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Afghanistan Papers

Trump’s Beltway Critics Failed in Afghanistan

Turns out, the same class of experts that claims the president is the biggest threat to global security in 70 years has been the legitimate threat.


- January 23rd, 2020
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As I wrote earlier this week, Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden has plenty of explaining to do and not just about his son’s sweet gig with a corrupt Ukrainian energy company.

Biden, in the wake of an explosive exposé by the Washington Post, needs to account for his nearly two-decade involvement in the disastrous war in Afghanistan.

Few politicians in Washington have more fingerprints on the war’s failed planning and execution than Joe Biden: As the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 10 years, then vice president for eight, Biden supported the 2001 invasion; co-authored the 2002 bill to authorize reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan (at a cost of least $130 billion in U.S. tax dollars and climbing) and went along with Barack Obama’s surge of U.S. troops, which began a decade ago this month.

Despite his possessing almost the reverse of a Midas Touch when it comes to foreign affairs—Afghanistan is just one of Biden’s many and storied mishaps—Biden is earning endorsements from the Beltway’s national security crowd, Democrats and Republicans alike. Coincidentally, many of Biden’s supporters populate the same disgruntled diplomatic corps that has opposed Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy and now are attempting to oust him from the White House: The House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was animated by the self-righteous musings of career State Department bureaucrats who think they, not the president, should set foreign policy.

After Trump released the transcript of his July 2019 phone call with the Ukrainian president, now serving as the pretext for impeachment, more than 300 national security officials signed a letter that insisted the conversation was an impeachable offense.

“There is no escaping that what we already know is serious enough to merit impeachment proceedings,” they wrote. “From there, the facts—and nothing but the facts—should dictate how Congress holds the President to account and signals to the world that our foreign policy and national security are not for sale.”

One of the signers of the Foggy Bottom tirade was Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. Burns is a Biden backer and outspoken critic of President Trump. (He voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.)

“Vice President Biden [is] so competent, so professional about defense of the United States, his mastery of national security policy,” Burns cooed in an October 2019 interview on MSNBC. Burns accused President Trump of “weakening” the United States on the global stage.

It’s not the only time Burns has condemned Donald Trump. He’s a frequent columnist in Trump-hating outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times, and is a reliable anti-Trump quote machine for any author writing an article about the president’s allegedly dangerous approach to international affairs.

In February 2019, Burns produced a report commemorating NATO’s 70th Anniversary. The document, however, was not a celebration of the post-World War II pact. Instead, it was a lengthy rebuke of Donald Trump, the American president these self-proclaimed experts warn has created a crisis in the alliance. “NATO’s single greatest challenge is the absence of strong, principled American presidential leadership for the first time in its history. President Donald Trump is regarded widely in NATO capitals as the Alliance’s most urgent, and often most difficult, problem.”

Our allies’ concerns about Trump are so grave that NATO organized a “scaled-down leaders meeting” last year, the report disclosed, for fear Trump would make a scene. (The horror!) The president, in fact, did make a scene when he confronted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for welching on his country’s NATO financial commitment.

“Congress needs to be a blocking force against President Trump,” Burns, now a professor at Harvard Kennedy School, said in a video that accompanied the report’s release. The onetime advisor to former Secretary of State John Kerry detailed all the international challenges—from China to Russia to Afghanistan—that NATO confronts while conveniently overlooking the fact that his former bosses created the global mess that Donald Trump now is trying to clean up.

Burns’ co-author of the report is Doug Lute, the U.S. ambassador to NATO during Barack Obama’s second term. Lute often accuses Trump of acting as a stooge for the Kremlin in his “attacks” on NATO. Lute attended a pricey fundraiser for Biden in Washington last November and has endorsed his run for president.

But while Burns and Lute warn that President Trump is a menace to world peace, their now-public testimony about the war in Afghanistan reveals the endemic mismanagement of the nearly two-decade-long debacle, a conflict during which both of these supremely confident diplomats once rode shotgun.

Despite his current assurances about the value of NATO, in his interview with the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, Burns repeatedly questions the effectiveness of the alliance in the early stages of the war when he was ambassador. “So, one of the things we were looking at NATO in 2003, 2004 and 2005…was who is going to run the drug effort? Who is going to run the policing effort? Who is going to run reconstruction? Who is going to run infrastructure, and some of the countries were very good and some were absolute failures, the NATO members who took leads.”

Burns called the NATO command in Afghanistan “disjointed” as the situation gradually deteriorated and America shifted its focus to the war in Iraq, which also was “going very badly,” according to Burns. “I don’t remember us asking very tough questions,” Burns admitted. “I fault myself.”

Lute was even harsher in his assessment. Like Burns, Lute described widespread dysfunction in how the war was handled. “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2,400 lives lost. Who will say this was in vain?” Lute asked rhetorically in his February 2015 interview.

Lute explained how Obama’s national security team, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, were schooled in policy but not war planning. “There was a structural gap: there were two wars going on and we didn’t have anyone speaking strategically. There was a gap, or a void, in trying to connect ends, ways, and means.” Lute also criticized Obama’s 2010 troop surge as a failed go-it-alone plan that should have involved the Afghans.

Tens of billions were poured into the war effort each year without any accountability. “No one is paying attention in an interagency sense to resources,” Lute said. “Once in a while, OK, we can overspend. We are a rich country and can pour money down a hole and it doesn’t bust the bank. But should we?”

Then this candid comment: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing.”

The war in Afghanistan has been a failure by any measure. It has cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $1 trillion, including more than $130 billion to futilely rebuild the primitive country. Over three-quarters of a million American soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan over the past 18 years; 2,351 did not make it home alive and over 20,000 came home wounded or disfigured. Nearly all, we can sadly assume, carry deep emotional scars to this day.

And now we have first-hand accounts from the war’s architects and handlers about what a disaster it has been all along. The same class of experts that claims Donald Trump is the biggest threat to global security in 70 years has been the legitimate threat. They knew the war was going poorly, that young American patriots were dying needlessly, that U.S. tax dollars were being wasted, and they said nothing.

On the contrary, they helped mislead the American public and Congress that things were going just as planned.

Now, suddenly, they have found their collective voice—not to come clean about their incompetence or to apologize to the families who paid the ultimate price but to accuse Donald Trump of risking our security with his neophyte ways. His lack of manners and self-serving business background and brash deal making just isn’t the right pedigree for the refined diplomatic aristocracy.

But in reality, it is they, not Donald Trump, who are the rank amateurs. We can only hope that their ongoing war against the president is one more war they lose.

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