The war was lost long ago — if it was ever winnable
The hysterical media crescendo over the past couple days with every 60-year-old op-ed writer crawling out of the swamp to demand permanent military occupation has been been very illustrative as to the degree to which the generation which gave us the War on Terror, rather than the generations which grew up disillusioned with it, are still in control of pretty much every major media institution. There seems to be a real age gap between those people and pundits in the Millennial/Gen Z bracket who were too young to have any investment in the decision to declare war and have grown up correctly intuiting that it’s pointless.
9/11 happened when I was 18 and I remember driving home from school after it was cancelled thinking "Well, I'm going to get drafted". The draft didn't happen but I did know a number of people who signed up for the military and who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The toll those deployments took on many young men and women from my generation is not appreciated near enough in my opinion. I have real anger toward GWB and people of his and older generations who never fought in a war yet were so eager to send others to war. I'm still pissed when I see a boomer come on TV and repeat the same damn talking points about this war. They can all go to hell.
From a distance, it looks to me like the real choice was 1) piss off and undercut the Afghan government by evacuating the embassy and willing Afghan translators BEFORE troop drawdowns or 2) do what we did, evacuate the troops while signaling confidence in the current regime by leaving everyone in place.
Is that not the crux of it? Biden administration didn’t want to invite a crisis of confidence by outwardly preparing for and anticipating imminent collapse, so they didn’t? I get the dilemma. You’d possibly get destroyed on right wing media for “not giving the Afghan people a chance.” But isn’t the basic critique here that they could have changed the order of operations to evacuated civilians earlier in the process?
"Our European allies spend a much larger share of GDP on defense than we do."
Is "larger" supposed to be smaller?
The strategic argument for leaving Afghanistan is crystal clear, and Biden is showing true leadership in biting the bullet and getting it done despite political risks.
That said, when the dust settles there should be a lot of honest reflection on failures in execution of an orderly transition. It is too early for a full account but I don’t think it’s sufficient to just blame the military for trying to notch an operation they opposed. (If it can be shown to be the fault of military leaders, I expect heads to roll.)
On the media reaction to the withdrawal, I think an underappreciated factor is that journalists who cover foreign affairs are likely to be influenced by the class of educated, professional Afghans, for whom the return of Taliban rule is a total catastrophe. That's not the sole factor animating the media commentary, and it's not by itself a sufficient justification for opposing withdrawal. But most Americans don't really care about the immediate impact on certain segments of Afghan society, and most journalists covering Afghanistan probably do, even if it's not a bias they are willing to admit.
Relatedly, Biden faces no political risk from the Afghan withdrawal. He faces significant political risk, though, from any attempt to resettle Afghan refugees in the United States.
How different our reaction would have been after 9/11 if Gore had been president instead of Bush is my most perplexing counterfactual. I keep wishing for a quick surgical strike against the Taliban and a rapid withdrawal. That of course would have been roundly criticized as too weak and ineffectual which might have goaded Gore into a more massive attack.
What is firm in my mind is that we never would have been in Iraq as that was solely a Bush Freudian Oedipal fantasy egged on my Cheney's financial stakes in loosing the military industrial complex on a petrostate. Without the Iraq attack there is no Isis, no chaos in Syria, no refugee crisis.
So many roads taken that shouldn't have been.
I worked with an international organization in Afghanistan for years and was deeply involved on the political side - things like electoral support. It's definitely true about the mismatch of political goals and military resources. Before the 2018 and 2019 elections, ie years after the 2014 troop drawdown, we would have endless meetings at which senior US officials - among many others - got into all kinds of weeds about ballot design, the placement of polling centres, the election commission's outreach strategy, etc etc... all conducted by foreigners who could barely leave their embassy grounds without a helicopter. It was sort of remarkable.
I'm going to channel George Aiken here and say that in fact, Biden and Trump did the right thing on Afghanistan because the war was *won* long ago. We got bin Laden and shut down al-Qaeda's camps. All these other alleged war aims were just mission creep.
Yes, the Bush administration screwed things up pretty badly by not caring, which badly delayed our victory and prevented it from being the rout it could and should have been. Regardless, bin Laden is dead (and General Motors is alive!). It only feels like a loss because we later set the bar artificially high.
I think there is a lot that is correct in this piece, but your history of the beginnings is just plain wrong, namely the idea that Afghanistan was under-resourced from the beginning because of Iraq.
This is the post-hoc reasoning that Democrats created after the Iraq war turned to shit, but it's simply not an accurate take on history.
The Bush administration originally wanted to go big in Afghanistan, but the military refused for a number of reasons, which I'll touch in a minute, and instead, the strategy involved the CIA taking the lead along with Special Forces to buttress Karzai and the Northern Alliance. In other words, using US airpower to give opponents of the Taliban the ability to break the strategic and tactical stalemate that existed for years.
But the main reason that going big was never in the cards was two-fold - and had nothing to do with Iraq:
- The first part of this was logistics - Afghanistan was a landlocked country with bad infrastructure. It was was simply not possible to support a large military presence there without both the acquiescence of Pakistan, but also a lot of time to do basic infrastructure stuff like build roads.
- But an even bigger reason we adopted using a "light footprint" in Afghanistan was based on trying to avoid the Soviet experience. It's really important to understand that, at the beginning, the history and lessons of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan were foremost in the minds of military planners. We did not want to appear to be like another invading Soviet-style army that we thought would trigger a general uprising and resistance. Afghanistan at that time was a country that was seen to have a culture of extreme xenophobia. So any notion of "going big" in Afghanistan crashed against that wall.
