On the Discontents of ‘Strategic Patience’

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August 26, 2021 5:43 p.m.

I’ve been working on a piece about critiques of the American people’s lack of “strategic patience” as evidenced by our withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then I got this note from TPM Reader PT and thought, yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking.

I suspect that you, like me, have seen at least some commentators who argue that the Taliban “won” in Afghanistan by simply waiting us out, or that this demonstrates to other nations that consider an adversarial stance towards the US that we’re a paper tiger now that they know that even if we do take military action against them, all they have to do is wait for us to withdraw, which we inevitably will. I have a different perspective that I’d like to offer, starting with an analogy:

Consider somebody who has been arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison, but who is subsequently released from prison after 20 years. Would such a person walk out of the penitentiary thinking, “Ha! I beat the rap! All I hadda do is wait them out! Law enforcement in this town is a paper tiger.”

Well, I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But a more accurate way to look at it is that the convict had no power — none — to determine the outcome once he was imprisoned. His release isn’t a victory over the state; it’s a sign that the state decided that its interests were no longer well served by his incarceration. It’s also evidence that it would have been perfectly sustainable for the state to keep him in prison for the full life sentence had it chosen to.

This is how I currently think about the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. This happened not because they were smart and just waited us out. They waited us out because that was the only option available to them. As long as the US didn’t want the Taliban running Afghanistan, they weren’t going to be running Afghanistan. The US decided that it’s not in our interest at this time to make it our mission to keep them out of Afghanistan’s government indefinitely. We decided that a 20 year sentence, as it were, was sufficient.

Regardless of what they say for public consumption, I suspect the Taliban get this. I suspect they understand that none of their last 20 years in the political wilderness (and often the literal wilderness) would have happened had al-Qaeda not organized and planned a major terrorist attack on the US from their bases in Afghanistan, and had the Taliban not refused to cooperate in the US effort to destroy al-Qaeda and kill or capture its people. Given that, I expect they will think long and hard before they let some terrorist organization set up shop on their territory and start carrying out attacks on the US from there.

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