When President Donald Trump took office, his aides promised there would always be adults in the room. Especially when it came to foreign policy, learned, stable professionals would ensure responsible and intelligent actions.
Except the adults turned out to be idiots. They fought the president at every turn when he sought to withdraw from endless wars. They insisted that Washington remain allied to the worst of the worst, supporting the vile Saudi regime in its aggressive and murderous war against Yemen. They urged policies that treated Russia as a permanent enemy. They backed American dominance of every existing alliance and relationship, infantilizing America’s friends and maximizing Washington’s obligations.
Now former national security adviser H.R. McMaster has reminded Americans that many members of the infamous Blob, the foreign policy elite, are brain dead. Their thinking about the world ended decades ago. They mouth hypocritical platitudes while seeing everything through an antiquated prism.
For instance, McMaster recently charged that Tehran, a political, economic, and military wreck, has “hegemonic designs.” He made this claim after serving at the center of foreign policymaking in the world’s dominant power which is determined to be the global hegemon in control of every region on earth, essentially imposing the Monroe Doctrine on every continent. Supportive policymakers insist that the U.S. should intervene everywhere while no one else can intervene anywhere. Indeed, in their view America is entitled to meddle at any time for any reason.
Within the administration, McMaster orchestrated American support for Saudi Arabia, which did far more than Tehran to play regional hegemon. The antediluvian royals invaded one neighbor, deployed troops in a second, supported jihadist rebels against a third, kidnapped the prime minister of a fourth, launched a diplomatic/economic offensive against a fifth, and are promoting a civil war in a slightly more distant sixth. Riyadh’s behavior is reckless, dangerous, criminal, and, yes, hegemonic.
But it is in deploying the Munich comparison that McMaster, once thought to be an innovative military thinker, demonstrated that his time in government apparently killed off some of his once-abundant gray matter. In this he is not alone. Virtually every minor dictator in the most distant and underpopulated lands has been compared to Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler at least once. If we avert our glance for merely a moment, we are warned, Dictator X in Country Y is likely to launch a campaign of conquest across Continent Z. Or something similar. Thus only American intervention can prevent the onset of a new global dark age.
McMaster has been on a book tour promoting his latest tome with its utterly conventional demand for a harder line against, well, everyone. And why not? After all, surely America has money to burn after running a $3.1 trillion deficit during the 2020 fiscal year. With the federal debt already over 100 percent of GDP. Another $2 trillion or more in red ink expected in 2021. And the total “COVID deficit” predicted to run between $8 trillion and $16 trillion. But why worry: it’s only money!
Anyway McMaster was asked about President Donald Trump’s negotiation with Afghanistan. Is it America’s “Munich agreement” and “a policy of appeasement with Taliban”? Yes, replied McMaster.
It is hard to believe that McMaster doesn’t understand the concept of appeasement or know Munich’s circumstances. More likely, he doesn’t care about the facts and preferred to take a cheap shot at Trump, always an easy target.
First, appeasement is a time-tested and oft-successful strategy. It usually is better to make a deal than go to war. A little more appeasement before World War I involving Austro-Hungary and Serbia, which armed the gang that assassinated the Hapsburg heir, an obvious casus belli, might have forestalled a global conflict that consumed around 20 million lives and ultimately led to the Munich agreement and the far deadlier and more destructive World War II.
Second, on its face, Munich was a sensible attempt at appeasement. It redressed the World War I injustice of treating millions of ethnic Germans as pawns in a global chess game. At the Versailles Treaty conference, the oh-so-moral allies grabbed territorial plunder here, there, and everywhere, while prattling about self-determination. Hitler did not arise in a vacuum; allied avarice and myopia helped bring him to power.
Munich was a tragedy because the allies sought to appease the one person in Europe who could not be satiated. The pact transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany the Sudetenland, which was taken by Prague from the long-gone Austro-Hungarian Empire against the wishes of its ethnic Germans residents. Berlin won, yet Hitler was irritated that the settlement denied him the war he desired. He invaded Poland the following year. However, Germany was not as well prepared for conflict in 1938 and Hitler might have been removed by his own military, which was contemplating a coup because of his apparent recklessness.
The short lesson of the agreement: the problem was Hitler, not appeasement. Most Europeans probably believed that preserving the continent’s peace warranted shifting to Germany territory filled with people who should not have been given to Czechoslovakia in the first place. In the abstract, Britain and France had good reason not to back Prague in a war over what were frankly ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately, London and Paris didn’t understand who and what they were dealing with—but they were not alone in sharing that delusion.
As for Afghanistan, one must hope that McMaster is not confused by the difference between Nazi Germany and the insurgent Taliban. A generation earlier, the Germans demonstrated their ability to wreak continental and even global murder and mayhem. In contrast, the Taliban’s motley mix of Islamists and opportunities at most threaten to gain control over additional territory in an impoverished, isolated land, located thousands of miles from America, which never had a strong central government to begin with.
Nevertheless, McMaster declared that “We will pay the price, and we’ll be back. We’ll have to go back, and at a much higher cost.” Why? Central Asia has no intrinsic value for America. The Taliban want to rule their villages and valleys, not threaten the U.S. at home.
