Opinion The Lessons of the Afghan War
Why America Can't End Its 'Forever Wars'
The U.S. military's new way of fighting, developed after two decades at war, traps us in conflicts that last forever.Though the new administration seems intent on ending America's oldest war and there is growing fatigue over endless wars in the Middle East, and though the Pentagon is scrambling to refocus resources and attention away from counterterrorism to big war pursuits against the likes of Russia and China, war isn't going to actually end. That's because there is something about the way the United States fights—about how it has learned to fight in Afghanistan and on other 21st-century battlefields—that facilitates endless war.
Joe Biden has 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.
US foreign policy: Joe Biden's risky decision to end America's longest war gives him a chance to refocus focus and resources overseas
President Joe Biden's decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan by September marks a pivotal moment after almost 20 years of war in the country and thousands of lives lost -- it also signals a coming shift in US focus and resources overseas. © THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images In this photo taken on June 6, 2019, US soldiers look out over hillsides during a visit of the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General Scott Miller at the Afghan National Army (ANA) checkpoint in Nerkh district of Wardak province.
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.”
Biden's US forces exit could doom Afghan peace talks between Taliban, government
President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan could doom peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. " Those "diplomatic efforts" are stalled at best, dead at worst.MORE: Biden to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 The Taliban's spokesperson tweeted Tuesday that the group will not participate in any negotiations "until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland." © Mohammad Ismail/Reuters, FILE Afghan officials inspect a damaged minibus after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 15, 2021.
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.
Afghanistan: Why the US is there, why it's leaving, what will happen when it's gone
President Joe Biden's promise to remove US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 is his effort -- each of the last four presidents has had one -- to end America's longest war.The deadline for Biden's withdrawal is significant -- September 11, 2021, is 20 years after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania that led the US to target Afghanistan in the first place.
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 theand , 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.
Blinken makes surprise visit to Afghanistan after Biden announces U.S. troop withdrawal
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said he respects the U.S. decision to withdraw by Sept. 11 of this year.While in Kabul, Blinken was expected to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar as well as civil society members to discuss the decision.
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,, 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.
Antony Blinken makes surprise stop in Afghanistan to sell Biden troop withdrawal
Blinken seeks to assure senior Afghan politicians the U.S. remains committed to the country despite a plan to withdraw troops by Sept. 11.Blinken sought to assure senior Afghan politicians that the United States remains committed to the country despite Biden's announcement a day earlier that the 2,500 U.S. soldiers remaining in the country would be coming home by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that led to the U.S. invasion in 2001.
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.
More on National Review
Why Afghan interpreters must get priority for special immigrant visas .
We have a moral obligation to help extract our allies before U.S. troops withdraw and the Taliban begin to target them.The Taliban and Islamic State both view Afghani interpreters as apostates whose involvement with U.S. forces should be punished by death. At nearly every opportunity, the Taliban have followed through on their threats with executions of locals who helped and protected the lives of U.S. servicemen and women. Since 2018, No One Left Behind, a nonprofit focused on Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) advocacy, has documented over 300 incidents in which Afghan interpreters were murdered by the Taliban for their support to U.S. forces.