My guest: Professor Nicholas Grossman
Nicholas Grossman is a University of Illinois political scientist and international relations expert, Senior Editor of Arc Digital, and author of “Drones and Terrorism: Asymmetric Warfare and the Threat to Global Security”. In this episode we discuss the United States’ exit from Afghanistan and whether or not it was the best option.
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This is an automated transcript which likely contains minor errors.
Steve Holstein (00:56):
Thanks for coming on the podcast with me. I want to start with something that you just wrote. Every option in Afghanistan was bad. Tell me about that.
Nicholas Grossman (01:05):
So that’s a, an article I just put out on our digital thing came out a couple of days ago and, uh, the, that was my biggest takeaway than if I would recommend to anybody. If you want to start trying to understand the end of the war in Afghanistan, maybe the entire war in Afghanistan, but especially if the decisions by various presidents, uh, including, uh, both Trump and Biden who played a role in the withdrawal. That’s the first thing you really need to understand is that every option was bad. We were deciding between some sort of good outcome that would have been, you know, easy, or it was just around the corner and going to be positive versus something that was terrible and awful. We were deciding basically between bad and worse. And so the two options broadly were to withdraw and see the Afghan government and military collapse and see some of the negative scenes that are playing out on the news right now.
Nicholas Grossman (01:57):
And we can get to this later, if you’d like, it could have been handled better, but it was going to in some manner, uh, be something like this and that the Taliban will take back over and, uh, it could potentially be, become a host to international terrorists like Al-Qaeda again. So that was one option. The other option was to stay indefinitely, that to kind of keep on fighting for a government that was ineffective and corrupt. It was standing with us support, but it could not stand without it. And there were various officials who were effectively grifting money out of the United States and various other international actors, a bunch of other countries, NATO, uh, that were putting money into Afghanistan, that they were out for themselves more than for the country than a lot of the military. Didn’t have a sort of nationalistic, uh, fighting for Afghanistan, a really strong motivation linking all of them, especially because the government that they were fighting for was corrupt and ineffective.
Nicholas Grossman (02:57):
Whereas the Taliban wanted it more, that they were very passionate about what they were fighting for, that they would fight the indefinitely with or without outside support. And so those two options of leave and see a lot of bad things happen or stay and not really get to anything that could be called a successful end game that would allow the us to withdraw. And there was many details within that, but those are the two broad options and both of them would be bad outcomes. So there was no possibility of something good happening there. Well, our
Steve Holstein (03:29):
Entry in Afghanistan, and if any point I, uh, I say something that’s incorrect, please just step right in and correct me, but our entry was due to the attacks of September 11th. So we go in our goal is to defeat terrorism, the seed of it being in Afghanistan, but to also find, um, Osama bin Laden, uh, which eventually that did happen really was staying even an option. But I think overall most experts and perhaps yourself included, um, and certainly the United States public just, just general schmoes, like me feel like it’s time to wrap this up. Yeah.
Nicholas Grossman (04:01):
I think that’s a widespread sentiment and pulls back that up. That majority’s agree with the way that you described it. Just kind of being fed up with it and where it feels like good money being thrown after bad. And that seems to be what, uh, president Biden’s attitude is towards it. And I got the sense in watching him speak that this has been his attitude for a long time. And if you follow reports closely of the Obama administration, when he was vice-president, he advised against adding new troops to Afghanistan, which was something that Obama eventually did in an attempt to create some sort of lasting solution that would allow the U S to leave with the Afghan government still standing. And that didn’t work then, and it kept on going longer and longer. Um, I, what I would personally do with it, if, you know, the policy were up to me, uh, is I would have stayed indefinitely.
Nicholas Grossman (04:45):
Um, I recognize this is not a popular position. Um, and the reason why, um, is I think a lot of, uh, Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of a war that basically goes on forever, you know, not just nicknamed the forever war, but, um, it really just going on indefinitely that we really liked the idea of, you know, you think of what are the, what’s the good war, you know, the world raised on, you know, world war II, where they started, and then we go and fight back and we get this unconditional surrender and we get a parade and then it’s over. And we are raised on where the bad war is, Vietnam, where it just, we don’t really know what we’re doing and it grows. And, um, you know, we’re just kind of who is going to be the last person to die for a mistake and all of that.