Moreover, Afghanistan has no inherent connection to terrorism; the link was Osama bin Laden, who was initially involved there fighting the Soviets. After the U.S. intervened, he fled to and operated from Pakistan, a nominal American ally. And of course, he now is dead. Al-Qaeda’s remnants could operate anywhere, as do many of its spin-offs today. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, located in Yemen, has long been viewed as the most dangerous affiliate.
In any case, the region matters far more to the powers nearby, which have an incentive to promote a reasonably stable if not liberal Afghanistan. They do not want to see the return of terrorism. In fact, Christian Russia, Hindu India, and Shia Iran all have been targeted by Sunni terrorists. Communist China, busy locking up Sunni Uyghurs in reeducation camps, could be next on the terrorists’ target list. This gaggle of states has the makings of a good coalition to guard against growth in the Islamic State and revival of al-Qaeda, neither of which is in the Taliban’s interest, which would not want to trigger another round of U.S. retaliation.
As for humanitarian considerations, America has spent more than 19 years at war trying to create a liberal, centralized government where none previously existed. That is more than enough commitment of American lives and wealth.
McMaster’s strategic judgment is no better than his historical analysis. He complained that Trump’s exit plan “renders the war unjust, because we no longer have defined a just end.” It’s not clear why he believes leaving makes the conflict unjust. The U.S. got in for good reason, to retaliate against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban for the 9/11 attacks, sending the clear message that attacking America and hosting terrorists that strike America is a very bad idea. Washington foolishly stuck around for another 18-plus years trying to make Afghanistan into a better place, a theoretically moral but highly imprudent objective. And now, years late, an administration is finally trying to stop wasting American lives and wealth.
In the end, McMaster sounds like just all the other policymakers who misled the public over faux progress in Afghanistan year after year. As the Washington Post reported in its devastating “Afghanistan Papers” project nearly a year ago: “U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.” Yet upon these claims, Washington wasted thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
That is the true immorality, the shocking injustice, the criminal misconduct.
President Trump has gotten much wrong. But on Afghanistan he is far closer to the truth than the faux adults who surrounded him throughout his time in office. During McMaster’s next PR event for his book, he ought to be asked why purported leaders like him have so much trouble confronting their own failures.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently announced that it was providing $204 million in aid for the impoverished and war-ravaged country of Yemen. That sounds generous, but it’s the Saudi royals themselves who are responsible for most of the death, destruction, starvation, and disease in Yemen, in which 80 percent of the population, some 24 million, need outside assistance.
Riyadh has spent more than five years conducting a brutal air campaign intended to restore a pliant regime to power. The claim that the Kingdom is generously helping the needy is a bit like a man murdering his parents only to throw himself on the court’s mercy since he is an orphan. If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wanted to help the Yemeni people, he would simply end the war.
But he won’t, at least in part because the Trump administration is underwriting the Saudi government’s murderous campaign. Why is the president forcing Americans to assist the Saudi royals, who respect no political or religious liberty and kidnap, imprison, and murder their critics? President Donald Trump appears to be almost bewitched by the licentious and corrupt Saudis.
Washington sold Saudi Arabia planes and munitions used to kill thousands of Yemeni civilians. American personnel serviced and refueled the same planes, as well as providing intelligence to assist in targeting Saudi strikes. That makes U.S. officials complicit in war crimes committed day in and day out for more than five years.
Hubris, hypocrisy, and sanctimony are all constants of U.S. foreign policy. All came together in George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Most foreign policy analysts, other than the neoconservative war enthusiasts who dominated Bush administration decision-making, recognize that America’s unjustified aggression was a horrid bungle.
The U.S. broke international law, vilified European allies, wrecked Iraq, triggered sectarian war, victimized religious minorities, and empowered Iran. The human toll was hideous: Washington’s war killed thousands of Americans, wounded tens of thousands of U.S. personnel, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and displaced millions of Iraqis. The invasion spawned murderous al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the even more brutal Islamic State. Seventeen years later Iraqis are still dealing with their broken, sectarian government, bedeviled by powerful militias allied with Iran.
And American military forces are still occupying Iraq. Nominally there to prevent a revival of ISIS, they have been used by the Trump administration to confront Iran, the president’s myopic fixation. Although the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action limited Tehran’s nuclear opportunities and instituted an intrusive inspections regime, the administration killed the agreement and reimposed sanctions to destroy Iran’s economy. The president insisted that Tehran would soon surrender after acknowledging U.S. (and, indirectly, Israeli and Saudi) suzerainty to win financial relief.
The Trump administration is edging America toward the exit in Afghanistan, nearly two decades after President George W. Bush intervened in the aftermath of 9/11. The U.S. quickly dispersed Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and ousted the Taliban, only to spend the following years failing to build a stable, liberal democracy centered in Kabul.
America’s extended commitment of lives and resources to Afghanistan never made sense. If there is one spot on the planet in which the US has little strategic interest, it is Afghanistan. The latter is geographically distant, landlocked among Iran, China, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Afghanistan is strongly tribal and socially traditional, a Muslim country ruled at the village and valley. With formal borders drawn by British officials, Afghans have strong family, ethnic, and religious ties across nations. US officials had little contact with Afghanistan prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion, which Washington used to bleed America’s Cold War adversary.
