Afghanistan: So Worth It

Frederick Kagan in The New York Times, on the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban:

Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of keeping American military forces in Afghanistan indefinitely, even at very low numbers. I and others have argued that the investment, including the risk to American personnel, is worth it to prevent militant groups from once again overrunning the country.

Maybe, after Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it’s time to ask what it means when people say “it’s worth it” to fight wars. What’s worth what, to whom, how and why? Anyone who wants to go and fight for Kabul or Kandahar is free to go and give it another 20 years of their life, on the model of the Lincoln Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth another 20 years of ours.

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We were defeated in Afghanistan, in case you were wondering: our departure is a defeat by any definition. Remember that word, use it without inhibition, and be wary of the US military’s propaganda to the contrary. They like to brag about “victory,” but the only victories they ever win are budgetary. They don’t fight wars to win them. They fight wars to produce the budgets with which to fight more wars. Winning and losing aside, they can’t rationally explain why we’re obliged to fight the wars they confect for us, beyond vague threats and pseudo-predictions based on hints, innuendo, and plain fakery. They just robotically make the same “domino”/containment-type arguments they’ve been making since 1947, demanding the sacrifice of each new generation while relying for the rest on our complacency and credulity.

I plead guilty to having believed them in the past. It was easy enough to believe for awhile. If we didn’t do X, they’d tell us, we’d suffer a worse fate than X. Once X was done, we had to do Y, lest we suffer a worse fate than Y. And so we did Y to avoid that worse fate. And so on, year after year. Why, one wondered, weren’t all those threats materializing as predicted? Obviously, because we had done X and Y and Z to nip them all in the bud. Eventually, though, the demands became so outlandish, and the threats so attenuated, that the veil of delusion began to rend, and eventually fell away. A twenty-year long military occupation, followed by a second war, and a third, and a fourth, plus drone warfare with signature strikes, and torture, and lifelong detainees on Guantanamo, and an air of constant militarization and threat–all to avoid a repeat of 9/11, an event we’d never really bothered to understand in the first place? It seemed believable–until it became insane.*

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Never again. Stanley McChrystal’s “career ending” adultery is not incidental to the way he and his colleagues waged war in Afghanistan. Lies come naturally to these people, and one believes them at one’s peril. The best decision I ever made was not to go into the US Foreign Service as I’d once planned to do–less the noble venture it seemed to me as a naive undergraduate than an expeditious way of committing moral suicide. I have no qualms about the moral sanctuary I found in academia and health care. In one literal physical sense, I managed to get my hands dirty. But in a more fundamental moral sense, I kept them clean.

The only way to deal with the US military and foreign policy establishment is to treat it as you would any dangerous, badly designed machine: turn it off, pull the plug, and stay away from it. Something to remember for “next time.” Because there always is one.

*It took awhile, but I eventually wised up. This review of Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban earned me the author’s exasperation and contempt, but seems to have stood the test of time. Same with this review of William Bennett’s Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism. Likewise my annual series on “The Lessons of 9/11.”

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