Giving the Devil His Due: Donald Trump and the Afghan War

I’m not a Satanist, but I do believe in fairness, so I don’t mind giving the Devil his due. The Devil in this case is Donald Trump, and his achievement is getting us out of Afghanistan. Or, well: signing a deal that if adhered-to, and if all goes well, will someday get us out of Afghanistan. I ended my 2008 review of Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban like this:

To ‘keep trying’ to occupy and rebuild Afghanistan is to sacrifice lives and money on an ill-defined, increasingly pointless, and probably Sisyphean venture. A thousand lives and billions of dollars into that quest, we’re no closer to its completion than we were when we first started. That is as much a ‘punishment of virtue’ as anything Chayes describes. We’re entitled to ask when it will end.

We now have a better sense than we did a few days ago of “when it will end.” The answer is: some day. To paraphrase Metallica, the good news is that the light at the end of the tunnel may not be a freight train coming our way. 

But don’t break out the champagne just yet. Naturally, we’re talking spastic baby steps from a dismal baseline. For one thing, this is Donald Trump’s handiwork. Trump can’t be trusted to do anything except lie and break promises. So you never know what will happen with this “deal.”

Beyond that, the “deal” is hedged with provisos and exception-clauses any one of which could be used to nullify the whole thing. One bad thing happens, or even seems to happen, and we’re back to square one.

Worse still, Trump added troops to the ones Obama added, so the only concrete withdrawal we’ll see this year (if we see one at all) is one back to the pre-Trump baseline gifted to us by Obama’s ill-conceived “surge.”

And then, of course, Trump managed to dig us deeper into Iraq, so there’s a certain one-step-backward-one-step-forward aspect to the whole affair.

Come to think of it, a troop withdrawal will do nothing to stop so-called “signature strikes” via drone. So we still have plenty of killing-that’s-ignored-by-our-mass-media to look forward to. If mass killing is what floats your boat, you’ll still get your quota.

Yeah, even as I write this, my optimism has started to do a slow fade. I’m not a betting man, but if I were placing bets on the coronavirus versus troop withdrawal–full-fledged global pandemic versus full-fledged troop withdrawal–I guess I’d bet on the virus. But if your standards are as low as mine, hey: this is progress. Put it this way: if you can’t see the silver lining in this news, that’s because you’re just resolved to stay depressed about things, which is not my style.

Another reason you might not be able to see the silver lining is because it happened on Donald Trump’s watch. Don’t be like that; it’s chintzy and narrowly partisan. Give the Devil his due. Since a lot of my Democratic friends have this “anything-Trump-can-do, Democrats-can-do-better” disease (and remember, I am a Democrat), I can’t help annoying and alienating them a bit. Because the cold truth is that what Trump has done, the Democrats kinda haven’t done at all.

First, realize that a troop withdrawal, which is what Trump is half-giving us, is better than a War Powers Resolution, which is what the Democrats have given us. Neither thing can really be relied on, but if we go by “ideal theory”–if we imagine full compliance in each case–a troop withdrawal is a hell of a lot better than a resolution that resolves to inject more troops into the region if Congress says so. And here I’m ignoring Hillary Clinton’s genius-level ideas of wanting to introduce troops into places not covered by the Resolution, like Syria. I’m not a gratuitously cruel man.

Second, recall that we’re in the position of having to engineer a troop withdrawal not just because Bush invaded Afghanistan, but because Obama decided to do a surge in Afghanistan in imitation of Bush’s surge in Iraq. Pause on that, Biden fans. When Biden defends his Obamaesque legacy, that troop surge is part of it. In other words, we almost got out of Afghanistan last time until Obama decided that we couldn’t. Obama, le Democrat.

No need to pretend that Democrats are a bunch of hippy-dippy peace-lovers, then. That’s just Republican propaganda. Democrats are as much in love with war as Republicans are, and vice versa. And, of course, no need to pretend that Republicans love peace, either. I’m just pointing out that like Eisenhower in Korea and Nixon in Vietnam, it’s a Republican, not a Democrat, who appears to be getting us out of the bipartisan shithole we’ve been holed up in for the last eighteen years.

Third irresistible point. Don’t let my earlier comment about drone warfare go in one ear and out the other. It’s funny that stop and frisk has become such a big campaign issue, but drone warfare has not. Just FYI: drone warfare is stop and frisk with missiles. A “signature” drone strike is one in which targets are selected en masse for probabilistically fitting a “terrorist profile,” rather than because the targeter knows their identity. This is like being targeted for death on the basis of an Internet algorithm, e.g., you’re curious about Heidi Daus jewelry, so the algorithm’s sure you want to buy some;  you’re curious about AR-15s, so the algorithm thinks you’re an active shooter; you accidentally clicked the wrong link on PornHub, so the algorithm thinks you’re into furries, etc.*

So even as we (I mean we peace-lovers) agitate for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, remember that the Pentagon will replace its ground presence in those places (and elsewhere) with a drone presence. That’s what these people get paid to do. Troop withdrawal doesn’t mean peace. It means war by other means.

