by Noah Jenkins
In a political environment mired with hyper-partisanship, one would think it would be a relief to see a unifying issue. Although it was before my time, I have read much of how political arms were laid down after the September 11 attacks for pure, unbridled patriotism to heal the wounds of a nation whose resolve was tested. Situations like this are bittersweet: like at a loved one’s funeral: there exists the obvious tragedy of their death, yet it doubles as an opportunity to reconnect with family and strengthen the bonds among the living. In a rather dark way, it is, indeed, a relief.
It is relieving to know your country has a mission, a goal. To know that the sacrifices that will have to be made have a reason greater than us all. And despite not being there to experience it for myself, I feel comfortable enough to say that for many the flag that was honestly ignored as we went on with our lives truly came to mean something on that fateful day.
A FEELING OF EMPTINESS
Today, we are in a similar, yet very different, situation. While it is one of the first times in a long time that the messages coming from MSNBC and Fox News have been almost interchangeable—as interchangeable as the messages from those two networks could reasonably be—there was no reorienting of what it meant to be an American. There was no sudden burst of national pride and togetherness. There was no renewed sense of purpose. The feeling I sensed, rather, was that of emptiness.
What I am not implying here is that a nation needs wars as a means by which to maintain national pride. What I do believe is that a nation must be in a near-constant state of defense. This often takes place on the cultural battlefield like in the Red Scare, but that is a different discussion. Another false notion is that the emptiness feeling comes after the conclusion of every conflict, essentially culminating with a collective “Now what?”
If we look at past conflicts’s conclusions like World Wars I and II and the Civil War, though, we see clear mandates. At the end of the Civil War, we had Reconstruction. At the end of World War I, we had the attempt—as flawed as it may have been—at a peaceful Europe. At the end of World War II, we had the great post-war era domestically and the start of the war on communism. It appears, that “Now what?” feeling in the modern era seems to only happen in situations where we effectively fail, such as in Vietnam, and now Afghanistan.
Why do I say we failed?
There can be a lot of debate over the war’s true mission was and how great an effect “mission creep” had, but what Americans ultimately saw was their boys go overseas and die, all for everything to go back to the way it was before-if not worse. This is the part that baffles me: Why would the United States, in the most practical terms, make the sacrifices of its troops worth nothing?
Of course, the war had to end at some point. I disagree with those who effectively wanted the war to go on forever. Either way, with the vast majority of Americans—regardless their political affiliation—wanting out of the war, an argument could be made that it would be immoral for a government “of the people, by the people, [and] for the people,” as Lincoln put it, not to respond to that wish. But while this may seem like a recent development given all the media attention drawn to the situation due to President Biden’s withdrawal plan over the last couple of months, I have always remembered people talking about a will to bring our troops home. The saying has almost become a cliché.
History supports my recollection.
After the troop count soared to over 100,000 in 2011, Osama bin Laden was finally killed, the mastermind behind 9/11’s ultimate punishment. I will be honest: I was still quite young at the time, however, in retrospect, I speculate many Americans saw the objective as being achieved. I could imagine when we remained active in the region that felt akin to Hitler being killed but instead of declaring victory in Europe a week later, the Allies simply kept fighting. I know the history buffs must be tearing their hair out at that comparison, because, yes, it is fallacious.
What that visceral reaction fails to consider is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda—the group which Bin Laden led and was harbored by the Taliban leading up to 9/11—at the time of Bin Laden’s death was no Nazi Germany at the time of Hitler’s death. An NPR article summarizing the situation as it stood from the end of the Obama Administration put it well saying, the “Taliban have proved stubbornly resilient.” It was this fact, in part, that led to the troop surge in Afghanistan around the same time.
OBAMA-TRUMP STRATEGY FOR PULLLING OUT OF AFGHANISTAN
So, here’s the situation: we want to go home, but to do so would be to cede all the work we have done up to that point as the Taliban would be just waiting to fill the vacuum. Sound familiar? The Afghanistan situation has not fundamentally changed since the Obama years. This is the very reason why is why he and his successor, President Trump, as different as the two may be, had a common approach.
The idea was simple. The United States would stop actively, or directly, fighting the Taliban, instead serving in an advisory role to the Afghan government, where Afghans would be left to defend their own country with U.S. military support as needed. This allowed the troop count in the country to be drastically reduced to just under 10,000 initially, getting down to just over 2,500 before the pull out. The hope was that by doing this the Afghans would reach a point where they could fend for themselves against the Taliban—assuming they still were contending for power—and the U.S. could leave. And up to the point of withdrawal this strategy was working, insofar as Afghanistan was stable.
In 2014, when President Obama made the announcement, he correctly said “We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one,” but three years later President Trump, with the same sentiment, qualified this by saying, “My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts…[but a] hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum [that] terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before September 11.”
