The most dangerous words used in US foreign policy

Afghanistan proves the idea that Washington 'can install a new government' is irrational and unattainable

A US flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony in Helmand province in May. AP Photo
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The phrase "and then we install a new government" should be permanently banned from any US foreign policy planning meeting. Installing and propping up an artificially contrived government is what the US tried to do in South Vietnam following France's failure there. Now the same scenario is repeating itself with grim predictability in Afghanistan.

At least since the Second World War, it has simply not been possible to create a new state and polity in another society from the outside at what most Americans would consider an acceptable cost and timeframe. Great powers can have success by siding with existing, and already strong, domestic groups – whether government or opposition – to help determine the outcome of a struggle.

Russia and Iran's intervention in Syria is a good example that this can be done effectively and relatively inexpensively, albeit in that case ruthlessly. But the American instinct is always to want to leave something "trustworthy" behind, meaning allies and institutions that are recognisably tolerable from a US perspective. In almost all cases, that effectively means attempting to impose a revolution from outside. And that simply does not work.

Overturning existing systems and creating new ones, combined with an influx of cash, goods, weapons and other support, is an irresistible invitation to corruption. There will always be civic-minded patriots who labour for the best of reasons. But it’s an irresistible smorgasbord of goodies for the unscrupulous, the selfish and the corrupt.

When a truly new order is being imposed, unless the occupying power micromanages a process that is extremely time-consuming and expensive, there will be a frenzy of what Marxists call the "primitive accumulation" of power and wealth. There's practically no way around that, especially in developing economies where political authority depends on substantial political patronage and jobs for many constituents. People need to live, and they need help.

So, unless an outside force were to stumble on an unheard-of assemblage of saints, corruption is virtually built into the process.

In Afghanistan, corruption rapidly became the defining feature of life. Video of the Taliban ransacking one of former vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum’s homes last week reveal it to be a minor monument to decades of corruption. And he's hardly the worst. The government's lack of popularity and viability are amply demonstrated by its sudden meltdown.

The collapse of the US project and the imminent takeover of most if not all of the country by the Taliban is an inverted pyramid of fiascoes and deficiencies.

At the bottom are the soldiers and mid-level commanders of the Afghan military, who are largely refusing to fight and simply handing over regional capitals to the Taliban as soon as the fanatics can drive there. Many were simply looking for a job, and are chronically under- or unpaid and undersupplied. And who is going to be willing to fight and die for someone else's grift?

Many aren't even serving in their own local areas and therefore don't feel they are protecting their families. Washington and its Afghan allies have notably failed to nurture an ideology, or national or social consciousness that is functional, let alone able to trump the religious passion of the Taliban, among the Afghan people.

At the next level up the pyramid are the military commanders. Their army is much smaller than reported because many senior commanders have made a fortune by reporting countless non-existent troops and pocketing pay and supplies. Vast sums, well in excess of $83 billion, have been poured into the Afghan military, much more than neighbouring Pakistan has spent on its large and more effective forces during the same timeframe. But rather than creating an effective fighting force, some commanders have spent most of their time taking what they can before the US withdrawal.

Expect a massive rash of defections to the new authorities at all levels of the military and political structure in coming days.

epa07210876 (L-R) US President Donald J. Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Former US President Barack Obama, Former First Lady Michelle Obama, Former US President Bill Clinton, Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Former US President Jimmy Carter and Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter attend the state funeral service of former President George H.W. Bush at the National Cathedral, in Washington, DC, USA, 05 December 2018. George H. W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States (1989-1993), died in his Houston, Texas, USA, home surrounded by family and friends on 30 November 2018. The body will return to Houston for another funeral service before being transported by train to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum for internment.  EPA/Chris Kleponis / POOL

Another step up the pyramid are Afghanistan's political leaders, many of whom have been inept, unresponsive, cut off from the public, self-serving and self-dealing.

Finally, towards the top of the pyramid of fiascos, are successive US governments.

Barack Obama inherited an impossible mission from his predecessor, George W Bush. But he made the misguided decision to try to create a vast, sprawling Afghan military along US lines, with all the equipment and logistics required for such a force. Instead of succeeding, that infusion of support simply sent corruption to new heights.

Mr Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, made an indefensible agreement with the Taliban, agreeing to completely withdraw US forces in exchange for unenforceable and insincere commitments from the extremists.

Overturning existing systems and creating new ones is an irresistible invitation to corruption

Now Joe Biden has rushed to implement Mr Trump's agreement and timetable, but in the most slapdash and hasty manner imaginable. He is literally having US troops run away from key installations, such as Bagram Air Force Base, overnight.

But at the very peak of the pyramid of ignominy is without question the Bush administration, which certainly had to act forcefully against the Taliban and Al Qaeda after September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yet, instead of crushing those groups, and making clear to all Afghans that any association with international terrorism would result in the uncompromising return of massive American force, his administration decided to try creating a new state and new polity in A society they didn't understand and to which it wasn't in the least suited.

In other words, somebody said: "And then we install a new government.”

The devastating impact of this latest catastrophe, and similarly in Iraq, is the stigmatisation of all but the most unavoidable use of force in most US thinking, especially among the public, and the return of an isolationist trend on the far left and the extreme right, increasingly acting in co-ordination with each other.

A great many Americans are traumatised by these quixotic debacles – now derided as "endless wars" – and therefore are seized with a malady known as "kakorrhaphiophobia", the irrational fear of failure, regarding the use of power.

The next time any senior American official says "and then we install the new government", not only should the meeting be immediately terminated, so should that official's employment.

Hubristic, quixotic and unattainable state-building projects on the other side of the world must, at long last, be excised from the US foreign policy playbook.

Published: August 15, 2021, 3:22 PM