There are few ways to adequately describe the withdrawal of Western (principally American) forces and citizens from Afghanistan. Perhaps the best way to do so is to point out what the Afghan Government was in the months and days leading up to their present situation. Impeccably corrupt, almost anti-tactical in a sense, laughably disorganized, and completely and resolutely, almost proudly, unprepared. Surely no government actually wants to collapse, but you may not get that impression looking at the shambolic performance of the group under Ashraf Ghani.
You might too, like me, be impressed with the breathtaking speed at which the resistance to the advances of the Taliban occurred. At the start of the collapse, the estimate that was regularly cited on social media-that the Afghan government might last a few months post-withdrawal and that there was no imminent danger to Kabul, the opposition to Taliban rule, and most importantly to Western leaders to Westerners-might have been believable. However, it quickly came about that the intelligence operations spouting the claims, even as they reduced their timelines, were almost as laughably incompetent and farcically bad at their job as the Ghani Government. Yes, the only way to describe the withdrawal from Afghanistan is to call it exactly what it was — a farce of the first order.
So where did we fail in all this? We failed in a bevy of ways, as is always the case. We failed in every single strategic goal that many would later cite as reasons for being in Kabul and Kandahar in the first place. We didn’t build a stable government (what’s necessary for successful state-building, or whether that can occur anymore in a way commensurate with success is a topic of discussion for later analyses), we didn’t actually stand up for the rights of the soon-to-be-oppressed, we didn’t stop the corruption that was not just rife but almost normalized in the society of Afghanistan. Put quite simply, we failed in just about every way possible.
We then followed up our failures of leadership in building up Afghanistan with the next incredible failure: improper planning of getting everyone out.
“In fairness, we had more time!” We didn’t, and incredibly, some continue to make excuses for us not recognizing that all our estimates were wrong and starting the procedures which now rely on the goodwill of butchers sooner.
“But we couldn’t possibly take that many!” And what of them now? What of those condemned by the Taliban for working with us? Surely there was at least room for those who worked alongside United States forces in any manner. We knew, and they knew, that capture or a resurgence in their area meant death. They very clearly took their lives into their own hands when they chose to work with us, but they did so, and we owe them their lives, if not well more than that. Our moral obligation to those who aided us is not abrogated by us leaving them — if anything, the only thing a man who so resolutely insists he is among the faithful must do is help one who aided him. We are, after all, our brother’s keeper.
“But we just couldn’t help them, it’s irrational!” What of the women who will have their rights stripped away? What of those who were never welcome? Being the scion that we supposedly are, the beacon that we supposedly are for the global “human rights” regime means that we must occasionally make uncomfortable decisions for all of us. It means stepping back from a ludicrous and impetuously stupid promise to ensure that there is at least some refuge?
Perhaps the most important thing to note though is that this is not just a policy failure, it’s a failure of the lens by which we view policy. The present Afghan crisis is a plain failure of both America First and Pax Americana.
For America First, some might call this a triumph. It’s also a triumph for those who decried the “forever wars” though they fall into this camp in a perverse way. A commitment to multilateralism is the farthest thing from a commitment to that when the leader of most interventions must be self-denying and humble to the point of pity to have any authority on the subject. But for “America First” whatever that actually means in practice and not in theory, this is in truth the most complete failure that ideology has ever suffered.
It is a failure of those who said that we could chart our own path and that indeed we were fools to try to work with others. It is a failure of those who said that it was nakedly only in America’s interests to “end the forever wars”. For the first, it tends to completely disregard two pretty obvious things about modern war: it’s not an isolated, backdoor phenomenon most times, and working with other countries to provide logistical support is a mere part of the game. For the latter, how is it in America’s interest to cede a country to a state which could become a haven, in the eyes of experts, to groups which the America First groups have spent the last half-decade vacillating between screaming about the need to pull up root and all and claiming were so defeated they could not come back?
Put another way, how is the present failure in Afghanistan not an indictment of America First on grounds more damning than the dog-whistling rhetoric but perhaps less than their treasonous belief in the Big Lie? How is us going it alone in our decision to not do a more slow-motion withdrawal, when it should be noted, that this was both foisted upon the Administration and a conscious choice anything but a failure?
This proves one of the great failings of America First: it conflates self-interest and national interest. It treats flights of pique with the same reverence it would strategy. Notwithstanding any comments on the leader of that movement, we must recognize that occasionally doing unpopular things politically is not only inevitable but right. We cannot continue to let our policy, especially something like this with such real, damning consequences, be lead by the whims of public opinion or even more nakedly, what might help one’s re-election chances.
For Pax Americana, some might also call this a triumph. A feat of great logistics, and after all we’re taking some refugees in. We’re working to ensure that the evacuation is completed on time. Under the hood, however, things look darker and danker.
We’ve shown real weakness in our training, our methods, and in the structures we built. Were they really built to stand when they collapsed in 72 hours and let the President escape into exile with no regrets and potentially flush with cash? It would be foolish to think so. A real-life house of cards is what that would be. There might also be the knowledge that we’ve brought the Taliban to the table as some small measure of solace. Yet that too is simply because we required their goodwill and acquiescence to do the simplest thing to return our citizens home.
For Pax Americana too, we should not let the proponents of that theory forget that it lies on them that the priorities of the war, and thus our state-building half measures, were faulty. In a projection of power, be it moral or military, there has to be some sort of guiding objective. There were many objectives we could have chosen as our primary one in Afghanistan once the Taliban were kicked out and the tree of Al-Qaeda cut out from underneath them. It is truly on those who wished to continue to project our power and flex our muscle that we managed to have no clear direction in the country post-2002.
And so the Afghanistan project goes out not with a roar but rather with a whimper. A whimper from a nation coming to terms with its failure to do anything in the course of the conflict to ensure it ended any other way. It is a failure we all must recognize and all must own up to.