Leaving Afghanistan has proven to be a Rohrschach test. In Washington, there's a bit of folksy wisdom that where you stand depends on where you sit. Ask someone their thoughts on Twitter or in the UK on Biden's decision to withdraw or the process of said withdrawal and you find one's explicit priors, the provocations of the commentariat class, and the implicit worldview based out of the last weeks' events. More than anything, I find myself exhausted by the social media and pundit-driven over-determination watching the fall of the government in Kabul and the crisis of getting thousands upon thousands of foreign nationals and Afghans out of a country now almost entirely controlled by the Taliban. My original intention was to offer a breakdown of the latest news and something akin to a political risk analysis. Truthfully, no one has any clue yet what comes next beyond the vague contours of what problems will inevitably arise and the structural implications for the country and region. I can, and will, write about them eventually, but believe they should be foregrounded and contextualized by the all-too-human response to seeing a state collapse this way in the wake of a withdrawal for the first time since 1975. As an American living in the UK and watching countless Anglosphere talking heads and European observers apopleptic with Biden's decision only after things went pear-shaped, it's been instructive in the unstated duplicitous politics of Europe's geopolitical decline, the provincialism of much British and European commentary, and the incoherence of countless American jounalists and talking heads grappling with the close of 20 years of fruitless war.
Rory Stewart emerged as a popular voice for the editors at the New Statesman and other liberal or left supporters of intervention, generally on humanitarian grounds, alongside traditional Tory voices that the War on Terror be waged to the last American. Here's a Ted Talk Stewart gave in 2011 during much of the worst fighting seen during the conflict:
Stewart faults the excessive size of deployments and spending, lack of expertise, and political economy of intervention within the military and various NGOs and budget-based institutions. His thesis seems to be that smaller footprint interventions can work, and goes on to note the lesson as though it was applicable for Egypt, Libya, Syria, and the broader Arab Spring. It's startingly incoherent in principle because Stewart seems entirely dismissive of how military operations work. Once you have even a small force deployed, they need to be protected, logistics have to be arranged, air support made available. Not only does this create the "self-licking ice cream cone" dynamic of mission creep and expanding contractor presences bracketed onto a military presence. It can lead to perverse wastes of resources due to burn rates, both of people and materiel. A piece from military.com, admittedly holding back and far too reliant on an interview with Retired General Joe Votel who once led the U.S. Central Command, makes the point quite stark. The United States was stuck sending a volunteer force through a slow-moving meat grinder, not necessarily from direct combat casualties, but the constant combat, deployment, and redeployment. The Obama administration's expansion of SOF operations has led to incredible strains as well. From Votel:
"The things that aren't supposed to be routine, become routine, and then you begin to think of them as routine," Votel said. "That's something you really have to guard against."
From Russell Parker, a Marine Raider quoted:
"If you're a guy or gal who's deployed every 12 or even 24 months, for six to 12 months, that's a whole lot of missed birthdays," Parker said. "Which leads to a huge burden on the stay-at-home spouse. ... And either the family can absorb that, or over time, they decide we just can't [and] they have to move on without you."
And a reminder for those who think the material cost was fine because of the low casaulty count:
"We saw issues in the B-1 because we're just beating the heck out of them, deploying them, deploying them," Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten told lawmakers during his nomination hearing in August 2019. At that time, Hyten said, just six B-1s out of the fleet of 62 were fully mission-capable.
"We flew the wings off of every platform, whether it was AWACS, or JSTARS, or Rivet Joints, or F-15s and F-16s, or B-52s, or KC-135s and KC-10s," Carlisle said. "Did we run them ragged in the Middle East? Yeah. Did they step up? More than you can ever imagine. What our young women and men did in uniform across all the services is extraordinary."