Nicholas Grossman (05:25):
And, um, Afghanistan wasn’t like either of those. So first there was, as you note, the precipitating event, that it was a response to September 11th, they were based in Afghanistan. They had a close relationship with the Taliban government. And when the U S president at the time, George W. Bush demanded in response to nine 11, that the Taliban handover bin Ladin, unexposed Al-Qaeda, they refused. So then the United States was looking at a situation of, we either allow these people to continue operate, or we go and do it ourselves. And after nine 11, the American public was not going to tolerate just sort of letting it slide. And so then upon going in, then there’s the question of, okay, well, now that we’ve removed the Taliban, if we leave, they’ll just come back and then Afghanistan will be a base for terrorism again. And so to stop that it needs that kind of definite commitment.
Nicholas Grossman (06:10):
The reason why I think I’m more supportive of it than most is I think most people were underestimating the degree of commitment that was necessary. This wasn’t something like hundreds of thousands of troops in Vietnam or Interac. Uh, the us had, um, it was less than 15,000 since about 2015 and was more or less holding a line, uh, in the year before the February, 2020 agreement between Trump and the Taliban that, uh, largely ended violence for a period of a year while clearly the Taliban was preparing to take over. And the year before that the United States was taking casualties at a rate of 1.5 per month from combat deaths, which is definitely not costless. And of course it would be devastating to any of their families, but it’s also the sort of thing that at a national level, the United States could sustain indefinitely. And I thought that the achievement of not letting Afghanistan be a host for international terrorism, plus a lot of humanitarian benefits, things like, uh, girls going to school, as opposed to being punished, even violently for doing so were combined worth it. But I don’t feel great about that arguments. And I think it’s important to note that we’re democracy and if the people really aren’t behind the war, if they want out, then the government in the military, you can’t sustain it. You
Steve Holstein (07:23):
Know, it’s not uncommon. And it’s, it continues to this day that the United States has military bases and countries around the world. And so if we were to leave, you know, two or three, four, 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, uh, it wouldn’t be unheard of, but the difference is that in all of, or most of those other countries, um, you have democratic governments or close to democratic governments and they want the United States military there, whereas in Afghanistan. And I think you’ve touched on this. It’s like, you didn’t seem to really have a willing government. You didn’t really seem to have a willing military. It was like we were propping them up. Well, let’s say the Joe Biden had decided, you know what, uh, I know what Donald Trump’s agreement was with the Taliban. I know where he was going with it. I know that 60 whatever percent or 70% of Americans would have been. So how could you explain that stain to the average citizen? Well,
Nicholas Grossman (08:14):
I don’t think it would be that hard and that’s not a positive statement. It’s because the, uh, the people, American people don’t tend to pay attention to it all that much. Um, so one is most of the time foreign policy is not at the top of the list of things people care about. You know, there’s some exceptions, uh, Vietnam and the draft of the 2004 election, right after the Iraq war started when everyone was still thinking about nine 11. Uh, but in general, foreign policy is not a biggest concern for most people. I think that’s especially true now as both the COVID 19 pandemic and the intensity of the 2020 election and its aftermath got a lot of Americans thinking internally, you know, we have our economic problems, we have our, uh, public health political problems. So not thinking about it as much and because it was a small footprint, it was something that the military and really, it was like a kind of dedicated core that was all voluntary in the military, was doing it.
Nicholas Grossman (09:07):
And if you think back to how much did you pay attention to Afghanistan and say 2017 or 2018, that how much did it come up? That right now, the us is withdrawing. There’s a lot of chaos. There’s a lot of tragic scenes that are playing out in the news, and then people are paying a lot of attention to it, but people aren’t usually don’t that much. And I think your example of where other ways that the us military is involved with basis. So I took that as in part, a reference to arguments like, oh, well, we still have troops in South Korea and in Japan and in Germany, and that’s true, but those, those troops aren’t engaged in active combat. You know, it’s not the same thing. Afghanistan never stopped being a combat environment. But the thing that is similar to it that I think probably most Americans don’t pay attention to is that in this broader counter-terrorism mission, the U S military was not only, uh, so it was in Afghanistan.
