Joe Biden’s critics lost Afghanistan
A month ago, I thought I was cynical about our 20 year war in Afghanistan. Today, after seeing our stumbling withdrawal and the rapid collapse of pretty much everything we fought for, my main feeling is that I wasn’t cynical enough.
My cynicism was the belief that the American effort to forge a decent Afghan political settlement definitely failed during Barack Obama’s first term, when an increase in American forces dulled but did not reverse the Taliban’s resumption. This failure was then buried under a Vietnamese-style blizzard of official deception and bureaucratic lies, which covered a shift in US priorities from pursuing victory to managing the stalemate, with the US presence isolated from losses. in the hope that it can be maintained indefinitely.
In this strategic vision – to use the word “strategic” liberally – there would be no prospect of victory, no end to corruption among our allies and collateral damage from our airstrikes, no clear reason to be in Afghanistan, as opposed to any other failure. A potential terrorist state or haven, except for the sunk cost of being there already. But if America’s casualty rate remained low enough, the public would accept it, the Pentagon budget would pay for it, and no one would have to preside over something as humiliating as defeat.
In a way, my cynicism has gone too far. I assumed that the military and the national security bureaucracy would be able to thwart every new American president’s desire to declare a conflict that seemed endless, and I was wrong. Something like this happened with Obama and Donald Trump during their early years in office, but it didn’t happen with Joe Biden. He promised withdrawal and, albeit chaotically, we have now withdrawn.
But in all other respects, the pullout pleaded for even deeper cynicism – about America’s capabilities as a superpower, our mission in Afghanistan, and the class of generals, officials, experts and of politicians who supported its generational extension.
First, the chaotic quality of the withdrawal, culminating in the recognition yesterday that between 100 and 200 Americans had not made the last flights from Kabul, testified to an incompetence to leave a country equal to our inability to pacify it. . Some aspects of the chaos were probably inevitable, but the Biden White House was clearly caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban’s advance, with key personnel missing on vacation just before the Kabul government dissolved. And the President himself has looked exhausted, aged, overwhelmed – making fundamental promises to get every American home safe, and then see them overwhelmed by events.
At the same time, the circumstances under which Biden’s withdrawal must have occurred have been compounded by a devastating accusation against the policies pursued by his three predecessors, which together cost around $ 2,000,000,000,000 (it’s worth it write all those zeros) and managed to build nothing in the political or military spheres that could survive even a season without further US money or military oversight.
It was only recently that the idea that without US troops, the US-backed government in Kabul would be doomed to the same fate as the Soviet-backed government some 30 years ago seemed to be realism. stubborn. Now it has been proven that such “realism” is overly optimistic. Without Soviet troops, the Moscow-backed government actually held out for several years before the Mujahedin reached Kabul. While our $ 2,000,000,000,000 built a regime that fell into the hands of the Taliban even before American troops could complete their retreat.
Before this summer, in other words, it was possible to read all the grim Inspector General reports and dumps of documents on Afghanistan, see yourself as a cynic of the war effort and imagine still America Something for all of those expenses, it doesn’t matter how much was spent on Potemkin facilities or siphoned off by pederast warlords or put back into circulation to contractors in Northern Virginia.
Now, however, we know that in terms of real resistance, all of our nation-building efforts could not even match what the Soviet Union managed to do in catching up.
However, this knowledge did not prevent a reawakening of the spirit which led us to this sad past. I’m not talking about direct critiques of the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal. I mean the way in both media coverage and political backlash, reasonable tactical critiques have often been woven into anti-withdrawal arguments that are self-deceiving, questionable, or laughable.
The argument, for example, that the situation in Afghanistan was reasonably stable and the war death toll negligible before the Trump administration began to withdraw: in fact, only the US casualties were low, while the Afghan military and civilian casualties were approaching 15,000 per year, and the Taliban was clearly gaining ground – suggesting that we would have needed periodic increases in US forces and periodic spikes in US deaths, to prevent a slow-motion version. of what happened quickly after we left.
Or the argument that an indefinite occupation was morally necessary to feed the shoots of Afghan liberalism: if after 20 years of effort and $ 2,000,000,000,000, the theocratic alternative to liberalism actually takes hold of a country faster than when it was first conquered, it is a sign that our moral achievements were outweighed by the moral costs of corruption, incompetence and drone campaigns.
Or the argument that a permanent mission in Afghanistan might somehow resemble our long-term presence in Germany or South Korea – an illusory historical analogy before the fall of the Kabul government and completely ridiculous now.
All of these arguments relate to a set of moods that flourished after 9/11: a mixture of overconfidence encouraged by the cable media in US military capabilities, naive longing for World War II, and humanitarianism in crusade in its liberal and neoconservative forms. Like most Americans, I shared these moods once; after so many years of failure, I can’t imagine doing it now. But it has been clear in recent weeks that they retain an intense underground appeal in the American elite, only waiting for the right circumstances to resurface.
So you have generals and great strategists who have presided over the quagmire, madness and defeat that have spread across television networks and opinion pages to defend another 20 years in Afghanistan. You have the return of the liberal media hawks and centrist Pentagon reporters, unchained by their own gullible contributions to the decline of American power over the past 20 years. And you have Republicans who have presented themselves as cold-eyed realists in the Trump presidency, suddenly turning back into greedy crusaders, thrilled to own Biden Democrats and relive the brief post-9/11 period when the mainstream media was treating their. left with deference rather than contempt. .
Again, Biden deserves plenty of criticism. But like the Trump administration in its wisest days, it tries to extricate America from a set of failed policies that many of its harshest critics have long supported.
Our botched withdrawal is the punctuation of a general catastrophe, a failure so vast that it should require purges in the Pentagon, the shameful retreat of countless hawkish talkheads, the demolition of various NGOs and international studies programs, and the disbandment. countless design offices and military contractors.
No wonder, then, that making Biden the singular scapegoat seems to be a more appealing path. But if the only aspect of this disaster that our leaders can remember is what went wrong in August 2021, then we will have learned nothing but to always redouble our efforts in the event of failure, and the next disaster will be worse.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.