Victory in warfare is like art or pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
What we have in Afghanistan is not victory by any definition, though it’s pornographic in that plenty of people got fucked.
President Biden recently announced that he will honor the treaty his predecessor made with the Taliban to withdraw all US forces from that country by the end of 2021. In fact, he named the date of that withdrawal as September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that led to this long and brutal campaign of US involvement there. The announcement has rightly gotten a lot of airplay, but the reaction to it has defied standard partisanship and cut across the usual ideological lines.
On the right, there are neo-isolationists who cheer the decision, given that — with a strong odor of xenophobia — they want the US to disengage from the world altogether and hunker down inside a mythical Fortress Amerika. But there are also plenty of more conventional conservatives who take the hawkish position that it’s a colossal mistake and portends disaster.
On the left there are hardliners who — while generally down on Biden — are also applauding, as they think all American foreign policy is imperialist and evil and don’t ever want to apply US power abroad. But there are also staunch internationalists carrying the torch of JFK who lament the abandonment of our allies and the likely return of a hateful, medieval theocracy to that historically sorrowful land.
It’s complicated, man.
If this were an American version of Brexit, I would cop to being on the side of “Remain” — with a severe qualifier. I do fear that the Taliban will regain power….in fact, I would bet money on it. But I also don’t think our current strategy can or should be maintained. Call that a cop-out if you will, or call it a recognition that security policy rarely offers up clean, black-or-white situations or choices.
The real lesson that the literal no-win situation in Afghanistan ought to teach us — again — is the limits of military power.
A Golden Ticket
As a politician, foreign policy is Joe Biden’s métier, and has been throughout his long career in public life.
That doesn’t mean he’s always right. In fact, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates famously wrote in his 2014 memoirthat Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” It was a quote Team Trump tried to wave like a red rag during the presidential campaign, except that most Americans realized that Trump’s own record on that front was a thousand times worse. Biden has made some mistakes over half a century of public service, but he never actively sided with our enemies.
Also, some of the errors Gates puts in Biden’s “L” column are errors Gates himself committed too, like supporting the invasion of Iraq. So let’s take his shade-throwing with that in mind.
That said, among Biden’s most notorious bad calls was his advice to Barack Obama not to proceed with the raid on Abbottabad that killed Bin Laden. So, as much as I like and admire Joe and think he’s doing a helluva good job as President of the United States thus far, I don’t think he’s infallible.
I don’t know if the decision to carry through with Trump’s knee-jerk commitment of February 2020 to vacate Afghanistan will prove smart or not. But I do understand the politics of it, as the current circumstances offer Joe Biden a rare opportunity. By insisting the US credibility requires that we honor Trump’s impulsive, deeply flawed treaty, he can get us out of an unwinnable war while largely avoiding the responsibility for the collateral damage that will result.
It does involve a certain amount of smoke-and-mirrors. Notwithstanding the fig leaf, US credibility is not really on the line here, in terms of keeping our word. The treaty mandates a US withdrawal on the agreed-upon timetable only if the Taliban abides by their end of the bargain. But they have not, which would be legitimate grounds for Biden to say, “The deal’s off.”
But keeping the deal offers Joe — and the US — some tempting benefits.
Most of America, from our elected officials down to the average citizen who pays attention to such things, are eager to get out of Afghanistan, which at close to two decades and counting is already the longest war in American history, and one that seems increasingly pointless and unwinnable: what the great war correspondent Dexter Filkins has called “the forever war.” I won’t go so far as to say the President’s rationale is cynical, but it enables him to achieve that goal, and accrue the attendant credit, while laying the blame on the last dude for all the bad stuff that will surround it. That won’t have any effect on right wing America, of course, which never blames Trump for anything, even the things he is patently responsible for. But it will work with a significant segment of the mainstream, and perhaps with history as well.
It would be almost political malpractice if Biden did not exploit this gift from gods.