Nicholas Grossman (09:52):
Although now leaving has a few thousand troops in Iraq and a few thousand in Syria also conducts operations via either drone strikes or special ops special operations forces like ground rates, uh, in Yemen and in Somalia. Uh, those have gone through every president, um, Bush Obama, Trump and Biden have all authorized drone strikes in those theaters. The United States also has troops, you know, a few, but troops in, uh, 22 or more African countries doing the type of coordination and training missions and intelligence sharing missions to fight terrorism terrorists. You might have heard of that when there were in 2017, uh, for Americans was four army Rangers were killed in midair, uh, by a ISIS affiliate kind of unexpectedly. And then it got a lot of attention in the news. And then for, you know, especially because it gave Democrats an opportunity to say, oh, this is Trump’s Ben Ghazi, which was a misguided analogy, but, um, that, you know, to make a political issue of it, and then it disappears from the news again.
Nicholas Grossman (10:48):
So the, I think this is somewhat sad, especially you can imagine from an international relations professor who thinks foreign policy is extremely important that I don’t think it would have been that hard for politicians to sustain it further, as much as they sustained it throughout the 2010s with few Americans really wanting to be there. It just didn’t come up as much of an issue. And so that would be something that potentially national security policy makers could decide and could just tell the people, this is a crucial part of our fight against terrorism. And most people there would be critics of that, of course, but in general, the public would either buy it or just be concerned with other stuff. So I don’t think it would be that hard kind of to tell people that wouldn’t be a good reason on its own to stay. It’s just how a president would present
Steve Holstein (11:27):
It. Well, and you touched on this. I mean, it is a political issue and a politics right now, and probably forever is a sport in this country. It has become a sport. And so, you know, Donald Trump went into office and was elected in part because he said, I’m going to end the war in Afghanistan. I’m going to, well, actually, Barack Obama did the same thing. Obama, I want to, I want to get our troops out of Afghanistan, Donald Trump, the same thing. And as you said, president Joe, not a fan and didn’t want to extend additional troops there. So it’s, it’s always been this sort of, um, campaign promise that president after president, after president has given to the American public thinking that that’s really, uh, you know, a top level thing for them. When, in reality, as you said, day in and day out, we don’t really pay much attention to what’s going over there.
Steve Holstein (12:14):
We do. When we see 30 guys hanging onto the side of a C1, 30 transport plane, you know, those images, um, you just can’t make go away. Would it have been sustainable? Had we changed? And this, this sounds very simplistic. The name of it from the war in Afghanistan. And literally there was an announcement by either Trump or by Biden, who said, we’re no longer at war. We are now in a sustained position as we are in these other positions to just help the government. Could there have been a transition period in the slogan to say, we’re no longer at war we’re just there to help? Is that even possible?
Nicholas Grossman (12:48):
So I think maybe in some cases, but probably not Afghanistan and the reason why is because they really did need more help for that. So it would have been, and because the us had been doing it for awhile, that there needed to be Americans in combat roles, uh, usually, you know, assistance, especially with Afghan special forces, but, um, continuing to do raids. You know, you had people like Navy seals and army Rangers and CIA ops running around the country and some of them were going to die. And that would, you know, in the course of combat and that would body bags coming home, you know, would come on the news. If there were some, you know, elaborate attack, it would come up again. So I don’t think it could quite be sustained as a, uh, this is nothing more than say, like what’s going on in Somalia, uh, which the U S you know, if you think back to in the nineties, there was the black Hawk down incident with a very elaborate a case of American casualties in Somalia.
Nicholas Grossman (13:35):
But, uh, in recent years, you probably haven’t heard about it at all at all. And that’s because the U S almost entirely relies on drone strikes and isn’t risking personnel in the process and data on its own would not have been enough of in Afghanistan. But, um, the presidents, when you had said about each president kind of wanting to get out, or at least campaigning on it, I think to some extent that was genuine, but that’s what they were actually saying was not so much. I want to end the war in Afghanistan. I’m just going to withdraw no matter the consequences. Instead, I think it was more a case of I’m going to win the war in Afghanistan that I will kind of do what is necessary to get that final settlement that we’ve been talking about. And then I’ll get us out and that they came into office, whether that was something they genuinely genuinely believed, or, you know, a campaign promise or thing you just sort of say in the campaign, of course, I don’t know, but they would get into office and they would get a bunch of intelligence briefings saying, this is why we don’t think we can leave.
