Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.05.27

After three U.S. strikeouts, will Afghanistan be the fourth?

the japan times on April 29, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy National Security The U.S.A. Middle East

“I’ve concluded it’s time to end America’s longest war.”

U.S. President Joe Biden formally announced plans to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. When I heard Biden say, “It’s time for American troops to come home,” I thought he had finally made a good and long-awaited strategic decision for the United States.

The announcement was made on April 14, just two days before he met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Washington. Last week, I hailed Biden’s decision as “very symbolic,” demonstrating a critical shift in U.S. “foreign policy priorities from the European and Middle Eastern theaters to the Indo-Pacific.”

In Washington and elsewhere, however, his historic decision was not welcomed by everyone.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, called it “a grave mistake.” Bret Stephens wrote in The New York Times that “Abandoning Afghanistan Is a Historic Mistake.” Both are rightly concerned about America’s friends in Afghanistan.

With that said, I am concerned about the decision for different reasons. One of my primary concerns is the withdrawal could make the region far more unstable than it was previously — a pattern that the world has seen before. In fact, this could be the fourth time that Washington’s well-intentioned political maneuvers have made the situation much worse in the Middle East.

The following are some of my personal observations:

The Iranian revolution

When a revolution erupted in Iran in late 1978, Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president. His Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski were reportedly divided on how best to support the Shah of Iran. Vance wanted more reforms in Iran while Brzezinski urged the Shah to crack down on the protesters.

President Carter was indecisive. Vance and Brzezinski sent mixed messages to the Shah, causing confusion. If President Carter had acted more decisively right from the start and had given more concrete advice and guidance to the Iranian monarch, the Shah could have survived the revolution, which was still in its early stages at that time.

I was a young and fresh-faced Arabic language officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1978. I heard several rumors at the time about the revolution, one of which suggested that the Shah could have stayed in power if the U.S. had worked more closely with Iran’s armed forces. That is neither here nor there now as America eventually lost Iran. That was strike one for Washington.

Iraq in 2004

America’s second strike was the fiasco caused by the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, in Iraq in 2003-2004. Japan’s Foreign Ministry sent me to work in the CPA as Japan’s representative. The top administrator of the CPA and Iraq was Ambassador Paul Bremer, who was appointed by then-President George W. Bush to replace Lt. Gen. Jay Garner in May 2003.

Bremer, according to some, “occupied the most powerful foreign post held by any American since Gen. Douglas MacArthur” when he presided over the reconstruction of postwar Japan. Bremer was my boss for six months while I was embedded with the CPA. I worked in an office overseeing economic assistance programs for a post-Saddam Hussein Mesopotamia.

The American diplomat, like a king, ruled the oil-rich nation by decree. But unfortunately, he was no Gen. MacArthur. Among Bremer’s first and most ill-advised decrees were CPA Orders 1 and 2, which banned “the Ba’ath Party in all forms” and “dismantled the Iraqi Army.” Those two orders literally destroyed the governmental structure in Iraq.

As the U.S. did in Tokyo in 1945, the CPA could have left the Iraqi armed forces intact while it removed Saddam’s influence from the nation’s governing circles. That was not done in Baghdad in 2003. No wonder, a civil war soon erupted. And by early 2004, the country was out of control. In the end, the CPA failed to democratize Iraq.

Egypt in 2011

The third strike was Egypt during the Arab Spring, which reached Cairo in February 2011. As in the case of the Shah of Iran in 1978, the Obama administration was also divided. President Barack Obama reportedly declined to call President Hosni Mubarak an “autocrat,” instead, declaring him a “stalwart ally.”

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, like President Obama, also tried to work with regional leaders, including Mubarak, in securing the continued existence of their regimes. However, when Mubarak delivered a defiant speech amid a massive protest on Jan. 28 of that year, Obama finally called Mubarak by phone, urging him to resign.

According to Philip Gordon, the author of “Losing the Long Game,” Obama’s younger aides persuaded the president to stand on the “right side of history” and call on Mubarak to step down. They managed to “overcome the objections of their more conservative, senior colleagues,” including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Tom Donilon.

In retrospect, President Obama’s decision to replace Mubarak did not turn out well for Egypt. Despite U.S. efforts to help Egypt transition toward a democracy with free and fair elections, the country, after a short-lived Islamist government, returned to military rule after the coup in 2013.

Afghanistan in 2021

Of course the United States has also played a positive role in the Middle East. Without U.S. assistance, many of its friends and allies in the region cannot survive. With that said, whenever a nation faces a crisis in the Middle East, Washington tends to be more divided than united and, in many cases, to be either indecisive or remain hesitant.

Now in 2021, many of Obama’s then younger aides, including Tony Blinken, Samantha Power and Denis McDonough, are serving in the Biden administration. Although they might have thought that they were on the “right side of history” in Egypt then, what they ended up with is another undemocratic military regime, one that is only slightly better than that under Mubarak.

Biden promised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the “United States will continue to support the Afghan people” following the withdrawal, according to the White House. What did Biden really promise Ghani? What is the “right side of history” as it pertains to Afghanistan? Now that Washington has struck out in the Middle East so many times, what concerns me most is the possibility of another such diplomatic failure for the U.S., which could further destabilize the region.