The US military went to extreme lengths to manage the logistical strains of constant use pushing the limits of what people are capable of and platforms are designed for. Even a light footprint can create a massive resource and time sinkhole, especially since the approach of the US military is informed by decades' experience managing massive logistical systems intended to deliver huge amounts of ordinance and overwhelming firepower. These issues are invisible to most European commentators or else US-based commentators from Europe who've likely spent precious little time talking to anyone who deployed, making sense of the military apparatus in Washington D.C. up close, or else scrutinizing what's behind the numbers on spreadsheets describing the conflict. A recent piece by Martin Sandbu was particularly infuriating in this regard when he wrote:
"Building a nation is no doubt the work of those who belong to it. Building a functioning state and economy, however, is something the west not only could have done but had a duty to do after ousting the Taliban in 2001. The sad truth is that we never really tried."
Like communism, true nation building has never been tried apparently. Later:
"To say now that the effort to build a functioning Afghan state was always doomed is a perverse diminution of responsibility. The US and its allies could have acted differently. They could have distributed money as individual cash payments rather than installing local gatekeepers to the resources. They could have introduced strong transparency, monitoring and supervision mechanisms. They could have swiftly imposed sanctions on corrupt officials at all levels."
Sandbu, like so many other European commentators, has paid the conflict little mind for its duration but now has the temerity to opine on what was done incorrectly. To claim we never really tried is an absurdity, a whitewashing of history to justify one's moral indignation at the tragedy unfolding and complicity in saying and doing nothing until today to influence any aspect of the war. He cites a single book written by Sarah Chayes whose chief role was advising military leadership to backup his points. Talk to the soldiers who deployed, Afghans, and other country specialists, you get a very different picture that still makes room to acknowledge the problems raised by Chayes' account. His argument is ultimately intended to bolster the technocratic bona fides of observers now chasing headlines to make sense of what is understandably an emotional event of world significance. Sandbu and those who boosted his short piece are indulging in the fantasy Rory Stewart and others peddled for political gain in the past and today – they cling to the dream of "small footprints." If less money had been spent and discipline imposed, the real experts and locals listened to, the government put into power would have been more legitimate, far less centralized, and not awash with foreign money it can't hope to spend properly.
There's truth to this, of course. But it also presupposes that the Taliban wouldn't adapt tactics and strategies accordingly. No matter how much you spend, you can't build anything that'll last if you can't physically secure it. Then you have the basic issue of costs. Do you have local firms well situated logistically to deliver complex infrastructure projects? Cement manufacturers? Steel? They may exist post-90s, but the physical development of Afghanistan required imports of goods and services, both of which would have to be paid for in US dollars and invoiced at foreign prices since no foreign firm in their right mind would opt for payment in Afghanis. Costs balloon as does the inflow of foreign currency and opportunities for graft. Suddenly the military and aid organizations have to report in Washington to Congress that they aren't wasting what they're spending. Political incentives align to centralize control over cashflows where possible in Kabul. And any time a US or NATO soldier was killed holding something, you'd have officers and generals calling for more resources to keep their force protected. Every time an aid project intended to help was announced, organizations and agencies would go begging for troops to help secure it.
This "small footprint" story seized on here is the last gasp of technocracy as salvation. Appeals to theories of a Goldilocks intervention skip over the immediacy of wartime politics and really-existing political economy of a war of occupation. One can hardly be blamed for struggling to manage the whiplash of the thinking on display. We're expected to simultaneously believe that the military charged with incompetence in accomplishing a mission for which it was never designed could have done so more competently and that the civilian leadership overseeing the war even more incompetently than the military had some sort of internal mechanisms with which to set reasonable goals, push back against the Pentagon, and otherwise manage the public response while not taking huge sums of money from donors and meetings with lobbyists. In short, it's a farcical attempt to suggest that good people making good decisions can trump a bad system built on a series of faulty assumptions. Even the most restrained advocates of development and aid works ultimately depend on bloated defense budgets. No one ever advocates themselves out of a job. They always ask for more money on the premise that they know how to best spend it. The American failure in Afghanistan lies in the collective tragedy of these events, of systemic failures, and yes, the remarkable absence of allied interests in shaping the mission. Sandbu, of course, never bothers to ask if European partners might have provided green shoots for positive development themselves. Washington bears all the blame and the abdication of the "West" in managing a "winnable peace" that never existed in the first place is really the failure of the United States to do what a man with a column retrospectively thinks would be a good idea based on that one text he looked closely at.
