Perhaps the worst question in the most recent press conference by President Biden on Afghanistan was when a journalist asked whether Biden trusts the Taliban. Befuddled by the bizarre insinuation, Biden asked whether it was a serious question.
The unnamed journalist said it absolutely was, because if Biden does not trust the Taliban, why is he handing over the country to the Taliban? Biden incredulously answered that he doesn’t trust the Taliban, but it is not an American problem to solve.
The question exemplified the general quality of wisdom and talking points about foreign interventions prevalent among a certain section of the media. Afghanistan is not for America to give or keep. It is and has always been a semi-feudal society, where there never was a coherent state in the entirety of human history.
The Taliban are aligned with Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun tribe, who can keep on waiting forever and eventually will achieve power. Most importantly, trust is not a determinant factor in foreign policy, a domain where amoral interests decide alignment and balancing. No one over the age of 13 with a functioning cognitive ability and a rudimentary sense of history should ever talk like that journalist, yet here he was, in the White House press corps, making a fool out of himself.
One does not need to be a fan of Biden, or a leftist, for that matter, to think that total withdrawal from Afghanistan should be a bipartisan cause. Americans overwhelmingly favor bringing troops home from peripheral regions and avoiding foreign entanglements.
In fact, the Washington Post lamented that on Afghanistan Biden’s instincts are closer to Donald Trump’s: “in the handling of the United States’ longest war, Biden’s core instincts have aligned with those of former president Donald Trump — a skepticism of endless military deployments and a willingness to end those campaigns despite security concerns.” This is a late acceptance of the idea that Trump’s foreign policy instincts weren’t wrong.
Avoiding mindless humanitarian intervention is a prudent thing to do, regardless of who is doing it. In that cause, Presidents Trump and Biden have been remarkably similar so far, and even President Obama understood that principle, even though he was persuaded to intervene in Libya by Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton, overruling his vice president, Biden.
What Biden said in that press conference should sound familiar to a conservative realist, and was what Trump said in some form or other during his campaigns: “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” Who could legitimately argue with that?
The war in Afghanistan was not supposed to be a potential colonial occupation, building institutions and saving women’s rights, resulting in 200 years of blood and treasure loss. American soldiers were not sent there to imitate Sir Charles James Napier no matter how many gallons of tears Gen. Mark Milley sheds.
“Never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history. Not in all of its history,” Biden noted. That is true too. Afghanistan was always a primitive area in the middle of the great-power rivalry of each age, between the Mughals and Persians, the British and Russians, then the Soviets and Americans. No one ever made a coherent state out of Afghanistan because it never existed in human history.
The American idea of state formation in Afghanistan was predicated on the theory that people all across the world are equal and Afghanistan could be like post-war Japan or Germany, where Madisonian democracy would flourish and Afghans unite under one national identity and fight to preserve their system of governance.
Culture, geography, and history never mattered to this idealism. The flaw was that Afghans would never fight for this goal, as there has never been a unified Afghan identity since the time of Babur. There were only the Pashtun, Tajiks, Hazaras, and other such tribal identities. In contrast, Germany and Japan had coherent, civilized polities, different though they might be in temperament than the Anglo-American west.
It is near-impossible to impose a foreign system on a feudal society without colonizing it for a few hundred years. None of this is a new argument, but all of it was ignored in the build-up to the conflict nonetheless. The U.S. Department of Defense should have studied more history instead of acting like a nonprofit organization. State and identity formation takes centuries.
The painful thing was that this should have been Trump’s moment. It will forever be a counterfactual history, as no one quite knows what led him to hire John Bolton, H.R. McMaster, and a top brass who constantly opposed his every realignment, from Syria to Afghanistan.
McMaster, widely regarded as a “scholar,” is still worried about the potential fallout of U.S. withdrawal on Afghan women. The American people, on the other hand, are not at all concerned about whether a sexual revolution goes on in Afghanistan or not. In that way, these interventions and humanitarian pretensions are primarily elite concerns. Most Americans are far more grounded, smart, and realist than that.
In his latest essay, Stephen Walt raises a few fundamental questions. Why did the United States (and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) imagine they could turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style democracy? Why did the Taliban consistently out-fight the Afghan National Security Forces? Finally, why did the war continue for so long?
The answers to the last two questions are, as I mentioned above, that Afghanistan never had a single identity, so naturally the multi-ethnic Afghan forces kept losing to the primarily Pashtun Taliban; Secondly, the war continued for so long because the American ideological brass was thoroughly detached from their own countrymen. The first question needs to be studied more, as that is the ultimate lesson from this 20-year fiasco.
Afghanistan (and Iraq, Libya, and Syria) are not isolated debacles, and it would be foolish to consider them so. Fiascos like these will keep happening for as long as we harbor the delusion that all problems in the world are the United States’s concern, and deserve our blood and treasure.
They are a symptom of a far more entrenched modern and elite worldview, which is essentially radical in nature, believes in a historical arc of progress, and is fundamentally opposed to the guidance of American betters ranging from George Washington to John Quincy Adams. They warned America against foreign overextension and exhaustion, which results in internal social incoherence and collapse.