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Giving a Damn About Our Reputation and The Cost of the Withdrawal from Afghanistan
In Breaking a DIME(FIL) Piece Into Pennies, we defined the instruments of national power. If you remember nothing else about DIMEFIL, remember this: Power is held by those who show up. Don’t show up? Don’t get a say – or even a shot at one.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan did not occur in a vacuum, and as we see every day, the lack of US presence in the country does not mean the country ceases to exist. Cost is objective, but whether or not the choice is worth the cost can be a matter of opinion. Based on our understanding of where national power comes from, the decision to withdrawal from Afghanistan and the execution of that withdrawal has objective costs to the US, and is a meaningful case study to start to understand power.
This week’s playlist includes several an absolute bangers, a fairly effective summary of the US government’s attitude towards the withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan, and a vibe check on the cost of that decision. As always, the playlist is longer than the email.
Non-Friends Who Get Benefits
Everyone knew the US was leaving. Like a millennial who watches a lot of Antiques Roadshow (Team BBC) at a weekend flea market, other nations and actors showed up looking for equipment, land, natural resources, human capital, and much more.
For example, we’ve seen reports of the Government of Pakistan and Pakistan-based insurgents *taking* (not buying, just like grabbing) US-made military equipment, [equipment filled with intellectual property, intelligence, and capabilities that are so heavily guarded that most Americans can get the security clearance required to see it] - in broad daylight way before USG personnel left as well as confirmation of arms sales since the withdrawal. Not great vibes.
Similarly, the Chinese government supposedly wasted no time in securing access to the lithium reserves inside Afghanistan. Lithium, like copper, cobalt, nickel, and rare earth minerals, exists naturally in Afghanistan and is a seriously hot commodity.
What do these objectively annoying things have to do with American interests?
The US feels pretty strongly about keeping its secrets secret, getting credit for its work, and not being reliant on dictatorial regimes for necessities. Pakistan and various extremist groups grabbing physical items and doing who knows what with them definitely gets in the way of numbers one and two, and given how important lithium is in making stuff, showcased by the beyond 1999-level Black Friday rush in getting at it, the CCP being the owner or controller of access to it makes number three pretty shake-y, too.
Thank You for Being a Fair-Weather Friend
Even the most MLM-stricken Americans often quote Dr. Maya Angelou (probably without context or pajamas):
When we think about the role of the US in Afghanistan, who is the US showing itself to be? Do other actors see it differently than those in the US? Does that matter?
Who’s Got the Power?
As last week’s issue showed, reputation isn’t everything but it is a whole lot when it comes to national power. You can’t just say your powerful, it has to be true. And that means you have to be able to intentionally exert control and influence over other entities or actors.
-Do I respect you enough to care what you think, support your endeavors, and believe your existence has value?
-Do I trust you will keep your word and standby me or do your threats make a sealed bag of chips look full?
Like Elle Woods in Stromwell’s class, countries and non-state actresses need evidentiary support - in this case past or current actions for example - to answer these questions. The withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan unequivocally impacts the answer.
In the case of the withdrawal:
What is the US showing its partners, friends, and allies? Is the US as fair-weather a friend as a middle school bully when you have a pack of gum or are we a values-forward champion of democracy? Is the US going to help you or is the US going to make you forever dependent on it?
And what is America showing those, like the Taliban and Vladmir Putin, who see free people as a nuisance to be overcome in their quest for autocratic control?
If the US can’t be trusted or believed, where does that leave its power? How about its safety? And where does that leave everyone else?
Yeah. Tough questions, but tougher answers.
Your Opinion Is Not a Fact
So far we’ve focused mostly on immediate or at least direct impacts of the decision to withdrawal from Afghanistan. We need to talk about the more complicated or involved outcomes too. In my experience, this is where opinions get confused with facts, untruths abound, and we might be inclined to defer to someone who we think ‘knows better’ because we don’t trust ourselves. But I trust you, and we can do this together.
