Pragmatism Of President Biden On Afghan Question Cannot Offset Historical Errors Of US – OpEd


The US President Joe Biden is no doubt a pragmatist. His views and stance on the American objectives and intensity of interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq squarely underline this fact. He authorized only those interventions which directly impinged on American interests and wished to see results of the wars directly corresponding to American objectives and interests.

For instance, post 9/11 attacks, while Biden voted to authorize the war in Afghanistan, looking at the unfolding dynamics such as flaws of the Afghan government and fragility of the Afghan army, he dissented Obama administration’s decision to enhance American boots on Afghan ground from 2009 to 2011. While he was aware that a complete victory over the Taliban insurgency was impossible by then, he was of the view that a narrow counterterrorism mission targeting al Qaeda and related groups could be more useful to satisfy American objectives and interests in the war-torn country. Pragmatism is the best policy option for a country which has been practicing it historically.

A Rearview

However, pragmatic foreign policy cannot offset the historical errors that a great power commits during the interventions nor is it able to do justice to the people affected by those interventions. Of course in case of Afghanistan, President Biden being a pragmatist was firmly convinced that the war against insurgents was unwinnable and peace efforts were not meaningful leading to his decision of complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghan soil.

On the contrary, the previous administrations were only postponing the revelation of American failure by maintaining a level of troops and resources that was sufficient to hide its failure but were not sufficient enough for successful stabilization programme. Nevertheless, President Biden cannot simply wash his hands off the Afghan turmoil to which the US has contributed too. Such pragmatism is a break from the past errors which implies that US is unwilling to account for as well as undertake responsibility for those actions which generated new hopes of democratic governance in these two decades of operations and oversaw many civilians and Afghan soldiers losing their lives for better future but the country was left to the mercy of Afghan Taliban all of a sudden.

It is harder to estimate whether Afghanistan would have been worse off, had there been no interventions at all. The Afghan army assisted by the US and the Taliban fought for these two decades inconclusively which had to see many civilian casualties in the hope of better future and which finally met its doomsday. The airpower assistance that the US provided to the Afghan government although was instrumental in controlling the sway of the Taliban and destroying insurgents’ bases also caused to a surge in the death of Afghan civilians. Thus, Afghanistan is now where it was twenty years ago but with a change that is more agitated, avenging and resolute Taliban which has been able to push a superpower out and now ready to pay back the American props in the same coin.

It cannot be forgotten that Washington relied on local warlords who practiced no lesser violence than the Taliban and who helped corruption creep into Afghan governance in order to stabilize Afghanistan rather than making early efforts at building a national Afghan army or police force. It is the US whose interventions in Iraq and Syria led to the rise of the threat of the ISIS and a sense of foreign occupation in Afghanistan not only generated a new threat namely ISIS-Khorasan using ISIS branding but fighters escaping Iraq and Syria also sneaked into the ranks and files of ISIS-Khorasan.

This new group claimed killing of many civilians. Had the US not occupied Afghanistan, emergence of new threats such as ISIS-Khorasan would have been remote. At times, the US boots on ground committed weird and insane actions. In one of the instances, copies of Koran were found to be burned by US troops and a US soldier opened fire and killed 16 people in a village near Kandahar.

Further, there were frequent reports that in Bagram and eighteen other US detention centres and firebases around Afghanistan, Afghan detainees were regularly tortured and many of whom might have been persecuted only under suspicion. It needs to be emphasized that to conduct the war in Afghanistan, the US resorted predominantly to air power and limited its ground-troops presence. And for ground operations, it depended on Afghan warlords. While, on the one hand, the US wanted to limit the casualties on its army, the increasing use of air power led to the growth of death of Afghan civilians.

For instance, a meager 8,000 US troops were deployed to defend 21.6 million Afghan people in 2001 whereas the success story in Kosovo just a couple of years before had revealed the significance of the ratio of boots on ground to population as a recipe for any successful stabilization programme. Thus, while all preceding administrations were pragmatist, Biden administration is more pragmatist than the rest. But the Biden administration cannot account for the past mistakes and deliver justice to Afghans. It is hard to dismiss the fact that the US was largely responsible for turning Afghanistan into a fertile ground for corruption.

The Afghan state was conceived more as an enabler than a provider of economic growth by the preceding administrations. International aid was tied to the global private sector, which was entrusted with the task of reconstruction, and this kept the state overly dependent on external financial support. The Americans tied aid to the purchase of US-sourced products and services, and a full 70% of US aid was made conditional upon US goods and services being purchased or employed, as Tim Bird and Alex Marshall relate in their 2011 book Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way.

Further, the weakness of the Afghan state and inefficacy of the capacity-building exercises were underlined by the fact that a major chunk of international aid was not channeled and spent through the Afghan government because of allegations of rampant corruption. This led to other players such as international consultants and private contractors getting involved, and massive aid becomes their source of income too. Thus, the Biden administration needs to be accountable for at least the American role in causing to continue instabilities and accumulate civilian casualties for last two decades, emergence of new threats such as ISIS-Khorasan and its hand in abetting corruption on Afghan soil to be labeled a genuine pragmatist. Or else, he will be remembered more as an opportunist by those who sympathize with Afghan civilians in the post-US withdrawal scenario.

No pragmatist, in the true sense of the word, can simply walk away leaving Afghans at the mercy of insurgents. Nor can he absolve the US of its historical mistakes which boomeranged on it later. For instance, several radical religious groups emerged as powerful non-state actors in world politics as the seeds which were sown as part of the American jostle to remove the Soviet forces out of Afghanistan following the Soviet intervention in 1979 became full-fledged trees with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US began to face stiff resistance in the geostrategic arena from these non-state actors colluding with assertive regional powers once the overarching Soviet threat was removed from their perception.

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously, he worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India. He taught Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and M.Phil. students.

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