Nation building and wars of occupation aren't just fodder for thought experiments. They're actual crises human beings risking their lives have to navigate as they unfold, far more complex than the latest crop of counterfactuals allow for. That the opinion pages of so many British publications seem incapable of treating the conflict as anything other than an abstraction reveals the central conceit of the moral panic in Europe today.
Read enough outlets here, follow enough accounts, emerse yourself in The Discourse and you're inundated by howls of anger that Biden has dealt a terrible blow to America's credibility with European partners. Countless people online jump on the human rights narrative, furious that the United States is abandoning the women of Afghanistan. Others focus on the notion that this process somehow represents a stab in the back. You'd be forgiven for believing that what has thus far been a fairly successful withdrawal given the circumstances is an unparalleled catastrophe. The suicide bombing attack that has taken the lives of 12 US marines and an as yet unknown number of Afghan civilians is a cruel, terrible tragedy. It is not so much a failure as an inevitable risk of leaving or staying. We'll have to see how the administration handles it. Four years of Trump and a blind acceptance of anonymous sourcing in service of resistance against true and wannabe autocrats has well and truly dulled our capacity to read news critically, especially when the headline appears terrible on its face but may actually have a decent logic to it. Consider the variety of British takes that are, at their core, frantic nonsense. Pundits, "thinkers", and the transatlantic lotus eaters who've made fine livings having views on things are spinning their version of what has just transpired.
The Guardian has taken the de facto line that Biden's decision and focus on American's national interests is "America first by another name." I've seen other British commentators indulge the comparison or draw parallels, whether on grounds that the US is abandoning values in its foreign policy or else laboring under the erroneous belief that this withdrawal was somehow a betrayal sprung upon unsuspecting allies. A rather hilarious paragraph gives away just how distorted recent history has become and, I think, is a useful reminder of the collective amnesia now drastically over and mistating "America First" in the interest of absolving Europe of its own sins:
"Unlike Trump, Biden is investing in international agreements and institutions, Jacobs acknowledged, but also taking a hard-headed approach. He pulled out of Afghanistan because it was no longer serving American interests. He has not sought to emulate predecessors George W Bush or Barack Obama by investing political capital in trying to bring democracy to the Middle East."
Obama never sought to bring democracy to the Middle East. He sought to reduce the US presence to be able to focus resources on the Asia-Pacific, but was caught offguard by his own administration and allies sticking him with the bill for new conflicts in the region. In fact, it was France that lobbied for and initiated the no-fly zone in Libya in 2011 and European partners who deigned to meet with anti-Gaddafi rebels in London in hopes of coordinating their own campaign to bring democracy to the war-torn country. A decade later, the complete failure to do so has somehow vanished from the new history being written of Afghanistan. Syria is a more complicated story, but one in which the then outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the help of the Pentagon exploited Obama's reelection campaign to open up talks with Turkish counterparts and others to form a safe zone in Syria that would trigger a de facto invasion. Then British PM David Cameron was making rounds calling for Europe and the US to actively "shape" the Syrian opposition into a fit fighting force. Obama administration officials were suspicious of arming the rebels by mid-2013 on the basis that they wouldn't be able to control where the arms ended up, prompting genius takes like arming the rebels with "smart guns" whose safety mechanisms apparently couldn't be hacked. France and the UK were busy lobbying within the EU as early as February-March 2013 to lift the arms embargo to the Syrian rebels while Washington weighed its options. The prior August, Obama had established his infamous red line. When it came time to attack, he backed off realizing that his own State Department, Pentagon, and US media had laid a trap his European partners hoped he would fall into: the moment the US went after the regime directly, it risked those chemical weapons getting in to the hands of countless rebel groups or else being used on US and NATO forces. Imagine fighting in chemical weapons gear in 100+ degree heat in the desert. David Cameron couldn't whip his own coaliton to support striking the Syrian regime in response. Obama not only learned from his failure, but identified the core truth it represented – Europe was hoping the US would do the work for them when push came to shove.
