What we were really fighting for -- and why we lost.
Regardless of who wins this election, in a few years the final planes carrying the last soldiers will shake off Afghanistan's dust and take to the sky. They will leave behind a limited number of advisers, ex-military civilian contractors and a whole bunch of diplomats running out the clock in Kabul. A few years later when Islamist mobs are roaming the streets and rocket attacks on the US embassy have become routine, the helicopters on the roof will be back and the surviving diplomats will be on their way to new assignments in more peaceful parts of the world like Baghdad and Cairo.
The war in Afghanistan is lost and that loss is mostly unspoken. Had Obama never been elected then the left, in coordination with their Democratic big brothers, might have elevated the defeat to the level of another Vietnam. But that dream, nurtured in the early years of the Bush Administration, is a done deal after the Son of Jimmy Carter who ran on a platform of beating the Taliban. Instead of another Vietnam, the long war will be an unremarked defeat.
Neither side wants to talk about it, and the American people just want to leave. The ending is written, the cemeteries are full and all that's left is to shake off the dust and go home.
Defeats however have to be learned from and no one intends to learn the lessons of Afghanistan. The people responsible for 1,500 deaths in implementing a directive to beat the Taliban without breaking a single fingernail on an Afghan civilian, even if he's a Taliban gunman hiding behind a Burqa, will not pay the price for this. They will go on to lucrative gigs as lobbyists or leadership trainers, herding corporate executives around golf courses and trading on anecdotes about the time they almost came under fire.
They will not be held accountable, because when they sacrificed 1,500 American soldiers they were just following orders and the orders came from generals and the generals were following orders from Valerie Jarrett and Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton and the entire diploarchy on a desperate quest to win the war and end the occupation by getting the Taliban to the negotiating table and getting Obama to the Mission Accomplished jet in time for the election.
There's no General Westmoreland to hang here. The closest thing to him is General McChrystal, a man who badly wanted to be the hip cool general, the Obama of Afghanistan, and cost far more lives than General Custer did in the process. McChrystal was just following the new trend that said that wars aren't won by violence, but by winning hearts and minds and changing social conditions. The new warrior was no longer a soldier, but a social worker, a diplomat and a comparative religions scholar. And if 1,500 social workers had to die so that the Afghans would come to love us... then so be it.
The war in Afghanistan was lost because it became a kindergarten with guns, a social welfare agency with heavy artillery that couldn't be used in the proximity of civilians. And it was run by the same type of people who turned domestic urban centers into hellholes by pandering to criminals while making it impossible for law enforcement to do their job.
Don't think of Afghanistan as a distant country. Think of it as New York in the 80s. Think of it as Detroit or Chicago. Think of all the social workers constantly shouting about justice and demanding an end to police brutality. Think of the lawyers helping grinning thugs out of prison. Think of the slimy pols pressing the flesh with neighborhood gang leaders and paying homage to them. That's what happened in Afghanistan.
But that's not why we lost the war. It's why we lost so many good men losing it.
We didn't lose the war in Afghanistan. When we went in the Taliban were crushed, driven out and broken down. It took them years to recover, but they were always bound to recover so long as there were neighboring Muslim countries like Pakistan and Iran who were invested in their recovery. The futility of fighting a proxy war against an insurgency in a country with a high population and a low income was known before Vietnam. It was certainly known before we tried to secure Afghanistan.
Ten years ago we didn't beat the Taliban by patrolling roads and having tea with the local elders. We did it by finding people who wanted to beat the Taliban and providing them with supply lines and air support. We didn't do it by winning hearts and minds, we did it by dropping bombs and more bombs. We won by winning.
The idea of winning by winning has become antiquated. The post-everything sensibility is to win by losing. To win by making so many concessions and bending over so far backward that the enemy either comes to love us or is completely discredited. This never works, but it's the properly liberal way to approach any conflict with people who aren't rich white men.
Winning by winning, a deep thinker will tell us, is futile. Trying to win by winning is the road to defeat. You may kill one terrorist, but a thousand will take his place. You may win a battle but by going to war you have already lost the war.
Don't laugh. Such deep thoughts are the intellectual DNA of the diplomats and the generals, the experts in regional studies who sneer at the idea of winning wars instead of lining up all the stakeholders in a conflict and convincing them to build a working society, instead of blowing themselves up outside police stations.
So we didn't try to win by winning. We tried to win by convincing that it was in everyone's interest to let us help them win by living in peace. This has worked out about as well as expected in a society where winning is a zero sum game and cooperation is a temporary truce in which each party waits to stab the other in the back. Instead of winning by winning, we lost by losing. It's the Post-American way.
And yet that isn't why we lost the war either. It's why we don't understand why we lost the war.
Before these pernicious doctrines took hold, we had already adopted a nation building model that relied on restoring stability through occupation, rather than shattering the enemy's main strength and moving on.
We didn't lose the war in Afghanistan. We lost the nation building. We lost the hopeless effort to cobble together coalitions of the corrupt and to patrol the resulting territories while pretending that a democratic election in a country with no concept of legal equality or civil rights meant that we were making progress because the savage lands were now turning out to be just like us.
American soldiers became Karzai's security guards. American soldiers became Afghanistan's army. American soldiers were tasked with trying to keep the peace in a society where peace is alien and life is cheap. We lost that war to stabilize and democratize the land, but there isn't anyone who could have won it. Even the Russians proved not to have the stomach for the kind of massive bloodshed that it would have taken to stabilize Afghanistan under their kind of government. We certainly don't.
Our mistake was resetting our victory condition from inflicting massive damage on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while empowering their enemies, to turning Afghanistan into a stable and healthy society. We had drunk the stability snake oil and come to believe that Afghanistan was just like Germany and Japan, that if we could teach the natives to build healthy democratic institutions, stability would follow. We were wrong.
We lost Afghanistan because we forgot that we never had it. We lost the war because we forgot that it was a war and decided that it was a humanitarian mission. We lost because we had come to believe that no war was moral unless it ended in the moral redemption of the foe. We lost the war because we could no longer justify a war to ourselves in the interests of our own defense, only in the interests of saving another people and another society from themselves. We lost Afghanistan because we still knew how to fight, but we no longer remember why we fought.
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