Then came 9/11. Two decades later America’s Afghan allies cannot even agree on who won the latest presidential election, with dueling claimants occupying neighboring palaces. There still are many good people who desire peace and want to create a tolerant, liberal society. Someday their vision may come to pass. But not in the future that we can see at a cost that we can bear. And not at the American military’s hands. The time for delay is over: Washington’s sole objective should be to leave, quickly.
Debating “what might have been” is a waste of time and breath. In September 2001 the Bush administration targeted al-Qaeda after the group hijacked four airliners, turned them into de facto cruise missiles, and murdered some 3000 people. The administration also sought to oust the Taliban government, which hosted the group’s training facilities. Both objectives were quickly achieved.
Alas, the Neocon-dominated administration, convinced that it could remake Afghanistan and the world, stuck around, but without anything close to necessary force levels. Jarrett Blanc of the Carnegie Endowment explained: “After a messy but basically successful counterterrorism effort, we expanded our objectives in ways that were bound to fail. We mortgaged our counterterrorism objectives to more maximalist aims, making our original ambition harder to secure.”
Indeed, consumed with hubris the Bush administration vetoed any political negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban, the only way to create a stable peace. The latter reemerged and launched a full-scale insurgency. But Washington, busy in Iraq, never responded accordingly. The resistance grew until even Bush realized that he had a problem.
Then think tanks helpfully produced studies and newspapers busily published op-ed filled with plans to turn around the war and optimistic predictions for the future. One New York Times headline from a decade ago: “US Is Gaining in Afghanistan, General Writes.” The Financial Times entitled an op-ed: “How the US Intends to End the War with the Taliban.” A Los Angeles Times opinion piece declared: “Winning in Afghanistan.” The Washington Times insisted: “Failure in Afghanistan Not an Option.” A news story in the same paper ran “Report says Afghan War Showing Progress.” Yahoo enthused: “Fragile Progress Builds Momentum in Afghanistan.” A policy expert offered his thoughts on Foreign Policy online: “5 Ways to Win the War in Afghanistan.”
With Americans at home wondering why Americans were dying abroad, President Barack Obama, his Nobel Peace Prize secure on his bookcase, doubled and tripled down, twice upping the number of combat troops. I visited Afghanistan in both 2010 and 2011, when US and allied troop strength was at its zenith. Allied hubris was in full flower, though cynicism took over once official briefers left the room. No Afghan not working for the government had anything positive to say about the Afghan government. Even then Afghans with connections were believed to be moving resources and often families abroad, such as to Dubai. They were preparing for the inevitable.
Nevertheless, US officials continued to proclaim success and promise even greater progress so long as Americans continued to sacrifice lives and wealth for the war. Unfortunately, such claims failed to reflect reality on the ground. Last year Andrew Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies produced a highly critical study, noting that “official US and Afghan data seem to sharply understate the level of growing threat presence, influence, and control.” Indeed, he concluded, the Pentagon’s official reports “seem more spin than objective.”
Last December the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers.” The conclusion was simultaneously simple and devastating: “US officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.” In January John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that “There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue … mendacity and hubris.”
Thus, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said to veterans “We will not squander what they and you have won through blood, sweat and tears,” it is not clear what achievements he was imagining. Americans at home were lied to as Americans in Afghanistan died so Washington policymakers could avoid taking responsibility for failed policies.
Candidate Donald Trump appeared to understand the issue when he bulldozed his Republican opponents by forthrightly denouncing the Bush-Obama wars. He began criticizing the Afghanistan misadventure early. In a 2012 tweet he complained: “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”
A year later he insisted: “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick.” He even did what seems inconceivable today, praise Obama. Said Trump: “I agree with Pres. Obama on Afghanistan. We should have a speedy withdrawal. Why should we keep wasting our money — rebuild the US!”
Since then even military officers sound more pessimistic. For instance, in 2017 Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress: “We used the term stalemate a year ago, and, relatively speaking, it has not changed much.” A year later Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, slated to take over US Central Command, opined at his confirmation hearing: “We believe that it is important to convince the Taliban that, even as we are in a stalemate, so they are in a stalemate, and they will be unable to find a path to victory on the battlefield.” This after more than 17 years of fighting.
Far more depressing are independent reports, such as those routinely issued by Sopko’s office. Financial aid was wasted or stolen. Development projects were not completed or failed to deliver. Total area contested by the Taliban was at a record. Casualties among Afghan security were rising, along with Taliban attacks on cities – including suicide attacks in the capital.
Afghan security personnel were ghosts or ineffective. For years many Afghan personnel existed on paper only. During my 2011 visit to a police training center a Marine Corps officer warned me to beware: “everyone is selling something.” An American instructor observed that he “tried” to teach the recruits, but without much success.