Nicholas Grossman (14:30):
This is what we think will happen. And a lot of times there’s also an element of, there were generals involved who would say things like, you know, just six more months and we got them, or, you know, I just need more resources to do this. And then we’ll really be in a position where we can, where we can leave with honor, you know, for example, and that if you hear echoes of Vietnam in that issue, so the, that part was never really true. I mean, at some extent, I don’t totally fault a comeback commander for saying, you know, when the president says, can you do this? You want them saying like, yes, sir, of course we can, you know, uh, if you order it, it’s a very rare person who will effectively jeopardize their career and tell the boss things he doesn’t want to hear, you know, and say things like, no, sir, I’m sorry.
Nicholas Grossman (15:13):
I know you want to do this, but I don’t think I can pull it off. Then usually the reaction is, okay, you’re fired. Let me get somebody who thinks I can do it. Um, so there’s a lot of institutional incentives not to maybe look at it honestly. But one thing that I think was a big mistake, both ethically and strategically were various government officials. And this goes across administrations, across parties, various government, uh, men officials telling Americans that it was just around the corner. So I found a quote, for example, from Obama in 2012, in which he said, uh, we are now able to transition out of Afghanistan responsibly because the Afghans can be responsible for their own security. And that was nine years ago. And clearly that wasn’t happening. So I don’t know how much these top government officials, including various presidents actually believed that victory in Afghanistan was just around the corner.
Nicholas Grossman (16:01):
Or if that was something that they just sort of said to the public, because they were going to continue kicking the can down the road. But the way I described to you of what I would have recommended of this kind of indefinite, uh, you know, people then bring up things like say world police, uh, type of actions, but it’s not that far off that, but you know, a, um, indefinite kind of stop it from boiling over. It is the extent of the mission and just do that forever. That was never sold to the American people. It was always sold as a, we’re going to have this big push and then we’ll win, and then we’ll be able to leave and have our parade. And that was never in the cards. And so various presidents and, you know, I brought up Obama, but, um, other ones did this too. That, that was a mistake. It was both wrong to be an accurate with the American people to kind of paint a false picture. And it also set up the strategy and really negative ways because people kept expecting a victory that wasn’t happening.
Steve Holstein (16:49):
You know, I wonder you go back to 2019. The Washington post published is something called the Afghanistan papers, which essentially the Afghanistan papers revealed that this was an unwinnable war. Could that have been something that perhaps the Biden administration could have brought forth to the American public in some sort of a primetime speech and said, look, we’ve been looking at this since 2019, the Washington post presented the Afghanistan papers. I’m not laying blame on any of our generals, but folks, my fellow citizens, this is the reality we are pulling out. I am going to finish what Donald Trump started. And I am pulling out by this date. Would that have helped at all?
Nicholas Grossman (17:26):
Biden kind of did that. I mean, he didn’t make a specific reference to the Afghanistan papers, but he did in his speech make, uh, you know, focus about how this wasn’t going to work. That the, the plan of them fighting on their own, you know, they weren’t about to do it. And so we shouldn’t continue, um, the Afghanistan. I mean, I remember when they came out, but it didn’t make that much of a splash. And I think part of the reason, you know, they even use the term kind of the Pentagon likes the Pentagon papers to a draw reference back to, you know, those Vietnam documents that you’re right, that it showed that the U S wasn’t winning. And pretty much the military leadership always knew it, but they kind of said, oh, just a little more. And we’ll win. Um, otherwise, but people like me who followed the conflict closely, already knew that was the case.
Nicholas Grossman (18:07):
So it wasn’t a surprise to us. And I think that people who only thought about it occasionally also kind of had a sense that that was the case that, you know, clearly, I mean, it had been going for 20 years and if they paid any attention to what politicians said, they had heard a winning is just around the corner or, you know, just another six months or a year for something, they heard that before. And so, you know, got this sense, uh, with Biden. I think part of the problem and that he’s been ducking is that there are two sets of criticisms. One is the one that says, do you, I should not have pulled out. And so that would be a criticism, both against Trump and Biden, but in particular that, you know, Biden’s the president. Now he could have, uh, reneged on the agreement.
