Afghanistan Buries Another Empire
It’s easy to forget, but the United States by the end of 2001 thought it had won in Afghanistan. The CIA had undertaken an unofficial policy of war against Osama bin Laden back in 1998, and after 9/11, their agents were able to draw upon that planning to move quickly against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The bombing began in October; Northern Alliance fighters were inside Kabul by mid-November. Osama bin Laden fled, possibly to Tora Bora and eventually to Pakistan. A new age was declared in Central Asia.
So rapid was the Taliban’s defeat that it threw some antiwar sorts off balance. The mood at the time was best summed up by Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a piece for The Guardian called “Ha ha ha to the pacifists.” Hitchens crowed, “It was obvious from the very start that the United States had no alternative but to do what it has done. It was also obvious that defeat was impossible. The Taliban will soon be history.”
Today, we might ask how much longer history is supposed to take. Make a running chronological leap over the invasion of Afghanistan, past Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, above Arab Spring revolutions come and gone, landing and skidding into the present day, and you find the Taliban not only not defeated but in their strongest position in 20 years. The group now claims to control 70 percent of Afghanistan’s territory; a more cautious estimate by an Afghan news service puts it at 52 percent. Taliban fighters have seized highways and supply lines into Kabul. They’ve been inching towards the vital city of Kandahar.
All this during the Afghan winter, when frigid temperatures make fighting prohibitive; come springtime, observers expect the situation to only get worse. We are confronted now by what once would have seemed an unthinkable, even unpatriotic possibility: The Taliban could win in Afghanistan. After two decades of war, the United States could end up back where it started.
The prospect of a resurgent Taliban has prompted some to argue that America should stop withdrawing troops. Under the peace deal ratified at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces in Afghanistan are supposed to be out by May 1, though this was also contingent on the Taliban halting their offensive, which hasn’t happened. Still, it’s not like anything else we’ve tried has worked either, starting with Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2009. No amount of boots or dollars or willpower has achieved more than a lull in the violence. Yet we refuse to acknowledge as much. A congressional study group recently took a hard look at Afghanistan and came away with this groundbreaking conclusion: We should draw down only after security has improved. That, of course, is what we always say we’re going to do, only for that better security to remain elusive.
So why are we still in Afghanistan? Why can’t we finally succumb to reality and cut our losses? Three reasons come to mind.
The first is honor. No nation likes to lose a war, especially one with roots in the trauma of a terrorist attack. Because Afghanistan really was linked to 9/11—there’s no question Al Qaeda bombed the Twin Towers and was sheltered by the Taliban; Saddam Hussein, not so much—the conflict there has always maintained a certain Teflon in the American imagination. We think of it as the Good War amid the less palatable and more confusing Iraqs and Syrias. Even Barack Obama, elected during a year of war fatigue, maintained that the solution wasn’t to withdraw from the Middle East but to shift our focus from Iraq back to Afghanistan.
The second reason is what we might call elites on autopilot. Among those who prosecute and influence the war, a sense has set in that this is how things have been and therefore this is how things must be. America has always been at war with Afghanistan. The conflict has taken on the feel of a conveyor belt, with men and materiel sliding into one side of the machine and then out the other, supervised by elites who never bother to ask why the contraption exists in the first place. Read that congressional study report, read the various white papers that flit through the D.C. air like debris from an office fire, and you detect a kind of methodical conservatism at work. To withdraw troops would be disruptive, so best to keep Afghanistan the way it is, even if it isn’t working. And here are a few in-the-know terms to tide you over in the meantime: regional partners, kinetic action.
The third reason is the least common and also the most delusional: ideology. There remains a small clutch of thinkers who still cling to the old 2001 dream, who really do think that it is America’s vocation to spread liberal democracy around the world. To these armchair theorists, Afghanistan was never going to be wrapped up in two months or even 20 years; this is a hundred-years war, pitting the forces of liberalism, helmed by the indispensable nation America, against the forces of illiberalism. In the sweep of such a grand struggle, real difficulties against the Taliban become minor blips. Choose between Afghanistan and Iraq? We must fight in both, of course. This thinking was once best espoused by Norman Podhoretz, who wrote a book called World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. Today it finds voice in Robert Kagan, whose recent essay at Foreign Affairs chides Americans for trying to duck their never-ending responsibility to the world.
It’s all twaddle, of course, but this way of thinking nonetheless has a grain of a point: The situation in Afghanistan was always bigger than Afghanistan itself. It includes Pakistan (“AfPak,” as Richard Holbrooke used to call the two nations, until Pakistan pointed out that they were in fact different countries); the Taliban operates there, too, and its border with Afghanistan has served as a crossing point for countless terrorist fighters. It includes Saudi Arabia, whose decades of funding for Wahhabist schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan helped give rise to the extremism we see there today. It includes, though in a different way, Iran, which helped us wage war against the Taliban after 9/11. But that was an “axis of evil” speech ago; today such a collaboration would be unthinkable as Iran strengthens its ties to the Taliban.
The situation in Afghanistan also includes the Afghans themselves, whose country has been plagued by corruption we can’t manage, opium we can’t interdict, defiance we can’t quell. And it includes American leaders, who knew the war had stalled and covered it up, as the Washington Post revealed in the so-called Afghanistan Papers. The picture that comes into focus is not of a missed opportunity or a needed correction, but a mission made impossible by forces too large for us to control. Ex post facto declarations like, “we could have done more to fight Afghan corruption,” run smack into a simple question, “how?” Initial victory against the Taliban was always possible, even easy; engineering an Afghanistan able to resist that same Taliban in the long term was not.
Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires.” And while America’s frustration there might not prove as dramatic as, say, the Soviet retreat in 1988, it’s worth taking stock of how much we’ve lost since the war began. Twenty years ago, we were optimistic about peace in the Middle East; today we’re cynical. Twenty years ago, we were respected throughout much of the world; today we wonder whether that same world has gone post-American. Twenty years ago, we had a fiscal surplus; today we run massive deficits and a national debt larger than our entire economy, thanks in part to our wars. Twenty years ago, our democracy seemed like a model for places like Afghanistan; today it’s as anxious and uncertain as it’s been in my lifetime.
That isn’t to say the Afghan war alone drove our decline. But it does stand as a relic of a past age, a manifestation of a folly that left us weaker than we were before. After all this time, after all this blood, there is only one thing left to do: Bring the troops home.