Of course, he was right. It is needless to say how the events of the last month have proven this idea. But I, being a realist, understand the place President Biden was in politically. Although the issue of Afghanistan had fallen to the wayside of the public consciousness there still existed the underlying sentiment to leave, a sentiment that could be exploited. A moral argument from Biden’s perspective could also be made, as touched on earlier, but we would all be fooling ourselves if we were to assume that morality was the ultimate driver of Biden’s—or any politician’s—policies. And as for his excuse that Trump’s Taliban deal—despite its serious flaws, in content and in principle—boxed him into the withdraw: conditions were set and were blatantly broken by the Taliban, vacating any reason for him to feel in any way ensnared by the agreement.
So, assuming we had to leave immediately, there should have been one philosophical goal among the obvious tactical ones: to preserve, as well as we can, the work of American soldiers, ironically the principle driving the Obama and Trump (up to his Taliban deal) doctrines. From a civilian point of view, I see two things needing to happen for this end.
One, the withdraw could not have been done in this quick of a manner. Long gone are the days, and Obama hinted at this, of “one-and-done” wars. Essentially—and this is the second thing—the goal of making the Afghan army self-sufficient would have to be expedited, quick. It may not reach the level originally intended by the 2014 policy, but hopefully it would be better than a total retreat, as we saw in our timeline.
A slower withdrawal would also have the added effect of not tipping off the Taliban and avoiding the onslaught of violence that we saw (although this idea is arguably nullified by the Trump deal setting an exit date). It is the equivalent of running out of a room versus slipping out slowly. One is more inconspicuous and is less likely to draw attention, the other, not so much.
And among Biden’s numerous mistakes—abandoning the air fields before the airlift being at the top of the list for me in terms of recklessness—the most serious is this soft trust of the Taliban, or, to put it another way, treating the Taliban as if they were a random European country entering some treaty. Andrew McCarthy from the National Review goes in depth with this idea in his article on the subject, but an example of this was trusting the Taliban to secure the only airport available for American evacuations—because we ditched our own air fields—which indirectly led to 13 of our servicemen being killed.
Biden tried using some weird logic about how it was not trust, rather us “counting on” the Taliban, but I think you see the problem. Another example was trusting the Taliban to protect those we wished to evacuate, the very same people, mind you, that also happen to be the people the Taliban are not too fond of. The Taliban cannot be treated like rational actors.
For perspective, we must remember the original mission. In Bush’s address on 9/11, he summarized it simply: “to win the war against terrorism.” I would imagine allowing the Taliban to effectively resume their position from before the 2001 attacks does not fit within his definition. Reports have it that Afghanistan, just weeks after its fall to the Taliban, has already become a mecca for disparate terrorist cells like ISIS-K, the group responsible for the Kabul airport attack.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?
The question now is where does this leave us? Looking at the big picture, you realize quickly that, despite however just the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan was, our influence was like shoving two repelling magnets together—once the force is removed, they will return to their natural order and fly apart.
This point is more intuitive for me—although I could make a fleshed-out case for it-but I believe Afghanistan was always going to revert in this manner. There has to be a will for a place’s citizens to change their way of life besides some outside power coming in trying to impose or prop up a government of their liking, however righteous the principles of democracy are. Or some sort of cultural shift to disallow the culture of fear that dominates places like today’s Afghanistan, but that still cannot be effectively (or bloodlessly) done by an outside actor.
Alas, we are brought back to an idea stated earlier: a nation must always be on defense. At an earlier point in human history what may have been adequate then-like a clean-cut war when a threat presented itself or a moat- is not now. As threats become much more complex and lethal—like in cyberspace and magine a barrage of cannon fire versus a 9/11 or, God forbid, a nuclear blast—our approach to them must shift
A part of this is to understand certain threats may not go away for a long time. The War on Terror may be a “soft” war—dare I say “Cold”—that may have to be “fought” for decades, not necessarily by constant gunfire and casualties—in fact, the last combat casualty in Afghanistan before the latest attack was in early 2020—but by out maneuvering our adversaries, acting preemptively, and establishing deterrents. This last part especially is why I do not think we should have absolutely “pulled out” per se.
I agree that the nation building and mission creep are all distractions from the primary objective—defending our country—but having a regional presence not only kept the Taliban mostly at bay but also had broader regional implications, as shown by the fact that the Taliban takeover has prompted Pakistan to question its relationship with us.
All this has broader geopolitical implications regarding the separate “soft” conflict with China and Russia. It all ties in with each other. But this does not mean the situation in Afghanistan needed to continue as is in perpetuity. We already had a skeleton crew there; in the future we could even reduce it more. Perhaps we would have achieved the goals of the 2014 plan and could have left in a much more organized and successful manner (although maintaining an air base may still be wise).
What I do not want, though, is for my position to be used as an excuse for ill thought out wars, like Iraq, or for complacency, arguably what, in part, allowed 9/11 to happen. This strategy should be used carefully and sparingly but, like our at military at-large, should be deployed quickly when needed. Hopefully, this can be a mission we all can get behind.