As I keep saying, none of this happened in a vacuum. Let’s articulate how earlier choices created later challenges, acknowledge the human element and impact of this enormous policy decision, and then talk about cost and power.
Opinions, Facts, Lies, and Untruths
Lots of people have lots of thoughts about why the US should or should not have left Afghanistan. Mazel tov to all those people, this is not about anyone’s opinion. We’re focused on understanding costs, so let’s make sure we know what’s fact, what’s an informed opinion, what’s flat out incorrect.
While I personally may not agree with someone, I am willing to accept that smart people can look at the same facts and reach a different conclusion. Let’s use garlic as an example.
Garlic is real and is not inherently poisonous to humans. This is a fact.
Much like people who think there is such thing as ‘too much garlic,’ I might think a person’s conclusion is a bad one but it doesn’t make them evil nor does it make them a liar. This is their opinion.
We each have our own considerations, and I would be willing to set aside my belief that The Limit Does Not Exist re: garlic out of love and support for Nadja and Nadja Doll, as an example.
However, sometimes people are wrong and it is important to say so (I’m an Aries, what do you want from me).
Here are some things about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that we often hear talked about as facts but are actually opinions and based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Let’s clarify and expand on them in a way that analyzes the cost of the withdrawal with more complexity than we’ve done so far, and we’re doing to do it well.
Fact Dressed Up as an Opinion: The evacuation of Afghans at specific risk is important because Americans owe these Afghans something, since they fought “on behalf of America”.
Actual Facts: Afghans who fought alongside or supported the US government did not do so as a favor to America, they do so for themselves, their families, and their country. As recent events remind us, the Taliban have been the enemy of a free and democratic Afghanistan – especially Afghan women and girls - for generations (see NSA issue 1) and Afghans have fought against them for just as long. Afghans didn’t join Americans, Americans joined Afghans. Literally. And in our absence, the fight continues.
Why It Matters: I know we are focused on the US impacts here, but I need to say the following:
The narrative is an insult to Afghans, their sacrifices, and their dreams, and suggests American service members are the only people worthy of ‘main character energy,’ as the kids call it. I know too many Afghan women who are soldiers dentists, lawyers, artists, writers, and students whose Instagram’s make even the most self-absorbed pilot’s YouTube Channel look like Homestar Runner for this to be true 🙃.
The falsehood also fueled a dangerous non-fact based counter-narrative determining the value of US involvement in Afghanistan before, during, and after the withdrawal: that Afghans did not voluntarily, independently, desire freedom and would/did crumble at the first moment of adversity. Therefore the US contribution was a waste from the beginning. This has implications for America going forward too (keep reading).
An Untruth Dressed Up As A Fact : Most of the Afghan military ‘just gave up,’ and the fact that the Taliban took control so easily is proof the US was wasting time and resources by still being there.
The Truth: This is a conclusion based on incomplete information. Again, not only does this ignore the generations of resistance to the TB, it also ignores the details of HOW the US was engaged in Afghanistan. Specifically, this argument overlooks the kind of American and Allied training and equipment available vs not available to the Afghan military to suggest the outcome was unavoidable no matter what.
Why Does It Matter: Yes friends, the HOW matters along side the WHAT – maybe even more so in certain circumstances. Without context, we can assert ridiciulous claims like birds aren’t real and the Afghan military crumbled and members fled rather than fight. Fortunately, the latter is a great way to apply the framework we talked about last week and begin understanding the cost of a particular policy choice or choices.
Bringing It All Together
There’s been a lot of talk about pilots and aircraft, so let’s stay with that.
While Afghan pilots were cleared and trained on numerous types of US-provided aircraft, the US government did not train and equip maintenance crews to service these aircraft beyond a *very* short window. Said another way, the Afghan military wasn’t capable of maintaining the equipment that was successful against the Taliban because an intentional decision was made to not provide the training and tools essential to that process…and *everyone* (including the TB) knew it.
