Thus do three paladins of the right, left and center combine to erode support for a war that, if lost, would be to the United States roughly what the battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D. —you can look it up—was to the Roman Empire. Things did not go well for Western civilization for 1,100 or so years thereafter.
Overstated? I don’t think so. ~Bret Stephens
Even by the Journal’s standards, this is ludicrous and hysterical. The historical comparison is exceedingly silly. Adrianople was not as important as Stephens claims, and the war in Afghanistan is far less important to the survival and flourishing of our country and the Western world as a whole than defeating the Goths at that moment would have been for the Roman Empire.
In retrospect, we know that the outcome at Adrianople was significant for the future of the western empire in that it ensured the continuation of a large Gothic population inside the boundaries of the empire, and this had real and serious consequences for Roman Italy, southern Gaul and Spain. The annihilation of a Roman army by the Goths along with the eastern emperor was a shocking and demoralizing defeat, but saying this can exaggerate the importance of a single battle. Significantly, the eastern empire in whose territory the battle took place and whose emperor was slain endured and thrived after a fashion. The elementary Western Civ narrative Stephens leans on so heavily for support is simplistic at best. Most of the period when things weren’t “going so well” for Western civilization was the period when medieval Europeans were creating most of what is culturally and religiously significant and distinctive about the history of our civilization–not that I would expect even minimal respect for any of this from someone at the WSJ. If we took the long view and see the battle in relation to the entire Roman Mediterranean world, we would see that Gothic military success was limited and not the killer blow to Roman civilization that Stephens claims it was. Obviously, the war in Afghanistan does not compare militarily or politically to that battle.
Adrianople was a battle fought between rebelling settlers and the imperial government on its own land. Subduing the Goths was seen an imperative for internal security in the empire. There was nowhere for the Romans to withdraw had they wished to do so, because it was their territory and people that were under attack. No matter what its merits may be, a military campaign on the other side of the planet is not being fought for the same stakes as a campaign in one’s own country.
While it may not be immediately clear, we are more in the position of the invading settler Goths in our involvement in Afghanistan than we resemble the Romans. Unlike the Goths, we have no intention of long-term relocation or settlement in Afghanistan. Like the Romans, the Afghans we fight are fighting on their own territory against what they must see as a temporary foreign threat. Had the Goths lost at Adrianople, things would have gone very badly for them as a people. Like their descendants in Italy almost two centuries later, they would probably have been forcibly dispersed and ceased to exist as an identifiable group of people. The Romans did lose, and yet their civilization not only endured but in some places even enjoyed some recovery in the fifth and sixth centuries. If we lose in Afghanistan, or simply leave at some point (as we eventually will and must do), the United States will not crumble or collapse, nor will whatever civilization we have suffer any noticeable or significant decline.
The war in Afghanistan, like the broader war against jihadism, is not an existential struggle or anything like it. That doesn’t make it unimportant, nor does it automatically mean that there is not good reason to continue the war for the time being, but it does mean that we have to keep its real significance in mind when discussing it. I can think of few things more demoralizing and damaging to public support for an already desultory military campaign than grandiose, unrealistic proclamations of the conflict’s profound world-historical significance. This works for a little while to blunt criticism and delay weighing the costs and benefits of the campaign, but it cannot continue indefinitely. At some point, the small stakes for America cannot match up with the overblown rhetoric about barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. Such claims are obviously excessive and unconnected to the real world, which makes support for the campaign seem like the province of ideologues and the slightly unhinged.
If one genuinely believes that a successful campaign in Afghanistan is important for stability in South Asia, and if one believes that there is a limited but legitimate national interest in preventing the re-establishment of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, it is necessary to make very clear that Stephens’ argument is raving alarmism of the worst kind that works to discredit arguments in support of continuing the war effort in Afghanistan. Stephens is one of those people who routinely lectured us for years that Iraq was vastly more significant than Afghanistan, who said that Afghanistan was a geopolitical sideshow of no great strategic importance, and who consequently derided the idea that Afghanistan was the appropriate and necessary fight from which the invasion of Iraq disastrously distracted us. Now, suddenly, Afghanistan has become the most critical and vital military campaign they have ever seen. Stephens and his ilk have no credibility here, but this does not stop them from having influence, which is why it is worth going to the trouble of resisting this nonsense.
For Stephens’ unfounded fears of encouraging jihadis to make any sense, we would have to suffer the same complete economic and political meltdown that the USSR experienced. Despite the best efforts of our government to bankrupt us, destroy our currency and entangle us in endless conflicts, this is not likely to be the fate that awaits America. Were we to leave Afghanistan tomorrow, jihadis might take some encouragement from this, but they would also be deprived of their far greater, far more powerful recruiting tool, which is the presence of a foreign, non-Muslim invading force in a Muslim country. Whatever the global delusions of leading jihadis, their success will have been limited to making us recognize that Afghanistan is not important enough to us to make us wage perpetual war. Stephens is worried that some jihadis would conclude that “if you hold out long enough, they leave and you win.” But eventually we are going to leave. Everyone knows this. Our current strategy, such as it is, takes for granted that we are building up the institutions of Afghanistan in order to leave. If our departure is the only thing that secures jihadi “victory,” such an empty victory is as inevitable as it is worthless. At most, they will have retained what they have right now, which is not much. They will have gained nothing that they didn’t have eight years ago, and they will still have to work for quite a while to regain what little they had in terms of real political power.
That doesn’t mean that the right alternative to Stephens’ absurd alarmism is the proposed “offshore balancing” answer championed by all those people who are always hawkish enough to get us into wars without thinking through what our goals are supposed to be. Dan McCarthy has already explained why a policy that relies even more heavily on air strikes and drone attacks will not improve matters. In light of the apparent blunder behind this latest strike in Kunduz that reportedly killed scores of civilians, it seems clear that retreating to the use of air power and missile strikes in lieu of a continued military presence in Afghanistan is the military expression of an establishmentarian urge to be seen “doing something” with no real concern for the consequences of the actions being proposed. Indeed, eschewing tactically useful but destabilizing and strategically counterproductive strikes and focusing on population security make more sense. Peeling away as many people from continued hostility to the Kabul government as possible by integrating them into the political process would be more likely to result in a more lasting political settlement to a conflict that will not end with anything like our customary expectation of total victory.