Late last year, Donald Trump announced that he wanted to completely withdraw troops from Syria. Then, the usual policy experts — the few left serving his administration — talked him down or ignored him and suddenly “the White House” announced it had reversed that decision. Then, this year, Trump moved between 40 and 100 troops out of one spot in Syria, and political and foreign-policy experts lost their minds. Kurdish allies were betrayed by the move, they said. ISIS prisoners were released. American influence was squandered and surrendered. What would potential allies think of us for having turned tail?
At Foreign Policy, Peter Feaver and Will Inboden wrote to criticize the handful of realist and “restrainer” voices praising Trump’s Syria pullout:
Trump and the realists both tend to present the debate as a false choice between endless wars and total withdrawal. And both offer the false comfort that immediate withdrawal will not impose high costs to U.S. interests.
Even those with qualified praise for Trump’s decision complained about the haphazardness of his policy-making and its implementation, and of his departure from the “norms” of American foreign policy.
What, you might ask, were those norms producing for us? Forever war or isolation is a false choice, they say. But cast your eyes over to Afghanistan, where it really does seem like the alternative to leaving is staying endlessly. At least that’s how policymakers in three administrations have thought about the Afghan conflict, to judge from the Washington Post’s latest scoop, a huge tranche of documents recording the candid, occasionally emotional assessments of the U.S. War in Afghanistan made by White House officials, generals, and policymakers.
My personal favorite is the early and perspicacious note from then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld: “We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave.” He was right. The United States had almost immediate success in routing the Taliban from Kabul and denying safe havens to al-Qaeda, but met with almost immediate failure in its efforts to create a stable state that would prevent the return of the Taliban and the safe havens for terrorists that it provided absent a continual American presence. We’ve remained in this state of half-success, half-failure ever since.
The more troubling revelation in the Post’s story was that multiple presidents and generals had lied elaborately to the public about the war, pretending it was going well even though they’d privately concluded that our objectives were contradictory and our strategy was a mess. Worse yet was the lying they did to themselves, creating endless color-coded metrics and then manipulating the data that was measured by them.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said one Army colonel and senior advisor during the Obama years, “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
Americans are still dying in Afghanistan. So are the Afghans who risked their lives to ally with U.S. troops against the Taliban. Over 60,000 Afghans have died in the 18-year war, against an enemy American presidents long ago concluded we could not or would not defeat. Has anyone asked what future allies might think of us for sticking around and bleeding our Afghan allies dry in a war we were simply unwilling to end or win?
Classical statements of just-war theory put the prospects of success at the heart of the moral calculation. Wars are occasions for so much evil that there must be reasons to believe their aims are achievable if they are to be pursued in a just way.
But the U.S. has pursued practically utopian aims in Afghanistan, including the establishment of a strong central government. Under the Obama administration, we tried to use our military to prop up the institutions of a stable country for the Afghans, believing that if they built enough schools and canals, a civil society would just appear around it all. And in a sickening replay of late Vietnam-era follies, officials continued to lie to the public about the level of corruption in the allied Afghan government, and about the effectiveness of its own armed forces against the Taliban.
Of course, what the Post reveals as the attempts of multiple presidents, generals, and other officials to mislead the public has also been half success and half failure. Did you, dear reader, ever believe that a modernizing civil society was starting to flourish in Afghanistan under American tutelage? No. Of course not. The lies were not credible. But I suspect that, like me, you haven’t decided to hold one president or another particularly responsible for pursuing an unattainable — and thus by definition unjust — objective in Afghanistan. And in that sense, the strategy of lying to the public has succeeded.
The U.S. government’s propaganda failed to convince American citizens that Afghanistan was really getting better, but American citizens have failed to punish their government for lying to us and wasting American blood and treasure.
In normal countries — that is, smaller and more vulnerable ones — failures in war are punished severely and even spectacularly. Generals, policy advisors, and heads of state are sometimes hung or shot in the streets at the conclusion of a failed war. But we are a large and powerful enough country that the public doesn’t bear such immense costs for its nation’s foreign-policy blunders and lies, so we don’t give out such ugly punishments. In fact, we tend to give the architects of such failures new positions at universities or think tanks, or even advising the next president.
Perhaps there is justice in all this anyway, though: Having spent two decades lying about Afghanistan, the normal experts are now left to rattle to cable-news cameras, and for the most part they aren’t believed even when they tell truths about Washington. It may not be a just punishment, but it could be a fitting one. And in any event, it’s the only one forthcoming.