You don’t get to lose a war and expect the result to look like you’ve won it.
After the Vietnam War, Americans undertook a painful national reckoning, and for decades after Saigon fell, U.S. leaders avoided large and prolonged military interventions. But to judge from the reactions in some quarters to recent events, we face the troubling possibility that this time no reckoning is forthcoming. Instead of accepting and learning from loss, some foreign policy leaders prefer to perpetuate the very myths that inspired the tragedy in the first place, beginning with the proposition that the United States should and could transform Afghanistan, if only it tried long and hard enough.
In the past week, as one provincial capital after another surrendered to the Taliban, prominent voices advanced a dangerous form of denial: We can still fix it, through still more war. On Aug. 13, Brookings Institution President John Allen, a retired Marine general, called on President Biden to reverse his decision to withdraw ground troops and intervene to prevent the Taliban from entering Kabul. If the Taliban crossed that red line, he proposed “a concerted military response against Taliban forces and leadership across Afghanistan.” The neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol tweeted his support of Allen’s plan. “Is it too late to salvage Afghanistan?” he asked. “ … The Iraq surge worked. Could an analogous effort in Afghanistan?”
The answer is no, because we tried it. In the Obama surge, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan rose to 100,000 in 2010 and 2011, double the total of May 2009. As The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” project revealed, military brass subsequently exaggerated the potency of the Afghan soldiers they were training. (“Afghan security forces are increasing in number and quality every day,” Allen wrote in 2012.) U.S. civilian leaders made rosy assessments in public even as they privately doubted that America could win. Obama, souring on the war, lowered troop levels below 10,000 by the end of his presidency, but he failed to fulfill his hope for a full withdrawal. The war was given so long to work that advocates of a new surge hope Americans have forgotten the last one.
Now, having all along refused to confront the paradox of trying to build an independent Afghan state that was utterly dependent on foreign support, proponents of continuing the war are blaming others, especially Biden, as decisive evidence of their fiasco unfolds before the world. Within days of their latest and possibly last call for a new surge, there was no more Afghan government for which another generation of Americans could fight.
The war’s dark conclusion has occasioned a second form of denial. This version holds that even though it’s too late to fix Afghanistan now, the war had been on track before the Trump administration prepared to withdraw and the Biden administration followed through.
“What makes the Afghanistan situation so frustrating is that the US & its allies had reached something of an equilibrium at a low sustainable cost,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, opined on Aug. 13. “It wasn’t peace or military victory, but it was infinitely preferable to the strategic & human catastrophe that is unfolding.” Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey added, as another sign of the mission’s success and stability, that the U.S. military has suffered no personnel killed in action in more than a year.
Only a small cadre in Washington could make a two-decade war sound like bloodless equilibrium. True, U.S. service members have not been killed in action recently — but that is only because the Taliban shrewdly decided not to target them in exchange for the U.S. agreement to withdraw. For Afghans, the war has been unceasingly brutal, with the Taliban on the offensive for years. An estimated 3,378 members of Afghan government forces and 1,468 civilians died in 2020. All parties understood that the Taliban was gearing up for a further offensive this summer in which it was poised to win more territory and kill more Afghans.
The president therefore never had the luxury to choose a small, casualty-free troop presence. Biden’s choice was to escalate a failing war, to counteract the Taliban’s offensive, or bring U.S. troops home. Had he done the former, he would have sent Americans to die indefinitely, only to help the Afghan government lose more slowly. Such an option should be unacceptable for any president. As Biden explained in a speech Monday: “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghans — Afghanistan’s civil war, when Afghan troops will not?”
The war has effectively been lost for years. By claiming otherwise, hawks are stoking unwarranted resentment at Biden and other civilian leaders for accepting defeat.
Or almost accepting defeat. While making the right decision to withdraw, the Biden administration has indulged in a bit of retconning to defend itself and burnish the war’s outcome. “In terms of what we set out to do in Afghanistan, we’ve done it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday. He is correct, to a point: The United States long ago accomplished its initial objectives after Sept. 11, 2001, of weakening al-Qaeda and punishing its Taliban sponsor. Yet the United States had larger ambitions, or else it would have withdrawn after its initial successes. America lost the longer war to determine who would govern Afghanistan. And it is important to say so.
Only by accepting defeat can the country mourn the precious lives lost and resources squandered, including the Afghan women and girls betrayed by promises of a Taliban-free future that no one could keep. Only by accepting defeat can U.S. leaders level with the American public, which strongly supports withdrawal, and begin to repair decades of mistrust. This was a grievous defeat for which responsibility must be assigned, not evaded.
A vacuum of meaning will be filled by the least responsible among us, whose ranks are growing amid the country’s political dysfunction. Recall that even in the less polarized era after Vietnam, not everyone accepted defeat. A myth circulated that pusillanimous leaders had forced American soldiers to fight with “one hand tied behind their backs.” This myth, promoted by unsuccessful generals like William Westmoreland, led some observers to conclude that the real problem with U.S. warmaking lay with the public and politicians for supporting too little of it. To neoconservatives, the “Vietnam syndrome” needed to be kicked. After Sept. 11, 2001, they found their opportunity to demonstrate that American power could remake Afghanistan and Iraq and redeem the world.
By failing to learn, by choosing to forget, the country moves from one unwinnable war to the next. To accept defeat, however, would put America on a different course, at a time when it can ill afford to repeat destructive mistakes.