Nicholas Grossman (18:46):
It wasn’t, the Taliban was not following it among other things in the agreement that they reached with Trump, they promised to cut all ties with Al Qaeda and they have not done that at all. So they weren’t following it. So there’s no reason why we had to, um, so you can accuse by him saying, oh, well, maybe you should have stayed anyway. And then he made a pretty good case on it. Wasn’t worth it anymore. That it was, it probably wasn’t worth it in a while. And there’s no reason to say, well, we spent so much there already. So let’s continue spending, you know, uh, lives and, and money to not really achieve any sort of victory. And that doesn’t make all that much sense. And he made that case. And while, like I said, too, I don’t agree with that decision. I would’ve made a different one.
Nicholas Grossman (19:25):
I think that’s a strong argument, definitely a reasonable position to hold. Then there’s also criticisms of how the withdrawal itself is being handled and Biden has largely duct. Those so has, um, various other senior people like a secretary of state Blinken or his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, that they have tried to steer any of those criticisms back towards, well, getting out, you know, withdrawing was the right decision because these various reasons, and that is something where it’s like, okay, maybe so, but if withdrawing was your decision and you were sticking to it, there were a lot of things you should have done to prepare it to be more smooth, but I’ll give you one example of one that I found very frustrating. So various top officials, uh, including, uh, general Milley, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff had said things publicly about how they expected the Afghan military and government to be able to hold out for about 90 days.
Nicholas Grossman (20:18):
And I thought about that a little, because you don’t weird statement to say, it’s okay, we’re leaving. And we know you totally depend on us. And we think you’re probably going to collapse in a little while, but we trust that you guys are going to risk your lives, fighting a battle that you expect to lose for a few months to people that are about to be empowered, right. Who will then kill you, who would do that? Right? So where the degree of surprise that a lot of the Afghans at this point folded, or, you know, kind of, or went into hiding rather than lose their lives, fighting for something they knew was going to, uh, not have a chance of winning of the U S was leaving. You know, why would anybody do that? So there are all of these, uh, either this is some sort of spin, which I could really do without, you know, I, I don’t, especially like it when the government tries to BSS and especially not, you know, on life or death issues like this.
Nicholas Grossman (21:08):
Um, but, but also that they look like they actually believed it, that they actually had three months to get all this stuff, um, in, in a row. And so, um, for example, the why weren’t more of the Afghans who worked with the United States as, you know, translators or, um, you know, community liaisons or other things like that who risked their lives to fight against the Taliban, how come they, and their families weren’t on planes the same day that the U S you know, announced this, that why weren’t they out right away? Why are there all these pictures of, uh, ones that are gonna stick with me? You mentioned the people hanging on to the plane. Another one I saw video of somebody handing a baby, uh, up to American soldiers on the walls of the U S embassy. Um, you know, like just help save my baby.
Nicholas Grossman (21:51):
You know, clearly somebody who thinks that, uh, that’s the way the baby is going to stay alive. I mean, I’m, I have two kids. I couldn’t imagine giving up my kid and, you know, saying like, please help my child. I’m so desperate. The Biden administration Biden might be right for withdrawing. And then he would be right for sticking to his guns on it and not letting some of the problems that arise, because there always would be some problems that would arise from a withdrawal from happening. However, there should have been fewer problems. This is the sort of thing that, you know, I think is partisanship aside, because this really is a bipartisan failure. This goes back to the agreements in February, 2020 of, you know, where the United States under Trump was being pretty open. Uh, if you guys are on your own and we think you’re screwed and you know, why would anybody then continue to fight under that circumstance?
Nicholas Grossman (22:36):
Um, and a lot of the different preparation could have gone back to then to, um, meaning should have been taking place a lot of it in 2020, but also a lot of it is on Biden’s watch too. And so I think by saying, no, no, no, no. The decision is right to withdraw that ducks a lot of the substantive criticism that it should have been handled better. And I can tell you from, you know, being in some of these academic circles that in policy-making schools, the Afghan withdrawal is going to be a case study with a lot of not, this is what you shouldn’t do. Things like there will be, you know, future American, uh, bureaucrats at various levels in the defense department and the state department and intelligence agencies and us aid and other organizations like that, um, that will take lessons pro my guesses for decades, uh, using this as a case study, as in here’s where we screwed up here are ways that that was avoidable with better preparation and let’s try and be better prepared if we ever do something like
Steve Holstein (23:25):
It again. Yeah. So now we’ve got D you know, we have, um, we have Vietnam, we have the Korean war. We have, you know, Afghanistan, we have other skirmishes in between, and I don’t mean to, uh, to, to, uh, interact, you know, Iraq, Iraq. Thank you. And so, and I don’t mean to minimize any of those that are in between, but you’re right going forward. We hopefully one of the best playbooks for helping a nation overcome the oppression of whatever regime is going to come into their country. Do you think maybe now we will have that playbook going forward, and it’s a, it’s a lot more complete
Nicholas Grossman (24:00):
Sorta, uh, one of the lessons might be, and probably she even learned a while ago is that to a degree, this is impossible. So it’s not so much a lack of good plays as in the entire game is bound to lose from the start, you know, as the, um, the game is Regulus line, the only way to win is not to play. Uh, so the, it depends, you know, on the circumstance. So things like the details of, if we end up doing it again, we’ll be better at it. I think that part’s true that the us military had better strategies to deal with insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan than the U S did in Vietnam. For example, that it took a while and there were definitely screw ups, especially early in the Iraq war, but the strategy improved relative to where it was at the same time nation building, we already knew was extremely hard and might be impossible.
