As the December 31st deadline for the U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement gets pushed back, given unresolved disagreements over the post-2014 U.S. presence, it is clear that American clout in Kabul is not what it once was.
American credibility is not simply at risk but has already suffered damage – and remains in a deteriorating spiral. The gulf between the words and deeds of the United States regarding Afghanistan over the past decade has been so vast that trust in America has been severely degraded. There are real consequences to this loss of trust and if this trend is not reversed, vital American interests may one day be placed at risk.
Following initial deployment of surge forces into Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of U.S. troops in the country, told the New York Times, "I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009 ... and that we'll make serious progress in 2010." Gen. David Petraeus followed McChrystal in command and in March 2011 testified before the House Armed Services Committee that "as a bottom line up front, it is [the International Security Assistance Force's] assessment that the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas." Next in line came Gen. John Allen, who claimed at his change of command ceremony in February 2013 that in fact, "This is victory. This is what winning looks like".
After 12 full years of war, however, this is what "victory" actually looks like:
When the world hears American leader after leader make claims of victory and success year after year – yet sees with their eyes that in fact the war has been an unmitigated failure – they can't help but lose faith in the word of our country.
What credibility, then, should the leaders of other nations place in the judgment of America's senior civilian and uniformed leaders when we make assessments on security matters, especially when we might then ask those nations to contribute their treasure or risk their blood in support?
Compounding this trust deficit are the allegations made by Edward Snowden that the U.S. government has been spying not only on its own people but also on the heads of state of friendly nations. Despite the considerable military and economic power of the United States, the credibility of our words has probably never been lower. When neither individuals nor nations can take anything our leaders say at face value, the risk increases that they may take action antithetical to our interests.
Friendly nations will be less inclined to make decisions based on mutual benefit and might instead focus only on their own needs, possibly at our expense. Nations and groups who may already have had negative views of the U.S. are strengthened in their opposition, and, most importantly, we give insurgent groups political oxygen to thrive and recruit against us.
What has historically undergirded the strength of the United States has been the widely held perception by those outside our borders that the U.S. was worthy of emulation. America was a land where the rule of law applied as much to those in positions of power as to the masses. American ideals of integrity and honor were characterized by George Washington and "Honest Abe" Lincoln. A regular citizen could rise from severe racial disadvantage to become the moral compass for a nation, as Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrated in leading the civil rights movement.
Our actions of recent years have severely tarnished the traditional American values of honor, respect, integrity, trust and moral excellence. But this damage is reversible.
We must first jettison the always-misbegotten idea that it is somehow a sign of sophistication to communicate in ‘doublespeak' whereby we say one thing in public that everyone knows isn't what we mean, expecting others to divine our real intention. A second proclivity which must be discarded is the habit of many in this country of trying to lead and govern by messaging. Meaning, we select a desired policy or military outcome and then communicate it as though it were already a fact. The message is then repeated frequently, and with conviction, in the hopes it will one day become true. It won't. Instead it will likely spawn new disasters like Afghanistan and Iraq. Next we must start – or perhaps resume – basing policy decisions on sober analysis of what exists, with a view to finding solutions that are rationally achievable.
Given the chaotic, always-changing nature of international affairs, no one expects American leaders to be right all the time. What we should expect, all the time, is for our leaders to be open and honest, both with our own citizens and in the conduct of foreign policy abroad in our name.
The damage done to our credibility has taken a real hit over the past decade, but it can be repaired. Fortunately, America is still filled with considerable numbers of men and women who are imbued with the same character and moral compass that guided the likes of Washington, Lincoln and King, Jr. For the health of our nation, let us hope they begin to rise soon.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Danny Davis is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and has deployed into combat zones four times. He was the 2012 Ridenhour Prize winner for Truth Telling. Shukria Dellawar is an Afghan-born American citizen who is an independent analyst and has led several congressional delegations to Afghanistan. The views in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or Department of the Army.