America's war over Afghanistan is just getting started
The swift collapse of the Afghan government has reignited a long-running argument over the United States' role in the world
America's war over Afghanistan, simmering for years, reached a rolling boil about 10 days ago, and it shows no sign of cooling yet.
I'm not talking about the way the Biden administration has brought about the end of the war in Afghanistan. Whereas the war in Afghanistan pitted American soldiers and members of the Afghan military against the Taliban and affiliated groups like al Qaeda, the war over Afghanistan is a rhetorical battle waged among factions of American elites over our country's identity and role in world affairs.
Because it raises big questions about identity and meaning, the war over Afghanistan may remind us in some ways of the culture war that has metastasized throughout our politics in recent years. But it is quite distinct from the culture war's many clashes — over abortion, guns, transgender rights, critical race theory, immigration, and other divisive issues. For one thing, the war over Afghanistan, unlike the culture war, isn't being waged by citizens at large. There are no protest marches against troop withdrawals or activists demanding that soldiers be brought home more rapidly. A recent survey asked voters to name the issue that matters most to them in deciding their vote for Congress. Twenty-two issues appear on the list, and "Afghanistan" isn't one of them.
Then there's partisanship. The culture war roils our politics because it intensifies the issues that most deeply divide the parties, turning policy disagreements into disputes that tear at the civic fabric of the country, sometimes making it seem like politics could easily spill into outright violence between antagonistic factions. But the war over Afghanistan is different. It runs right down the middle of both parties. In this respect, the war over Afghanistan cuts against other political disputes of our moment, pitting Democrats and Republicans who think the U.S. should be staying in Afghanistan indefinitely in order to keep the Taliban out of power against Democrats and Republicans who think President Biden's decision to withdraw was the right one, and perhaps one that should have been undertaken years ago.
That is what the war over Afghanistan is about. Members of America's political, cultural, journalistic, and military elite are fighting about who we are as a country, what we stand for, and why and where American soldiers should be deployed abroad. The stakes are enormous — and so it's important to clarify the terms of the dispute.
On one side of the disagreement are those who have opposed American withdrawal from Afghanistan from the beginning: liberal internationalists on the left; neoconservatives on the right; and in the supposedly apolitical center, mainstream journalists and the military commanders (active and retired) who often serve as their anonymous sources and prime-time on-air guests. This group favored Barack Obama's troop surge back in 2009 and angrily denounced his withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011. They applauded Donald Trump's bombing of Syria and loudly opposed his efforts to strike a deal with the Taliban to get American troops withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of his presidency or soon after. They hoped Biden would reverse Trump's plan for withdrawal and expressed anger when he indicated an intent to follow through on it.
Over the past 10 days, this group has also hit Biden very hard over the chaos and confusion that has followed from the shockingly rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military in the face of a Taliban offensive this summer. Of course, with hindsight, it's clear that the president and his team should have placed less trust in overly optimistic assessments of the security situation in the country and therefore done more to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
On the other hand, the fact that the government and military collapsed so quickly seems to bolster the administration's contention that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable. If the president and his team made a mistake it was in assuming that the institutions we helped to build and support would be capable of functioning on their own for at least a few months after our withdrawal. Instead, those institutions crumbled before we'd even gotten a chance to evacuate, leaving thousands scrambling for the exits. Even the most pessimistic assessments of the situation failed to capture the reality of how ineffective our efforts over two decades had proven to be.
Yet the critics concede nothing — and this demonstrates that what they really object to is our withdrawal itself, which they blame for precipitating the collapse of our allies. It was our decision to leave that put the Taliban back in power, they claim, and this outcome is morally and geostrategically unacceptable. They also insist that this could have been avoided by simply keeping American troops deployed at the low levels of recent years. But the logic of their position — unconditional opposition to a Taliban victory — implies they also would have supported the deployment of much higher troop numbers down the road if that's what was needed to defend the Afghan government against a renewed insurgency.
And there is the crux of the matter. Biden's critics are united in thinking that the United States is responsible for spreading liberal democracy around the world, that our safety depends on the success of this effort, that the effort requires us to use military force against opponents of liberal democracy, and that we must never pull back from that confrontation. Keeping up with the fight or expanding it is honorable. Withdrawing from the fight on grounds of waste or futility is disgraceful. What matters is winning, and winning is defined as keeping opponents of our system of government and moral ideals on the run and under pressure. Like Christian missionaries out to convert the world to their faith, the United States is animated by the messianic impulse to spread liberal democracy and smite its opponents.