Last August the New York Times reported that Kabul’s “security forces are in their worst state in years – almost completely on the defensive in much of the country.” Despite promises by the Afghan military to take the offensive, “in most major battlegrounds, the bulk of the regular Afghan forces are still holed up in fortified bases and outposts. Most offensive operations have been left to small numbers of Afghan and American Special Operations soldiers, backed by both countries’ air forces.”
In his January quarterly report Sopko highlighted several important security problems. One is that “Enemy-initiated attacks from October–December 2019 were at the highest level for the fourth quarter of any year since data collection began in 2010.” Another was that “Afghan special forces conducted fewer ground operations in the fourth quarter, lower than any other quarter in 2019, and only 31% of their operations were conducted without US or Coalition assistance.”
His conclusions are necessarily more limited than in the past. So negative have been his assessments that the Pentagon started classifying data on the performance of the Afghan security forces. In February he told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that most indicators “of measuring success are now classified, or we don’t collect it. So I can’t tell you, publicly, how well a job we’re doing on training.” He obviously can’t tell the public either.
High attrition rates continue to be one of the Afghan military’s biggest problems. The latest SIGAR report, issued last Thursday, noted that total reported Afghan National Defense and Security Forces personnel levels continued to fall, to 281,807 in January, 50,000 below the levels in January 2017.
As a result, Kabul has over-relied on the Afghan Special Security Forces, made up of specially trained military and police units. Noted the inspector general: “Misuse occurs when [Ministry of Defense] or [Ministry of Interior] orders the ASSF to conduct operations that are more appropriate for the conventional forces or assigns them other inappropriate tasks. Examples of misuse include using special forces to man checkpoints, hold terrain, or provide personal security for politicians or ANDSF leaders.” Such “misuse” fell last year, but then so did use of the ASSF since Taliban activity dropped during peace negotiations with America.
However, all these indications pale compared to one simple metric. How do embassy people get to the airport, a mere three miles away? During my visits I flew to other cities and bases in Afghanistan several times. We drove to the airport. In chaotic traffic on roads filled with security personnel and vehicles. By streets with barricades and roadblocks. Past garish “poppy palaces” with high walls. Into the terminal with multiple checkpoints and security stops.
So did US personnel. But a friend recently returned from embassy duty said that has changed. Now they use a helicopter to travel to the airport. Driving is deemed unsafe.
After nearly 20 years of American and allied occupation.
President Trump could have begun his presidency with a clean slate by announcing the coming withdrawal of US troops. Responsibility for any adverse consequences would fall on his predecessors, the authors of the failed attempt at nation-building. Alas, he surrounded himself with hawks who resisted his desire to bring home American personnel.
Apparently forgetting that he had been elected president, on their advice he instead increased troop levels, leaving even more US and allied personnel to die for nothing. Now Washington is attempting to salvage a peace settlement with the Taliban, which is dependent on unlikely agreement between the insurgents and Kabul government. This process is supposed to lead to the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.
The good news is that the administration has begun pulling out American forces. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said (and later denied) that the president wanted them all home by election day. However, why wait for November?
The war in Afghanistan is an extraordinary tragedy that predates US involvement. In 1973 the king was ousted. His wrecked palace sits on the outskirts of Kabul, a silent reminder of the nation’s nearly half century of agony. In 1978 came the coup by a party supported by Moscow. The Soviet Union intervened a year later amid civil war. The Reagan administration made support for the Mujahedeen a priority, but funneled most assistance through Pakistan, which backed the most radical factions. Soviet troops left in 1989 and Soviet money ended three years later, leading to the regime’s collapse. Feuding insurgent factions occupied Kabul, leading to another civil war. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia aided the rise of the fundamentalist Taliban, which overran much of the country by 1996. Iran was on the other side, almost going to war against the Taliban two years later.
Afghans suffered under a regime rooted in the 6th century AD, when Mohammad began his activities. Then came 9/11 and a new war, which continued as America’s presence waned. Washington always believes everything is about Washington, but that isn’t the case in Afghanistan. Observed Mohammad Sayed Madadi of the Afghanistan Civil Service Institute: “Over the past decade, the violence has become extremely local, with parties from both sides fighting tribal feuds and personal grievances.”
The US has no reason to stay. The worst argument is that Americans have sacrificed too much to leave and America cannot lose a war, especially to “al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State,” as claimed by Rep. Liz Cheney – like her father ever-ready to sacrifice American lives in foolish wars. Economists warn against the sunk cost fallacy. Washington already has wasted more than $1.5 trillion directly on the war. Toss in present and future veterans’ costs and interest on borrowed funds and the total price could hit $3 trillion. The human cost also has been high. Killed have been 2298 military personnel, 3820 contractors, and 1145 allied servicemen. Tens of thousands have been wounded, many grievously. Afghanistan, of course, has been ravaged by the war.
However, these costs already have been incurred. Americans should stay only if the future expense of doing so is worth the benefit. It isn’t. To throw more money and lives away to avoid losing a war not worth fighting is beyond foolish. And sacrificing more lives to try to redeem those already lost is compounding the previous crime, putting political pride before national interest. The best way to honor the dead is to not waste any more of the living. Indeed, a new poll found that 71 percent of Afghan veterans and 69 percent of military family members believed Washington should bring home the troops.