From this perspective, withdrawing from Afghanistan may well be "America first" insofar as US involvement in Libya and Syria, despite its domestic lobbies for war, were really putting Europe first without any clear strategic aim. You can't actively meet with rebel groups, seek to arm them, lobby to ensure NATO enters a conflict with US logistical support, and then complain when you realize refugee displacement is a reality of conflicts you hoped would be resolved through the benevolence of an American state that had radically militarized its foreign policy apparatus and worldview in the wake of the Cold War. The United States should have taken far more Syrian refugees. That the influx of refugees was such a crisis in Europe despite its ample resources speaks to a considerable fragility of the European project and mind buried underneath its successes and inertia.
Biden remembers these episodes well because he was always in Obama's inner circle. He would have gotten out of Afghanistan a decade ago if he could, never believing in the viability of the counter-insurgency mission. But for convenience's sake, his decision is now painted as unmooring the United States from good sense. Edward Luce writes for the FT to argue that Biden is somehow confused about America's interests or role in the world:
"Biden’s Afghan pullout fulfilled one promise, to get out of “forever wars”, and broke another, to restore the primacy of America’s alliances. The second promise was what sharply differentiated Biden from Donald Trump. Biden supposedly values allies. Europe’s chagrin is that Biden could have fulfilled both vows if he had closely consulted with them on his Afghan exit. He chose not to. The fact that Nato was there at America’s behest rubbed salt into the wound. The 9/11 attacks marked the only time Nato has invoked its Article V mutual defence clause — following an assault on America, not Europe."
Yet it's been some of America's treaty allies in Europe that have begged it to step into conflicts irrelevant to the national interest based on the "small footprint" intervention logic that Rory Stewart, Martin Sandbu, and countless others explicitly or implicitly support. If anything, Biden has a fairly clear vision for what he's doing – reduce the burden on the US military so it can focus its resources on China, seek a larger "reset" of US foreign policy priorities reducing the excessive waste of lives and materiel in open-ended conflicts where possible, and to better focus state capacity on more pressing challenges. European observers may rightly note the continuation of Trump's tariff and trade policies, but the EU has taken on an even more aggressive version of these restrictions in its attempts to impose a carbon border adjustment mechanism and efforts to promote European alternatives to dependency on foreign firms. The EU has often consoled itself as a regulatory and normative leader, which goes to show that these complaints have more to do about the limits of enforcing that power with limited means of unified coercion. Imagine British pro-Brexit Tories and others sincerely suggesting withdrawal is evidence of American isolationism when, as yet, we still have elevated troop deployment levels in the Middle East compared to 2016 despite the absence of an urgent threat and continue to increase rotations through Eastern Europe and training exercises with the Ukrainian military.
The UK ended combat operations in October 2014 along with the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force that was replaced by Afghan National Security Forces in 2015. It did so knowing full well the realities on the ground. France ended its combat mission in November 2012, committing to leave 1,500 troops for training purposes. Germany participated entirely within the framework of the ISAF and never committed much beyond logistics and support for staging grounds like Mazar-i-Sharif. European partners basically locked themselves into primarily training and support roles without increasing aid or development budgets, without providing the air power needed to sustain ANSF operations, and without any particular concern that the US would ever leave. The momentum towards a withdrawal was in place prior to Trump's presidency though Obama punted on it. The political hysteria caused by Syrian refugees in Europe clearly blunted any space to take an interest in the conflict. But you'd think that given the broad contours of a peace deal were discussed and in place by February 2020 and president Biden announced the commitment to leave this April on a deadline, European partners had ample time to prepare. It wasn't as if they gave nearly as much as the US to the mission after 2014, when US SOF and regular units were frequently forced to backstop ANSF operations. CENTCOM significantly escalated the air war against the Taliban prior to the conclusion of the peace deal in order to help secure it, increasing civilian casualties to "negotiate from a position of strength." That means more soldiers spotting on the ground and more fighting.
