Joe Biden’s speech following the Afghanistan debacle made for compelling television for one main reason: here is a government official – the man who holds the office once called the “leader of the free world” – recognizing the limits of government.
No matter how long the US stayed, no matter how many troops the US deploys, no matter how much blood and treasure are expanded on this war, the US could not accomplish its ends. “How many more lives, American lives, is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery? I’m clear on my answer,” he asked.
“Despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to give the best equipment, the best training and the best capacity to the Afghan security forces, we could not give them the will and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country,” added his national security advisor.
As I listened, I began to replace one set of words for another. Taliban equal SARS-CoV-2. Lives and fortune lost equal collateral damage of lockdowns. The dream of a free and democratic Afghanistan equals a nation without the pathogen that causes Covid. Lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates, and other mitigation measures all equal the measures deployed for 20 years to achieve the unachievable.
The day before this very speech by Biden – one that finally articulated some degree of humility in the conduct of public affairs and foreign policy – Anthony Fauci had another message for the American people. It concerned the need to continue the domestic war on Covid.
“Put aside all of these issues of concern about liberties and personal liberties,” he said. “and realize we have a common enemy and that common enemy is the virus. And we really have to go together to get on top of this.”
The two weeks to flatten the curve have turned into 18 months of chaotic policy that have robbed Americans of all their traditional presumptions concerning their rights and liberties. We didn’t know it – or most did not – but government can shut our businesses, close our churches, empty out our schools, restrict our travel, separate us from loved ones, all in the name of crushing a virus.
We might as well replace crush the virus with drive the Taliban out of public life in Afghanistan. Some things government can do; others it cannot do. It is long past time to hear an American president recognize that. Now that recognition needs a domestic application as well.
The news from Afghanistan presented the world an unbearably tragic picture. No matter the spin by the Biden administration, no matter what the talking heads say, no matter how many experts are there to assure people that this is not a failure, the humiliation for US foreign policy was on display as never before.
Among the most shocking images were from the airport in Kabul, where thousands of Afghans swarmed the tarmac begging to board planes leaving the country. Some clung to the planes as they approached the runway. There are claims that a few people managed to hold onto the wings as the plane took off and then fell to their deaths.
I’ve watched the film and cannot say if it is true, but the point remains. The whole scene gives new meaning to the word chaos, making even the 1975 exit from Saigon look orderly by comparison. There surely were better ways to end this mess, surely ways in which the US could have better protected its partisans on the ground, surely some path toward avoiding this calamity.
Still, the ending we see was in some form inevitable; the US could not really win this. Biden is right about this.
The US entered Afghanistan in 2001, not just to punish the perpetrators of 9/11, though it was never established that the government had anything to do with funding or planning that attack. The decision to repeat the Soviet-style failure in that country was a decision by George W. Bush – one terrible decision among many made by this administration in its years in power (another was to plot lockdowns for disease containment).
In quickly driving the Taliban to the hills, and declaring victory right away, the US adopted a more ambitiously ideological goal of reconstructing the country into a modern democratic republic. Surely the Midas touch of US military presence would achieve this – same as US power could drive down cases and intimate the virus into disappearing.
Talk about completely ignoring history! It’s not as if this failure could not be foreseen. The US would expend lives and treasure on a futile mission, same as the British and Soviet empires before. Nothing could change this outcome. The US had to leave at some point. The Taliban would come back at some point. Rather than prepare and protect, the US bailed in a panic and merely allowed events to unfold with the people it had fought for 20 years regaining total hegemony in a matter of days. Twenty years of work and sacrifice disappeared like dust in the wind.
In all those years, the US claimed that the government in Afghanistan was not its puppet at all, but wholly legitimate and supported by the people. The tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with the foreign occupiers were not internally despised, but respected as agents of modernization. They were not vulnerable to being overthrown, but rather represented a bright and wholly Westernized vision of the future of the country. Those of us who had our doubts were routinely attacked as unpatriotic.
Twenty years later, in a matter of one week, only a few months following the US announcement of withdrawal, the Taliban did an easy victory march straight to the capital of Kabul and inspired the quick surrender of hundreds of thousands of US-trained forces who saw the writing on the wall. Even as Biden promised to send thousands of more troops to achieve an orderly transition, the US embassy was quickly abandoned and the priority became getting aid workers, reporters, and US officials and their allies out as soon as possible.
Usually the government is in the business of hiding its failure. Hiding was impossible this time. Biden administration officials were left sputtering on TV, blaming the Trump administration, claiming that this was a victory in disguise, and so on. But nothing could change the images of Taliban fighters reveling in victory all over the country, to the cheers of many people and the terror of many others. Even now, US officials are on TV explaining how they are working for an orderly transition when it should be clear that the deed was done.
How much did 20 years of undeclared war cost? American troops killed: 2,448. Contractors killed: 3,846. Afghan military and police killed: 66,000. Civilians killed: 47,245. Taliban and resistance fighters killed: 51,191. Dead aid workers: 444. Dead journalists: 72. The debt cost of this fiasco certainly exceeds $2 trillion. There is a larger and more meaningful cost to the US government: the absolute humiliation that comes with total defeat.
In many ways, what remains of the US military and economic empire rests on perceptions and history, the belief that most people have underestimated American strength for the better part of a century and they have generally been proven wrong. The disasters of the Korean and Vietnam Wars were eventually mitigated by victory in the Cold War. This time it is different. The loss of Afghanistan occurs following the calamity of the Iraq War, and is followed by nothing but the rise and rise of China as a global superpower.
If one wants to isolate a single vice of the US government, it would be the lack of humility to admit that not everything can be controlled by economic and military might. The example of past failures in Afghanistan were available to everyone 20 years ago but this was widely ignored in favor of a messianic mission to achieve the impossible and control the uncontrollable.
Let’s also mention another extreme failure of the George W. Bush administration from those years. In 2005, he had the brilliant idea of using the power of the federal government to mitigate disease. The stay-at-home orders, the school and business closures, the attempt to suppress a virus by force, the travel restrictions – every bit of it was mapped out by 2006. The plans sat there mostly unnoticed until 2020 when they were deployed in ways that devastated American liberty.
The same weekend that the Afghanistan disaster was shown on TV to the world, Fauci was on television telling Americans that they need to surrender more of their precious liberties in order to get the Delta variant under control. If there was ever a time in history for Americans finally to realize that they cannot trust their leaders to tell the truth, it is now.
My overall impression is that the mask wearing and distancing are entirely performative at this point, just as the fighting in Afghanistan has been for the better part of 15 years – performative in the sense that no one really believes it is working but very real in terms of cost. Even bars in D.C. have signs saying that while you have to have your face covered to come in, you can take them off immediately because “we know this is dumb.”
Americans pretend to comply with and believe in Covid rules just as the US-backed regime in Afghanistan pretended to rule the country, and the US pretended to be in the business of emancipating the country from Taliban tyranny. Both policies represent hubris based on a willful ignorance of history and an unwillingness to admit the limits of power. Now reality has bit back. Whether we call this reality the Taliban or the Delta variant, governments eventually have to recognize their inability to make good on their wildest dreams of their power to perfect the world.
In the old days, before the US found itself embroiled in endless wars, a core of smart people knew that the key to peace and prosperity around the world was not messianic war but trade and diplomacy. So too, we once understood that the best path to domestic health and long lives was a combination of good science, access to medical care, doctor-patient relationships, and good lifestyles – not lockdowns, not impositions on rights and liberties.
These huge collective plans to rid the world of the evil of the day – whatever it is – are likely to create even larger problems. War is often a cure worse than the disease. So too are lockdowns and mandates designed for our own good.