Nicholas Grossman (24:48):
Um, the idea of military building is something the United States training foreign militaries. It needs to take very seriously as maybe not doable at all. What we seem to be good at. This is one good lesson to take away. If you look at both Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re good at training, kind of a hardcore, dedicated, special operations team. Uh, people like the elite counter-terrorism forces, for example, sort of like the Iraqi or Afghan equivalent of the Navy seals or the army Rangers, but we are not good at building a whole national military that can hold the whole country. Um, the Iraqi military collapsed again, or folded really just withdrew a lot, uh, and ran away against ISIS in 2014, the Afghan military, uh, just folded in front of the Taliban. Um, that part we don’t seem to be good at, and we maybe shouldn’t try, but, but here’s where we get back to the original problem.
Nicholas Grossman (25:38):
Sometimes we kind of have to, or we’re left with only bad choices and no good options. And, uh, an example of this. So there’s a really big difference between there a civil war existing and the United States trying to push it in a better direction and no civil war existing. And the United States destabilizing the situation and effectively starting one. So that’s an example of Interac that the U S did not need to remove Saddam Hussein. And by doing so opened up a lot of wounds that led to civil conflict. And then that the us had trouble managing. On the other hand with Afghanistan, I don’t know what to do. They were in response to September 11th, besides invade that Al Qaeda showed that they are willing and capable of killing a lot of Americans on us soil. They were in Afghanistan, the Taliban government was allowing them to stay there and run training camps.
Nicholas Grossman (26:27):
And, um, you know, just use it as a base of operations. The United States said, hand them over. And the Taliban said no. And so then the us went and did it and had pretty much the entire world behind America upon doing it that the, I mean, even countries that don’t get along with the United States, Iran was supportive of the U S doing this, that you had, um, NATO was behind it, the UN ended up being behind it pretty quickly thereafter. There was a really clear case of self-defense, you know, so there was, uh, overwhelming support for it. And then once the U S is there, then there’s okay. Leave. And the top end takes power. And then to be, it comes back and we’re back where we started or stay and try to build up a government that won’t welcome Al Qaeda back. And that is kind of, we’re stuck in that regard.
Nicholas Grossman (27:13):
You know, neither of those options is good, but I don’t see how the U S like the only other real alternative would have been a response to nine 11 as saying, oh, well, you know, too bad, hope it doesn’t happen again. Uh, maybe let’s make airport security a little tighter and, you know, uh, good luck. Okay. That’s, you know, you can go around on molest and take another shot and that just wasn’t going to happen. And once you make that decision that, okay, we have to fight them. We have to dismantle this group and we have to try to make it that they can’t reconsolidate themselves. Then we’re off to a occupation of Afghanistan, and maybe it could have ended sooner. It could have maybe a withdrawal and say, oh, bin Laden’s killed. Then could have maybe declared victory and just left and let something like what’s happening now happened then, and just deal with the fallout.
Nicholas Grossman (27:54):
We’re going to deal with the fallout. Anyway, one of the things that concerns me is that the us might end up going back because really the story of Afghanistan, um, if this conflict in Afghanistan, doesn’t start after September 11th, it starts in the 1980s when, uh, really 79, when the Soviet union invades Afghanistan, and a variety of Afghans that call themselves, Solutia, Kadine fight back against the Soviet union and the United States and Pakistan also, um, help supply them and give them training. And they, a few of these, you know, like a subset of the mission, Dean ended up later joining, joining the Taliban. A few of them, very few, uh, ended up forming Al Qaeda. A lot of them, you know, a whole another large chunk end up fighting against the Taliban, or end up working for some other warlords. But, uh, in the 1980s, the U S pushes helps the Afghans bushes Soviets out and then ignores the country in the nineties and says, it’s not our problem.