Forget the tiresome claim of “credibility.” The time to worry about credibility is before making commitments that are foolish and not worth keeping, and which can’t possibly be maintained. Should Washington have continued to fight the Korean and Vietnam Wars, potentially forever? America’s adversaries are aware that Americans will act on issues of great moment. That will not change if Washington stops trying to impose Western-style governance on an alien land half a world away. Indeed, to keep wasting lives and money trying to do the impossible is far more likely to raise questions of judgment and even sanity in foreign capitals.
The claim simultaneously most serious and stupid is that endless war in Afghanistan is necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks. Trump said his aides insisted that “if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here.” But Afghanistan was the site of al-Qaeda’s operations only because Osama bin Laden had been there fighting the Soviets. After the US invaded he relocated to neighboring Pakistan, where he was later killed. No one who planned and initiated the 9/11 attacks spent any time in Afghanistan. These days national affiliates are more dangerous than the original organization and they are located around the globe.
In any case, while the Taliban might be willing to use al-Qaeda in the war today, the movement would not likely welcome the group if America withdrew. (Similarly, Washington’s ongoing economic war against Iran caused the latter to open contacts with the organization, but Tehran originally aided the US against what then was an enemy.) The Taliban resented bin Laden’s abuse of their hospitality and would prefer to avoid a retaliatory repetition leading to their ouster again.
David Petraeus, former commander in Afghanistan, and Vance Serchuk of the Center for a New American Security, last year warned that “some 20 foreign terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS retain a presence in the region.” Which proves too much: a small US force tasked with backing Kabul cannot prevent terrorist groups from operating nearby. By their logic a much larger presence is necessary and must be permanent – and presumably should extend everywhere else on earth where regimes either are hostile or lack complete control of their territory.
Notably, Petraeus took a more optimistic view when he was in command announcing his accomplishments. Reported the Washington Times in March 2011: “The top US military commander in Afghanistan [Petraeus] told Congress Tuesday that his forces had made enough progress to justify starting a three-year withdrawal in July.” When it comes to Afghanistan, there always is good news, but never quite enough to warrant finally pulling out.
Another claim is that only by staying can Washington create a liberal, democratic, and tolerant society. But that goal is likely to remain out of reach irrespective of US policy. Plenty of Afghans, especially women, want peace, prosperity, equality, and liberty. Unfortunately, America cannot bring that to them, at least at any reasonable cost in any reasonable time. Afghans have been fighting for almost 50 years. They could do so for another 50 years.
It is wrong to make more Americans die on such a Quixotic mission, one unconnected to any substantial interest for their own country and people. Grand humanitarian crusades, no matter how seemingly worthy in the abstract, cannot justify ivory tower warriors sending others into combat.
Finally, the argument that Afghanistan is somehow vital, surrounded by such important nations as China, India, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian states, is precisely backward. If everything is vital, then nothing is vital. Afghanistan may be vital, but only to its neighbors, not America. And they should be left with responsibility for stabilizing their region. Their interests are many and conflicting. Washington should make clear its intention to leave and invite Kabul’s neighbors to take over the burden and develop a coordinated response. Americans then could drop at least one foreign conflict and focus on their many other challenges and problems.
After fighting for two decades, no withdrawal would be premature. It is time for America to leave Afghanistan. With or without an agreement with the Taliban. There is little likelihood the Taliban would fulfill such a pact even if today’s 13,000 Americans on station remained. Victory was out-of-reach even when there were 100,000 US and another 40,000 allied troops on duty in Afghanistan.
Given widespread opposition to the Taliban, the Kabul government and allied ethnic militias are likely to survive, though only with more limited authority over more limited regions. The real negotiations that will matter are those among Afghans, backed by neighboring states.
President Trump should keep his promise. If not, the Democrats should campaign against Bush’s and now Trump’s mistaken social engineering in Central Asia. Ultimately the issue is up to the American people. As my friend Scott Horton concluded his informative book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan: “Americans can and must put aside political differences over issues which, frankly, pale in comparison to the crisis of our government’s destructive war in Afghanistan and work together to end it now.”
Washington should wish Afghans well. And leave them, after decades of foreign intervention, to decide their own future.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. This article was originally featured at Antiwar.com and is republished with permission.
Five years ago the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia invaded neighboring Yemen. The conflict was supposed to be quick and simple, over in a few weeks. Now the once-haughty Saudi royals have offered a ceasefire, after their opponents, Houthi irregulars, captured the province of al-Jawf.
The conflict has created a horrific humanitarian crisis. Yemen, which has long been divided, impoverished, and embattled, is wrecked, and is unlikely to emerge as one complete nation. The cost has been roughly 100,000 dead in combat (nearly 20,000 of them civilians); another 130,000 dead from the consequences of the conflict; a million people suffering from Cholera; 20 million Yemenis facing food insecurity; sixteen million regularly hungry; and ten million at risk of famine.
Democratic Party candidates for president advocate socialism. Young adults view collectivism as a serious alternative to capitalism. Most anyone under 40 has little memory of the Berlin Wall, probably the most dramatic symbol of the most murderous human tyranny to afflict the world. After decades of oppression, hundreds of millions of people were finally free, which today we take for granted.
