The Inevitable

I am going to be writing on this topic elsewhere, and I have written about Afghanistan multiple times in the past on this blog. So, I am going to be extremely to the point.

When Bush decided to engage in nation building rather than simply going into Afghanistan to hunt Al Qaeda and supporting any naturally occurring coalition of warlords who enabled us to do so, that was a major error. The idea of a Western Hemisphere power nation building a landlocked and remote from trade route country in Asia is a blatant farce to anyone who can read a map. There were no strong U.S. allies neighboring the country and logistics were dependent on the intermittently hostile and utterly compromised Pakistan to be workable.

When Bush redirected military effort away from Afghanistan and towards the utterly unnecessary war of choice in Iraq, the error became a disaster in the making.

When Obama’s Afghan surge failed, the war was lost and no rational person could deny it. It continued because it was profitable for defense contractors and no president had the courage to own what would inevitably be a ghastly situation of Taliban resurgence when they pulled out. But with the failure of the surge if not earlier it became obvious that every second the war was continued was just putting more lives and money on the line to delay an inevitable sour end. Stay one day more or fifty years, the result would be the same. Nation building only works in countries that already have the indigenous skill sets to develop themselves, such as the industrialized former Axis powers after the war. Or in places where your objective is to annex and administer the territory directly through settlement like Roman Gaul, an impossibility here.

Biden, a man who I am not a fan of by any stretch of the imagination due to too many reasons to count over his decades in the senate, was brave to finally break with this trend and pull out. Trump, even, in negotiating an exit, deserves some marginal credit. The media, which hates ending wars and loves starting them due to its advertising being bought and paid for by so many connected to defense contracting, is throwing a fit. But Biden is correct on this issue.

The danger now is the weaponized human rights rhetoric that is easily cultivated among the “socially aware” of society, which will complete the neoconservative turn of the Democratic Party in particular. ‘We betrayed Afghan women and girls” will become a rallying cry for liberal interventionism no matter how stupid the cause. In fact, the tragic fate of Afghanistan is an argument against nation building and cultural engineering of different places. But that isn’t the lesson that will be learned by those with financial and/or ideological incentive to keep endless wars going.

Not even I, someone who was very skeptical on the long term fate of the Afghan government, saw how rapid their loss would be. I have had a great run of predictions the last few years but I definitely didn’t see just how rapid Taliban advances would be. Add this to my 2016 election prediction as my two big screw ups I will fully own. If over two trillion dollars and almost two decades of military aid was not enough to get this government to survive, than nothing was. This was already over at least a decade ago. South Vietnam stood a better chance at surviving on its own. This is more like Manchukuo.

The only rational critique, given this inevitability, is that the U.S. should have evacuated all of its allies who wanted it as the first rather than last order of business once negotiations started. They really did get screwed by Washington. But over all, Washington and Kabul had a highly dysfunctional and corrupt relationship that made a few people on both sides very rich but failed to address the actual security situation on the ground. This complicates everything in the relationship.

But even more than Washington and Kabul there is one actor who sabotaged everything continuously and cannot be overlooked as the ultimate architect of the dismal future for Afghanistan: Pakistan. The good news here is that with U.S. withdrawal, there is no longer any need for close relations between Islamabad and Washington. Having no longer any use (and actively being an impediment for warming relations with India), Pakistan will turn to its only friend, China. And China has the capacity to get them to reign in their rogue intelligence services far more than the U.S. did since they are so vital to Pakistani security vis-à-vis India. The ISI should be careful what it wishes for.

But never forget who led us into this for so long and who lied about it. How the media praised them and politicians promoted them. And how it all could have been avoided with a sustainable grand strategy and sober cost/benefit calculation of what military action can and cannot do. The Taliban controls more of the country and is arguably stronger today than it was on September 10, 2001. For the time being, there does not even appear to be a Northern Alliance. Only the future will tell if their current victory is more fragile than it appears, but no matter their fate I for one am glad the U.S. is no longer swimming against the tide in a place that did not serve its interests to be in, attempting the impossible at the greatest expense and least effectiveness it could.

Helpful Source Materials:

The Afghanistan Papers, Washington Post

U.S. costs for the Afghanistan War, Brown University Costs of War Project

Contractor Corruption 1, Michael Tracey

Contractor Corruption 2, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate

Corruption in the Afghan Government, Washington Post

The Long-standing Taliban-Pakistan relationship, Human Rights Watch

Current Pakistani ISI-Taliban Relationship, Project Syndicate

The one good media take I have seen so far, Breaking Points

And more, Breaking Points

Edit: three hours later, looks like Biden agrees with me on reasoning.

