Americans, or at least the commentating classes, are watching aghast as events unfold in Afghanistan. Some are second-guessing the wisdom of withdrawal – after all, how hard is it to maintain a few thousand soldiers there permanently? Others are taking the more comfortable position of saying yes, we had to leave but this just wasn’t the right way. I must be the only person in America who is having exactly the opposite reaction. The more I see the more I’m convinced this was the right decision – both what I see on the ground in Afghanistan and perhaps even more the reaction here in the United States.
It is crystal clear that the Afghan national army and really the Afghan state was an illusion. It could not survive first contact with a post-US military reality. As is so often the case in life – with bad investments, bad relationships – what we were doing there was staying to delay our reckoning with the consequences of the reality of the situation.
That’s a bad idea.
But as I’ve said in other posts over the last two days, we knew this part. What has been deeply revealing to me is the American response. And here I mean to say the most prominent media and political voices. It’s true this is quicker than I’d figured – not that I’d given the precise timing a lot of thought. And it seems to be quicker than the White House figured. But by a month? Three months? Does that matter? I don’t see why. If anything, given the outcome, quicker is better – since a protracted fall is necessarily a bloodier fall. But what the reaction has demonstrated to me is the sheer depth of denial. The inability to accept the reality of the situation. And thus the excuse making. Sen. Maggie Hassan’s press release below is a painfully good example of that. So is this article by in The Atlantic by George Packer. Virtually everything Richard Engel has been writing on Twitter for the last 24 hours. All so much the cant of empire. But more than this, far more important than this, simply unwise.
For better or worse I am bought into the post-World War II American project. This makes me much more conventional in my thinking about foreign policy and national security than a significant percentage of TPM Readers. I note this here because I don’t come to any of this with the assumption that it’s none of our business or that we’re a malign force in the world. I’m bought in. Indeed, my instinctive caution probably would have made me hesitate to make this unilateral move. You can always kick the can a bit further down the road.
The perpetual effort to stand up an Afghan government that could exist on its own did not work. That doesn’t mean the decision to topple the Taliban government in 2001 was a mistake. But that was twenty years ago. We are living in a dramatically different world today. We have been in a perpetual occupation in pursuit of no clear national security interest of the United States. At a certain point you have to realize that and act accordingly. I find convincing this suggestion that Biden refused a more phased or circumstances-based withdrawal precisely because he had seen up close how Barack Obama had been rolled by the Pentagon a decade ago.
In 122 AD the Emperor Hadrian built what history knows as “Hadrian’s Wall,” which bisects Britain. You can still see it today. It marked the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. On this side Rome; on that side the tribes of Caledonia. Some twenty years later in 142 AD the Emperor Antoninus Pius, frustrated with the marauding and managing the tribes north of wall, constructed a new wall roughly one hundred miles further north into what is now Scotland. This was the Antonine Wall. Rome would garrison and pacify the region between the two walls. Twenty years later in 162 AD, the year after Antonius Pius died, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius abandoned the new territory and withdrew back to Hadrian’s Wall. Not everything works.
The intensity of the current handwringing over the fall of Kabul is an almost perfect measure of the denial about the failure of the current mission. Indeed, they are two sides of the same coin. What was keeping us there this long? THIS! Look at it around you today. The collective unwillingness to endure this reality is what has kept the US in the country for at least a decade. Processing ten years of denial in ten hours is rough.
We’ve been in Afghanistan for either ten or twenty years because no one in authority was ready to endure this moment and not look back. I don’t know if Biden will pay a domestic political price for this denouement. But watching it all unfold I’m even more certain he made the right decision than I was a day ago. Does anyone think we’ll look back a year from now and think, wow, I wish we were still garrisoning Afghanistan? I doubt it.
Someone had to make the decision that Bush, Obama and Trump did not and apparently could not. Biden did.