A friend of mine, a veteran of America’s 21st-century wars in the Greater Middle East, recently sent along his most recent commentary on Afghanistan. It would be his last, he said. “I’m done writing on how we got here — at this point I’ve said my piece, and I’m tired of being angry.” He’s moving on.
I can’t say that I blame him. A legion of critics, including many who, like my friend, base their testimony on first-hand experience, have described in compelling detail the havoc caused by post-9/11 US military misadventures in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their efforts have yielded a vast and ever-expanding trove of memoirs, novels, histories, essays, movies, and documentaries that record their disappointment, dismay, and, in more than a few cases, sense of betrayal or despair.
Someday, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, some aspiring scholar will set out to assess this voluminous archive of antiwar literature. Yet however diligent or creative, that scholar will necessarily reach one irrefutable conclusion: The practical impact of this accumulated criticism, no matter how thoroughly documented or artfully presented, has been negligible.
To put it another way, after nearly 20 costly years of war with little to show by way of positive results, the assumptions, ambitions, structures, and habits that constitute what Washington types are pleased to call national security policy remain firmly in place.
Not without cause, critics have lambasted the Catholic Church (to which I belong) for being slow to address the epidemic of clergy sex abuse. Yet when it comes to acknowledging institutional failure and initiating remedial action, Rome moves with gazelle-like swiftness in comparison with the Pentagon. Pope Francis knows that he has a serious problem on his hands. In Washington, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff either haven’t noticed or don’t care that the military establishment over which they preside may excel at spending money, but when it comes to winning wars has achieved a less than stellar record.
For proof we need look no further than Afghanistan. I will not rehearse here the pertinent statistics that summarize what the United States has done in (and to) Afghanistan – the treasure expended, the lives lost and ruined, the populations put to flight, the opium crops destroyed only to reappear, the local forces trained only to evaporate, the reconstruction projects undertaken only to be abandoned. The relevant figures are readily available, occasionally reported, and promptly ignored. Taken as a whole, they illustrate the truth of Stalin’s cynical remark about one death qualifying as a tragedy whereas a billion deaths become a mere data point.
I will cite only a single statistic: 6,345 (and counting). That describes the war’s duration — the number of days that the United States has been attempting, without success, to impose its will on Afghanistan. That number, I submit, constitutes a definitive judgment on recent US national security policy.
Now national security deserves a place alongside nuclear strategy as a phrase employed in Washington to defend the indefensible or rationalize the irrational. It also provides a mechanism to dodge accountability.
The Afghanistan War that has exhausted my friend’s capacity for anger is a case in point. It offers an exquisite example of how the people in charge employ the supposed imperatives of national security to sustain the pretense that they know what they are doing. After all, unlike you and me, they have access to the latest intelligence reports. So they are in the know. And they are always on the go, visiting the troops, consulting field commanders, testifying before Congress and, as it suits them, even deigning to inform the public. Throughout, they project calm resolve. Never for an instant do they even hint that when a war drags on for more than six thousand days something might be amiss.
It now becomes increasingly clear that the official rationale for initiating the Afghanistan War was bogus from the very outset. When United States and allied forces invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, their purpose was to overthrow the Taliban and therefore demonstrate the price to be paid for harboring radical groups plotting terrorist attacks against the United States. To endow this undertaking with a simulacrum of moral purpose, the war’s proponents insisted that the United States would also liberate the Afghan people from oppression and confer on them all the benefits of Western-style liberal democracy, not least of all by guaranteeing the rights of women.
As it happened, toppling the Taliban government in Kabul proved surprisingly — and deceptively — easy. Everything since has turned out to be hard. Worst of all, Taliban forces have not only continued to resist but seemingly gain in strength the longer the war drags on. They refuse to be beaten.
US commanders spin the current situation as a stalemate. Others might describe it as defeat by increments. And just about nobody thinks that another six thousand days of trying will produce a more favorable outcome.
So today, nearly 18 years after the war began, US officials are quietly engaged in negotiating with the enemy to end it. The terms of the prospective “peace” deal can be simply stated: If Taliban leaders promise not to allow Afghanistan to become a haven for anti-American terrorists, US forces will withdraw, leaving it to Afghans — including the Taliban — to determine their future. If this deal goes through, few will mistake the results for peace. Instead, the war that the United States initiated in 2001 will almost certainly continue, albeit on terms unfavorable to the government in Kabul.
The similarities with the agreement negotiated between Washington and Hanoi ending the Vietnam War back in the 1970s are difficult to overlook. Back then, the Saigon government was not allowed any meaningful role in the secret talks between its enemy and its ostensible ally. Today likewise, the government in Kabul watches from the sidelines. Such parallels suggest that the present Afghan government may well suffer the same sorry fate that befell the South Vietnamese government. President Richard Nixon called it “peace with honor.” It was instead abandonment devoid of honor. It’s a risky proposition to become an American client state.
Mark me down as favoring the termination of US involvement in this pointless and interminable war, and the sooner the better. As the US government turns its back on Afghanistan, count on the paladins of national security quickly forgetting all that occurred there and moving on. Yet let us hope that at least some Americans will have the decency to acknowledge the scope of our collective failure and the depth of our perfidy.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author of “The Age of Illusions,” due to be published this fall.