Of course, when the Taliban regain power, which they almost inevitably will, there will be blame aplenty to go around, and it may be President Kamala Harris (or still Joe Biden, or maybe the odious Tom Cotton) who will have to deal with it. Then the fingerpointing and “who-shot-john” will really begin….what we in the Army used to call the desperate search for the low man on the chain of blame.
But ugly as that will be, in and of itself, that fact does not justify staying a losing course.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
The opposing view hinges on the idea that there must be some better solution than disengagement.
I’ll wait for someone to explain to me what that is.
It’s true a flatout withdrawal risks squandering whatever progress we have made over the past twenty years, and all the American and Afghan blood and treasure already expended, as the odds are very very high that the Taliban will simply swoop back in and reinstall their vile regime.
But an open-ended combat commitment — which is to say, an active, never-ending counterinsurgency — is not a realistic option. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the US is propping up an unreliable regional partner that can’t stand on its own, while making no appreciable progress toward building a stable democracy that can. On balance, that argues for an end to the pursuit of a lost cause, even if it is only the lesser of two evils.
Some, like the eminently reasonable former NATO SACEUR Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, have respectfully suggested that keeping even a battalion of US combat troops incountry might be a wise move, acting as a kind of tripwire to deter Taliban aggression , not unlike the role of the old Berlin Brigade (1961–94). Biden’s own Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines issued a similarly pessimistic dissent. (Isn’t it a pleasure to see the US IC speaking honestly and without fear of retribution from an enraged, sociopathic president?) Short of that, the US may be able to maintain a covert intelligence and special operations presence in the region, but that won’t forestall the return of the Taliban, only give us early warning and allow for limited clandestine activity and assistance to the Afghan government.
But a clean break has some advantages too, and not just the aforementioned political ones that will allow President Biden to justifiably claim he ended our country’s longest and most grindingly frustrating foreign war. To be freed from the drain of our commitments in Afghanistan — financial, logistical, and human — will be welcome, and benefit US foreign policy mightily in terms of opportunity cost.
In the end, however, this whole debate really misses the point. An argument over whether we are prematurely pulling out of Afghanistan elides the bigger question of whether our current strategy there would ever work, no matter how long we stay, or if indeed any workable strategy even exists. If we had a such an approach, matters would be very different, but over twenty years of fighting we’ve never been able to develop one, suggesting that something is deeply wrong with the DNA of the entire endeavor.
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
From the very beginning the US has pursued a shortsighted vision in Afghanistan reminiscent of Vietnam, where battlefield success was the metric of choice untethered to its political ramifications.
“In the eyes of America’s uniformed leadership the United States was ‘winning militarily’ in Afghanistan for the entirety of the conflict,” opined Professor Jason Dempsey of the Center for a New American Security in 2019, writing in the military affairs website War on the Rocks. “For nearly eighteen years, US military commanders declared solid progress as they rotated through Afghanistan,” wrote Dempsey, who served as a civilian adviser to the Afghans as well an active duty infantry officer both there and in Iraq, then drily went on to note that US gerbil wheel in Afghanistan had resulted in a headline worthy of the Onion:
These positive assessments became so standard, and seemingly so out of line with reality, that in 2018 even the normally staid Military.com wrote (an article about) Gen. Mick Nicholson’s farewell remarks….titled “Outgoing US Commander Continues Tradition of Hailing Progress in Afghanistan.”
As with Nixon-era “Vietnamization,” the Pentagon of the early 21st century had been focused on standing up an Afghan national army capable of defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the battlefield without recognizing that that is but one part of functioning, viable democracy, necessary but not sufficient. As Dempsey writes, the DOD’s plan betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of Afghan society and culture “in building a military for a nation that did not exist.”
Way back in September 2001, the idea presented to the American people was that the Taliban was a totalitarian junta with no appreciable public support, savagely oppressing the majority of Afghans, and that its forcible removal by the United States would therefore allow democracy to flower in that country, with the help of Western nationbuilding.