Nation Building Sucks and the United States is Particularly Bad At It.

afghan kunduz

In Max Hasting’s massive book ‘Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-5’ he makes numerous observations comparing the Allied armies in the later stages of the war with each other. The hard lessons learned by the post-purge USSR in combating the German army are contrasted with the bungling and occasionally disastrous performance of the British anywhere outside of North Africa and the overly cautious hyper casualty-conscious strategies of the Americans. Though he hardly judges it as it makes sound strategic sense when one has the luxury of a much larger and more ruthless ally to do much of the heavy lifting, it is a worthwhile point you will not hear much of in the triumphalist Atlantic oriented popular history of the Second World War.

Eisenhower quite correctly saw how adverse to mass casualties the United States was in the immediate post-isolationism era. But catering to this need would not have been a remote possibility had the USSR either not been a participant in the war or had been knocked out of it by the time the USA was in full force. While it is undeniable that the United States played the most decisive role in supply, logistics, and defeating Japan in a largely naval and limited amphibian war(those tend to have smaller amounts of overall casualties than big pitched land battles even if they are economically more challenging to sustain in many cases) the amount of sacrifice it would have taken to have gotten unconditional surrender from Germany (or to conventionally invade Japan) would have necessitated a negotiated peace or the mass deployment of nuclear weapons again and again on most of the cities of both countries.

Debacle in Vietnam reinforced this trend right when it was starting to expire. Multiple wars of choice since the 90s were conducted in such a way as to minimize American casualties as the first priority and securing objectives a second. This is a problem, and not because these luxury wars of choice need to be fought better-but rather because they are totally unnecessary.

With the renewed and potentially perpetual US commitment to Afghanistan coming at the same time NATO countries are doing everything in their power to unseat the Assad regime while seemingly either oblivious or indifferent that such actions may create a new safe haven for radicals perhaps it is time to re-examine America’s greatest weakness as a tool which could be its greatest strength: adversity to sanguinary military operations. If one thing is going to re-align a fundamentally moribund foreign policy strategy it could be this.

There was only once as a fully independent and established nation that the United States both mobilized for total war and was willing to accept truly enormous open ended sacrifices with seemingly no limit to bring a war to a decisive end and that was the Civil War. The partially botched nature of Reconstruction and the truly appreciable percentage of the nation’s populace killed or wounded produced a souring which meant that a single year in the trenches of WWI reinforced quite the fear of mass casualties…and the further from home they were the more suspicious they could be. One could imagine that in an alternative Second World War where the United States gets involved reluctantly to shore up the Allies against the Axis without a Pearl Harbor to inspire a desire for revenge as one of being careful and fearful to deploy forces in the decisive quantity. Though as a naval power in two oceans, it would retain great defensive bonuses and initiative.

But despite constant fearmongering over China’s rise, there is no power which on its own or even in a league with another power could challenge the current status of the United States unless it gets perpetually overextended and bogged down. Its offensive actions in the Second World War and its simply holding out and assisting the collapse of the USSR indirectly ensured the closest approximation to a unipolar world order since the Mongol Empire-and a much more global one that even that was.

Even the most paranoid of security fiends should realize, looking beyond instinctual and trained reactions of pride and ‘sending messages’, that there is no need for the United States to take the offensive. Indeed, doing so overburdens its resources and will and risks an isolationist backlash. Using naval power to secure and control trade routes and economic power to guarantee central airline links as well as supplying a defensive reserve to allies is all that is really needed. And no, it is not ‘defeatist’ but merely a good cost/benefit ratio. After all, history is full of examples of people who declined not because they ceased by somehow ‘vital’ (as is commonly supposed by bitter old men and Basic History Bros alike) but rather due to overextention. As it is, the United States is an overindulgent ally, and in its mad quest to re-make the world in its own image, often a full blooded ally to some when mere friendliness would suffice. Coupled with the lack of understanding to other contexts this means not only are nation building efforts done with money and air power over real on the ground results, but more importantly, the nations in question are not being built to be their best as they are, but their best as America wishes them to be.

If steps are not taken to change strategic course some spirally over-indulgent intervention somewhere will make the people demand it. No one but the neocons is going to be able to tolerate the bumbling id-cop routine much longer. Lest we be subjected to a fate where the United States literally becomes the nation-state variant of ‘Mitchell.’

The fundamental problem is that the United States sees itself as the sole unique nation. The one who can remake history to suit its own domestic mythology. This has never been true of any nation and it is not true now.

There will one day come a world which is again multipolar. It will come sooner if the United States is too ambitious and too over-active in non-critical regions to its interests, not later. And the nature of that multipolar future will have no room for world-changing universalist creeds. In fact, in my next post I will discuss the closest historical analog to what I think great power politics will be like. So stay tuned.