With the defeat in Afghanistan coming at the end of a long line of self-inflicted catastrophes, America appears to be waking up to the notion that our foreign policy is disconnected from reality. As we watch our allies in the Northern Alliance flee the Panjshir valley and head into the mountains for a last-stand struggle against the Taliban – an enemy we spent thousands of lives and trillions of dollars fighting – it’s time for some much needed introspection.
Those of us who served in America’s continuous stream of counterterrorism adventures and nation-building interventions have long been suspect of U.S. foreign policy. While busy with the daily dirty work of warfighting and dying, we could see the disconnect between the situation on the ground and the focus group–driven rhetoric of the generals and foreign policy establishment back home. It was like there were two worlds. Ours was noisy, bloody, and chaotic, encompassing a very real battle between good and evil. Theirs was diverse, inclusive, and superficially rational … composed almost entirely of PowerPoint fantasies reinforced by government stenographers posing as journalists.
What began as a robust response to the deadly terrorist attacks on 9/11 was quickly redirected and emasculated by a ruling elite with their own agendas – none of which included the safety, sovereignty, or national security of our beloved America. At some point, the smart people in Washington D.C. decided that our Islamic extremist enemies were actually oppressed BIPOCs suffering under colonizing American commandos, and we were ordered to stop “brutalizing” them. This epiphany was unanimously recognized by our ruling elites through their lens of magical thinking, as Thaddeus McCotter described our foreign policy establishment’s disconnected reality in a superb essay.
Yet the war machine could not be stopped. There was too much money to be made, laundered among the donor class of the military-industrial complex and nongovernmental organizations, and subsequently funneled into political donations for the uniparty. The war, the elites decided, just needed to be nicer, more diverse, and less lethal.
Defining an End-State and Resources We Are Willing to Expend
Americans now need to ask the key question: How, exactly, did we lose an armed conflict to a 7th-century religious cult?
We failed to take several steps required to win an armed conflict: identifying an achievable end-state, defining the resources we are willing to expend, and considering the lengths we are willing to go to.
First, before committing to armed conflict, a nation must identify an achievable and specific end-state. It must decide what success would look like. This kind of decision-making is done at the national level, by the president and his national security advisor, in consultation with the Cabinet-level national security principals and, in some situations, Congress.
Next, as a nation, we need to establish what type and amount of resources we are willing to expend in pursuit of this end-state. These resources need to be roughly defined in terms of personnel, equipment, money, casualties, political capital, and reputation. If we don’t know what our end-state looks like, and if we do not have sufficient resources to achieve that end-state, then embarking on armed conflict is futile.
What Are We Willing to Do to Win?
Additionally, what are we willing to do to achieve our desired end-state? In World War II, we wanted to defeat the Axis powers and destroy their ability to conduct war. To achieve this, we were willing to do things like drop nuclear weapons on the Japanese civilian population and firebomb the German city of Dresden. A more recent example of will, or rather the lack thereof, was the Battle of Mogadishu, which is depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” The U.S. mission to capture and kill Somali Militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid was cancelled by President Clinton after an October 1993 raid resulted in the deaths of 19 American servicemen and 315 Somali militiamen. The Clinton administration was mortified by the casualty counts as well as the optics of wounding an additional 812 people. Clinton decided the United States no longer had the will to capture or kill Aidid.
Will is not just what we are willing to do to our enemy, it is also what we are willing to do to ourselves. As we have seen already in America, our extended war resulted in drastically diminished civil liberties, an increasingly corrupt national security apparatus that has turned inward on ordinary Americans, and a veteran suicide rate of more than 20 men and women per day – a heavy price for any republic.
Protracted War Diminishes Public Support
Time is also a factor. For a nation to succeed in armed conflict, it must have the support of its population. Protracted warfare not only increases the financial cost to the nation but also wears down the population and diminishes its support. The longer an armed conflict continues, the more difficult it is to maintain the will to do what is necessary to achieve victory. Thus, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu stated in the Art of War, “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”
We did not define these above elements in the war in Afghanistan. We failed to identify a realistic end-state. Our will faltered as we vacillated between making Afghanistan a punitive expedition versus a nation-building exercise. Surprisingly, we were willing to commit an almost unlimited amount of resources to the effort, and time only became a consideration as we reached the point of absurdity at 20 years.
Could We Have Won?
Was Afghanistan winnable? Of course it was. Winning is always a choice, but you go to war with the leadership you have, not the leadership you wish you had. Simply put, our leaders decided that winning wasn’t their priority.
Instead of defining and holding to an achievable end-state that supported the interests of the American people, someone decided that, following the punitive removal of Mullah Omar’s Taliban in 2002, Afghanistan could function as a giant ATM. A war-based revenue stream that could provide a continuous flow of money to Washington, D.C.’s donor class, which consists of the military-industrial complex, the intelligence community, and the NGO industry.
Sadly, in the end, even though countless ordinary Americans gave their all in Afghanistan, winning and returning home victorious was never in the cards.
Now, after 20 years of war, we have come full circle. We are left with a new and stronger “Islamic emirate” led by designated terrorists aligned with al-Qaida, the same mortal enemy that attacked us on Sept 11, 2001. Our foreign policy establishment is enraptured in their magical thinking that somehow America will “partner” with a Taliban government.
Our foreign policy elites think that by dumping truckloads of cash onto their new jihadist partners, they can make diversity and inclusion new Taliban virtues. In their minds, if they can just convince the world to look the other way during the coming genocide, they’ll succeed in bringing some murderous savages into the fold of the international diplomatic community.
In southwest Asia, respect and honor are often more important than money. Our bungled departure from Kabul certainly did not win us any respect. We did not have to so willingly bend the knee to our enemies on the way out. We did not have to leave our citizens behind while simultaneously evacuating tens of thousands of unvetted Afghans. We did not need to abandon the National Resistance Front, our former comrades-in-arms, fighting in the mountains of Panjshir, Parwan, and Baghlan. We shouldn’t have left that way. It was dishonorable and will come at a cost.
But what to do with Afghanistan next? For now, we are prisoners of the magical group-think of a failed foreign policy establishment, but soon its fantasies will collide with reality. Soon we will have to deal with the jihadist nature of the new Islamic emirate and its benefactors in Pakistan and China. Soon someone will have to figure out a way to contain the Islamic emirate before it becomes a problem again.
It will have to be done without parachuting pallets of taxpayer dollars to shady warlords or committing U.S. forces back into Afghanistan. The corrupt Afghan benefactors of Western cash-based diplomacy have all fled to Dubai with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.
However, not everyone in Afghanistan’s military and leadership has surrendered. The former vice president, now acting president of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, and Panjshiri leader Ahmad Massoud (son of the late Panjshiri commander Ahmad Shah Massoud) are still in Afghanistan, fighting for their freedom. With them are what’s left of the Afghan special forces, commandos from Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, and Panjshiri fighters. Right now, the Taliban, with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services (ISI), are working hard to hunt down and eliminate the last of this resistance.
The Taliban fears the National Resistance Front because they know that the only credible threat to their consolidation of jihadist power comes from the Panjshir. Here is a pro tip from a greybeard Afghanistan vet: If your enemy fears something, it’s best to give them as much of that thing as you can muster. Perhaps, instead of allowing the Pakistani ISI to exterminate the only Afghans willing to fight for their freedom, we should find a way to support the NRF as both an ally and a regional counterbalance to a dangerous and rising Islamic caliphate. Perhaps we can learn from our previous mistakes – and this time, consider what we are willing to do to reach an end-state that serves the actual security interests of the American people.