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Ross Douthat: Joe Biden’s critics lost Afghanistan

Our botched withdrawal is the punctuation mark on a general catastrophe.

(Victor J. Blue | The New York Times) A heavily armed Taliban fighter guards the Afghanistan central bank in Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. "In every other way the withdrawal has made the case for an even deeper cynicism — about America's capacities as a superpower, our mission in Afghanistan and the class of generals, officials, experts and politicos who sustained its generational extension," writes The New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat.

A month ago I thought I was a cynic about our 20-year war in Afghanistan. Today, after watching our stumbling withdrawal and the swift collapse of practically everything we fought for, my main feeling is that I wasn’t cynical enough.

My cynicism consisted of the belief that the American effort to forge a decent Afghan political settlement failed definitively during Barack Obama’s first term in office, when a surge of U.S. forces blunted but did not reverse the Taliban’s recovery. This failure was then buried under a Vietnam-esque blizzard of official deceptions and bureaucratic lies, which covered over a shift in American priorities from the pursuit of victory to the management of stalemate, with the American presence insulated from casualties in the hopes that it could be sustained indefinitely.

Under this strategic vision — to use the word “strategic” generously — there would be no prospect of victory, no end to corruption among our allies and collateral damage from our airstrikes, no clear reason to be in Afghanistan, as opposed to any other failing state or potential terror haven, except for the sunk cost that we were there already. But if American casualty rates stayed low enough, the public would accept it, the Pentagon budget would pay for it, and nobody would have to preside over anything so humiliating as defeat.

In one way, my cynicism went too far. I guessed that the military and the national-security bureaucracy would be able to frustrate the desire of every incoming U.S. president to declare an endless-seeming conflict over, and I was wrong. Something like that happened with Obama and Donald Trump in their first years in office, but it didn’t happen with Joe Biden. He promised withdrawal, and — however shambolically — we have now actually withdrawn.

But in every other way the withdrawal has made the case for an even deeper cynicism — about America’s capacities as a superpower, our mission in Afghanistan and the class of generals, officials, experts and politicos who sustained its generational extension.

First the withdrawal’s shambolic quality, culminating in yesterday’s acknowledgment that between 100 and 200 Americans had not made the final flights from Kabul, displayed an incompetence in departing a country that matched our impotence at pacifying it. There were aspects of the chaos that were probably inevitable, but the Biden White House was clearly caught flat-footed by the speed of the Taliban advance, with key personnel disappearing on vacation just before the Kabul government dissolved. And the president himself has appeared exhausted, aged, overmatched — making basic promises about getting every American safely home and then seeing them overtaken by events.

At the same time, the circumstances under which the Biden withdrawal had to happen doubled as a devastating indictment of the policies pursued by his three predecessors, which together cost roughly $2,000,000,000,000 (it’s worth writing out all those zeros) and managed to build nothing in the political or military spheres that could survive for even a season without further American cash and military supervision.

Only recently the view that without U.S. troops, the American-backed government in Kabul would be doomed to the same fate as the Soviet-backed government some 30 years ago seemed like hardheaded realism. Now such “realism” has been proven to be wildly over-optimistic. Without Soviet troops, the Moscow-backed government actually held out for several years before the mujahedeen reached Kabul. Whereas our $2,000,000,000,000 built a regime that fell to the Taliban before U.S. troops could even finish their retreat.

Before this summer, in other words, it was possible to read all the grim inspector general reports and document dumps on Afghanistan, count yourself a cynic about the war effort and still imagine that America got something for all that spending, no matter how much was spent on Potemkin installations or siphoned off by pederast warlords or recirculated to Northern Virginia contractors.

Now, though, we know that in terms of actual staying power, all our nation-building efforts couldn’t even match what the Soviet Union managed in its dotage.

Yet that knowledge has not prevented a revival of the spirit that led us to this sorry pass. I don’t mean the straightforward criticisms of the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal. I mean the way that in both the media coverage and the political reaction, reasonable tactical critiques have often been woven together with anti-withdrawal arguments that are self-deceiving, dubious or risible.

The argument, for instance, that the situation in Afghanistan was reasonably stable and the war’s death toll negligible before the Trump administration started moving toward withdrawal: In fact, only U.S. casualties were low, while Afghan military and civilian casualties were nearing 15,000 annually, and the Taliban were clearly gaining ground — suggesting that we would have needed periodic surges of U.S. forces, and periodic spikes in U.S. deaths, to prevent a slow-motion version of what’s happened quickly as we’ve left.

Or the argument that an indefinite occupation was morally necessary to nurture the shoots of Afghan liberalism: 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 U.S. military capacities, naive 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. And you have Republicans who postured as cold-eyed realists in the Trump presidency suddenly turning back into eager crusaders, excited to own the Biden Democrats and relive the brief post-9/11 period when the mainstream media treated their party with deference rather than contempt.

Again, Biden deserves plenty of criticism. But like the Trump administration in its wiser moments, he is trying to disentangle America from a set of failed policies that many of his loudest critics long supported.

Our botched withdrawal is the punctuation mark on a general catastrophe, a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors.

Small wonder, then, that making Biden the singular scapegoat seems like a more attractive path. But if the only aspect of this catastrophe that our leaders remember is what went wrong in August 2021, then we’ll have learned nothing except to always double down on failure, and the next disaster will be worse.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.

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