Joe Biden’s haphazard, poorly executed troop withdrawal from the morass of Afghanistan has irrevocably sullied America’s reputation. Even those of us who have long supported drawing down the decades-old American military footprint from this strategically unimportant Third-World backwater have been horrified at the indefensible manner in which this extraction was done. Kabul is, unquestionably, now the younger generations’ Saigon moment.
From pushing back the withdrawal time frame Biden inherited from former President Donald Trump to coincide with the peak Taliban fighting season, to the obtuse overnight surprise evacuation of Bagram Air Base, to the impetuous and uncoordinated pulling out of ancillary air support that the Afghan military relied upon, to the images of Afghans falling to their deaths off hastily departing U.S. military planes, to the wholesale stranding of more than 10,000 American citizens on the ground with little exit strategy for them other than reliance upon the magnanimity of an internationally recognized jihadist outfit, this withdrawal was botched in every possible way. In a sane and just world, the U.S. House would already be drafting articles of impeachment.
But it’s also worth stepping back from the immediate Biden-orchestrated debacle in the Afghan “graveyard of empires” to focus on the broader lessons we can glean from this unceremonious end to America’s longest-ever war.
The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan—the earliest and initially highest-profile theater of the sprawling President Bush-era “war on terror”—commenced in October 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The invasion was supported overwhelmingly in the aftermath of the then-ruling Taliban’s harboring of al-Qaeda and refusal to extradite 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, signed into law on September 18, passed 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House. The AUMF granted Bush (and subsequent presidents) the authority to deploy “necessary and appropriate force” against those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The Taliban-led de facto government in Kabul fell in December 2001. Following its fall, Taliban-led insurgencies and allied forces-led counterinsurgencies began to intermittently coincide with the U.S.-led effort to construct durable Afghan governing institutions, centered around President Hamid Karzai. The philosophical impetus for this ultimately failed attempt to export Western-style Madisonian democracy to a faraway tribal Islamic land was encapsulated in Bush’s second inaugural address, a shining paean to neoconservatism: “Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.”
What utter, hubristic and, we can now say, deeply costly tripe.
At the very latest, the justification for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan should have ended with the successful May 2011 raid of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan—a daring and spirited military mission launched from Afghanistan. It is unclear at best whether a pronounced American institution-building and counterinsurgency military presence in Afghanistan was necessary for the successful execution of the bin Laden raid but, even assuming it was, that raid now happened over a decade ago. What on earth has been the purported American strategic goal in Afghanistan since then? Why would we waste blood and treasure trying to sculpt a Montesquieu-esque separation of powers regime out of a deeply impoverished, geopolitically unimportant hellhole halfway around the world?
The fall of Kabul, much like the failed Iraq War and the fall of Saigon before it, ought to serve as a scathing wake-up call for the myopic denizens of our foreign policy and military establishments, as well as the American ruling class more generally.
Egg on the faces of our generals, so confident that the U.S. could adequately train those in a tribal land to build and fight for a mostly fabricated nation-state, only to see Kabul fall within days of American withdrawal. Egg on the faces of the politicians who repeatedly supported the continuance of this boondoggle, and who must now prepare themselves to tell Gold Star families that, yes, their loved ones did indeed die in vain. Egg on the faces of the armchair intellectuals and think tank pundits who promoted the notion that “we fight the terrorists there so that they don’t harm us here”—apparently oblivious to the fact that 9/11 was first and foremost an immigration vetting failure, given the plane hijackers who trained here and then committed their dastardly deeds on (often expired) visas we all-too-happily doled out.
Foreign policy isolationism is, and always will be, naive for a power such as the United States. But neoconservatism is equally naïve. We need a prudential, hard-headed, national interest-oriented foreign policy that secures the American way of life without falling prey to democratization exportation delusions of grandeur. It’s time for a late-stage empire to sober up a bit and refocus on building a functioning nation-state here on the home front. Surely that is not too much to ask for.
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