As a result, pilots and crews were left with a public expiration date. As General Keith Mackenzie, Commanding General of US Central Command remarked when asked about aircraft left behind, he wasn’t worried because [they] were ‘demilitarized’ so ‘they can never fly again’ prior to the withdrawal. This gave the TB time to get organized and prepare with little-to-no fear of attack. Also, the pilots and crews knew before the US left there would have no means of fighting back. Without the credible threat of retribution and force (hey, DIMEFIL!) decades of threats to not just the Afghan military but to their families were on a countdown clock.
With this information, how does your opinion of members of the Afghan military change?And how does this information add to or decrease the cost of the withdrawal?
The Big Finish
The US’ choice to train the Afghan military in a way that still required direct US support and equipment, preventing independence and resiliency, could undermine other partnerships around the world.
Training from the US military is highly sought after (because of our national power). That desire then contributes to our national power. But now, to some, maybe it looks like the US doesn’t train all its partners equally or sustainably.So, maybe if you’re a partner you look elsewhere. Definitely a hit to prestige.
There are lots of names and benefits for this kind work. We’ll get into it later but basically, these are all opportunities for people to meet, work together, and build relationships. For now, we are smart enough to see the DIMEFIL value of relationships and why less willing and excited partners is a bummer.
The idea that Afghans who made it to the United States did so they weren’t brave enough to stay and/or are here not on their own merits or merits of human rights but as a favor is…icky. And is, in my mind, without a doubt the reason why the Afghan Adjustment Act did not pass.
But we're talking about costs to US interests, so let’s do that. The chaotic initial and barely functional continuing evacuation of Afghans happened on the world stage. The US is way past reputation risk here friends and like, neck-level, in shame. That shame eats away at power. Just ask our friends.
As we talked about last week, power is about the ability to achieve a desired outcome when you want how you want which includes making something happen or pretending something from happening, too. Our behavior isn’t observed only by partners and potential partners, but by adversaries as well. And I’ll be damned if this isn’t worthy of a page in the Burn Book.
Key Takeaway: The withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan is a meaningful example of how policy choices have direct and indirect costs to American power. The world is a big place, and the US has a big part it in. The choices the US makes and how it makes and executes them creates a reaction. Ignoring basic laws of physics does not make them go away, nor does calling them untrue. Everything has a cost, even the things worth doing.
Gimme More: A Few Resources for More Info
We didn’t directly talk about why the US withdrew or the arguments saying it was the right choice, because those are the more common refrains we here. I plan on publishing something on this later and without much fanfare. When I do, I’ll link to it here.
How the World Sees America Amid Its Chaotic Withdrawal from Afghanistan - Morning Consult
The William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies - An example of mil-mil engagement
The Strategic Logic of Forever War - Leo Blanken and Stephen Rodriguez, Foreign Policy
‘They forget us’: How an Afghan Black Hawk pilot saw his country collapse - Val Insinna, Breaking Defense. A piece by a friend about a friend
War Vet Wants Congress to Help the Afghan Pilots Who Kept Him Safe - Quil Lawrence, NPR. A piece about more friends.
The US government and media has long centered the voices of US men with prior military service as the if not exclusive at least default experts on all things national security, defense, and foreign policy. Coverage of the withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan and subsequent analysis and commentary does not stray from this model despite the significant leadership and expertise of women veterans and civilians. The culture around defining and accepting expertise, how women who publicly own their contributions are treated, and seemingly unavoidable harassment women who ‘do’ media face threatens to continue to long tradition of erasing or overshadowing people who deserve to be seen. Honesty breeds resilience and success - two things America needs.
Acknowledging my own biases here, but also recognizing that biases comes from expertise.
: Mil-Mil Engagement, Partner Military Training, Professional Military Education, Security Assistance, Train and Equip
I don’t intend on expanding on this argument via NSA in the near term because I am exhausted from repeating it, but if you want to hear me out drop me a line.