Nicholas Grossman (28:42):
And then September 11th was a reminder, oh, we can’t just ignore it. It is our problem. And somewhat similarly Interac, the U S officially pulled out in 2011 and really did remove all troops. So then the Iraq war is officially over. And then there a power vacuum and ISIS rose up and the U S re intervened in 2014 to fight ISIS. And so I I’m concerned that one of the things that might happen here is the U S ends back and ends up back in Afghanistan within, I don’t know, 10 years at most 20. And because something has kind of forced America’s hand, and then it’ll just be in a weaker position. And that’s kind of pessimistic. I understand why people wouldn’t really want to deal with that. But if you think about it as that longer picture, it’s not the sort of problem that we can just step away from and it’ll stay where it is, and won’t be our problem anymore.
Steve Holstein (29:29):
So really, so now the Taliban is in full control of, of Afghanistan, and it essentially has a country. Now,
Nicholas Grossman (29:36):
Nothing, they are more in power than anybody else, but, uh, they have, you know, control a lot of provincial capitals. They have control of the national Capitol, mostly, you know, some say chaotic scenes and they’ll try to reestablish order. Um, but there will be parts of Afghanistan that they don’t really control. There’s some now say that they don’t have much active control over, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of arms resistance that when the Taliban was the government in the 1990s, they never had control of the total country, that there were a group that called itself in Northern Alliance, for example, that controlled some of the territory. And that was kind of aftermath of the eighties. So, um, I think a way to say it would be the Taliban will be the government or will be in charge, but they won’t have totally control.
Steve Holstein (30:19):
So they’re a religious political military organization in the hardest and harshest terms. Then you have terms like ISIS and Al Qaeda, which are straight up terrorist organizations and their missions are a total destruction of any, and all humans, things that have anything to do with, you know, the Western style Christian style of thinking that Taliban, are they going to attempt to bring some sort of credibility to their name and to their image now that they are sort of running Afghanistan? Well, what do you think their end game is
Nicholas Grossman (30:52):
For the Taliban? It is, I think that you described them pretty well, that they’re know. So fundamentalist religious, that a, a very kind of very harsh version of Islam that, uh, you know, maybe a version that most of the world’s Muslims would find excessively fundamentalist and probably in some cases wrong. Um, but they w I’ve always been more domestic focused. So my guess is what they’ll try to do is set up is implement this fundamentalist fishing, you know, they will try to consolidate power domestically. They will do things like, uh, arrest or kill some people who fought with the United States or who fought with the Afghan government to try to avoid them, uh, then becoming insurgents or terrorists against, uh, you know, the Taliban government, um, that they will do things like shut down and girls’ schools that they will, uh, once again, ban and probably punish homosexuality, um, that there were signs, for example, you might’ve seen photos of things like, uh, stores that had advertised.
Nicholas Grossman (31:50):
I saw one, uh, a wedding dress store in Kabul where they were painting over their advertisements. And, you know, these are wedding dresses. I mean, they’re, uh, you know, somewhat revealing in the sense of like, it showed some skin, it showed forearms. Um, but you know, and she showed her hair and wearing makeup. It’ll be what we in America would be considered pretty modest dress, but they’re, they’re covering that up, um, just painting over it. And so that I would expect a lot of that domestically, um, Kayden ISIS mates. It’s interesting as, and we’re going to have to watch closely because, um, while the Taliban has always had a good relationship with Al Qaeda, they have not gotten along well with ISIS and Al Qaeda has been more strategic than ISIS. I just basically fights everybody who isn’t ISIS. And, uh, so there have been engagements with the Taliban.