This outlook has deep roots in the American past, ultimately tracing all the way back to the original Puritan settlers of New England, who viewed their own experiments in self-government as endorsed and encouraged by God. The impulse returned during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as such figures as John L. O'Sullivan, Robert Ellis Thompson, and Albert J. Beveridge appealed to divine providence to defend settler colonialism in the American West and imperialism in the Caribbean and the Philippines. Woodrow Wilson built on these ideas in seeking to forge world peace through a League of Nations. During the Cold War, presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan drew on this tradition in making sweeping moral arguments in favor of our decades-long clash with the Soviet Union.
But it's mainly been since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 that this rhetoric has taken on a life of its own and come to shape the minds of presidents and policymakers, journalists and the military leadership, sometimes to the exclusion of other considerations. Liberal democracy had triumphed in so many places. It was bound to spread still further, many presumed, provided we kept up the good fight against the recalcitrant few. The 1990s provided encouraging positive examples in the war to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and then in NATO's belated intervention to halt ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. The decade's negative example was the West's failure to prevent an outright genocide of roughly 800,000 people in Rwanda. Many concluded at the time that America and its allies would have to commit to doing even more down the road to defend human rights.
Then came 9/11 and the realization of just how much more work remained to be done. The recalcitrant few turned out to be stronger, deadlier, and more numerous than we had anticipated. That pointed toward the need for greater and more militarily aggressive efforts at spreading liberal democracy and decimating its enemies. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and beyond — prominent members of both parties, the media, and the military have supported these and other actions, and the same group has opposed efforts to withdraw and signs of restraint, right down to today.
Yet all along, an alternate American tradition has dissented, drawing on other sources and advocating a different path. From George Washington's Farewell Address through John Quincy Adams' warning about the dangers of going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy," the early national period featured prominent voices cautioning against hubris and messianic crusades. Throughout the Cold War, realists expressed similar cautions about overreach and buying into our own ideological proclamations when formulating strategy and tactics. Propaganda was one thing, policymaking and statesmanship quite another.
In his own distinctively ill-informed and impulsive way, Trump belonged to this tradition. And so, within limits, does Biden. Consider the latter's skeptical contribution to debates during the first year of the Obama administration about whether it made sense to endorse a troop surge in Afghanistan. Having been briefed on the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy devised by Gen. David Petraeus and his colleagues, Biden expressed doubts about whether it would ever enable us to "build and transfer responsibility to the Afghans." For COIN to work, the U.S. military required "a credible partner in Kabul, basic governance and services, and competent Afghan security forces." All were necessary for the success of COIN, and yet "we simply can't control these variables."
Empiricism, pragmatism, realism — these are characteristic qualities of the second tradition of American thinking about foreign policy. Some of its members, like Trump, may feel genuine indifference toward the fate of freedom in the world. But many others, including Biden, wish liberal democracy well. It's just that they recognize the limits of the possible.
One of those limits is illuminated by recalling that America's founding period was initiated by a Declaration of Independence proclaiming to the world that we were separating ourselves from Great Britain and taking responsibility for establishing a free government. That we created such a government and have sustained it for more than two centuries is an enormous achievement — and our success at doing so is connected to the fact that we did it for ourselves, joining together as a single community, nation, and people, acting in concert to defend its own rights and freedoms.
Liberty cannot be handed off from one nation to another like a gift. Bequeathing certain institutions, peace, and order to another country may make life better there for a time, but in the end the benefits will be utterly dependent on the benefactor, rendering the achievements ephemeral and the country vulnerable to backsliding if it proves incapable of sustaining them on its own.
This is something Biden intuited about our continued involvement in Afghanistan 12 years ago. But he was overruled by those making quite different assumptions about America and the world.
The war over Afghanistan today is just the latest skirmish in the longstanding battle between these clashing views. I know where my sympathies lie — with Biden and his fellow pragmatists. But I also recognize that a decisive resolution to the conflict is unlikely. The messianic and the skeptical sides of our national temperament have been present and locked in combat for a very long time. It may well be our fate as Americans to endure periodic flair-ups of peak animosity between them at times of national trial.
No one should be surprised that the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban after 20 years of war has proven to be one of those times.