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Still, let’s be fair. It’s hard to blame Trump for failing to articulate a bold and winning new strategy for Afghanistan. There isn’t one. It’s hard to fault him for listening to his Generals, too – Afghanistan will become a geopolitical crack house when the Americans leave, and that is hard to stomach. Obama, much as I admire him, couldn’t come up with anything better; even a surge to 100,000 troops didn’t help, and pulling most of them out according to a pre-announced schedule, and leaving a core of advisors behind to try to train the Afghan Army while staying clear of the fray themselves, wasn’t working out so great either…

The Hell of it is, Former Tweeting Trump was more or less right. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to give up and go home, and just let whatever happens happen…No new strategy, even if there was one, can salvage this mess. For once, Trump isn’t doing anything worse than many Presidents who preceded him. The real answer, as anyone who remembers Apocalypse Now can tell you, is never get off the boat, and they screwed the pooch on that one 16 years ago.

This blog, Same as it Ever Was, August 22, 2017.

Given their long, sorrowful history, the Kurds could have been forgiven a little more skepticism when it came to US pledges of support – actually, why anybody trusts the Americans, Trump or no Trump, is beyond me at this point. They swagger in all over the place, make lavish promises, recruit local allies, and then, invariably, after committing their superb military to win battle after battle in feats of arms unmatched in Western military history, decide that the thing is after all un-winnable and cut and run, making a mockery of the sacrifices of their own soldiers and leaving their former friends to hang. It’s been a pattern since Vietnam…

This blog, God Have Mercy on the Kurds, October 7, 2019.

Then there’s Afghanistan. Before he left office (God be praised) Trump made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces this year, a commitment that Biden has just announced he fully and enthusiastically intends to honour. He’s set a symbolic departure date of September 11, no conditions attached. Few would argue at this point that a further continuation of America’s two-decade effort to defang the Taliban, while standing up an effective government in Kabul, has any hope of succeeding. The time to end the “forever war” indeed seems ripe. However, when U.S. forces withdraw, the Taliban is almost certainly going to attempt a reconquest of the country, while re-establishing their own peculiarly oppressive form of extremist fundamentalism upon the people the Americans spent the last twenty years promising to help and protect, with undoubtedly appalling results. It’s going to be tough to stomach. The urge to do something about it will be strong. If that urge is resisted, geopolitical rivals such as Putin, Xi et al may take it as a sign of weakness, and be emboldened.

This blog, Events, Dear Boy, Events, April 16, 2021 

Tweet from Senator Ben Sasse (R)(Nebraska), August 15, 2021

Ben Sasse is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, so he isn’t my kind of guy, but he’s better than a lot of them these days (he was one of the few who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment), and the position he stakes out on Afghanistan is more than arguable. Nothing he says is wrong, exactly. Nothing he feels on this matter is illegitimate, nor does he give voice to any idea unlikely to be shared, or at least entertained, by strategists, professional soldiers, and politicians from all points on the spectrum. What’s happening now in Afghanistan is objectively horrifying, and it was indeed within the power of the United States to fend off this looming collapse indefinitely – but make no mistake, that’s the key word: indefinitely. The US intervention in Afghanistan that began with the inaptly named Operation Enduring Freedom has long been referred to as the “forever war”, and at 20 years, it is indeed the longest war in American history, with no sort of end save some version of the dreadful one that now confronts us ever being even remotely possible. If you’re in the big chair, it all comes down to whether a permanent garrison in a far away land, fighting for the foreseeable future not to win, but merely to maintain a tenuous stalemate in an endless twilight struggle that would continue not for years, or even decades, but for generations to come, is something you can stomach, and expect the American public at large to stomach along with you. That’s the fix in which George W. Bush and his team left all subsequent administrations, and Biden made up his mind about it long ago, back when he was Veep. Forever is too long. Now we see the consequences, and in the shock of the inevitable, we all wonder what’s right, including, it seems, many who were resolutely on Biden’s side when it was all an abstraction, a group in which I’m forced to include myself.

I’m not saying I know. As you can gather from my own writings over the years, extracted above, the whole question of Afghanistan policy is fraught with countervailing pressures and imperatives: the corruption and fecklessness of every Afghan government the Americans have dealt with; the sheer futility of trying to train and equip an effective Afghan National Army, capable of fighting for itself, amid a general lack of discipline, mass desertion, disinclination to fight, and divided loyalties leading to incident after incident of turncoats in the ranks killing their fellow soldiers and their Western advisors, problems that no amount of financial aid and equipment could cure; the steadfast, fanatical determination of the opposition; the inability to understand what motivates, or fails to motivate, the denizens of a society that is still predominantly tribal, with little regard for national organizations or centralized authority; the haunting echoes of Vietnam, and the deep-seated desire not to repeat the spectacle of collapse that ended with that last helicopter evacuating the few it could from a Saigon rooftop; the diabolical urge to keep throwing good money after bad, knowing what will come of admitting to the realities on the ground; the certainty of Taliban ascendance should US forces withdraw, and of the horrors that such will bring, not just for the Afghan people, but maybe the world at large as the nation reverts to its old status of terrorist haven and international geopolitical crack-house; the requirement perceived by the policymakers of all great powers to avoid seeming weak, for fear of larger consequences; it’s almost impossible, in the moment, to deal rationally with all that and come up with a winning strategy, or failing that, a right answer on what to do next.