Nicholas Grossman (32:35):
I don’t know if they, if ISIS would find Afghanistan easier or harder to be in probably a little easier, but more in the sense of that they’ll look for spots where the government is not in control rather than they’ll have an Alliance with the Taliban government, with Al Qaeda. It’ll be interesting to watch because they, and I’m sure the U S will try to at least try to figure it out and watch it closely is because, um, Al Qaeda, unlike Taliban, which are, uh, Afghans are people especially say, um, from the Afghanistan Pakistan border, but are, um, ethically, uh, PACCT ends and the, or push-ins depending, I think it’s pronounced both ways, but, um, which is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. And so they care about Teleman cares about power in the country. Um, I’ll carry that they’re transnational terrorists, that they, um, their main goal and kind of main reason for violence against the United States and Europe, and, um, other countries allied with the, with the U S uh, is that they want, uh, United States influence the Western influence broadly out of all of the muscle worlds.
Nicholas Grossman (33:37):
So that would be things like the U S it’s no longer supporting the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan. Um, and with Mo removing all the American military bases from there, and also American cultural influence as, you know, things, things like, I don’t know, movies and pop music, and also, I don’t know, McDonald’s and Starbucks. Um, and so just all that influence, of course, I’m never going to achieve that goal. So for them, and is a never ending fight, but while they are also a fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, that they would probably be happy. And there seems to be, uh, as best I can tell there is shatter, um, in various jihadist forums online, that is pretty ecstatic about the Taliban taking power again, um, that they have a more expansive, more globalized vision, and they might try to set up shop and attack other people.
Nicholas Grossman (34:25):
There’s one thing that I am a little hopeful about, maybe this is, you know, small, silver, silver lining, but that’s the Taliban just, uh, after September 11th, it didn’t work out well for them. You know, they’re back in power now, but they spent 20 years having to fight. They lost a lot of people along the way. Um, the idea of, Hey, if the United States comes back, we can beat them in 20 years after losing a lot of lives. It’s not an attractive proposition, you know, even if they won, um, they don’t really want to do that. So I am hoping, and I don’t know how much I should actually be optimistic about this, but I’m hoping that they, uh, in essence learned a bit of a lesson that Al-Qaeda is more of a liability than it is actually an asset. And that if Al-Qaeda really is plotting something ambitious against the United States or say, I don’t know, UK, or, you know, uh, uh, France or another close S ally, um, that the Taliban will be less interested in going along with it this time. Um, but that might also be wishful thinking. We’ll have to see more
Steve Holstein (35:26):
Question then. Um, here it is, uh, the anniversary or close to the anniversary of September 11th. Uh, we have Americans that are still being evacuated from Afghanistan, but we are battling COVID and vaccine misinformation here at home. The holidays are coming, no telling what’s going to happen with the Delta variant over the next few months, let’s go to 2020 to January. Will this even be a blip on the radar of the average American?
Nicholas Grossman (35:54):
I’m guessing probably not. I mean, that’s a guess, and, you know, given how much I’m invested in this topic, I think more people should be actively paying attention to it, but given the speed of the news cycle, given the fact that the war the entire time has been fought by a small percentage of the American population, um, you know, the most Americans, I think it comes out to about 97, 90 8% of Americans, uh, never, you know, never fought in Afghanistan. Don’t have a family member who has, or even necessarily a close friend who has, and so it never really touched them. Um, and this was even partially by design that the word from the Bush administration in, uh, 2001. And, you know, with the after September 11th and the Afghan war going on, the, uh, recommendation to Americans was go to the mall. Um, that was literal. I mean, now maybe we’d say, go on Amazon or something, but, uh, you know, go to the mall and shop like basically live your normal life. That’ll show the terrorists, you know, then the terrorists don’t win. Um, if we just continue living our normal life and the economy, you know, had been in a recession and kind of needs a boost, that’s what you can do. And so people haven’t paid that much attention to it. So, yeah, I mean, I can’t predict the future election calendar, but in terms of just the news cycle, I think it’s accurate, it’s most likely accurate that it’s getting a lot of attention now, because there are a lot of things in the news and because it’s new, but that things are already starting to change a little. And given that something like, uh, the Delta variants and the opening of schools and questions about vaccines and masks, that’s something that affects way more Americans directly. So I wouldn’t be surprised. And, you know, to a degree can’t really fault people for focusing more on that stuff that is impacting their life directly, as opposed to this foreign policy issue that was largely handled by a small fraction of the money.
Steve Holstein (37:40):
Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the university of Illinois. He’s the author of drones and terrorism, and is the senior editor of arc digital. I have links to both of those in the show notes professor, very informative, very insightful. Thanks for coming on the podcast.