The Soviet Communist or Bolshevik Revolution was an accident of sorts, a tragic consequence of economic and social collapse resulting from World War I. Absent that conflict, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin probably would have lived out his life in Swiss exile spouting radical doctrines and playing chess. His later colleagues would have suffered obscurity in imperial prisons or exile. Russia’s Czar Nicholas would have lived out his reign as his country prospered economically and reformed politically. Wilhelmine Germany, with a franchise broader than that of Great Britain, also would have seen a gradual shift in power toward liberal constitutional rule as Junker conservatism lost influence.
Alas, Europeans collectively jumped into the abyss of cataclysmic conflict, leading to a continent dominated by fascism, Nazism, and communism. The USSR concentrated its brutality on its own people until Adolf Hitler took control of Germany. The Fuhrer triggered the convulsion known as World War II, a conflict Hitler began but could not finish. In 1945, he committed suicide in the bunker of the ruined Reich chancellery. And the Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, occupied Berlin.
A Divided Germany
Germany was divided among the US, Great Britain, France, and USSR. The first three combined their zones into what became the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. The Soviet zone became what was unofficially known in the West as the “sogenannt,” or the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR). The four victorious powers occupied Germany’s capital, as well, which left West Berlin as an oasis of freedom in the middle of East Germany. In 1948, Moscow blocked land routes to Berlin, hoping to force out the allies; America refused to risk war by forcing passage, instead responding with the famed airlift. The following year, Stalin dropped the blockade, though relations remained tense.
The Soviets stripped “their” zone of productive assets and created a dictatorship in their image. Totalitarianism impoverished Germans spiritually as well as economically.
The Soviets stripped “their” zone of productive assets and created a dictatorship in their image. Totalitarianism impoverished Germans spiritually as well as economically. The result was an exodus of people, especially younger, better-educated professionals. To help stem the human tide, East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht, with Stalin’s support, in 1952 turned Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” image into a real, fortified border with the West. However, the GDR left Berlin’s internal border open. One reason was the fact that the East’s rail lines ran through the capital. The Ulbricht regime began to develop a rail network that avoided Berlin, which was only completed in 1961.
People and traffic moved freely between the two Berlins, which made defection easy. Worse, noted the Soviet ambassador to the GDR, Mikhail Pervukhin,
the presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately does not always turn out in favor of Democratic [East] Berlin.
Actually, the comparison never turned out in favor of the communists. Republikflucht, or “republic flight,” was a crime, but largely unenforceable. By 1961, an estimated 1,000 East Germans were fleeing every day. From 1949 to 1961, an estimated 3.5 million people, or fully one-fifth of the GDR’s citizens, had left. And the productive young were disproportionately represented among those heading West. The percentage of working-age people in the GDR’s population dropped from 71 percent to 61 percent by 1960.
If those trends continued, the GDR would cease to exist.
For some years, Ulbricht pressed the Soviets for permission to seal off Berlin, as well. USSR Communist General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev said no, apparently out of fear of the negative symbolism of walling in workers for whom the revolution supposedly had been won. However, the latter changed his mind in mid-1961, perhaps because he perceived US President John F. Kennedy, who had indicated he would not oppose construction of such a barrier, to be weak.
In any case, during the night of August 12, 1961, East German security personnel began constructing what became known as the Berlin Wall. Initially, streets were torn up and wire fences were strung, soon to be replaced with a brick wall, and then much more. The barrier got ever higher, more complex, and deadlier. Eventually, there were two walls with a death strip in between. The Berlin Wall had miles of concrete walls, wire mesh fencing, barbed wire, trained dogs, and anti-vehicle trenches. The boundary was supplemented with watchtowers, bunkers, and mines. Border guards were told to shoot those attempting to escape, the infamous “Schiessbefehl” order. The people’s paradise would kill its people to stop them from fleeing.
A Wall of Death
Around 200 were killed—no one knows how many for sure—challenging the Berlin Wall. Include those murdered while attempting to cross the border elsewhere, and the death toll probably exceeded 1,000.
The wall did not stop human flight. Instead, it forced people to be more creative. East Germans climbed over, tunneled under, and flew over. They jumped from windows of buildings along the border—which later were demolished. GDR residents used balloons, built submarines, and created secret compartments in cars. An estimated 100,000 people tried to escape, and some 5,000 made it. Many of those who failed in their lunge for freedom paid a high price. Tens of thousands of East Germans were imprisoned for Republikflucht. Around 200 were killed—no one knows how many for sure—challenging the Berlin Wall. Include those murdered while attempting to cross the border elsewhere, and the death toll probably exceeded 1,000.
The first Berliner to die in an escape attempt was 58-year-old Ida Siekmann, who on August 22, 1961, jumped from a window in her building onto a West Berlin road (the area later was cleared and turned into a “death strip”). Two days later the first Berliner was murdered by the GDR authorities: 24-year-old tailor Guenter Litfin was shot while attempting to swim across the River Spree.
