Watch the video for a monologue version of this article, followed by an interview with The American Conservative’s Shaun Rieley, a doctor of political philosophy and combat veteran of the War on Terror.
The American people agree on very little — seemingly less with each passing day — which is why what’s unfolding in Afghanistan right now is so surprising: We can agree that this is what a full-blown calamity looks like. For perhaps the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, everyone in America, regardless of party or creed or race or sex, agrees on one thing: Afghanistan is a total disaster.
And it’s not just us normal people: Even the politicians, both Democrat and Republican, are admitting the truth — and politicians are consummate professionals at denying the most obvious realities. With that consensus comes a great responsibility for our leaders especially, but also for all patriotic Americans.
You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to know that military withdrawals are difficult and require more men and more firepower than simply holding a position. It doesn’t require George S. Patton to know when you’re evacuating a hostile country filled with hostile people, the last ones out should be your soldiers — not your diplomats, missionaries, construction workers, aid workers, and their families. There’s no need to consult Douglas MacArthur to decide to hold onto the big, expensive air base until your forces are gone, rather than abandoning it overnight weeks ahead of time.
None of this takes a galaxy brain, but the awful scenes unfolding on our televisions are just a garnish — the rainbow sprinkles on the Washington, D.C.’s Afghanistan sundae.
If we leave this disaster thinking to ourselves that we’ll cast our vote for the other guy next election — that if only he was here all would be well — then we will have failed to learn the lessons of the past, we’ll have failed ourselves here in the present, and even worse, we’ll have failed to prepare for the future.
My grandfather was an accountant for a United Fruit plantation in Costa Rica, meaning he was second in command. United Fruit was a banana company whose colonial way of operating — and tendency to manipulate and threaten local governments — is frowned upon today, and with good reason.
But my grandfather was the math man, and his stories were largely funny: Catching a fish on the long boat ride down and being embarrassed in front of the guys because he didn’t want to kill it (he was too gentle); tales of the local priest bellowing from the steeple in between rings of the bell, calling out the names of the men who’d tried to sleep in that Sunday; and his favorite story: The American madman you’d hang out with early in the night if you wanted a good drinking partner, but would move away from as the night wore on because at last call he would inevitably grab the closest man and drag him into the swamps to hunt gators.
In between the funny stories, there was a more serious one: Papa said that even though the company was based in Boston, it was thoroughly English, and they had a rule that no American was permitted to be the number one man for any banana plantation. Americans, they believed, lacked the stiff-lipped British resolve to, he quoted, “govern the natives.”
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It’s certainly out of date in our more sophisticated times. Or so we think, because there’s a big problem here, and it brings us back to Afghanistan, where we were in charge.
Part of our problem is we modern Americans want to have colonialism without doing (or even really understanding) what that takes. We think we’re better than all those colonial powers that came before us, that we aren’t even an empire at all, that we can do what they tried to do but without all the nasty bits.
That’s problematic because it makes us both ineffective and at the same time, blind to how ineffective we are. Self-aware, self-conscious, and self-confident colonialism was often ugly, but despite that ugliness it was able to accomplish what it set out to accomplish.
When the Spanish Empire collapsed in the 1800s, the nations they left behind were more fervently Catholic than Spain itself. When the British Empire retreated after World War II, it left behind durable countries that had built their own copies of British institutions.
There’s a famous line by British Gen. Charles James Napier when Hindu priests complained that his soldiers were stopping them from burning widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. The priests said it was their culture and tradition and the British must respect that.
“Be it so,” the general replied. “This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property.”
Where the British Empire expanded, slavery was abolished. Tribal modes of justice were replaced by written law codes. Literacy was higher, and elites had university educations (back when that still meant something). Every country the British left had a snarl of railroads to fuel further economic development. When it came to colonialism, the British just did it better.
Does that sound shocking? Ask yourself what countries today are the economic powerhouses of their regions. Compare Canada and the USA to Latin America. Compare Singapore to Indonesia or Hong Kong to China. Compare South Africa and Ghana to Ethiopia and the Congo. Even try comparing Belize to Honduras. Belize’s old name was British Honduras. All of those more successful and prosperous countries were British colonies, and it shows.
