As the political fight over who lost Afghanistan gets bloodier, the latest round has shifted from lamentation over the probable return of al Qaeda to the disorderly exit from Kabul. Vivid images of chaotic activity at the airport underscore this concern. But, in fact, the withdrawal could never have been orderly, as critics unthinkingly imply. An orderly, carefully prepared exit was structurally impossible.
To understand the US exit from Afghanistan, think of Bernie Madoff. It is helpful to see the US-built Afghan state as a Ponzi scheme—it was all a house of cards, and, at some level, everyone knew it. Certainly, anyone who was familiar with the US government's own inspector general reports over the past 10 years would know.
For those unaware of the Madoff scandal, a Ponzi scheme is a series of lies, with little or no factual basis, that are sold to investors as brilliance. It depends on a continual infusion of funds from new investors; the new payments are initially used to pay the original investors. So long as more and more investors can be conned into providing their money, funds are found to pay previous investors, and the scam can continue. When it becomes hard to get continued funding, or when important investors begin to withdraw, others notice, become skeptical at first, then panic, and finally withdraw their money—and, as in a bank run, the rush for the exits ensues.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) notes that "Ponzi scheme organizers often use the latest innovation, technology, product or growth industry to entice investors and give their scheme the promise of high returns. Potential investors are often less skeptical of an investment opportunity when assessing something novel, new or 'cutting-edge.'"
This definition can easily be applied to Afghanistan. First, there was a promise of very high return with little or no risk to the investor framed as a guarantee that the United States could defeat jihadis supported by and umbilically linked to Pakistan's sprawling intelligence service, on their home turf, with only a small force, in a time frame tolerable to Americans, and with relatively few American casualties. Coming after a decade of American hubris following the demise of the Soviet Union, and amid the widespread fear and general panic after 9/11, the US public was primed to believe in magic.
Investors were then told fantastical things by the Bush administration about how it had devised an entirely new approach to a terrible scourge and how it would eliminate evil. These promises were framed in terms of American exceptionalism, the mystique of special operations, the uncanny accuracy of armed drones, and the mysteries of counterinsurgency warfare decoded and applied by uniformed wizards.
This seduction often involved mystical and even incomprehensible ideas about why the original scheme was viable and would pay off. In 2001, Richard Armitage, then-President George W. Bush's deputy secretary of state, exemplified this mumbo-jumbo in his comments to the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, who had tried to explain to him the complex history of the region, saying that "no, the history begins today."
Centuries of life in the valleys and mountains that became Pakistan in 1947—amid an exodus and religious pogroms that killed at least 500,000 people—were rendered irrelevant by the entry of the US military into Afghanistan in 2001. The magical assumption was that Pakistan's military and intelligence elite would not pursue their own national interests—as they defined them—which, of course, included continuing to support the Taliban and to provide safe havens across Pakistan's 1,660-mile border with Afghanistan.
Although it may have been the most serious delusion, the belief that the ISI would cease to support the Taliban was hardly the only one. The Bush administration and its cheerleaders sold the notions that in Afghanistan, they could create a centralized, pro-American state where no such state had ever been successfully constructed; that they could transform rural mores; and that they could redefine traditional personal status arrangements. All this, their Ponzi pitch went, would be somehow achievable in a reasonable time frame, with minimal casualties and financial costs.
Of course, as the SEC points out, none of the con artist's claims are true; investors are at first paid by persuading still others to invest. Thus, the US Congress continually allocated funds, while the administration gathered promises of support from other countries, never really questioning the viability of the project. "Kick the can down the road" was the equivalent of the imperative of attracting new investors in a Ponzi scheme. In this case, the grifters—a series of US presidents—used these new funds to pay the original investors. The Afghan government continued to be financed, contractors got paid, ghost armies were invoiced, and real soldiers sent to their deaths. The more funding to be found, the longer it could go on. Once a major investor withdraws, or is seen to do so, behold the rush for the doors. The Biden administration had to get it underway; even former President Donald Trump's deal with the Taliban in Qatar wasn't enough to pop the bubble. But once the announcement was made, it was all over.
The SEC says that among the hallmarks of a Ponzi scheme are high returns with little or no risk and secretive or complex strategies as to why the scheme is viable. This explains why the metrics compiled by the US State and Defense departments were classified in 2017 to keep the inspector general's analysts from getting a look at them.
Once it became clear that the United States was indeed serious about leaving, it all fell apart rapidly, just as in a bank run. As with a bank run, only if a big investor can surreptitiously pull out their money will others not notice their departure, wake up, and rush for the door.
In Afghanistan, the big investor was the United States. It would have been well-nigh impossible to keep thorough preparations a secret from Afghans. Preparing on a large scale would require months of planning. Therefore, to start such preparations would send that telltale signal to all concerned that the United States was leaving. While many people could and did see the writing on the wall after Trump started talks with the Taliban, nevertheless it was only when it was clear that the United States was actually going to follow through that people could be certain it was truly leaving. As in any Ponzi scheme, the credibility of the exit of the big investor is crucial in provoking the rush for the door. Credibility is binary, like a light switch—only when the wolf can actually be seen by all parties do people flee—by which time, of course, it is too late to stroll calmly to the exits.
Once Afghans realized that the United States was leaving, they would know it was all over, and if they had been collaborating with us, they would panic. Some critics allege that if the United States had maintained Bagram Air Base and other facilities, then an orderly departure might have been possible. This argument is flawed for two reasons. First, it was precisely the evacuation of the bases that made the US departure credible. If Biden was going to withdraw, then he had to actually withdraw. Second, even if bases were kept open—and somehow another credible withdrawal signal was made—the number of Afghans who wanted out would have swamped any physical capability and made US forces strung out along thin supply lines even more vulnerable. For this deep, structural reason, it was impossible to have an orderly departure even if the administration had resurrected the planners who put 156,000 troops onto Normandy beaches in a matter of hours under German guns. As it was, the exit was always going to look like Dunkirk because that is just what happens when Ponzi schemes collapse.
It is notable that other countries whose governments do not have a reputation for inefficiency, such as Germany, are also experiencing difficulties—and for similar reasons.
The sad fact is that history offers precious few examples of orderly withdrawals by defeated occupying powers. The French departure from Vietnam and Algeria, the United States from Vietnam, Britain from India, and Portugal from Africa are just a few examples. As the world reflects on the messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it behooves everyone to remember that an orderly departure is just a theoretical concept, like a frictionless plane—useful as a thought experiment but with no real-world existence.
Alan Richards is Professor Emeritus at UCSC. He is the coauthor of A Political Economy of the Middle East
Steven Simon is the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Centre for International Studies and a senior research analyst with the Quincy Institute. He served at the State Department and as National Security Council staff and is co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War Agaisnt America.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.