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What Americans Must Learn From The Afghanistan Debacle


Over the past week, the nation has watched as the 20 years of blood, sweat, tears, and treasure Americans have poured into Afghanistan evaporated nearly overnight. An entire generation of Americans has been born and come of age with a vague awareness that our country has been engaged in this conflict for their entire lives. To see the sacrifice of our countrymen and, in many cases, friends and family come to naught is indeed distressing.

I never served in war in Afghanistan, but I did serve in its similarly ill-fated sister war in Iraq. I recall the strange, sad, and confusing feeling in 2011 of knowing the war in which I served was over and that we had not succeeded in any meaningful sense. This sense of confusion and a desire to understand what happened was, in no small part, what led me to study political philosophy.

Political philosophy is, in its essence, the attempt to understand the nature of political life and its preconditions. Properly understood, political philosophy (as opposed to political ideology) presumes there are limits to what can be accomplished politically. In this sense, it is the attempt to understand how politics relates to the givenness of reality.

The realities of politics are often ugly because they must respond to conditions that require decisive action in less-than-ideal situations. This means war is sometimes the right, and even just, course of action.

But one of the core tenets of classic just war theory requires that success in war must be probable. This means, first, that “success” must be defined, and be defined in such a way that it can be known if it is achieved, and second, it must be achievable given the constraints that reality imposes.

We have long known that the war in Afghanistan had failed on both fronts. After the initial invasion in response to the attacks on 9/11 that destroyed terrorist training camps and pushed the Taliban into the hills, and especially after the capture of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the purpose of the war has become increasingly unclear.

Any residual purpose that might be conceived—such as installing a Western-style democracy in a culture that manifestly lacks the preconditions for democratic political order—is more and more obviously unachievable. This is another way of saying that the war has become unjust, even if it might be argued that it once was.

The problems run deeper still. The United States once prided itself on being a republic that “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Since World War II, however, we have stumbled into an empire with military outposts scattered across the globe and the perpetual prospect of “forever wars” intended to “nation build” to spread liberal-democratic ideology and ensure it is never challenged by alternative politico-socio-economic ideas or arrangements.

Paradoxically, however, it is precisely this commitment to the ideology of liberal democracy that makes the United States ineffective at empire, for two reasons.

First, the Hobbesian/Lockean social contract that underpins our liberal democracy presumes that liberty is the natural condition of human beings and that liberal institutions are the natural result of contracting individuals thrown into the “state of nature.” This leads liberal democracies to underestimate the cultural, social, and moral preconditions for political order, particularly democratic order. Fortunately in domestic affairs, our practice is usually better than our theory, but our foreign policy has come to resemble our theory in ways that are far from salutary.

Second, and relatedly, the imperative to be thought of as the good guys spreading freedom and democracy—liberators rather than oppressors or exploiters—constrains the range of potential actions the United States may take in pursuit of its ends. Part of this is the result of our implacable resistance to being called a colonial empire, no matter how much we may act like it in practice.

As my colleague Helen Andrews has put it, the United States “invented a new kind of non-empire, an empire without the bad stuff—a virginal imperialism.” Hence, unlike empires of yesteryear—from the Roman to the British—the American “empire of liberty” is ideologically committed to refraining from the kinds of actions (ugly and sometimes brutal to be sure) that are required to maintain peace and order in a large and expansionist order.

The result is that the United States is quite effective at dismantling oppressive-but-otherwise-stable-regimes, but is ineffective at maintaining order once they are deposed, much less establishing functioning liberal democratic regimes in their stead. Often what is left is worse than was existed prior to the intervention.

So what should American veterans, servicemembers, and their families, friends, and countrymen who poured their blood, sweat, tears, and treasure into Afghanistan take away from all this? Two things, it seems to me.

First, it is not your fault. Hundreds of thousands of Americans served honorably and nobly in Afghanistan, just as they did in Iraq and Vietnam before. The lying and grift that often fueled the continuation of what was long known to be an unwinnable war does not diminish the nobility of the service.

The countless acts of self-sacrifice and self-denial that have been undertaken in the course of the war, whether recognized by or not, are real instances of human excellence that cannot be obscured by the inadvisability of the overall mission or its inglorious end. Unfortunately, even the most valorous service cannot hope to achieve what is fundamentally unachievable.

Finally, demand better. Prudence and restraint must be the lodestars of American foreign policy going forward. The hubris that has fueled ideological wars with quixotic goals such as bringing about “an end to evil” should be replaced with a restrained and realistic approach that is neither militaristic nor pacifistic.

We should be willing to engage in war when necessary: a realistic assessment of human nature requires that is be understood as a permanent part of the human condition. But war should be engaged only after other alternatives have been exhausted, only when the costs have been properly weighed, only when clear objectives and outcomes have been defined, and only when a commitment to do what is necessary to succeed—and then disengage—is assured.

The failure in Afghanistan has laid bare in the inadequacies of the status quo in foreign policy, just as our fraying civic culture has revealed the inadequacies of our domestic policy. Americans who desire to save their country must use this opportunity to hold accountable the elite class to the interests of the country and the people they are supposed to lead.