The British of old, right or wrong, believed they were the good guys, and acted accordingly. They wouldn’t have turned a deaf ear to so-called bacchi bazzi, the male children tied to Afghan officers’ bedposts to be the victims of their depravities. American soldiers were told to ignore that practice to avoid antagonizing our allies. Those awful cries still echo in some mens’ ears today.
In contrast, the British believed in themselves as a force for good; they were a lot more clear-eyed than the United States about what it takes to make things fit their definition of the good. Because of that, they were willing to do those things.
The United States has long deceived itself into believing we are not a global empire. Our military brass cringe at the word “occupation,” and we haven’t used it once since Japan — our last successful one. We take pride in this fantasy, even when it manifests itself in men and women dead abroad supporting failing countries.
We take pride in this, even as our less scrupulous and more confident enemies profit. After decades of fighting in Afghanistan, it’s China that is preparing to get rich off of that country’s rare earth minerals. In Iraq, European powers benefit from the country’s revived oil industry — after Americans did the fighting, the killing, and the dying.
Let me be clear: The United States does not have to build an empire, but if we’re going to (as we have), then damn it do it right. Half-blind, with both hands tied behind our backs while we lie that we’re the winners for decades, ain’t it. And if we decide that we are not going to have an empire, then let us have an honest debate on what we are willing to do to maintain some semblance of Pax Americana.
This is the thin silver lining to the inglorious disaster we are witnessing: Everyone is paying attention again. And in the people of both parties, there’s a dawning realization that we have been lied to for a very long time by a lot of different folks; that we are a hollow power; that the military is not immune to the rot and the decadence of our civilization, and is as broken as every other aspect of America.
Dig into the details of any story about Afghanistan in the past 15 years and you’ll quickly find lies. By now, you might have seen the quote from Gen. Mark Milley from 2013, where he bragged that the Afghan army and police were “very, very effective in combat against the insurgents every single day.”
Milley wasn’t the only general who lied. By 2009, al-Qaeda wasn’t actually a problem in Afghanistan, but Gen. Stanley McChrystal knew that al-Qaeda was the supposed reason we were fighting there, so in a major report he simply added them back into the picture. In fact, McChrystal routinely manipulated politicians back in the United States in order to get more troops and more funding for his big war.
By the time of the Trump administration, Afghanistan had simply become an end unto itself that a dedicated lobby in Washington wanted to go on forever.
Last year, when President Donald Trump was trying to negotiate a withdrawal, The New York Times blasted out a story, planted by the intelligence community, about Russia paying the Taliban bounties for dead U.S. troops. No evidence was presented that this was true, but it didn’t matter. Somehow, this meant we had to stay longer, ideally forever, or the Russians would win?
When that stunt didn’t work, generals tried a different tactic: They just lied to Trump about how many troops were still in the country so he’d think we were closer to withdrawing than we really were.
Hopefully today, after our complete and total collapse has been broadcast across the planet for more than a week, we can see things more clearly. But if Democrats use this chance to simply try to relitigate Donald J. Trump’s treaty, and if Republicans seize this moment merely to attack Joe Biden for the botched withdrawal — for the last page of a 20-year book — they will miss the chance to look clearly at our disease, to work to diagnose and cure what ails us — if it is even curable at all, and it might not be.
This has been a very hard two weeks for America’s veterans. Old wounds burn, old scars are torn open again, old memories resurface of the men and women who, instead of building up this country’s future, were flown 10,000 miles to the far side of the world — and then flown home in rows of steel, flag-draped coffins.
We cannot undo the pain we have caused to so many, but we hope the dead might rest easy knowing that they served their country when asked and there is no dishonor in that. Now, when we who remain are ourselves called, no matter how hard it is and how much it takes, we too must answer. This is our sacred duty now.
For 20 years this country has blindly flailed about the world stage, lashing out abroad while lying to the people at home. What do we have to show for it? Iraq? Afghanistan? If nothing else comes of this sad ending, let it be this: That we may have the eyes to see and the ears to hear — and an honest, clear-eyed foreign policy worthy of our country, and the men and women who fight for her.