And Bernie and Tulsi aside, it means “war by other means” even if your favorite Democrat gets elected. Try to imagine Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Biden, Klobuchar, or even Warren saying, “Well, now that I’ve been elected, I think it’s about time to scale back signature drone strikes. Because, as I’ve repeatedly said on the campaign trail: my God, it’s just gone too far!”

If ever you want to see someone lie his ass off on this subject, watch Barack Obama’s 2013 speech on drone warfare at Fort McNair. I show this speech in its entirety to my Phil 250 students at Felician, and ask them to reproduce on a quiz what Obama said in the speech “in defense of signature strikes.” They confabulate long, involved answers which they then attribute to Obama.

Wrong, alas. The correct answer: not only does Obama not address or even mention signature drone strikes at all, but he has a heckler physically removed for bringing the topic up. As the heckler is thrown out, Obama slickly but mendaciously tells her that he will address the topic she’s raised if only she’ll shut up and sit down–“I’m getting to it, ma’am,” he says, with the calm civility for which he’s so often contrasted with Donald Trump. Most viewers are quickly exasperated, not with Obama, but with the heckler. Why won’t the bitch just shut up, sit down, and let the man speak?

“I’m getting to it, ma’am.” He then calmly never gets to it. Indeed, it becomes apparent that he had no intention of ever getting to it. In a masterstroke of genius, he uses the heckler’s interruptions to his advantage: he makes a joke, claiming to be going “off script,” then praises the heckler, asking us in all earnestness to “listen” to what she has to say, then smilingly changes the subject and moves on. No one in the audience seems to notice that he’s bullshitted them right in front of their faces. They clap for him like idiots, not realizing that he’s cleverly used a cheap but effective trick to avoid the one subject he came to discuss. It’s con-artistry of a sort that Donald Trump could never have pulled off no matter how hard he tried. It’s so good that you’re left wondering whether to condemn it or admire it.**

Moral of the story: Donald Trump didn’t invent presidential deception, much less presidential deception about war. He just does it more often, more ineptly, and more crudely than his predecessors. So it’s of no use to think that if only we elect a Democrat, our war-generated problems will evaporate of their own accord. To think like this is to think about warfare the way that Donald Trump thinks about the coronavirus.

In a perfect world, the Democrats would seize on Trump’s achievement, graciously grant the achievement involved, demand more, and promise to deliver more. I won’t offer predictions. Just watch them yourself, and see what happens. Meanwhile, though I’m not breaking out any champagne, I do have some San Pellegrino in the fridge left over since New Year’s. Our troop withdrawal deserves at least that much by way of a toast. So here’s to you, Don. Here’s some flat seltzer water that’s been lying in the fridge since January. Thanks, man. Have a drink on me. And forget about the check. To quote AC/DC, “we’ll get Hell to pay.” I figure that’s language Donald Trump can understand.

*Two of these are drawn from real-life experiences.

**The heckler is Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, author of the book on drone warfare linked to in my “third irresistible point” paragraph. I generally don’t approve of interrupting someone’s speech to heckle, not even to heckle a lying warmonger, but I deeply admire Benjamin anyway, and think that people like her have a lot to teach ivory tower political philosophers. If only they were open enough to learn.

5 thoughts on “Giving the Devil His Due: Donald Trump and the Afghan War

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. Great points. But I think we would be better served if we simply announced a time table and simply left. Any “deal” with the Taliban, especially one that excludes the Afghan government, will simply be a joke. Releasing Taliban detainees instead of transferring them to Afghan control is wild.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. You certainly have a point. I guess I haven’t gotten as far as thinking through the pros and cons of different approaches to withdrawal. As I said, I have low standards: I’m just happy to hear something resembling a commitment to withdrawal. I take it that the objection to simply announcing a timetable and leaving is that it involves a Vietnam-like scenario: it leaves the Afghan government vulnerable to overthrow by the Taliban immediately after we depart. And I suspect the US government wants to salvage something from the war. But of course the downside of any conditionality is that it delays withdrawal.

      This article gives a sense of the dynamic:

      By the way, are you currently blogging anywhere? I wasn’t sure which of your websites was currently active and which not. I wanted at some point to do a shout out to all of the bloggers that have come by here, and that I’ve visited in turn. A small but idiosyncratic and interesting bunch, spread out all over the political map.


  3. Pingback: Who Deserves Afghanistan? | Policy of Truth

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