European partners played little part in this, happy to neglect the conflict and stick to a limited training role so they could reap the benefits of appearing to stick up for the transatlantic alliance. The conflict cost the US at least $1 trillion over 20 years, more when you factor in long-term healthcare costs. The conflict cost the UK, the most gung ho of all the European allies, about £27.7 billion over 20 years. After 2014, the UK only spent about £90 million annually on their mission vs tens of billions still coming out of the US national budget. If the New Statesman's editorial board wants to lecture Biden and the American people about betraying the Afghan people, it can answer for years upon years of relative neglect to demand that the British government actually help them in the first place. George Eaton and countless others feel more comfortable trafficking in Afghan lives as abstractions to browbeat American hegemony out of concomitant love and hate for it than ask themselves the question Europeans concerned about Afghanistan should be asking now: where were we?
Despite having 18 months notice, a formal withdrawal annoucement in mid-April, and a previous US presidency to materially improve their ability to act independently if need be, the peanut gallery still managed to blame the US for the collapse of the Afghan state in a matter of weeks and failure to evacuate their citizens and Afghan partners even when the US provided the core deployment to seize and hold Karzai International. Much of the outrage was linked to the withdrawal of US contractors and the apparatus intended to help Afghans keep their aircraft in the air. But it was the Europeans who had decided to focus solely on training and that kind of capacity building after 2014. Where were their contractors, their planes, their struggles to standup an independent military? No one should kid themselves. We lost the war in Afghanistan, and US policy choices going back to 2001 lay much of the groundwork for that failure. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) lays it all out here from a report published August 1 in hopes that we might reflect properly on the enormity of the waste and failure.
Afghanistan does present a credibility crisis, but not of the United States. Washington is better focusing its resources on more important matters at the end of the day. It's Europe's credibility that has been thoroughly debunked since 2016, from its inability to meaningfully break with Trump on important foreign policy matters to its inchoate tears over Kabul. Europe talks a mean game, has values, loves to communicate its concern and put on the imperial air of pretending to be above empire. It is a thoroughly hollow power on the world stage capable of policing its former imperial periphery often with the help of the United States and constantly struggling with integrations and the inescapably civilizational tenor of countless policy debates. The sky is not falling on American power. This is not Saigon. It says nothing about what the US willl do regarding Ukraine or Taiwan. None of that. It's a reminder that when times are tough and blood has to be spilled, Europe prefers the US to bear most of the burden even in matters of relatively peripheral importance to its national interests. Theirs is a self-interested and self-involved understanding of the alliance, invoking partnership in the wake of 9/11 only to retreat from nation building and then blame us for not doing it properly when we had, in fact, adopted a "light footprint" in the early years and still failed. More than anything else, the fundamental insight of Trump's 2016 gambit has hit me – these people don't give a **** about us and no matter what we do, it won't be enough. Iraq may complicate that narrative. It does not absolve them of responsibilty for today.
If Reagan's optimism that "it's morning in America" imbued the closing days of the Cold War and the 1990s with a false sense of pride and purpose in American politics, Trump proved to be the negative of that optimism. I recall the people out on the street in Washington the day after he won, huddled and confused and angry that this was the face America was showing. We broadly felt it was midnight in America, and his presidency proved to be one long, rolling midnight for millions of people. But when even a little light is let into the American psyche that maybe, just maybe we'll stop losing so many of our own to suicide and despair as we endlessly march soldiers off to conflicts without end or purpose, we discover that our friends and the media at home and abroad prefer we reign supreme over reality by force no matter the cost or complications. Defeat cannot be processed in real time on. social media. It doesn't look pretty. We must be able to dictate the terms of our defeat by endlessly delaying it so that European governments who'd effectively washed their hands of any outcomes in Afghanistan could avoid humiliation on the world stage, a club of so-called powers incapable of logistically managing a withdrawal or military operation to secure a single airport in a far away country without the United States. It's always midnight somewhere. It is in Afghanistan right now and will be in the days ahead managing threats from ISIS and continuing the evacuation in immensely difficult conditions. It is in Europe too apparently. They aren't writing about America's decline or impotence right now. They're writing about their own and blaming us for it.
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