Ten thousand Pashtun tribals launched an attack at the present Pakistan-Afghanistan border on Sept. 12, 1897, in a now mostly forgotten battle with a relatively small but determined regiment of Sikh troops fighting for the Imperal British Indian army. Often regarded as one of the greatest last stands in military history, the Sikh soldiers called the British troops for backup, but the reinforcements were a couple of days late.
The Sikhs, meanwhile, decided that they would fight to the last man and bullet, and defended the Saragarhi fort until they were overrun. No one knows if all 21 men died for a cause they believed in — spreading human rights and Anglo-Saxon law and order in a land that has remained tribal for centuries. Before the fort fell, the Sikhs managed to kill 600 Islamist fighters, and wounded a few thousand more with artillery fire.
Some 120 years later, in 2018, Major Brent Taylor, the mayor of North Ogden, Utah, was killed in Afghanistan in America’s longest “war.” He leaves behind a wife, seven kids, and a failed cause that has so far cost more than $1 trillion and thousands of lives, and with just a few handpicked military outposts in the wilderness to show for it. All this in a country mostly covered by poppy seeds, where the Taliban control more territory than they did at any time in 2001.
The word “war” is within quotes, because it doesn’t look like a war anymore. That was won three months from the first B2 bomb runs in October 2001, but it’s now become an imperial law and order mission, like the British (and British Indians) used to do for hundreds of years.
In between, the British tried to conquer and hold off the barren land to fend off Russians, the British realized it was too costly to conquer and changed strategy to long-distance law and order missions from their Indian empire, the British empire collapsed after the Second World War, the Soviets installed a puppet government, the Soviets invaded after the government collapsed, and the Soviets collapsed.
There is archival evidence that the Soviet politburo was also divided while discussing invading Afghanistan in 1979, between the realists who were skeptical and knew this would not just be a short war but need an occupation, and the ideologues, who were confident that there was no society on this planet not ready for the Communist hammer and sickle flag.
Forty years later, the debate between those who want to spread democracy in Afghanistan and those skeptical about nation building, who wanted to withdraw after defeating the Taliban in 2001, sound remarkably similar. The Russians wanted to spread communism; and we believe that Afghans will inherit a liberal democratic paradise, which will then happily continue, if only we stay for another few decades. The internationalist ideologies changed, but the faith in a progressive arc of history remained the same.
Meanwhile, even The Weekly Standard is conceding defeat. The war in Afghanistan is over. If our aim was to reshape Afghanistan as a modern civilized liberal democracy, we lost. Almost all political scientists in the West know that. The public, who are usually more practical than the pundits, and who have generously funded the war, know that. The military top brass, which pretends that they can sort out Afghanistan in another couple of summers, know that too. Most importantly, the Taliban knows that, as they wait patiently, like vultures on the ridge, waiting for the tired, lost horse to die in the desert below.
Peter Hitchens once said that when the bugle sounds, a conservative’s instinct is to rally around the flag. But conservatives should also know when to cut losses and be prudent. Prudence, in this case, dictates a simple truth. Afghanistan is not going to turn into a liberal democracy tomorrow, or anytime soon in the future. Not all societies are ready for post-feudal modernity, and it’s juvenile to expect otherwise.
The history of the region also suggests as much. It takes years of colonization, for lack of a better word, to shape societies. And American taxpayers are not going to put up with this conflict forever. Candidate Trump, despite his foreign policy experience deficit, was more prudent about this than the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment. In August 2012, Trump tweeted: “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”
He reiterated that point in 2013. For all his foreign policy nuance, Trump is mercantile in his approach, and he understands what most Americans understand, and which liberals and neoconservative internationalists, and The New York Times fail to understand: American troops are put to better use in guarding the southern border than in pointless wars in the Middle East and Asia.
Trump is right on that account. Recent research in the field of international security also suggests that “winning hearts and minds” is a failed counterinsurgency strategy. Put simply, it has been a common idea in the American strategic elites that to have long-lasting peace, you need a liberal society, and in order to do that, you need to build democratic institutions. That is a mistake, and research suggests an easier way to achieve peace is to let warlords duke it out in tribal medieval regions.
Autocratic peace, as opposed to democratic peace, is the smarter way. The rationale is that it would allow the United States to focus on great power rivalries that pose a more significant threat to the country, and relieve the U.S. military from the burden of nation-building.
As the death of Major Taylor haunts America, Trump needs to get back to his candidate Trump instincts. He should learn from his predecessor, Richard Nixon, the architect of détente and the brain behind orchestrating the Sino-Soviet split, who was one of the first leaders to realize Vietnam was a failed cause, even in the face of relentless opposition from his own side.
One cannot change or shape an alien society unless one is willing to stay in the region for centuries. In an earlier era, that might have been possible (although its wisdom and prudence is debatable). Winning hearts and minds isn’t working, so one can logically either burn the entire country to the ground, as the Romans did to Carthage, or occupy it for centuries like the British Empire in the hope that some of the colonies would adopt the institutions.
None of those seems plausible today. Or, one can leave them to their own doomed fate and save blood and treasure. A realist would suggest it’s time to cut our losses and be prudent. Good men shouldn’t die for lost causes any more.