If decades of counterinsurgency have taught us one thing, it’s that you never want to see a helicopter above an American embassy. President Biden knew as much when he gave an explicit guarantee that such an event would not transpire. Yet here we are, sorting through the wreckage of a strategic failure greater even than the fall of Saigon.
The war in Vietnam, for all its faults, was a pragmatic effort to counteract Soviet influence in East Asia. Though part of the broader ideological struggle against communism, the effort to contain Soviet expansion was undertaken as a matter of national defense. (Indeed, Henry Kissinger reportedly acknowledged that the war was unwinnable, but supported it anyway.)
Our recent escapades in the Middle East, on the other hand, started with a clear mission but eventually aimed to remake the region in the image of the West. The neoconservatives who spearheaded the war effort saw the spread of Lockean liberalism as the U.S.’s raison d’être, while Wilsonian liberals saw the defense of democracy and human rights as a prerequisite for world peace.
The Taliban’s capture of Kabul has rung the death knell for both these visions of American foreign policy, not only because democracy in Afghanistan failed, but because it failed as a direct result of the war’s ideological mission. It is hard to believe now that, at the start of the war, a coalition of U.S. forces and local militia defeated the Taliban swiftly and easily. Two months into the conflict, an alliance of Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and Pashtun warlords had, with the help of the U.S., expelled Taliban fighters from all of their major strongholds and sent Osama bin Laden fleeing.
It would have been possible then to declare victory and return Afghanistan to the system of tribal patronage that governed the country before the Soviet invasion in 1979 — under either a restored monarchy or a coalition of warlords. This approach would have required accepting uncomfortable truths about ethnic allegiance and the limits of liberal values. For the true believers in the national-security apparatus, it would have undermined U.S. legitimacy by conceding that American ideals cannot be readily universalized. So, in one of the many ironies of the conflict, the U.S. opted to complete the project initiated by the Soviets: the construction of an Afghan nation-state. Democratic reform would create “an Afghanistan that is free from . . . evil and is a better place in which to live,” George W. Bush said at the time.
But evil, as it turned out, would not be so easily extirpated. The Afghan government, fashioned out of thin air by the U.N. and the State Department, assumed the defects of tribal clientelism (corruption, self-dealing) without the benefits (public services and social cohesion provided by local power-brokers). The Afghan government became a clearinghouse for U.S. dollars, enriching U.S.-backed ministers and, downstream from them, the Taliban itself. This sowed dissent among those not offered a piece of the pie, making room for the Taliban to slowly retake territory from the national government. And so the coalition that defeated the Taliban in a matter of months at the start of the war spent the next 20 years squandering its victory.
In a Monday speech, Biden laid the blame for the swift fall of Afghanistan on the Afghan army’s unwillingness to fight. Never mind his repeated assurances that Afghan forces would be ready to do just that. As Charles C. W. Cooke points out, the Afghan army’s collapse is an indictment of the liberal-internationalist project writ large. It was the Wilsonian vision of a democratic Afghanistan that created this impotent military.
For their part, neoconservative commentators see the fall of Afghanistan as a failure of American will: “Afghanistan is your fault,” writes Tom Nichols, the world’s expert on everything. On this view, if we’d only stayed a little longer, built a few more roads, and trained a few more platoons, we could have created a functioning Afghan state. But the reality is that no amount of money or training can fashion a liberal nation-state from a hodgepodge of ethnic tribes with competing interests.
The U.S. achieved its strategic objectives in Afghanistan only to see them undone by messianic aspirations. Our disastrous withdrawal should mark a permanent break with the idealism that has characterized American foreign policy since the fall of the Soviet Union. It was, in fact, clear-eyed realpolitik that led to the triumph of Western liberalism over Soviet communism in the Cold War. The policy of containment that sent U.S. forces to fight Soviet-backed insurgents in far-flung corners of the globe grew out of a pragmatic assessment of the Kremlin’s international objectives. But because, as Kissinger wrote, America’s “national tradition” forced leaders to justify resistance to Soviet expansion “on nearly any basis other than as an appeal to the traditional balance of power,” we interpreted our strategic victory as a moral victory.
“Realism,” that much-abused term, is not synonymous with isolationism, and our failures in the Middle East do not nullify the threat of radical Islam. But they do reveal the inability of moral righteousness to uphold world order. The loss of Vietnam set the State Department on a path to hardheaded diplomacy that culminated in rapprochement with China — an ideological compromise for the sake of national defense. In a moment not unlike the 1970s, with social strife at home and declining power abroad, we would be well served by a less zealous approach to foreign affairs.
PHOTOS: The Fall of Afghanistan