- Finally, way back in the early oughts, "nation-building" was simply not considered to be a military role. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the military's job was to defeat the enemy forces and then provide security so that the other functions of government could come in and do the nation-building part. We know now that never happened. The US never built that capacity and over time the military was expected to take on this role. So the ACTUAL resource problem was the failure to create a modern version of the kinds of "colonial" administrations that existed 100 years earlier. Instead, Bush and then Obama took the easy way out and militarized what should have been a civilian nation and capacity-building role, particularly after the "revolt of the diplomats" in 2007.
So the reality is that even if Bush didn't have eyes on Iraq, we still would have gone small in Afghanistan. And by early 2002, this strategy had achieved all our objectives except the head of UBL which, at that time, was considered less important than destroying AQ's infrastructure, networks, and ability to plan and implement the kinds of major attacks they were known for. The importance of UBL as a Bush "failure" was another post-hoc creation for domestic US political purposes as a line of attack against Bush. The idea that our plans in Afghanistan would have been any different had UBL been killed is completely lacking in any evidence. And indeed, once we did finally kill UBL, nothing changed and our involvement went another entire decade! Killing UBL was a catharsis, but strategically irrelevant, particularly in terms of the nation-building effort.
Let's also do a counter-factual - suppose we had done the first "plausible" approach you listed - take out the Taliban and AQ and then leave the Northern alliance in charge. I happen to think this is what we should have done, but it would have come with some pretty big downsides. It would continue the Afghan civil war. It would enable the "warlords" to run rampant again, which was a big factor in the Taliban origin story. And, a lot more bad things would have happened. And the Democratic narrative on Bush would not be much different.
But speaking of the Taliban for a minute, the surrender offer you mention was only one of many, which were not serious, were not taken seriously, and, post-hoc, should not be taken seriously. Mullah Omar was not a dictator - he presided over a shura of leadership that made collective decisions. The notion that this Taliban leadership would toss away all their political goals so that Omar, alone, could live peaceably in Kandahar is laughable.
Finally, the whole idea that things would be different if only Bush has properly "resourced" Afghanistan is similarly flawed. And it's also one of those assertions that is paper-thin since none of the people who claim to believe this (that I've talked to at least) can explain what that means, what more "resources" specifically would have accomplished, what strategy would have worked instead, and what the end goals would be and if they could actually be achieved. Instead, it's the underpants gnome strategy of "more resources" then "profit!" I think the reality is that no amount of US "resources" could make the fundamental changes in Afghan society that would turn them into a unified country, much less one with liberal democratic values. And regardless, the American people - as should be blindingly obvious now - were not willing or prepared to engage in an actual multi-generational project to attempt to turn Afghanistan into something resembling an actual nation.
The core problem seems to be that Bush faced a tough choice and going for an option that didn't exist. His choice was aggressive goals with high cost or modest goals with lower cost. He went for. aggressive goals with low investment, leading to failure, and in the long run high cost.
This seems this is the heart of Republican governance on issue after issue. Covid, climate change, taxes. They just govern the world they wish to exist instead of reality.
The other striking thing about Matt's article and his twitter discourse is how much power he assigns the military in controlling the foreign policy of the president. Military independence was somewhat cheered on during the Trump presidency, but is actually very worrying if true. A bedrock of our success has been civilian control of the military. If this has been compromised, we should take immediate action to remedy it.
One data point that gives me a glimmer of hope: The median age of the Afghanistan population is 18 years old. So over half the country has lived exclusively under a non-Taliban, US-supported regime where women are educated, communication is (relatively) open, and the internet is available. The Taliban will want to change all these things, but I hope it will be much harder to do than it was in the 1990's.
It's been pretty fascinating to see how pro-intervention elite opinion in the US has been very recently. I normally can't stand Greenwald and that crew of folks, but I have to admit that he (especially a decade ago when he was less crazy) has a number of very good points about how pro-national security state the NYT, WaPo and other elite journalists/take haver types really are. (I follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, maybe not the best example, but I've been kinda surprised to see this Koch libertarian type be pretty pro-intervention over the past few days?) The 'Blob' community of active/former natsec professionals is definitely real, but it's certainly empowered by some of the wealthiest & most influential parts of US society. It'll be interesting to see how the inevitable Chinese blockade of Taiwan turns out....
Also, elite journalistic opinion being virtually wall-to-wall 'we should've stayed' doesn't really help Biden's political fortunes, seeing as they're going to bang that drum hard up through the midterms
Nicole Wallace may have slightly exaggerated the ratio when she said 95 percent of the American people were in favor of this withdrawal and 95 percent of journalists would be against it. But not by much. Of the soldiers being interviewed who actually had extensive in country experience you see a lot of stories from soldiers who lamented the pointless loss of their comrades and not so many from soldiers who said it was an inevitable end. There's a lot of those too. So there's a question I have for all those journalists in country and out who have been crawling all over Afghanistan, many of whom are still there. Why didn't any of you predict the swift collapse of the Afghan government? Who were you talking to that led you to believe it wouldn't happen? Why were you bullshitting us all this time?
One thing that is striking to me in conversation is how backwards the discussions feels -
Generally progressives are broadly supportive of investing immense amounts of money into bad situations with the idea that it takes generational support to make significant changes. The clear understanding that you can't overcome centuries of oppression in the US with one generation of less racism. Yet the conclusion in Afghanistan is that its complete collapse upon pullout is simply a clear signal that they were never going to be able to maintain a liberal democracy because of culture, background etc.
In reverse, conservatives generally oppose sinking vast amounts of money into such situations as they see as pouring good money after bad. They would say that money can't overcome bad culture and poor personal choices, and that what really makes a change is people lifting themselves up through the adoption of better values. Yet in Afghanistan, there is a general belief that the US government/military has the ability to establish a liberal democracy overcoming a vastly different culture and widespread differences in values.
Some people look at this and would say there are massive differences in the situations, and I would agree! Its just that the talking point reversal seems very striking to me.