“The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy” — so General Omar Bradley described Douglas MacArthur’s push to extend the Korean War into China in 1951. We did get a war with China, and what is misnomered the Korean War should really be called the Sino-American War. 70 years later, no peace treaty has formally ended it; it was the first of our forever wars, the latest of which, in Afghanistan, we are now trying to quit.
Let me say that I give Joe Biden credit for his announcement that we will at last end our formal military “commitment” in Afghanistan, 20 years to the day after it never should have begun. It is hard to say you have lost a war, and for an American president almost fatal — just ask Richard Nixon. But Biden had, in a sense, no choice, at least morally. Although he supported the war at the beginning along with almost everyone else, he had concluded by 2009 that it no longer had an objective, and that the surge in forces being pushed then by the Pentagon was only a further waste of blood and money. We know this because Barack Obama, in his recently published memoir, singled Biden out as the lone voice opposing the surge in his administration. Since it did in fact fail, Obama might have seemed forthright not only to admit his own mistake, but to credit Biden for seeing it. What he really did, however, was to box his former vice president into a corner. If he had thought the war a lost cause 12 years ago, how could he defend it now? If it was the right thing to do, it was also the thing he finally had no choice about. The rap will be his to take.
What got us into Afghanistan in the first place? That unhappy nation had become a pawn in our Cold War with the Soviet Union, whose invasion of the country in 1978 triggered 20 years of carnage. By 1996, the Taliban, a group of Islamic militants originally recruited by us, had declared themselves the government. They proved convenient targets after the World Trade Center attacks, because Al Qaeda had bases in the Afghan hinterland, and Osama bin Laden, the self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11, was their “guest.” But the Taliban had no direct role in 9/11, which was operationally carried out from Hamburg, Germany, and if any state actor was implicated in it it was Saudi Arabia, whose government had long funded terrorism. Attacking our principal Arab ally was unthinkable, however, not least because of the long-standing business connections between the Saudis and the family of President George W. Bush. Afghanistan was a handy substitute.
Bush was trapped from the first in his own lies. The Taliban, easily routed at first, agreed to surrender their weapons. That, however, would not satisfy the thirst for vengeance Bush had whipped up, in part as a distraction from his own failure to heed the intelligence warning of a coming attack on American soil. The Taliban, once our creature, had to be crushed in its entirety, and a democratic, secular, pro-Western government installed in its place. Some Taliban leaders, and Osama himself, found refuge in Pakistan (where much of the Afghan war was actually fought), or in the Pashtun tribal areas where the Taliban had their chief base of support. A long guerilla war ensued. Meanwhile, our puppet government in Kabul became a sink of corruption, and the army we trained to fight for it had no interest in anything but wages and looting. It was Vietnam all over again, and by the time Biden entered the White House, the Taliban, stronger than ever, had virtually encircled the capital. Air power, our only weapon, was the one thing that held it back. But air power never controlled a country, and the Taliban have only to bide their time. It has been waiting us out for a decade, and it can wait us out a little longer.
Biden intends to withdraw the 2,500 regular military we still have in the country, which is no more than a tripwire against the recapture of Kabul. That will leave an indeterminate number of Special Forces and contractors, but they will not be an official presence: only the last to go. We’ll also have an embassy, with a force to protect it. I assume helicopters will be at the ready when it’s time to evacuate.
What will happen when we go? The Taliban never fully controlled Afghanistan even when they were in power, and the warlords who contested them a generation ago will do so again. Outside powers will also have an interest, especially Pakistan and Iran. India will oppose Pakistan as it has before; we will oppose Iran; China will see opportunities; and Russia will want to counter Beijing. It’s called the Great Game, and it’s been played in Afghanistan for thousands of years. One way or another, we will no doubt be part of it. Great Powers have never been able to leave the place alone, or learn the folly of their meddling. The British, who were much better at empire than we are, got their comeuppance in Afghanistan. The Russian invasion of it would trigger the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even Alexander the Great couldn’t conquer it. It’s a desperately poor country. But the Afghans have enjoyed their own chaos for a long time. They will again.
What do we believe behind? An estimated 241,000 dead, all in vain. A generation of Afghan women, about to be thrust back into the Middle Ages — we will see how many of them we accept as refugees, or how many are able to escape at all. A further legacy of hatred for us in the Muslim world. And what is it we bring home? The almost 800,000 men and women who have rotated out of our longest official war, many maimed in body or spirit, and many simply embittered as the veterans of Korea, Vietnam and Iraq were before them. You saw some of them storming the Capitol on January 6, or among the 22,000-strong “Lobby Day” march, barely reported, later that month in Virginia. All wars have a cost. It may be that ours has only begun.