That remains an accurate assessment. (The United States’ culpability in creating the Taliban in the first place, during the 1979–89 Soviet war in Afghanistan, is a separate story.)
The problem is that we didn’t carry through on the second half of the equation. After evicting the Taliban with shocking speed and relative ease in just a few months in late 2001, we patted ourselves on the collective back and very quickly shifted our attention to invading Iraq for no apparent reason, at a time when we should have been pouring our energies into ensuring security, stability, and the slow establishment of nascent democracy in a place where the odds were stacked against all three. That postwar phase of the Afghan invasion was, in fact, the far more difficult and painstaking and time-consuming part of the job — never the United States’ strong suit. By bollocksing it up as we did, we ceded whatever victory we had won, and give the lie to notion that we were in the “postwar” phase at all.
(In fact, subsequent events even tarnished the pride we took in the quick military victory in the first place. Some would say that the Taliban merely beat a strategic retreat, knowing that they could wait us out.)
Distracted with a separate, pointless, and totally avoidable quagmire in Iraq, we found ourselves allied with some of the most corrupt and incompetent elements in Afghan society, while fighting a slow, grueling war of attrition against a very very patient and experienced enemy, and without the resources or bandwidth to win it.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the Pentagon was frequently criticized for its planning goal of being able to fight “two-and-half wars” simultaneously. It was a formulation that struck many lay critics as both warmongering and arbitrary, and absurd in its Catch-22-like clincality. But it turned out that was almost exactly what the US armed forces were asked to do in Southwest Asia, and it was just as hard as the military experts expected.
Over the centuries, Afghanistan has successfully resisted invasion by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Persians, the British, the Soviets, and now us (among others). Not for nothing is it known as “the graveyard of empires.”
We had a very small window in which we had a chance to secure our military foothold in Afghanistan and begin the difficult process of nationbuilding and creating democracy there. That window closed with a definitive slam when we irrationally invaded Iraq. And so the Iraq war continues to prove to be a foreign policy disaster almost without peer since the Second World War, much worse than Vietnam in the scope, impact, and duration of its negative consequences. Our ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan is only the latest and most stark example, but it won’t be the last.
Right Again, Carl
So how do we proceed? Notwithstanding our own culpability in creating this dilemma, is there any possible way to end the war in Afghanistan without the country again descending into crushing totalitarianism and once more becoming a base of operation for terrorists?
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Clausewitz (I have all his albums). So I will again cite — if slightly modify — his most famous aphorism:
War is (only) the extension of politics by other means.
In that regard, force alone is highly limited in what it can achieve in the interest of national objectives — a lesson the US, like many nation-states, seems to have a very hard time learning, even though it has been repeatedly, painfully demonstrated to us. (See Southeast Asian War Games, 1954–75, Second Place Trophy.)
To that end, there can be no purely military solution in Afghanistan. We cannot bomb and shoot our way to democracy in a land where the necessary conditions do not yet exist for it, and show no signs of appearing. Therefore, we are not ultimately dealing with a military question at all but a political one, of which military affairs are only a subset, and a highly subordinate one at that.
The only way we can defeat the Taliban once and for all is by destroying their appeal to any significant number of Afghans. That is an effort that is not principally in the realm of trigger-pulling, but of so-called soft power. (Which, as I have written, is also the only way we can defeat the violent Trumpist insurgency here at home.) Having blown our best chance to do so in 2003, it will be infinitely harder now, if not impossible. Given that, Biden’s choice to withdraw, under cover of Trump’s folly, even with all its drawbacks, may prove to be the most prudent available course.
And If there’s one lesson we take away from it, it’s that you can’t win a war by force alone, and you definitely can’t win it when you start a second war before you’ve finished the first.
Photo: US wounded in the Korengal Valley, eastern Afghanistan, October 2007. Lynsey Addario for The New York Times.