Biden surely made mistakes in ending the Afghanistan war, although no end to a losing war is ever going to go smoothly. But the endgame has above all revealed that the war was an extraordinarily foolish policy its advocates have consistently lied about. They have every incentive to try to change this subject, and regrettably the mainstream press is for the most part essentially acting as stenographers for the hawks who by all rights have been totally discredited:
The first 20 years of America’s occupation of Afghanistan cost, by one estimate, 241,000 lives (including 2,448 U.S. troops and 71,000 civilians) and more than $2 trillion. The Taliban’s swift triumph has made it clear just how little all those deaths and dollars bought. Anyone paying attention already knew that the U.S. had engineered a kleptocracy in Kabul. But Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee the country, even as his government was on the cusp of reaching a cease-fire agreement with the Taliban, made our client state’s depravity newly conspicuous.
Critical observers understood that the Afghan army was a paper tiger whose true ranks were far thinner than advertised and whose loyalty to the government was rooted less in patriotism than a mercenary’s interest in gainful employment. But the fact that America had invested $80 billion into training an army that was so incapable of independent action that it could not feed itself in the absence of U.S. air support — and so disenchanted with its own government that it would forfeit its capital with little fight — was not readily apparent until now.
Those who fought to extend America’s war in Afghanistan have every incentive to divert our attention from these revelations. They would like the public to miss the forest for the trees — by mistaking Biden’s tactical errors for strategic ones. The primary lesson of the past week could be that the U.S. war in Afghanistan was a catastrophe and that those who misled the public about the Afghan army’s strength deserve little input on future policy, no matter how many stars they have on their uniforms or diplomas they have on their walls. Alternatively, if news coverage focuses exhaustively on the shortcomings of Biden’s withdrawal, while largely ignoring what our client state’s abrupt collapse tells us about our two-decade-long occupation, then the lesson of Kabul’s fall could be quite favorable for Beltway hawks: Presidents shouldn’t end wars in defiance of the military brass unless they wish to become unpopular.
Unfortunately, we are currently hurtling toward that latter outcome. In recent days, much of the mainstream media has comported itself as the Pentagon’s Pravda. Reporters have indignantly asked the White House how it could say that America doesn’t have a vital national security interest in maintaining a military presence near Tajikistan. NBC’s Richard Engel has devoted his Twitter feed to scolding Biden for suggesting that America’s nation-building project in Afghanistan was always hopeless, and that the Kabul government was “basically a failed state.” CNN’s Jim Sciutto lamented on Twitter Wednesday, “Too many times, I’ve witnessed the US military attempt to dutifully carry out difficult & dangerous missions left to them by the miscalculations of civilian leaders.” This sentiment is disconcerting in the abstract, since it seems to suggest that civilian control of the military may be unwise. But it’s even stranger in context. As we learned just two years ago, American military leaders in Kabul systematically lied to the public about how well the war against the Taliban was going, so as to insulate their preferred foreign policy from democratic contestation.
Meanwhile, civilian proponents of endless war are casting the rapid collapse of the Afghan government as proof that the occupation should have never ended.
This should also make clear that talking about a “Trump/Biden withdrawal” is nonsense. It’s easy to say that you intend to end the war in the future — after all, the official public position of the Blob is that we’re always six months away from being able to get out after we finish up that military training that trust us is going incredibly well. Actually doing it, however, means contradicting the REAL preferences of the Blob (“we have to stay forever because media convention is that an ongoing war can’t be declared a failure and men in our position cannot afford to be made to look ridiculous”), and access-driven reporters will dutifully write down your self-serving bullshit like it’s been handed down on stone tablets. (Imagine making Karl Rove your lead witness!) Wars tend to become Endless precisely because ending them means paying the price for the mistakes made by people who desperately don’t want to be held accountable.