Confusion, Blame-Shifting, and Inaccuracy: Academia Reacts to the Fall of Afghanistan

August 23, 2021

6 min read

The nation’s foreign-policy and Middle East “experts” have blown it again, and academics are part of the problem. In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, many are simply silent while others are expressing surprise. Still others can’t transcend their default position of blaming America.

Let’s start with silence. What is the Middle East Studies Association up to? Its Committee on Academic Freedom is very active when it comes to writing letters to governments that restrict access to education. Where is the letter to the Taliban demanding that women be allowed to learn how to read and write and universities should remain open?

What about the academics who have been teaching Afghans? What will happen to the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF)? Founded in 2006 with a grant from USAID, it bears the name “American” on its façade and claims to be devoted to “implementing an American higher education model.” Academics certainly thought highly of it — even more highly than they thought of American involvement there in the first place. According to Victoria Fontan, a professor of peace and conflict studies at AUAF, “the university is really one of the only positive U.S. legacies in Afghanistan that has no dark corners.” If Fontan is willing to speak about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan so caustically to CBS, one can only imagine what maligning might occur in her peace-studies seminars.

Many academics are simply reluctant to say or write anything at all critical of Islam or Islamism for fear of being branded an “Islamophobe.” Amazingly, this even applies now to the Taliban. According to ABC 6 Rhode Island News, Faiz Ahmed, an associate professor of modern and Middle Eastern history at Brown University, said that “it will take more than just one side to begin recovery efforts, including the U.S. and neighboring countries as well as the Taliban to honor universal and Islamic values.” Newsflash to Ahmed: The Taliban are quite confident they are restoring Islamic values to Afghanistan after 20 years of Western influence.

Of course, the default academic position for well over two decades has been to blame America for everything. Irfan Noorudin, director of the South Asia Center and professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, says that collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government and takeover by the Taliban is “an indictment of U.S. policy under four American presidents dating back to 2001” and that our allies “increasingly must grapple with an America whose bark is stronger than its bite . . . and that lacks the ability to mobilize consensus around extended international engagement.” Ah yes, “international engagement,” the key to securing, er . . . American interests.

Some academics still can’t get beyond blaming Donald Trump for Afghanistan. Admittedly, negotiating with the Taliban has always been something of a fool’s errand, but every president since Bill Clinton has done so. We don’t know how Trump would have handled the withdrawal, but we know how Biden has mishandled it. That didn’t stop Ronald Stockton, professor of political science at University of Michigan–Dearborn, from saying that the fall of the Afghan government “was inevitable as soon as the Trump administration signed the Doha document agreeing to withdraw all U.S. forces if the Taliban would promise to behave themselves. . . . At that point, our allies within the country knew that it was only a matter of time.” The difference here (to use Stockton’s term) is that Biden didn’t make the Taliban promise anything. Stockton further admonished that “hyperventilating members of Congress are allowed to hyperventilate against Biden if they also hyperventilated against Trump. Otherwise, it is just shameless partisan treachery.” Stockton misses several points here: first, that nearly everyone wanted out of Afghanistan after 20 years of propping up a corrupt and inept government; and second, that for 20 years no major attacks on U.S. soil were plotted, directed, and launched from Afghanistan. He also overlooks Biden’s epic bungling of the withdrawal, which is precisely what everyone is “hyperventilating” about. Even a rank amateur knows to evacuate civilians before military personnel and to remove war materiel from the war zone instead of leaving it to the enemy.

So who are the academic experts that presidents listen to? One is Barnett Rubin, senior fellow and director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, who has written eight books about Afghanistan. Barnett is the senior adviser to the Special Representative of the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. Department of State. He was a special adviser to the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, a position from which he worked on the negotiations that led to the Bonn Agreement that put Hamid Karzai in power. Now watch the dumbfounded responses he gives a CNN interviewer where he says repeatedly that he’s just so surprised at how fast the Taliban took over. Rubin’s latest book is titled What Everyone Needs to Know About Afghanistan (2020). Perhaps the second edition will include a new chapter.

We know what the Taliban takeover means for Afghans, especially women, but Americans now wonder how it will affect us. According to KY3 News in Springfield, Mo., the advice of Jeff VanDenBerg, political-science professor and director of Middle East studies at Drury University, is that “Americans living stateside have little to worry about” from an Afghanistan run by the Taliban. “I’m not sure how interested the Taliban are in projecting their power outside of Afghanistan,” he said. He should listen to what the Taliban members are saying. One told CNN reporter Clarissa Ward (who is forced to dress more like an ISIS bride than an American reporter lest the “friendly” Taliban fighters drag her away) that the Taliban are “ready to take Islamic law . . . not just to Afghanistan, but all over the world.”

Thus far, the worst of the bunch is Juan Cole, who teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. Cole calls the U.S. project in Afghanistan a Ponzi scheme. Leaving aside the weak metaphor, Cole’s faulty logic and inaccurate claims stand out. Seeking to let the Taliban off the hook for 9/11, Cole claims, “There is no reason to believe that the Taliban leadership was aware of what al-Qaeda was planning.” But it gets worse. He also believes that “not only the Taliban but many in al-Qaeda felt deeply betrayed by bin Laden’s use of their hospitality to stage a brazen attack on a superpower.” This is the kind of bad advice that academics have been giving U.S. presidents for decades.

Cole’s relativism is so pronounced that he actually wrote this sentence: “U.S. troops used flamethrowers to burn poppy crops of Afghan farmers, who had nothing else to live on. One in 7 as a result had to sell a daughter. I doubt they have forgiven the U.S.” If Cole can rationalize the idea that the men of Afghanistan had only the binary choice between growing poppies and selling their daughters, what might be going on in his classroom lectures? This statement should earn Cole a place in the bad expert advice hall of shame. Maybe Joe Biden will hire him to replace some of the others giving him equally bad advice. I suggest deer-in-the-headlights National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, or clueless Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Cole would fit right in.

But not all academics are befuddled partisans. Three cheers to Cornell University for hiring well. Barry Strauss, the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell and Corliss Page Dean Fellow at the Hoover Institution, says:

The war in Afghanistan ceased making strategic sense long ago. The mismanagement of American withdrawal has only made things worse. We could have pulled out slowly, in phases, and with careful attention to bringing our allies to safety. Or we could have left the small force of 3,500 troops there, with American airpower to back them up. Instead, we have followed the path of chaos and humiliation. It’s a terrible lesson for the world of the meaning of the pax Americana.

Strauss’s colleague at Cornell, Sarah Kreps, professor of government and international relations, gets it right with a gentle understatement when she observes that “the U.S. may not have thought clearly about the implications of a post-U.S. Afghanistan.”

A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan should have been recognized as the inevitable result of a U.S. withdrawal. In 2013 I wrote, “As we enter a new era in which the Taliban is seen as a legitimate political force, there can be little doubt that it will eventually take over Afghanistan.” In April of this year, when I asked the students in my Rhetoric of Terrorism class how long they thought the Afghan government would last after U.S. forces left, most said “a day or two.” Perhaps they should be advising the president.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum

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