The true horror of a system that imprisoned an entire people was most dramatically illustrated almost a year later, on August 17, 1962, when East German border agents shot an 18-year-old bricklayer, Peter Fechter, as he sought to surmount the wall. They left the conscious Fechter to bleed out in full view of residents in West Berlin. He was the 27th Berliner to die seeking freedom.
The carnage continued year in and year out, even as the Soviet Empire began to implode. The GDR government, at this point under ruthless hardliner Erich Honecker, continued to murder people who simply wanted to live free. On February 6, 1989, 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy became the last East German to be murdered while fleeing. He worked in a restaurant but was about to be drafted into the army. He and his friend Christian Gaudian mistakenly thought the order to shoot had been lifted. While climbing the last fence along a canal, he was shot and killed. Gueffroy would have been 51 today.
Gaudian was injured, arrested, and sentenced to three years in prison. But he was released on bail in September 1989 and sent to West Berlin the following month. The four border guards who fired on Gueffroy and Gaudian received awards, but they, along with two Communist Party officials, were later tried in a reunited Germany (ultimately spending little or no time in prison).
One more Berliner was to die. An electrical engineer, 32-year-old Winfried Freudenberg, used a home-made balloon to flee. It crashed on March 8, killing him. By then communism was disintegrating in Poland and Hungary. When the latter began pulling down its border fence with Austria in May, the Iron Curtain had a huge hole. East Germans began flooding out.
On November 9, 1989, decades of oppression were symbolically swept away.
Demonstrations erupted in the GDR, highlighted by people determined to stay and transform their country. Honecker reportedly wanted to shoot and requested Soviet intervention. Mikhail Gorbachev refused, and Honecker’s colleagues retired him in October. But their tepid attempts at reform could not stem the freedom tsunami. On November 4, a million people marched in East Berlin demanding the end of communism.
On November 9, 1989, decades of oppression were symbolically swept away. There had been other moments of hope. The 1953 East German demonstrations, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and the 1968 Prague Spring. But all were crushed with various degrees of bloody brutality.
However, 1989 was different. And it was the result of a mistake. The GDR decided to allow East Germans to apply for visas to travel. Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski missed most of the critical meeting but was tasked with announcing the new policy to the international press. He indicated that people could travel now, “immediately, without delay.” Crowds gathered at Berlin’s crossing points as GDR border guards unsuccessfully sought guidance from above. Receiving none, they opened the gate after 10,316 brutal, sometimes murderous days.
The euphoria of that evening—with Berliners East and West heading west and east—was not the end of the GDR. But those powerful emotions heralded the regime’s end.
The euphoria of that evening—with Berliners East and West heading west and east—was not the end of the GDR. But those powerful emotions heralded the regime’s end. Nothing, including East German officials’ desperate attempts to preserve their state and West European officials’ furtive objections to Germany reunification, could stem popular demand to put the German Humpty Dumpty back together.
However, liberty was not fully restored until the rest of the Eastern European states defenestrated their communist regimes, including Romania, whose leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, was a crackpot even by communist standards. He and his wife fled by helicopter when demonstrators they had gathered to harangue instead shouted him down. Their pilot observed: “They look as if they were fainting. They were white with terror.”
On Christmas Eve, soldiers couldn’t wait to start shooting to carry out the death sentence of a drumhead court-martial. Most important, the Soviet Union ultimately dissolved. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned Christmas Day 1991; the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time at midnight. On the 26th there was no more USSR.
After the Soviet Union
It is impossible to overstate the importance of that moment. There was a unique evil in Nazi Germany, with the attempted extermination of an entire people, a group long scapegoated and persecuted. However, communism’s body count dwarfs that of fascism generally and Nazism specifically. The Black Book of Communism estimated the death toll at more than 100 million. R.J. Rummel’s figures in Death by Government are similar, though analysts vary in their figures for specific countries. And brutal repression, if not necessarily mass murder, continues in Communist survivors China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam.
Often the murder didn’t even make logical sense. Rummel described Stalin’s USSR:
[M]urder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the “enemies of the people” they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering “plots.” They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their arrested loved ones.
Surely this system was an Evil Empire, as President Ronald Reagan described it. On November 9, the Berlin Wall opened, never to close again. The European communist autocracies disappeared, though they found the transition to democratic capitalism to be more difficult than most analysts predicted and all hoped. Perhaps most tragic has been Russia’s retreat into authoritarianism. Nevertheless, the collapse of communism was a magnificent triumph of the human spirit. The commitment to liberty defeated the lust for power.
There were many heroes in the fight for freedom. Some are famous, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet novelist who chronicled the horrors of the gulag, and Lech Walesa, the Polish electrician who climbed atop a shipyard wall in Gdansk to challenge his country’s rulers. Before them came Imre Nagy and Pal Maleter, who led Hungarian revolutionaries and were executed by the Soviets and their local lackeys. Particularly important was Mikhail Gorbachev, a reform communist who critically kept Soviet troops in their barracks throughout 1989.
And, of course, Ronald Reagan. He believed communism could be defeated. On June 12, 1987, he stood in front of Brandenburg Gate and issued his famous challenge:
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Most important, however, were the common folk across the continent who made the revolution. They resisted the apparatchiks. They kept the dream alive. They demonstrated for change. They suffered in prison and sometimes were killed. They ultimately ended communism in country after country.
