Our failure in Afghanistan is the result of policy goals that could never be achieved and lies to cover up our failure to achieve them. Unfortunately, this pattern isn’t limited to the Middle East. It infects just about everything, from our response to coronavirus to climate change, we’re always planning to do the impossible, then covering up when we can’t.
The neoconservative experiment in Afghanistan officially went down in flames this past weekend as the country fell once again to the Taliban, an enemy we have been trying to defeat for the past twenty years. On its surface, it’s easy to call this a failure of the military to vanquish the enemy, but that is far from what actually led us to this point. The military itself, when directed to do the things the military has historically done like capture territory and decimate their opponents, performs extraordinarily well. The fighting men and women on the ground are the best trained and equipped in the world, bar none.
Thus, the initial Taliban regime was defeated swiftly way back in 2001, in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, their leaders either killed or sent into hiding, and their headquarters and hideouts destroyed. Our ultimate failure nearly twenty years later was the result of what came after, both the policy and the implementation of that policy, or, more precisely the information surrounding the implementation. The policy itself was too ridiculously grandiose and detached from reality, and the implementation was based on lies, false information, wishful thinking, and overall incompetence. The result is a catastrophic mix that offers no shortage of lessons for future domestic and international policy.
In Afghanistan and the broader Middle East, our stated policy was to transform theocratic regimes into functioning, stable democracies despite no history of anything resembling it in the region and, in Afghanistan in particular, a country that was largely composed of competing tribes, each with their own objectives and vendettas. Then President Bush outlined the objectives in a 2003 speech, “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” he said. “Freedom is worth fighting for, dying for and standing for, and the advance of freedom leads to peace.” Further, “Freedom can be the future of every nation,” and democracy in the Middle East “must be a focus of American policy for decades to come.”
This summarizes what used to be called the neoconservative movement, and — though I was a supporter at the time, regrettably in retrospect — it amounts to pure, unadulterated hubris and bombast looking back 20 years later. Afghanistan is gone, Iraq remains a semi-functioning country at best, and democracy has not spread to any other country in the region, while Iran remains a determined foe, exerting influence in Syria and beyond. Syria itself has been in the midst of a devastating civil war for years. Egypt has repeatedly convulsed, careening between theocracy and military dictatorship. Libya is a failed state. As far as I can tell, there is not a neoconservative success anywhere in the world, and yet the movement lumbers on, zombie-like, with standard bearers like Representative Liz Cheney and Senator Ben Sasse.
I don’t write this to attack them in particular. As I mentioned, I was a supporter of these policies myself at first. Unfortunately, it’s relatively easy to convince yourself you can accomplish the impossible or at least the improbable, especially when you live in the most prosperous, powerful country the world has ever known. At times, it seems there should be no limit to what we can achieve with enough time, effort, and money, but reality, cold, harsh, and unchangeable as it can be, ultimately intercedes at some point. The reality of neconservative policy is the wreckage of Afghanistan and the Middle East in general, but ridiculous goals and out of reach achievements aren’t limited to spreading democracy.
Sadly, they infect almost every aspect of our policy making. Name a topic in the news, and there will undoubtedly be some policy goal that purports to change the world as we know it. The climate change alarmists believe we can control the weather decades if not hundreds of years from now. The pandemic alarmists are convinced that, between vaccines and masks, we can eradicate a virus like the common cold, despite that we’ve never even successfully vaccinated against any kind of coronavirus, ever. Democratic socialists believe inequity and poverty can be solved with changes to the tax rate and transfer payments, after almost 90 years of doing precisely that. Progressives think issues with crime and policing are simply a matter of redirecting money and perhaps adding more mental health workers to the front lines, jails can be abolished, police forces defunded, even though crime has spiked after incredibly low rates for 30 years. Likewise, we can remake South and Central America with just a few more dollars, and fix the crisis on the border simply by opening it. As far as I can tell, the only problem we’re told we can’t fix, the only issue in the world where sufficient dollars and government intervention won’t do the trick, is racism and white supremacy. Those, apparently, are so baked into the system, they can never be removed, but that won’t stop us from trying, send money as soon as possible.
At times like these, when twenty years of blood, sweat, tears, and cash literally and figuratively goes up in flames, everyone should take a much needed step back and consider whether or not our other policy objectives will crash headlong into reality, shattered by limits on our power and vision. Can we really do the things politicians and the broader establishment claim, or are we guided more by wishful thinking than anything else? Ultimately, we would all be wise to heed the advice of legendary Secretary of State Dean Acheson as the United States confronted the spread of communism into China early in President Harry Truman’s second term. The man charged with containing the red scare flat-out rejected implausibly lofty goals, telling the National War College in November 1949, “The proper search is for limited ends which soon enough educate us in the complexities of the tasks which face us. That is what all of us must learn to do in the United States; to limit objectives, to get ourselves away from the search for the absolute, to find out what is within our powers.”
The second lesson from the neoconservative collapse is perhaps even more frightening, insidious, and harder to address. A failure of policy vision, setting our sights on too lofty a goal is one thing, but what happens when we fail to even acknowledge our failure? Anyone can set themselves too ambitious an objective. There’s nothing wrong with aiming for the stars and attempting to achieve the impossible. After all, you’ll achieve nothing at all if you aim too low and, as innovative and resourceful creatures, we can always adjust our plans based on the facts as they unfold. Increasingly, however, it has become clear that the establishment would rather lie and mislead than admit any error. Instead of adjusting a policy that’s not working, they would rather tell you, emphatically, that everything is indeed going according to plan, despite any evidence to the contrary.
