What is it we are doing in Afghanistan? What do we think we are doing in Afghanistan? All we can say with any confidence is that the former and the latter bear only a theoretical relationship.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and many of his associates were thought to be holed up there under the protection and the patronage of the Taliban, the jihadist militia cum narcotics syndicate that controlled Afghanistan at the time. U.S. forces marched in, toppled the Taliban, and installed a client regime under Hamid Karzai, a wildly corrupt and borderline incompetent leader who was, all things considered, probably the best we could do at the time. We eventually had a falling out with Karzai and his government, and Afghan democracy — “democracy” — moved on. The country has remained in a slow-motion civil war, with the Taliban waxing and waning conversely with U.S. interest in this unhappy little corner of the world.
This week, President Trump gave a speech on Afghanistan, in which he said that his initial instinct was to pull out but that his military advisers had persuaded him to step up the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, in the hopes of . . . well, about that part, no one really seems to know. “Killing terrorists,” Trump says. Well, all right. World’s full of ’em, though — invest in brass.
What Trump insists we are not doing is “nation-building.” Nation-building is in bad odor after the failures of George W. Bush’s government in Afghanistan and, more dramatically, in Iraq. Very few of Bush’s people, even the most committed of the so-called neoconservatives, had much hope for turning Afghanistan into something like a modern liberal democracy. Afghanistan is rural, tribal, penniless, backward, and lacking in natural endowments. Iraq, on the other hand, is urban, culturally sophisticated, and blessed with oodles of oil. Sure, its regnant political tendency, Baathism, is very little more than national socialism with an Arabic accent, but at least it’s an ethos we could work with.
Nobody much likes nation-building: not libertarians, who prefer fewer foreign entanglements and a less aggressive foreign policy; not Trumpkin populist-nationalists, who believe that most interactions with dirty foreigners (trade, immigration, etc.) are insalubrious; not the Left, which at the Bernie Sanders end of the spectrum believes that the U.S. military is a force for evil in the world and which at the Barack Obama end of the spectrum would simply prefer to see all those dollars going to Afghanistan spent fixing overpasses in East St. Louis; and, increasingly, not the main stream of Republicans, either, whose Szechuan buffet of a political ideology now seems to incorporate a little taste of all of the above.
And nation-building deserves its poor reputation, too. It failed in Iraq. It failed in Afghanistan. It worked in Japan and Germany under radically different conditions, including a national political commitment to an open-ended occupation that continues — pardon me for noticing — 72 years later, with no indication of its being reconsidered.
But if we aren’t nation-building in Afghanistan, we aren’t doing anything.
Nation-building deserves its poor reputation, too. It failed in Iraq. It failed in Afghanistan. It worked in Japan and Germany under radically different conditions.
“Killing terrorists,” Trump says. Afghanistan has its share of terrorists, but what it mostly has is an endless civil war being fought among rival tribal interests in a rugged and empty part of the world that mostly has served only to get in the way when you’re marching your Macedonian army toward India. “Killing terrorists” in Afghanistan is not a national military goal with a defined set of conclusory conditions and a working definition of victory — it’s an eternal game of Whac-a-Mole using U.S. forces as the toy mallet. If concluding our efforts in Afghanistan before Islamic radicalism has been exterminated there means handing a victory to the ghost of Osama bin Laden — who is, let’s keep in mind, dead — then we are never leaving Afghanistan.
One doesn’t expect Donald Trump to sort this out on his own, or to figure out how to match his socks.
Congress should step in here. The Authorization for Use of Military Force passed nearly unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Bush on September 18, 2001, served its purpose in the immediate aftermath of the shocking events of September 11, 2001. The only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF, Barbara Lee of California, predicted that it would end up being a deathless “blank check” for worldwide military operations without the explicit and specific authorization of Congress, and in that she was correct. The AUMF should be repealed and funding for operations in Afghanistan cut off unless and until the United States can define exactly what it is that its military is to accomplish in Afghanistan, at which time a new, specific, and limited AUMF may be drawn up. If the answer ends up being “killing bad guys,” then maybe the current leadership in Washington should retire with a six-pack and some old Chuck Norris movies and turn this over to the adults.
They don’t know what it is they are doing, but they are sure that we should keep doing it — forever.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.