor with an interest in writing about political systems, economic and legal frameworks, foreign relations, policies, and ideologies. 26+ years of experience in executing ventures across three continents. She is a Thomas Jefferson School of Law and Stanford GSB Alum.