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The Lessons of the Afghan War

A U.S Army soldier walks behind an Afghan policeman during a joint patrol with Afghan police and Canadian soldiers west of Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2007. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
Two decades of the conflict have shown us what American foreign-policy failure looks like. What success looks like remains unclear.

Joe Biden has announced that the last U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan before the highly symbolic date of September 11, 2021, the 20-year anniversary of the terror attacks that reminded all the Americans out there in TV-land that Afghanistan hadn’t just disappeared after our interest in the failed Soviet engagement there faded.

This represents a small extension of the U.S. presence after the Trump administration negotiated a withdrawal originally scheduled to be complete by May 1. For many Americans — and, in particular, for many conservatives — this cannot come soon enough.

The George W. Bush administration is likely to be remembered as the high-water mark for a certain kind of conservatism, a certain kind of Republican Party, and a certain kind of American foreign-policy consensus. None of those has survived the 20 years since 9/11.

There was a time when conservatives embraced the adjective “Wilsonian.” Woodrow Wilson has come into ill repute on the right, thanks in no small part to the efforts of my friend and former National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg and his Liberal Fascism, which connected the “war socialism” and central-planning progressivism of Wilson et al. with similar movements, generally authoritarian, around the world. But before he was Wilson the proto-fascist, he was Wilson the muscular internationalist, an exemplary figure to the conservatives whom Colin Dueck of George Mason University describes as third-wave Wilsonians, more skeptical than their progressive peers of multilateral institutions but sharing an “optimistic emphasis on worldwide democratization.”

Because the American political conversation is conducted at a level of crippling oversimplification, Afghanistan was understood for a time as the new “good war,” while Iraq was another Vietnam, a quagmire fought on a lie. But Afghanistan was never only about hunting down al-Qaeda, and Iraq was never only — or even mainly — about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. The more biting critique of the Bush administration is not its purported insincerity about weapons of mass destruction but its utterly sincere and culpably optimistic conviction that Afghanistan and Iraq could, with sufficient sustained effort, be remade in the liberal-democratic mold, as Japan and Germany had been after World War II. It was the domino theory in reverse: Vicious authoritarian regimes would be converted one by one as their neighbors realized the benefits of joining the U.S.-led order.

A few “realists” suggested that at the very least, we could succeed in making Afghanistan into something more like Pakistan; instead, the last 20 years have seen Pakistan become something more like Afghanistan, albeit a more amusing version with a partly reformed playboy-cricketeer as the face of a regime that operates as an extension of a vicious crime syndicate led by the country’s military and intelligence services with the cooperation of its religious authorities. Though we had hoped that Afghanistan would find a Benazir Bhutto figure — corrupt, admittedly, but liberal and secular — there was no such factotum to be found. (And Bhutto-ism, if we can call it that, mostly withered in its native soil, too.) We went into Afghanistan convinced that there was no place in the civilized world for the Taliban, and we ended up making a place at the table for the terrorist militia, conducting peace negotiations directly with its leaders while snubbing the notionally legitimate government of the Islamic republic set up under our auspices.

There’s realism, and then there’s reality: Wilson didn’t make the world safe for democracy, but he won his war — and George W. Bush didn’t win his.

Wilsonian conservatism survives in the think tanks and in syndicated columns, but it is out of power in the Republican Party. (To the extent that Democrats have their own version of muscular internationalism, it is directed at carbon dioxide.) This is partly a result of the failure of the Bush-era “democracy project,” and partly a result of the intense personal hatred that certain Republican figures who rose with Donald Trump have for neoconservatives and hawks such as Bill Kristol and John Bolton, the latter of whom was in the Trump administration without being of it, so to speak. But beyond the “paleo” distaste for Manhattan-raised Jews and people who went to Yale, the Right is being made to reengage with a very old factional dispute that long predates 9/11 or Trump’s entry into politics.

In the world of conservative ideological camps, this disagreement is expressed in the confrontation of the Wilsonian tendency with the isolationist/noninterventionist/America First tendency, which runs from Charles Lindbergh and anti-war Republicans such as Senator Bob Taft to more modern figures such as Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Ron Paul, and Donald Trump. Populists take a nickel-and-dime view of international relations, which is why they pay so much attention to such trivial (from a purely financial point of view) issues as foreign aid. Upstarts challenging powerful incumbents or entrenched establishment figures almost invariably affect a populist demeanor that is abandoned when campaign time is over: Then-candidate Barack Obama, no paleoconservative, complained in 2008 about the money spent on “nation building” abroad when it could have been spent filling potholes in Sheboygan, but governed as a man who enjoyed a good drone strike. The rhetorical necessities of populism are making great things small and complex things simple. The necessities of responsible government are . . . not doing that.

To the extent that the Republican Party is converting itself into a right-wing populist party — the National Farmer-Labor Party envisioned by such figures as Senator Josh Hawley — it will tend to revert to the nickel-and-dime mode of Ron Paul and Donald Trump and candidate Obama. “What’s in it for us?” is an important question in international relations, but it needs an enlightened mind to answer it constructively. President Trump treated NATO like he was trying to divide up the bill at a restaurant after an expensive dinner and demanding to know who ordered the priciest appetizer. It is important to watch the nickels and dimes, but it also is important to spend them wisely when the time comes. Preventing 9/11 would have been very difficult, but it needn’t have been very expensive.

Republicans might retreat into something like the principled pacifism of Taft, who was greatly preferred by postwar conservatives to the moderate multilateralist Dwight Eisenhower, though it is difficult to shoehorn “principled” and “Matt Gaetz” into the same sentence. Foreign policy interacts with domestic politics in complicated and unpredictable ways, but a minimalist orientation might be the best this generation of Republicans can manage — a know-nothing party with a do-nothing foreign policy.

Give the Taftians this: The United States does spend too much money on the military and on related security affairs, it does maintain too many bases in too many countries around the world, it does bring unneeded troubles on itself by its occasionally rash and headlong enthusiasms, it does fail to derive as much benefit from the multilateral institutions it supports as it might, and it does pay a high price (much more than an economic price) for acting as de facto “policeman of the world” — for being and having been for so long the principal guarantor of security in a world whose people when in danger most certainly do not cry out with one voice: “Thank God! It’s the Belgians!” As what Professor Dueck calls the “Wilsonian century” fades into memory, Americans are exhausted. A period of consolidation might be of benefit.

But give the Wilsonians their due, too: When the United States retreats from the world, it does not leave a vacuum; it only creates opportunities for other actors, China prominent among them, whose leaders have ambitions as audacious as Wilson’s but would remake the world along decidedly illiberal and antidemocratic lines. Unlike the Americans, the Chinese do not try to get other countries to adopt their model of government or their fundamental values — they simply do their best to bully them into acting in Beijing’s interests. The United States will remain for such ambitious parties either an obstacle, a rival, or an outright enemy — there is no imaginable outcome in which we are too quiet to take notice of.

And so while the United States may withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, that does not mean that the United States will have no interests in Afghanistan. The United States has interests everywhere, because the United States is in the world and connected to it, and it is not as easily overlooked as Finland. What we have learned from Afghanistan — or what we could learn, if we are willing — is what failure looks like.

What success is going to look like, we still don’t know. We have spent 20 years and more than 2,300 American lives trying to figure that out, and I am not sure that we have made any real progress.

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