The American national security establishment has little aptitude for winning wars, but it is very good at defending its political power. The swift collapse of the Afghan government in August, with the leaders like Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing as its army surrendered to the Taliban, should have been an occasion for soul-searching among Americans leaders. After all, building a viable, non-Taliban government in Afghanistan has been a project carried out by four presidencies over nearly 20 years, at the cost of more than $2 trillion and nearly 2,500 soldiers. The number of Afghans who died in the war of the last two decades is difficult to establish with certainty, but best estimates are in the neighborhood of 240,000—with perhaps 70,000 of those civilians.
By any measure, the effort to create a viable Afghan state was a major political project, supported not just by a bipartisan political consensus but also numerous NGOs and, intermittently, aided by American allies. Yet the Afghan government was revealed in the end to be a Potemkin regime, one that fell apart almost as fast as a house of cards encountering a gust of wind.
You would think that so massive a failure—one that implicated so many leaders and institutions—might lead to some reflection on all that had gone wrong. But such a level of mature introspection isn’t common to the national security establishment. This clubby collection of military and civilian policy-makers, think tank wonks, and upscale journalists is sometimes called “the Blob.” (The term was popularized, if not coined, by Ben Rhodes, an adviser to Barack Obama). It’s an apt metaphor; like the fabled movie monster, the foreign policy Blob may look amorphous—but still always oozes in the same general direction.
The Blob quickly decided that the end of the Afghan debacle, rather than a moment for self-reflection, presented an ideal opportunity to slime Joe Biden. The quickly formulated Blob consensus went something like this: The mission in Afghanistan didn’t fail. The situation on the ground had stabilized with the Afghan government supported at a manageable cost by a few thousand US troops. Afghanistan was well on its way to becoming a viable long-term ally like Japan, South Korea, or Germany. Biden, hypnotized by the slogan “end the forever wars,” was guilty of a premature withdrawal.
To make sure Biden received the requisite lashing, the media dug up all the ghouls who launched Afghanistan and earlier wars: John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, Tony Blair—even the prince of the undead himself, Henry Kissinger. Variations of this critique were made by everyone from Ryan C. Crocker, ambassador to Afghanistan under Obama, to Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass. Writing in The New York Times, Crocker argued, “Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.” Haass tweeted, “The alternative to withdrawal from Afghanistan was not ‘endless occupation’ but open-ended presence. Occupation is imposed, presence invited. Unless you think we are occupying Japan, Germany, & South Korea. And yes, withdrawal was the problem.”
These arguments are so flimsy as to barely need refutation. There’s simply no rational comparison between the American presence, however contested by some locals, in Japan, Germany, and South Korea and two decades of ferocious blood-letting in Afghanistan. The “minimum cost” of Afghanistan is true only if you ignore both that American casualties over the last year are down because of Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban to withdraw US troops—and that Afghan casualties remain numbingly high. As Joe Biden rightly said in an August 31 address, “There’s nothing low grade or low risk or low cost about any war.”
What Biden could have added is that his critics are willfully dishonest about the history of the war—and the nature of the status quo before the collapse. One of the very best guides to that history is the blockbuster “Afghanistan Papers” report that Craig Whitlock released in The Washington Post in 2019 (now available in expanded form as a book).
Based on an internal autopsy of the Afghan mission commissioned by the Pentagon titled “Lessons Learned,” The Afghanistan Papers make clear that the war was lost from almost the very start—and that the Afghanistan war was unwinnable because the United States lacked the knowledge and capability to build a legitimate or even viable government.
Instead, administration after administration kept kicking the can down the road by pretending the facade of a viable regime was the real thing. As MSNBC host Chris Hayes rightly observed, the philosophy behind America’s nation-building effort was “fake it till you make it.”
In 2015, Army Gen. Douglas Lute, who served as Afghan war czar under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told government interviewers, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing.” He added, “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
The Afghanistan Papers paint a grim picture of a mission lacking in any clear focus leading to the creation of a make-believe government, a phantom local army, and a status quo maintained by massive American-directed killing. As Whitlock notes:
In the Lessons Learned interviews, however, U.S. military trainers described the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters. They also accused Afghan commanders of pocketing salaries—paid by U.S. taxpayers—for tens of thousands of ‘ghost soldiers.’” Whitlock adds, “None expressed confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own. More than 60,000 members of Afghan security forces have been killed, a casualty rate that U.S. commanders have called unsustainable.
Reading The Afghanistan Papers illuminates the rapid collapse of the American mission: It fell apart because it was always one big lie. The title of the original Pentagon report now takes an ironic air: ‘Lessons Learned.” The cynical and calculated freakout over Biden’s wise decision to withdraw makes clear that the Blob will never learn any lessons.