There was brief talk of an emergency evacuation plan – helicopters would ferry Americans to the civilian airport in Kabul, the capital – but no one raised, let alone imagined, what the United States would do if the Taliban gained control of that airport, the only safe way in and out of the country….New York Times, Aug 22, 2021, on the April 24th planning meeting at the Pentagon to plan final US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
No, General, you were not stabbed in the back by an inconstant public. You were not betrayed by a fickle President. The media did not undermine your prestige and question your every move. Indeed, for 20 years you enjoyed the complacence, nay the indulgence, of your society. You spent $85 billion on training Afghan security forces alone, ten times that on the conduct of the war. And your country expended over $2 trillion on the project of building a new Afghanistan.
But you failed, and not, by the way, for the first time, not by a long shot. You failed, first of all, General, because you are an inveterate liar. You lied to yourself. You lied to your superiors. You lied to Congress and the public. General Mark A. Milley, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who presided over the meeting described above, told reporters in 2013, “I am much more optimistic about the outcome here, as long as the Afghan security forces continue to do what they’ve been doing.” He was deputy commander of US forces in Afghanistan at the time.
In November 2012, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. told Congress the reasons for his optimism: “When I look at the Afghan national security forces and where they were in 2008, when I first observed them, and where they are today in 2012, it’s a dramatic improvement.” Both senior officers, and their equally optimistic predecessors, should have known better, because the reports from the field were dismal, as a recent Washington Post article reveals.
Whether driven by careerism, constitutional optimism, the American ‘can do’ attitude, or attempts to protect support for the military mission, such lying has been endemic in the course of the war – as it was in Vietnam. And it is joined, and dovetails nicely with, the ignorant arrogance of American policy makers (and of the foreign policy establishment as a whole), who presume that the United States can re-make nations – and re-make them in our image.
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The best piece the Times has done on the debacle is tucked away on p. 6 of the Sunday paper, just before the centerfold spread of an exhaustive analysis of the “miscues” that led to the mess at the Kabul airport. But the primary “miscue” was the failure of Western policy, its ignorance of the lessons of past failures, including the so-called “lessons of Vietnam.” Adam Nossiter recalls those lessons, quoting Patrick Chabal, author of a study of Portugal’s “misadventures in Africa”: “In the long run all colonial wars are lost.”
“America’s Afghan War: Drawing Down an Unwinnable Conflict” NYTimes, August 22, 2021, Page A6
This was certainly a “colonial war,” in form and substance. In substance the failure of US policy making was a failure to recognize the pathologies of the system that the West was attempting to impose upon Afghanistan. It was not, as a conservative sociology once put it, that Afghanistan was not “ready” for Western-style democracy. It was that Western-style forms of governance brought their own problems with them, chief among which is corruption. Held in check even in the notably corrupt United States by elaborate bureaucratic safeguards, a somewhat vigilant populace, and occasional prosecutions, corruption nevertheless lies just below the surface in any open, capitalist society. Bring Western-sized aspirations and tons of money to a poor country and you have a formula for corruption on a large scale. Promote the ambitious, educated, and talented few to high positions and you invite ambition to dip into the communal pool and drag out even more than you are willing to offer it. Without the recourse injured citizens sometimes have in modern, Western states, ordinary people become deeply cynical. Then again, they are deeply cynical here, too, and our home-born Taliban takes full advantage of that cynicism.
Perhaps Nossiter’s article gets second or third place because he dwells on people and events most people, even in Washington, have scarce heard of – De Gaulle, Boumediène, the French war in Algeria. But DeGaulle had the sense to get the French out of Algeria and cede to Algerian nationalist Boumediene. And DeGaulle told Kennedy what he would face in Vietnam: “Even if you find local leaders who in their own interests are prepared to obey you, the people will not agree to it, and indeed do not want you.” Kennedy ignored him to this country’s disgrace. Nossiter comments, “The same unholy trinity of realities – boastful generals, an unbowed enemy, a feeble ally – could have been observed at all points during the US engagement in Afghanistan.”
The Vietnam adventure was shored up with claptrap theories of “modernization,” “development” and “balance of power” associated with the names of such luminaries as W. Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger. Long discredited in their particulars, these notions have become commonplaces, the fog through which Americans with even little interest in world affairs view this country’s role in the world. That the United States should “lead” the world, that this country is the only reliable counterbalance to the forces of evil, that we are a shining beacon of democracy and freedom – these are the conceits that continue to guide American response to world events. That our system is not just the best for us – a questionable assurance on its own terms – but for everyone else is the central article of faith for every American heir to the Protestant progressive millenialism of the nineteenth century.
Put to the test, as in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, as in Vietnam, of course, these notions prove farcical. But successive failures have not allowed our elites and their public to shake them off. The best cure for failure clearly is not more failure. It is accountability. As no one was held accountable for the disaster of Vietnam (military leaders convinced themselves and others they were “stabbed in the back”) or the international crime of aggressive war on Iraq or the US’s catastrophic occupation of that country, so there will be no accountability, it appears, for Afghanistan. The generals and presidents and foreign policy elite are tenured, sinecured, and celebrated. Choices that merited hanging at Nuremburg go unremarked in the United States of America. A few grunts at the bottom may be prosecuted for torture or murder, but the authors of a murderous foreign policy go on to repeat their mistakes. No one says “I’m sorry.” The question, then, is not whether or how Joe Biden failed in extracting the US from Afghanistan. The question is how we are going to rid ourselves of a military and foreign policy establishment that perpetuates failures like Afghanistan. But that may well be a task that the American polity is not up to.
For more, see James Risen’s “A War’s Epitaph,” The Intercept, August 26, 2021 (https://theintercept.com/2021/08/26/afghanistan-america-failures/). Risen, who quit the Times over editorial suppression of important stories was the only reporter to notice the US Geological Survey’s 2008 conclusion that Afghanistan possessed vast reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in the batteries that are supposed to underpin a “Green New Deal” (while sustaining our precious way of life).