Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The Biden administration’s feckless withdrawal from Afghanistan is sending the worst possible message to our enemies across the world. Our rivals are already convinced of our lack of morale and our fear of the consequences from a response serious enough to concentrate their minds. Twenty years after 9/11, and we still haven’t figured out the nature and aims of those who for decades have in word and bloody deed told us we are an enemy they want to destroy.
Instead we cling to our shopworn belief that “diplomatic engagement” can deter and stop a fanatic enemy, hoping words can substitute for deeds. But all we’ll achieve is further damage to our already fraying national prestige.
The plans to withdraw the last of our forces began during the Trump administration, which thought it could negotiate in good faith with a foe that has already demonstrated that agreements and covenants are mere “tactical adjuncts,” as Robert Conquest said of the Soviets, to their actual strategic intentions to be realized with violence. Here’s failed lesson number one: “diplomatic engagement” works only when those sitting across the table truly believe that if they violate the terms, as the Taliban have done with the Trump agreement, they will suffer serious consequences.
But in just six months Biden has shown that his team has no interest in any response other than timid diplospeak and maybe some showy cruise-missile fireworks. His cringing solicitude for the Iranians and obvious desperation to rewrite the nuclear deal––signaled by his removal of some sanctions without any reciprocal concessions––have made it clear throughout the region that he, like his boss Barack Obama, can be had. No one in the Khamenei cartel or among the Taliban fears or respects this administration or our power.
Why should they? Biden announced a date-certain withdrawal without any conditions, the same error Obama made when he skedaddled from Iraq in 2011. Worse, Biden abandoned our military bases and withdrew the in-country air support that gave the government in Kabul a fighting chance against the Taliban. Pocketing these gifts, the Taliban started their march through the country two weeks later, and since then have been rolling up region after region and city after city. According to the Pentagon, they could be in Kabul in a month. (In fact, on Sunday Taliban fighters were seen in Kabul, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and the Afghan National Reconciliation Council was left to negotiate the transfer of power to the Taliban.)
Biden’s response is to send back 3000 troops to evacuate the embassy and Afghan employees, and protect the retreat from Kabul. Those old enough to remember will recall our ignominious abandonment of Saigon in 1975, and the iconic photographs of desperate Vietnamese hanging from U.S. helicopter skids. The troops will be based at the Kabul airport, another ominous sign. Our peace-keeping forces sent to Beirut in 1983 were housed in barracks at the Beirut airport. Jihadists trained and supported by Iran blew up 241 soldiers, mostly Marines. For reasons still murky, the Reagan administration did not retaliate by bombing the Iranian-sponsored terrorist camps in the Beqaa Valley, as the French and Israelis did. After a few months the remaining Marines were evacuated.
So what will happen if our soldiers are attacked by Taliban fighters or terrorist bombers? What are their rules of engagement? How far will Biden go to punish any deaths of our fellow citizens? Or will he cower before the charges of “escalation” and “quagmires” and “endless wars,” and high-tail it out of there?
Whatever the response, it had better be more serious than the pathetic warning from diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who threatened the Taliban with––wait for it––damage to their “international reputation” and a loss of foreign aid. Or White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s similar advice to the Taliban “to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community.” Or the State Department telling the jihadis they’d better leave the U.S. embassy alone, or risk future U.S. foreign aid.
After 30 years of jihadist mayhem, what makes us think that aspiring martyrs to Allah give a damn about international opinion or foreign aid from the West? Especially since China will probably step in, as it has in Iran, with plenty of funds to supplement the Taliban’s profitable heroin and meth trade, which will no doubt expand more once the Yanks are gone. Or does anyone think our peer rivals like Russia and China will respond to our embarrassing diplomatic pleading that they intercede with the Taliban? Such scenarios bring to mind Richard Nixon’s fear that the U.S. would become a “pitiful, helpless giant” if it failed to retaliate against aggression.
But let’s be clear about how we ended up in this mess. The successful punitive war against the Taliban for harboring the 9/11 terrorists was changed into a nation-building, democracy-promoting project. A tribal, traditional Islamic culture in which Allah’s will and divine precepts are alien to Western notions of nationhood, secular participatory government, and human rights, was going to be transformed into a liberal democracy and embrace its alien notions of confessional tolerance and equal rights for women.
The George W. Bush administration and other idealists, however, ignored the tenacious reality of human cultural diversity, the complex variety of cultures, mores, faiths, and customs that make peoples what they are and give their lives meaning and purpose. Instead, to the idealists they are proto-Westerners, who just need guidance from the enlightened West to help them discard or reform their illiberal traditions, religious beliefs, and customary structures of governance.
No doubt many Afghans welcomed these attempts, especially women. But after 20 years of Taliban persistence and success, and given the alacrity with which Afghan military forces are melting away, suggest that a critical mass, some of whom may want to be rid of the Taliban, still do not want such alien tutelage or improvements that threaten their way of life and most cherished beliefs. Remember that the Afghan constitution we midwifed in 2004 made sharia––and its illiberal practices such as killing apostates––the foundation of the new nation’s laws.
Moreover, as the history of empires shows, such a radical transformation of a people cannot happen without a long occupation enforced by ruthless punishment of resistors. That’s how the Gauls became Romans, and the numerous peoples and tribes in Southern Asia were transformed into the democratic nation of India by the British. Also, our specious notions of cultural relativism, that no culture or custom can be deemed better or worse than another, militates against the sort of profound changes that idealistic nation-building requires. Liberal democracy demands that anything contradicting its fundamental notions––unalienable rights, equality before the law, tolerance of minorities, separation of church and state, and political freedom–– must be discarded, by force if necessary. And that requires that the occupier believes his way of life is not just different, not just better, but the best one possible.
Obviously, such a project cuts against the grain of America’s anti-imperialist character, and its strong inclinations against foreign policy as missionary work. And the triumph of cultural relativism, Balkanizing identity-politics, and fashionable self-loathing makes it impossible.
Finally, no matter what we may think about the war in Afghanistan, at this point our prestige is on the line. Again, the arrogant behavior of Iran since Biden proclaimed he wants to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal is a prime example of what follows from damaged prestige. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the bad deal, his imposition of punitive sanctions, and his killing of Qassem Soleimani had rocked Iran back on its heels. Their economy was deteriorating, their people more emboldened to challenge the regime. Then came the Biden administration, and the mullahs were heartened by the return of the cringing Uncle Sam that over 40 years they had become used to serially gaming with meaningless agreements festooned with photo-ops.
What, then, is the alternative to ignominious retreat? Toby Harnden, author of the forthcoming First Casualty, about the CIA’s successful mission in neutralizing the Taliban and ejecting al Qaeda, suggests returning to that approach, which didn’t require an insulting full-scale invasion of alien occupiers:
Rather than abandoning Afghanistan and those who fought with the U.S. in 2001, the Biden administration should recommit to the principles that delivered initial victory—essentially, Churchill’s middle course [“of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions”]. A small residual force of CIA officers and special forces, using U.S. air power when needed, while letting the Afghans fight would prevent a Taliban rout.
In other words, don’t try to profoundly transform, at the point of a gun, a proud, ancient people with a storied martial tradition and reputation for fierce independence, but give them support when their interests coincide with our own.
But running away will further damage our prestige, not to mention immiserating the Afghan people. In the 90s Osama bin Laden’s sermons to his recruits highlighted our retreat from Saigon, from Beirut, from Mogadishu as proof that we were a “weak horse” whose military and economic power were pointless without moral certainty and national self-confidence. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 followed. It shouldn’t take a nuclear-armed Iran and a more aggressive China to teach us that lesson again.