How do empires end? The answer seems to be what Mike Campbell says in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when he’s asked how he went bankrupt: “gradually, then suddenly.”
We’ve known for years that our wars overseas aren’t accomplishing their missions, that in Afghanistan we’d eventually have to settle for something less than total victory. Routing the Taliban and growing a Madisonian republic out of the desert sand long ago proved futile. Yet the images that emerged last weekend, helicopters rising portentously over Kabul while Afghans begged for mercy, have jolted the national consciousness all the same. In an instant, whatever remained of our imperial mirages blinked into harsh reality.
We thought we were a hyper-competent humanitarian empire once. No longer.
The key thing about our departure was not that we were leaving. We all knew that was coming even if the “when” was until recently a known unknown. It was that the Afghans proved so woefully incapable of defending their own country. The project of training the Afghan security forces, which spanned two decades and some $83 billion in taxpayer dollars, proved a ludicrous farce, as the army melted away before the Taliban’s onslaught. Taliban fighters were all but waved into Kabul. The head of security at the presidential palace even shook hands with the Taliban commander as he handed the place over.
The irony is pungent: We once talked about regime change like it was easy and seamless, only for the Taliban to go and make it look just that way. In fairness, even before American troops pulled out, the group was well-positioned. All the way back in 2017, it controlled or contested 40 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. It is thus a lie to say, as many hawks have, that a small contingent of U.S. boots was keeping Afghanistan safe, that the Taliban’s advance happened only in a post-American vacuum. Even prior to its regaining a foothold in Afghanistan, the group had been lurking just over the border in Pakistan, where it was protected by the regime in Islamabad. It was never really vanquished, despite our declaration of victory in 2001.
Still, the speed at which they were able to consolidate control was nothing short of astonishing. Two decades of supposed progress undone in a week. That’s how brittle the institutions we created ultimately were, moldering and cracking beneath a CNN-friendly facade of smiling burqa-less women. And while the Afghan war has been plagued from the start by disconnects between Washington and the reality on the ground, it isn’t like our policymakers didn’t know. The Afghanistan Papers, published by the Washington Post two years ago, revealed that top military and civilian leaders had long ago concluded the war was unwinnable. Yet they persisted anyway, lying the whole time, determined to keep the war machine spluttering along even as the conflict lacked any kind of telos.
Who is to blame for this mortifying failure? The Pentagon brass, for starters. And of course there’s the usual flock of war hawks: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Lindsey Graham. But I want to focus for a moment on a figure who hasn’t received as much attention. Barack Obama back in 2008 ran on a platform of taking the fight out of Iraq and back into Afghanistan. After he was elected, he inserted about 70,000 new troops into that supposedly more sainted theater.
This was, if nothing else, sharp politics, given that Americans associate Afghanistan more than Iraq with 9/11 and the national interest. Yet it also served to perpetuate a myth: that Afghanistan was the Good War, that it was conceived justly and was therefore maybe, just maybe, more winnable. I don’t want to oversimplify here: There really are stark differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet at least from a bird’s eye view, it is striking how frustratingly similar they look. The Iraqi security forces were crushed by ISIS; the Afghan security forces were crushed by the Taliban. The government in Iraq is a kleptocracy; the government in Afghanistan is also a kleptocracy (and a narco-state to boot). The conflict in Iraq looks endless; the conflict in Afghanistan might now end but only because the Taliban won.
This symmetry should show that the problem was never the tactics or the lack of commitment; it was our idea of nation-building applied across the region. What have 20 years of meddling in Afghanistan bought us? A government ranked as the fifth most corrupt on earth, an opium market responsible for 90 percent of the world’s heroin, guards who take bribes, death squads that execute children, armed forces useless without our air power, and the return of pederasty as a custom across the military and police. And then we scratch our heads and wonder how the Taliban gained ground so quickly. The reason is that they exploited frustrations over a feckless and iniquitous Afghan state that we spent $2 trillion and nearly 6,300 American lives installing and defending.
Still, at least it wasn’t a total loss. We did bequeath to Afghanistan a brand new natural gas filling station. Estimated price tag: $5 to $10 million.
The United States invaded Afghanistan to create a democracy and a stronghold against jihadism. Instead we ended up indulging one of our worst pastimes, bureaucracy. Our occupation became larded up with officers and administrators more interested in self-preservation and spending reconstruction funds than in telling the truth. It was this bureaucratic accretion that allowed for the “gradually”; the “suddenly” came when the truth could no longer be hidden. So it’s gone with American empire. Afghanistan was once referred to by the Persians as “Bactria the beautiful, crowned with flags.” Today, it’s better known for lowering flags than flying them, from the Union Jack to the hammer and sickle to, now, Old Glory.
This is a moment that cries out for retribution. Those who perpetrated the bloody fiction of a winnable Afghanistan ought to be hauled before committees; reputations should be ruined, egos deflated. Small-r republican government demands as much, lest our civil servants become, to borrow from Winston Churchill, “no longer servants and no longer civil.” Alas, one of the consequences of empire is that you aren’t a functioning republic anymore, that by necessity enough power accumulates in the executive as to place it beyond serious accountability. I’d like to think we might learn something from these dismal 20 years, but what reason do I have to be optimistic?