This is precisely how the catastrophe in Afghanistan has unfolded. We’ve known for at least the last ten years that our plan was not working and, in fact, could not work. Rather than admit the truth, however, the US military lied about it, fudged the numbers, and classified any information to the contrary. The lynchpin of our efforts was training and equipping the Afghan Army to the tune of some $800 billion. It was believed this military force would hold the country and keep it safe from the Taliban, but the 300,000 men we’d supposedly trained and equipped existed only on paper.
That is far from what we were told publicly, however, and what we were told differed greatly from what the government was saying in private. For example, a classified cable in 2009 was sent from then ambassador Karl Eikenberry, on the ground in Afghanistan, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The cable centered on concerns he had about the surge in troops President Obama was planning at the time to help win the war. In private, Eikenberry believed that “sending additional forces will delay the day when Afghans will take over, and make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring our people home on a reasonable timetable.” He further noted that we shouldn’t “overestimate the ability of the Afghan security forces to take over” and concluded that he “cannot support DoD’s recommendation for an immediate presidential decision to deploy another 40,000 troops here.” In public, however, Ambassador Eikenberry said the exact opposite. A month later, he was telling Congress, Obama’s plan “offers the best path to stabilize Afghanistan and to ensure al Qaeda and other terrorist groups cannot regain a foothold to plan new attacks against our country or our allies. I fully support this approach.”
In January 2020, Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko said we cannot trust the information coming out of the government. “There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue,” he explained. “The problem is there is a disincentive, really, to tell the truth. We have created an incentive to almost require people to lie.” This summer he testified before Congress, “You know, you really shouldn’t be surprised” by the collapse of the Afghan Army. For over nine years, his office has been “highlighting problems with our train, advise and assist mission with the Afghan military,” he continued, “Every time we went in, the US military changed the goal posts, and made it easier to show success. And then finally, when they couldn’t even do that, they classified the assessment tool … So, they knew how bad the Afghan military was. And if you had a clearance, you could find out, but the average American, the average taxpayer, the average congressman, the average person working in the embassy wouldn’t know how bad it was.”
Inspector General Sopko was not alone in his assessment either. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said in 2016 that the Afghan military was capable of helping the US “clear an area, but the police can’t hold it, not because they’re out-gunner or out-manned. It’s because they are useless as a security force and they’re useless as a security force because they are corrupt down to the patrol level,” adding that “of all the painful lessons I carry out of my time in those two war zones, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s the … corruption at every level, that is the starkest point.”
Somehow, however, President Biden was still lauding the Afghan Army and their ability to hold the country as late as mid-July. On July 8, for example, he said, emphatically that a Taliban takeover is not inevitable and unlikely, “Because you have the Afghanistan troops — 300,000 well-equipped (troops), as well equipped as any army in the world, and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.” He added, “The jury is still out. But the likelihood there’s going to be a Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” If the President doesn’t know or won’t say the truth, where does that leave us?
Unfortunately, this “odor of mendacity” isn’t unique to Afghanistan or foreign policy. Why would it be? If they would lie about sending America’s sons and daughters to their death halfway around the world, no scruple would prevent them from doing the same on any other topic, and so, frequently, we learn that what members of the establishment say in public isn’t what they say in private, just like Ambassador Eikenberry.
In private Dr. Anthony Fauci tells people not to wear masks bought at a drug store because they’re ineffective, while telling the public to wear two at the same time and vehemently attacking anyone who questions the same efficacy he does. In private, he acknowledges the virus might well have originated from a lab in China, but in public he insists it arose naturally from a bat and allows anyone who questions the notion to be branded a kook and a conspiracy theorist, their opinion censored, only to have him change his own a year later. He willfully obfuscates about whether or not the US funded the lab in the first place, when he knows full well we did and bragged about it once upon a time. Even if we did fund the lab, he insists, we didn’t fund the gain-of-function research, specifically, we would never do that, even as scientific papers describe the virus we did fund as a “chimera.”
This is not to pick on Dr. Fauci in particular. Pick another topic and another establishment figure, and you will likely see a similar pattern. For years, the European Union has been claiming great gains on reducing carbon emissions while in reality they’ve simply moved those emissions to the US and are slashing and burning trees in the process. For about a decade, we’ve been told electric cars are the key to saving the planet, only to find out we don’t have the raw materials to make them and the same people championing electric vehicles are protesting the very mines that would allow us to obtain them. Nor is the problem limited to the government, the entire establishment is following this pattern. For months, teacher’s unions insisted they had no plan to bring Critical Race Theory into the classroom, then last month they voted to do precisely that.
In recent years, the government and the establishment has gone one step further, literally banning speech they do not like, suppressing it in the name of misinformation, meaning the situation is likely to get worse instead of better. Ultimately, these are the lessons we should take from our failure in Afghanistan: Beware unachievable goals and question everything, every time. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s boss, President Harry Truman, took the oath of office for his second term, he said, “I accept with humility the honor which the American people have bestowed on me.” The keywords are humility and honor, at a time when the media described the United States as bestriding the world like a Colossus. Today, the establishment and mainstream media have neither, unfortunately, and it’s past time adjusting our expectations and developing a healthy skepticism of everything they say.