The Dice Are Rolling in Afghanistan

We Americans may have the watches, but they have the time.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The Biden administration has announced that it will start pulling our 2500 troops out of Afghanistan, and the withdrawal will be completed on September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks that killed nearly 3000 Americans. This decision is a rare example of bipartisan support. Both Democrats and Republicans are ready for America’s “longest war” to be over. Although our troops now are mainly engaged in military training and building institutions of civil society and liberal democracy, many Americans believe the 20-year effort to achieve those goals instead achieved little. It’s time to come home.

Many of us share those sentiments, and there’s a visceral appeal to the “pox on both your houses” response to our attempts to help peoples who stubbornly cling to their traditional illiberal ways, and who seem rarely to show gratitude or reciprocity. But pulling all our troops out now is a gamble that recent history shows will likely end in failure, with consequences both seen and unseen.

For example, let’s recall Barack Obama’s ill-advised withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. That move created a vacuum which Iran and ISIS filled, exponentially worsening the disorder in the region. ISIS carved out a caliphate that brutalized and murdered minority faiths in the region. Russia and Iran, no longer deterred by U.S. forces, accelerated their exploitation of the Syrian civil war, and increased their influence and presence in the region. Russia established a naval base on the Mediterranean and sent mercenaries, missile batteries, and advisors to support the Assad regime as it brutally fought to hold on to its power.  Iran, meanwhile, shipped missiles to Hezbollah that increased its stockpiles in Lebanon, and also funded building military outposts near Israel’s norther border. Terrorist outfits still eager to attack the West occupied territory for training and plotting attacks.

The precipitate withdrawal Biden announced will likely lead to similar results in Afghanistan. Without the support of U.S. military assets, momentum in the current civil war with the Taliban will shift to the same enemy that 20 years ago we went to war to neutralize. If the Taliban prevail, we will be back where we started, with an Afghanistan hosting jihadist groups who mean us harm.

Despite that history, Biden’s advisors are trying to spin that risk by exaggerating the efficacy of what Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called “our diplomatic and humanitarian work” and our “partnership” with Afghanistan––somehow without the protection and support of U.S. military assets. As for the Taliban, Press Secretary Jen Psaki, with astonishing naiveté or cynical duplicity, said, “We have an expectation that the Taliban is going to abide by their commitments that they are not going to allow Afghanistan to become a pariah state. That’s our view.”

As Matthew Continetti comments,

And a remarkably foolish view it is. You know the Taliban—always looking out for its international reputation. Of course there is no evidence that the Taliban has changed its methods, moderated its ideology, or abandoned its ambition to impose the strictest possible interpretation of shariah law on as many Afghans as it can reach. There is no evidence that the Taliban has ceased its attacks against Afghan security forces or that it has repudiated al Qaeda. Indeed, the very “intelligence community” on which Biden places so much importance says the Taliban will escalate its war on Kabul as soon as the last American is out and that “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

Psaki’s silly statement highlights one of the important false assumptions that undergird the “rules-based international order”­­–– that a transnational network comprising institutions, diplomacy, treaties, and agreements among a wide variety of peoples, cultures, and political mores­­ can substitute for mind-concentrating force.

Robert Conquest, the great historian of Soviet terror and famine, pinpointed the fallacies of this faith in diplomatic engagement. In an essay about Cold War diplomacy, Conquest wrote, “since diplomacy’s forte is negotiation, [diplomats] believe negotiation to be good in itself . . . But the Soviets did what their interest required when the alternatives seemed less acceptable, and negotiation was merely a technical adjunct.” Moreover, diplomats and emissaries who engage with officials holding different beliefs, principles, or interests that collide with our own, must not assume that our goods like peaceful coexistence, good-faith treaties, or tolerance are shared by their interlocutors.

This means we must imagine ourselves into those different beliefs and goods rather than projecting ours onto an adversary or an ally, for that matter. “It is easy enough,” Conquest writes, “to fall into the trap of the thinking that others think, within reason, like ourselves. But this trap is precisely the error that must be avoided in foreign affairs.” Psaki’s statement illustrates the stubborn, long persistence of this error. It can be found in the first Hague Convention’s purpose set out in its 1899 Preamble: “The friendly settlement of international disputes,” made possible by the “solidarity which unites the members of the society of civilized nations” and their shared desire for “extending the empire of law, and of strengthening the appreciation of international justice.”

This old idealism has marked our engagement with the Taliban from the start. When Kabul fell to them in 1995, Secretary of State Warren Christopher told diplomats in Pakistan to inform the Taliban that “we wish to engage the new ‘interim government’ at an early stage.” In subsequent years State Department suitors were cajoling in vain the Taliban to kick Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and shut down bin Laden’s training camps. But the Taliban used this “diplomatic engagement” to make false promises, delay, and evade any action while they consolidated their rule over Afghanistan. It took the 9/11 attacks to concentrate America’s mind.

Yet George Bush’s punitive war against the Taliban was vitiated by his democracy-promotion ideals that complicated the war and compromised its deterrent power. This idealistic view of nation-building was part of the same long tradition seen a century earlier in the Preamble of the first Hague Convention, and the numerous institutions and covenants that followed WWI. A similar idealism can be heard in George Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, which defined the foreign policy of the United States as promoting a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society.”

The attempt, duplicated in Iraq, to bring Western ideas of sex equality, market economies, human rights, political freedom, and peaceful coexistence to a culture and faith that finds these alien, is the source of our dilemma today in Afghanistan. The practice of earlier empires like the Romans and the British, that ruled over a wide diversity of peoples with diverse mores and values, was to stage punitive attacks on those who challenged their political order. They understood that to transform those people required absorption or a permanent occupation.

We are not an empire, but history has given us similar obligations. The globalized economy has made our interests dependent on other nations, as the supply-chain disruptions of last year illustrate. So we can’t just ignore flash-points of disruption and chaos. The sea-lanes through which move global commerce need to be defended, and that chore has fallen mostly on the U.S. To borrow Robert Kagan’s metaphor, the global shopkeepers need a global sheriff.

But our political order was created in rebellion against an empire, and in the 20th century we made it our policy to replace empires with sovereign nations defined by popular sovereignty and the rule of law, nations integrated into a multinational “parliament” in which global trade can be managed and conflict defused by diplomacy. This idealism complicates our global responsibilities as the sheriff who keeps the peace. Rome and the British Empire understood that ruthlessness is often necessary for neutralizing and deterring those who disturb the peace. We postwar Americans, however, with our “rules-based international order” idealism, find such ruthlessness distasteful. So we try to mitigate our awesome military lethality with simultaneous “Three Cups of Tea” nation-building to show the world we are still the good guys.

Unfortunately, as the global hegemon we will never be considered “good guys.” Our attempts to rebuild an adversary in our own image while minimizing the destruction we inflict––something we did not do in WWII––only signals to our enemies weakness and a lack of confidence in what we believe is worth being ruthless for.

Hence the predicament in Afghanistan. We can’t stay and finish the job of nation-building since we won’t use the force necessary, or commit to a permanent occupation. Yet if we leave, we create an exorbitant risk of worse consequences. So we merely drift between ad hoc solutions, while our enemies keep fighting and wait for us, as Khalid Sheik Mohammad told his interrogators, to give up and go home. As the Taliban like to say, we Americans may have the watches, but they have the time.

Endlessly kicking the can down the road is no way to run a foreign policy, nor is a Micawber policy of waiting for something “to turn up.” We rolled the dice in the Nineties and are still suffering the consequences. Who knows what Biden’s proposed cast of the dice will reveal.

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