Actually, if we’re honest, there was no winning strategy, and there is no right answer, except the one that could have been arrived at in 2001, which was never to invade the “graveyard of empires” in the first place. There was nothing about hunting Osama bin Laden and disabling Al Qaeda that necessitated a full-bore invasion, occupation, and nation-building exercise in Central Asia, and nothing that the movers and shakers in the Bush administration’s policy community could have gleaned from history that would have encouraged them to go ahead and try as much. It was hubris, pure and simple, with the key players either indifferent to, or ignorant of, the experiences of the Soviets, the British Empire, and an endless series of other conquering powers going all the way back to Alexander the Great. As I’ve said many times in this space, the most dangerous words in our language are “this time, it’s different”, but Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al, failing to understand this, figured they could pull it off where everybody else had failed, and were only spurred on by early results that seemed encouraging enough that Rumsfeld, apparently, ignored a Taliban diplomatic effort to negotiate terms, demanding unconditional surrender instead. Another great and upsetting “what if” for the pile. The thing is, the warlords take the long view over there. Invaders come and go, and always have, for millennia. Unconditional surrender? As if. Better to wait the foreigners out, exerting pressure all the while to move things more rapidly in the usual direction. They needn’t even have studied what happened in Vietnam; their own history gave them all the guidance they needed, and, no surprise really, here we are.

It’s almost certainly the case that the US withdrawal could have been handled better. The deal Trump made with the Taliban, and which Biden decided to honour, was little more than a permission slip to cut and run, gussied up with a bunch of promises that the battle-hardened chieftains of the implacable foe never for a second intended to honour. A better deal could have been made, no doubt, though given Trump’s precipitous drawdown in forces, thus negating any leverage the Americans might have had, Biden probably felt that ship had sailed. In that case, perhaps they could still have cut and run with a little more strategic skill. Perhaps the thousands of native Afghans who’d assisted America over the years could have been spirited to safety before the pullout was announced, and no doubt the decent thing would have been to have granted them all citizenship, or at least asylum, years ago, rather than saddling them with an intensely bureaucratic visa application process that takes years to navigate. It also would have made sense to expedite their patriation before pulling up stakes and leaving them behind, perhaps through the huge airbase at Bagram that shouldn’t have been abandoned so quickly. It’s to be hoped that many, perhaps most, can still be extricated before it’s too late, but the way this has happened is, objectively, sorrowful and even disgraceful, and evidences either an utter failure of the US policy and intelligence communities to gauge just how quickly the situation on the ground would deteriorate, or the reluctance of the policy community to accept what the CIA was telling them – pick your poison. From the outside, they seem both to have grossly overestimated the capabilities of friendly forces, and thoroughly underestimated the resolve, and indeed the deal-making, bribe-offering guile, of their Taliban enemies. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, or even willful blindness. Any way you slice it, it’s not a good look for Biden, whose administration, prior to this, was doing a good job of establishing competence as its hallmark.

Nevertheless, some sort of horror show was unavoidable, if the decision was to leave. It was clear that the Kabul regime and its miserable armed forces were never going to be able to stand on their own. So what’s right? Do you simply decide that it has to end at some point, and no time like the present, so let’s just get the shit show over with and move on? Or do you decide that given the geopolitical and humanitarian consequences of the alternative, it’s better to accept that the financial and human costs of a small, forward-deployed garrison of a few thousand men, backed by special forces and copious (and hugely expensive) air power, are a price worth paying, even though the payments will never end, not for as long as you live, or your children live either? Accepting, as well, that with recent Taliban gains chewing away at the nation despite the US presence, the military deployment might need, once again, to become more robust, just as it did during Obama’s tenure? Our feelings on this may depend on whether Afghanistan once again becomes the festering petrie dish for international terrorism and a happy home for Al Qaeda, Isis, and others of their ilk, and whether, God help us, it eventually gets so bad that it becomes necessary to go back in {involuntary shudder}. In that case, folks like Ben Sasse will be amply vindicated.

On the other hand, failing that, the shock of the current disaster will fade, just as it has with prior disasters, and people will come to view the abandonment of the war as a necessary evil. After all, who in America is sorry today that their troops aren’t still mired in Vietnam?

Who’s right? Truth to tell, I can’t decide. Perhaps partly on account of my legal training, I can argue both sides, but it’s more than that – I’m easily persuaded that both sides are right. Or neither. Right now, though, right this minute, it hurts to watch, and there’s no avoiding the short term tragedy we’re about to witness, which to a large degree became inevitable the moment everyone knew the Americans were leaving. We all saw this coming. Anyone who’s paid the least attention to world events and the history of American foreign policy feared the likelihood of this fiasco from the moment US forces were committed to toppling the Taliban. May this, at long last, be a lesson to them: never get off the boat.

A Twitter thread well worth reading:

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