The U.S. general in charge of the war in Afghanistan just stepped down, the Biden administration has completed more than 90% of its planned drawdown of our military presence, and the Taliban have doubled the territory they heldearlier this year – their rapid expansion surprising even them.
More than 1,000 Afghan troops fled to neighboring Tajikistan last week rather than face Taliban fighters and Bagram Airfield was promptly looted after American forces left it late at night, without electricity or advance notice to Afghan officials.
There are two competing narratives of these developments and their meaning for U.S. foreign policy. One is the very reason Afghanistan became the United States’ longest war. The other, should it come to hold sway, could finally break our post-9/11 pattern of dangerous, costly and inhumane military meddling in the greater Middle East.
‘Maybe a bit more war’ won’t work
The first narrative seems to tell a hopeful story, but it is a misleading and superficial hope. It says Afghanistan needs U.S. intervention. It says if we can just stay a little longer, fight a little more, maybe do another surge, maybe try a new strategy, maybe hire a different commander, maybe vote in a new president, maybe drop bigger bombs, maybe this, maybe that, maybe the long promise of “disorder curbed, democracy promoted, human rights advanced, terrorism suppressed,” as Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich put it five years ago in Foreign Affairs, will finally be fulfilled.
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Maybe a bit more war and the sacrifices of American troops and suffering of Afghan civilians will be made worthwhile. Maybe a bit more war and thetrillions borrowed, spent, lost, and committed to future spending will have made a worthy purchase.
Maybe a bit more war and everyone will understand how it was right and necessary for the United States government to spendtwo decadesviolently mucking about in a country of considerable geographic and cultural distance, in a fight whose initial mission was accomplished almost immediately and whose subsequent missions hadno existential connection to American security, witha nation-building project that is not and never was a success.
This narrative is appealing, and understandably so. No one of good conscience wants to see Afghanistan in a state of disorder, lacking good governance and protection of human rights (particularly for Afghan women, who areuniquely vulnerable), or subject to terrorism. The narrative that a bit more U.S. military intervention could secure these goods is alluring precisely because they are real and important goods that the Afghan people should have.
The problem with succumbing to that appeal, however, is the thesis of the second narrative: Those are not goods U.S. military intervention is able to secure. The turmoil and Taliban gains we’re seeing in Afghanistan as many American forces depart are not proof that an even longer war could lead to victory.
They are new additions to an Everest of evidence that such a victory will never be attainable, that the promises were always empty, that the supposed “progress” made over the course of a generation-long conflict was always illusory.
Afghan diplomacy is what’s needed
The rapidity with which U.S.-imposed stability is dissolving is demonstration of its inherent deficiency, and the first narrative’s proposal to maintain that fragile imposition indefinitely is sunk cost fallacy passed off as policy. As President Joe Biden himself has acknowledged, Washington can’t “create or sustain a durable Afghan government.” Recent headlines tell us that anew.
This is not to say the second narrative offers no hope. For Afghanistan, the hope is that in the absence of U.S. military intervention, a local, political solution to what is arguably a 40-year civil war may be negotiated and enforced.
We can’t succeed:Biden’s best move is to leave Afghanistan
The U.S. drawdown will deprive the Taliban of a key asset – its claim to be defending Afghanistan against foreign invasion – but this will still be a difficult, halting and likely lengthy process.Nevertheless, if a solution is possible, it will be made by Afghan diplomacy, not U.S. bombs.
For the United States, my hope is that our government might finally learn from its mistakes in Afghanistan and reorient our foreign policy away from constant military intervention and doomed attempts to remake far-flung societies in America’s image. Biden’s framing of his Afghanistan plan suggests he has absorbed part of that lesson, but only part.
Which narrative wins out in the next few months may be crucial for our foreign policy of the next few decades. The first narrative’s shallow and ahistorical optimism would recommit us to perpetual war. The second’s realism could be a path toward peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week and columnist at Christianity Today. Follow her on Twitter: @BonnieKristian
Joe Biden knows we can’t forcibly remake Afghanistan in our image