(September 12, 2021 / JNS) Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the war in Afghanistan, made a point of distinguishing between the “known knowns” (already known variables), the predictable, though still indistinct, “known unknowns” and the completely obscure “unknown unknowns.”
Twenty years after the grand debut of the longest war in American and NATO history, however, one has to wonder why such a particularly heavy toll of blood, treasure and conflict was necessary in order to know what was safely considered to be well-known. That is, upon the hasty withdrawal of deployed international forces, the Taliban wasted no time in completely filling the vacuum they left behind; Al-Qaeda, which drew the United States into Afghanistan in the first place, is already operating in at least 15 provinces; and ISIS Khorasan is on the rise.
While the complex evacuation operation certainly deserves credit, returning to square one is hardly what the United States was hoping for upon the conclusion of this sanguinary campaign.
Understandably, from the American point of view, it was no longer in America’s interest to prolong this war. Nation-building turned out to be a fiasco. During the transitional period, acting U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Dobbins once put it: In Afghanistan, one has to choose “between losing and not losing.” Placing a high premium on the priorities of the people he was elected to serve, U.S. President Joe Biden simply did not see any reason to distinguish counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan from those in Yemen or Mali, with no permanent boots on the ground.
Yet this is precisely the point. When interests change or an interest is lost, international policies that were easily promised may just as easily be reversed at the stroke of a pen. From U.N. peacekeeping forces standing idly by as massacres unfolded in Yugoslavia to ISIS’s takeover of Iraq, one cannot avoid drawing a strong conclusion on the genuine value of international security guarantees, to whose limitations the Afghan case provided a perfect illustration.
Indeed, there has never been a successful attempt to artificially replace self-reliance with international commitments, simply because no mercenary or foreign force can be a substitute for an authentic, grassroots creed to safeguard one’s own homeland.
Already in 1776, Adam Smith understood what we know today—that prosperity and stability stem from self-interest, in the best sense of the word. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
This is the genuine engine behind the dynamics that rule the international arena. Self-interest also drove the United States—justifiably, from its perspective—to reach an understanding with the Taliban that it is free to target the local Afghan population, certainly the “corrupt pro-American puppet government,” so long as it doesn’t “interfere with” the U.S. withdrawal.
This “deconfliction mechanism” echoes the 2020 accord that only tackled U.S.-Taliban relations, not the fate of the Afghan people. No nation can survive in security and prosperity at the mercy of international benevolence.
Yet, relying on this very model has been at the core of international security guarantees to Israel—attempting to persuade it into making impossible territorial concessions and retreat to indefensible borders.
Take Gen. John Allen’s 2013 plan, for example. Initiated by the Obama White House and echoed today by certain officials with influence on the Biden administration, it was aimed at addressing Israel’s security concerns by—you guessed it—removing Israeli forces from the territories and deploying U.S. troops around Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Jordan Valley, along with “training, equipping, evaluating and monitoring” local Palestinian forces.
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry even offered then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a clandestine visit to have a close look at the successful “Afghan model.” Netanyahu politely declined the offer.
Replicating the “Afghan model” in Israel was and still is unrealistic for multiple reasons. There can be no guarantee that the above-mentioned “Palestinian forces” will not be replaced by Iran-backed Hamas militias, much like the coup that was staged in Gaza a mere two years after Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip; that scenario is, in fact, highly plausible.
The Samaria mountain range is an elevated, 3,300-foot terrain that overlooks the densely populated Israeli shoreline, the nerve center of the Israeli economy, as well as virtually all of the tiny country’s strategic infrastructure, from military facilities to power plants. There already exists a multilayered terror infrastructure from both Gaza and the Palestinian Authority-controlled territories around Judea and Samaria targeting the Israeli population. The current threats of ground-to-ground missiles, drive-by shootings and infiltration by elite terrorist squads leave no doubt as to the existential menace to Israel that a reckless step of strengthening such units would bring about.
Further still, guarantees on paper, as diplomatically wordsmithed as they may be, were given to both the Afghani and Israeli people—and proved meaningless. With much pomp and circumstance, well-meaning, but naive international actors promise “multilayered systems,” “target timetables and benchmarks,” “state-of-the-art technology” and “unfettered support,” then land in the unpleasant, scorching Middle Eastern sand dunes.
When these failed models collapse, it is the local people who are left to deal with the fallout, while airlifts take international forces to safety.
Other variants, such as the ravaging corruption within the Afghan government, or the inauthentic national identity forced on the country’s many tribes may, also account for the failure of the Afghanistan campaign. Still, when international commitments prove to be in vain, time and again, from peacekeeping forces in the Sinai—ordered to evacuate by then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser prior to the 1967 Six-Day War—to UNIFIL standing by as Hezbollah takes over southern Lebanon, Israel cannot seriously be expected to entrust its security to the hands of unaccountable international forces with fluctuating interests. Israel cannot allow the potential creation of a strategic existential threat—an Iranian vassal state in the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In any future arrangement with the Palestinians, then, Israel must keep full sovereign control over the Jordan Valley, as well as over large parts of strategic areas around Judea and Samaria, and keep operational freedom everywhere in the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. This was also the position of the government of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO, and it remains true today.
Critically, these territories are also viewed by Israel as its ancestral homeland, intrinsically wedded to the raison-d’être of “the return to Zion,” which were merely snatched away temporarily due to arbitrary armistice lines that were signed and agreed upon as politically meaningless. In terms of national security, instilling the “Afghan model” in Israel would be promoting an allegiance-free security paradigm that has failed time and again, with zero benefit and overwhelming risk.
While international actors may be able to afford the gamble of being wrong, a menaced country such as Israel does not have the luxury to survive a failed security guarantee.
IDF Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Amir Avivi is the founder and CEO of Habithonistim–Protectors of Israel.
Or Yissachar is a researcher at Israel’s Defense and Security Forum (IDSF)—HaBithonistim, and an Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES).
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