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Douthat on Afghanistan

U.S. Marines and Norwegian coalition forces assist with security at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 20, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sergeant Victor Mancilla/Handout via Reuters)

Ross Douthat has a very smart column on our defeat and the debacle in Afghanistan. Namely, that what we saw this week shows us the depth of incompetence and corruption in the institutions that had taken on such an extremely difficult and ultimately unachievable mission.

If after 20 years of effort and $2,000,000,000,000, the theocratic alternative to liberalism actually takes over a country faster than in its initial conquest, that’s a sign that our moral achievements were outweighed by the moral costs of corruption, incompetence and drone campaigns.

Or the argument that a permanent mission in Afghanistan would could come to resemble in some way our long-term presence in Germany or South Korea — a delusional historical analogy before the collapse of the Kabul government and a completely ludicrous one now.

All these arguments are connected to a set of moods that flourished after 9/11: a mix of cable-news-encouraged overconfidence in American military capacities, naïve World War II nostalgia and crusading humanitarianism in its liberal and neoconservative forms. Like most Americans, I shared in those moods once; after so many years of failure, I cannot imagine indulging in them now. But it’s clear from the past few weeks that they retain an intense subterranean appeal in the American elite, waiting only for the right circumstances to resurface.

Thus you have generals and grand strategists who presided over quagmire, folly and defeat fanning out across the television networks and opinion pages to champion another 20 years in Afghanistan. You have the return of the media’s liberal hawks and centrist Pentagon stenographers, unchastened by their own credulous contributions to the retreat of American power over the past 20 years.

I think Douthat overstates the case in one area. The Afghan government we built up did fall to the theocratic alternative “faster” than the one the Soviets built, if you judge it by the time we left. However, the government we nurtured — and in many cases, basically paid for and manned ourselves — did field an army that fought the Taliban for more than half a decade, and sustained incredible casualties in that time.

On a recent Editors’ podcast, Rich Lowry asked me what I would do differently. I said that it was hard to answer without knowing when I’m starting. I think the fiasco we saw in our mad exit is primarily the fault of the Pentagon’s leadership which never seriously planned for a withdrawal even after the United States had agreed to do it, believing that policy reviews after the election would lead to a new settlement. It wasn’t long after Biden came into office that his team discovered this reality, saw the logistical challenge of withdrawing, and moved the date from May to September. This gap gave more time for the Afghan national government to dissolve, and time for the Taliban to advance on Kabul. Secondarily the failure belongs to the Biden administration. Biden should have come in with even more skepticism of our top brass, and acted more aggressively to fix this broken withdrawal plan.

In my view, our fatal error was in not pushing for a negotiated end to hostilities between the Taliban and an interim Afghan government when the Taliban was at its weakest: during the middle of the Bush administration, or in the middle of Barack Obama’s surge. Our strategy of trying to build up “national” institutions in a tribal society, while de facto excluding the largest ethno-linguistic group from participation, was doomed to fail. And instead, Trump was negotiating with the Taliban years after the Taliban had demonstrated that they would eventually defeat whatever Afghan government and security forces we left behind.

This defeat and disaster implicates four presidencies, and “the blob” of foreign-policy conventional wisdom. But it also implicates a culture of elite impunity and ineptitude in our military — one that has spread from so many other institutions — in which men over E-6 are rarely held accountable for their failures, and properly disgraced.

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