It has been three decades—the wall has been down longer than it was up—but we should continue to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the monstrously evil system behind it. The spirit of liberty survives today. There are additional freedom revolutions that should and must be staged in the future.
For three years, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have conducted a murderous campaign to reinstall a pliable regime in the desperately poor country of Yemen. This campaign is based on a lie intended to gain American support: that the two authoritarian monarchies are responding to Iranian aggression. Now the UAE is preparing a military offensive that could split Yemen apart and create mass starvation.
The Saudi-Emirati alliance is the most dangerous force in the Middle East today. Sometimes acting alone, but usually in tandem, the two dictatorships have promoted intolerant Wahhabism around the world, backed brutal tyranny in Egypt and Bahrain, supported radical jihadists while helping tear apart Libya and Syria, threatened to attack Qatar while attempting to turn it into a puppet state, and kidnapped the Lebanese premier in an effort to unsettle that nation’s fragile political equilibrium. Worst of all, however, is their ongoing invasion of Yemen.
To demonstrate support for its royal allies, America joined their war on the Yemeni people, acting as chief armorer for both authoritarian monarchies and enriching U.S. arms makers in the process. America’s military has also provided the belligerents with targeting assistance and refueling services. And our Special Forces are on the ground assisting the Saudis. Read the rest at theamericanconservative.com.
President Donald Trump entered office with praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and support for improving Washington-Moscow relations. A year later President Trump surprised even his aides by congratulating Putin on the latter’s reelection and suggesting a summit meeting between the two leaders.
A chilling political wind is blowing through the capitals of America, Europe and Russia. There is talk of a new Cold War, as the two sides trade diplomatic expulsions. In the West, at least, there is even a hint of war as NATO fusses over European defense capabilities (poor) and the United States deploys more troops to the continent (as usual).
President Trump has stood by, mostly silently, as bilateral relations continued their slow-motion collapse, demonstrating his essential irrelevance to much of U.S. foreign policy. For instance, he allowed the State Department to announce the latest expulsion of Russian diplomats. This is one area where his gut instincts—the value of an improved relationship—are correct, but what he personally believes obviously doesn’t much matter for policy. That could change as he asserts himself with a new secretary of state and national security advisor, but they both have hawkish instincts and have demonstrated no interest in détente with Moscow.
Despite the diplomatic spiral, however, there is no new Cold War. And there won’t be a hot war unless Washington ignites a confrontation while pursuing an ever more interventionist and activist foreign policy in areas viewed as vital by Russia.
The best way to speed the day when the Cuban people will be free is to immerse Cuba in the world.
The communist king is dead. May the next one not live so long. And then may there be no other. Although the government headed by Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, continues, Fidel’s death marks the end of an era. It is difficult to imagine a future revolutionary becoming a romantic figure while imprisoning and executing his opponents.
Today the truth about Cuba’s supposedly equal society is widely known: it is one of poverty and only for those without power. One suspects that Fidel never had to produce a ration book for food, like his countrymen.
Still, the system isn’t likely to disappear soon. Raul has been in charge for a decade, as Fidel retreated due to ill health. More than a few regime apparatchiks still believe their interest is advanced by oppressing everyone else.
What should the United States do?
Washington has been at odds with Havana since Castro’s revolutionaries took power in 1959. Cuba would have been of little geopolitical importance except for the Cold War, when the Castros turned to the Soviet Union for support. The United States initiated economic warfare against the regime, soon imposing a full embargo.
Alas, the attempt to economically strangle communist rule was no more successful than the Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles and series of bizarre CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. After the Cuban missile crisis the Kennedy administration agreed not to again threaten the island with invasion, but maintained economic sanctions.
Washington’s abject failure—Castro outlasted ten presidents—caused politically sensitive lawmakers to continue doubling down, eventually even targeting foreign companies. Yet the Castros continued to rule, despite the end of economic subsidies from the defunct Soviet Union.
Indeed, U.S. behavior fit the definition of insanity: doing more of the same thing and expecting a different result.
The U.S. presidential election mercifully has ended. But global conflict continues. And American politicians are still attempting to drag America into another tragic, bloody Middle Eastern conflict.
To do so would be madness. President-Elect Donald Trump appears to recognize that Syria is not America’s responsibility. Unfortunately, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, as well as some of those mentioned for top administration positions, take a more militaristic perspective. Trump should announce that his administration will not get involved in Syria’s civil war in any way.
President Barack Obama spent five years resisting pressure for direct military intervention. But he appointed war supporters John Kerry, Samantha Power, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton to manage his foreign policy. Kerry acknowledged to a group of Syrian refugees in Beirut that he and other officials had advocated use of force but “lost the argument.”
However, rather than clearly set a policy of non-involvement, President Obama attempted intervention-lite. The administration failed in both its major objectives: oust Bashar al-Assad as president and empower “moderate” opponents. However, administration officials still have not given up. Even as the American people were voting on Obama’s successor his appointees were pushing “kinetic actions against the regime,” reported anonymous sources. The president remains at odds with his own appointees.
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