Ending the Forever War in Afghanistan

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President Joe Biden salutes members of the U.S. Marine Corps Honor Guard before boarding Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., August 29, 2021.
(Tom Brenner/Reuters)

It’s good for democracy at home.

I’m glad the forever war is ending. As embarrassing, disgraceful, and ugly as Joe Biden has made our exit — and be assured, he does deserve the blame for his own plan going awry — it is not nearly as ugly as the last decade of corruption, death, and mayhem, things that never seemed to bother advocates of the Forever War, until we ceased participating in it.

It’s impossible to overstate how much idealism has been lost in 20 years of war in Afghanistan. Advocates of “hard Wilsonianism” told anyone who might raise the slightest hesitation about democratizing the Middle East and the Hindu Kush that we were bigots. George W. Bush, in his second inaugural, nodded toward this: “Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty,” he said, before assuring us that “all who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.” Unless you live in Saudi Arabia, or are Middle Eastern Christians subject to the CIA-funded “moderate rebels.”

Bush went on to describe our global revolutionary mission with an allusion to Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed:

Because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.

It was a truly odd literary callout, because the novel features a provincial governor who comes under the sway of a fashionable set of liberal ideologues whose work inspires pointlessly destructive arson. Dostoyevsky was condemning the “fire in the minds of men.”

The government we helped create in Afghanistan was fantastically, opulently, and openly corrupt. An audit of just $106 billion of Department of Defense spending showed that over 40 percent of it went to insurgents, criminal syndicates, or corrupt Afghan officials. We gave money to warlords and militia leaders who promptly used U.S. resources to murder political rivals or humiliate tribal enemies or just spirited themselves out of the country with millions of dollars in their suitcase. Democracy was on our lips, but bribing medieval warlords to do as we wished was the actual policy.

The money sloshing around Afghanistan made it impossible for Afghan people to get simple justice from the courts. It meant that government officials not only expected bribes, but would only respond to large ones. Vanda Felbab-Brown, Harlod Trinkunas, and Shadi Hamid wrote in 2017 that “Afghans report a great degree of satisfaction with Taliban verdicts, unlike those from the official justice system, where petitioners for justice frequently have to pay considerable bribes.” Providing less effective or admired government than the Taliban is a low bar, but we managed to get under it.

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Instead of spreading decency and democracy, the Forever War has tended to bring corruption and suspicion of democracy back home. The American public was overwhelmingly against participating in the Syrian civil war, so much so that it scared Congress away from endorsing that mission. But our intelligence agencies and Department of Defense were there anyway. They helped fund a group that beheaded a child. Some of our allies in Idlib Province issued press releases welcoming the fall of Kabul to the Talliban. They are an offshoot of al-Qaeda; we made them our allies under the legal authority to confront al-Qaeda. The same institutions that vetted the child-beheaders are vetting the Afghan refugees arriving in the United States now.

Having set ourselves the impossible mission of building in Afghanistan a civil society loyal enough to a deeply corrupt central government that the society could somehow repel, by itself, a Taliban that was supported by the largest ethnic group and had a rear operating base in one of our own allied states — one we dared not discipline or reprimand — the top brass of our military became accustomed to lying to the public, to their presidents, and ultimately to themselves. When you look at General Mark A. Milley, you’re looking at the kind of man that the Forever War produces. Afghans have been getting slaughtered in the war under our watch — civilian deaths really began to pick up after 2013. This was not sustainable or just. Biden was put in the position of doing something popular — getting out — or doing something expert, getting deeper into a hopeless, corrupt mess that makes a lot of unsavory people rich.

And so, twenty years later, advocates of putting democracies on every dune and atoll across the globe, have come full circle to detesting democracy at home in America. The Atlantic tells us that it’s our fault the Taliban won the war in Afghanistan. Max Boot in the Washington Post says the same thing. We are told that our nation’s obligations, fell victim to “fatigue, which ambitious politicians cannot help but exploit.” Damn the people for electing three consecutive presidents who promised to end our involvement there. The American people finally getting what they voted for is the worst thing that ever happened to advocates of global democratic revolution.

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