I have no personal investment in America’s Afghanistan war. My own service in Vietnam, now a half-century in the past, remains an abiding preoccupation, as does the more recent Iraq war, where my son was killed. But I feel no more emotional connection to America’s ‘longest war’ than to US efforts to pacify the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Even so, the abrupt collapse of the Afghan government and of the Afghan security forces over the course of a few days hit me hard. Rage, sadness, bewilderment, horror, humiliation: my emotional response cycled through all of these.
Then came the further debacle of the mismanaged evacuation from Kabul airport, punctuated by the terrorist attack of 26 August, which claimed the lives of an estimated 170 Afghans along with 13 US military personnel. For me, it was the 1980 failed hostage rescue at Desert One all over again. It was the Beirut bombing of 1983. It was the notorious Mogadishu firefight of 1993. How could we have once again bolloxed things up so badly? Do we not possess the world’s best military forces? Everybody says we do — especially politicians making stump speeches. If so, who screwed up? I have little confidence that answers will be forthcoming. They rarely are.
On the very day of the attack on the airport at Kabul, Robert Kagan, the noted foreign policy analyst, published a long essay in the Washington Post in which he declared that ‘the war on terror has been successful — astoundingly so’. Kagan is eager to put both Iraq and Afghanistan in the ‘win’ column. Why, he wonders, has the outcome of America’s post-9/11 wars ‘been treated by so many as a tale of sin and hubris? Why has the “war on terror” come to be viewed as a symptom and for some the source of much of America’s troubles today?’ Kagan sees no correlation between those troubles and Washington’s appetite for war. If there’s a problem, in his view, it’s that Americans lack persistence. The issue is not that the United States starts too many wars; it’s that we don’t stay long enough. Afghanistan, Kagan writes, ‘was a classic case, repeated many times throughout American history, of a United States with one foot out the door from the moment of intervention’. If a succession of four US presidents had each declared, in turn, a determination to make war until the end of time, the Taliban would presumably have reconciled themselves to open-ended occupation by infidels.
Mere hours after the airport attack, the retired US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a distinguished former officer who served a brief unhappy term as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, appeared on MSNBC to weigh in with his take. McMaster does not share Kagan’s view about the war on terror’s success. He considers the outcome of the Afghanistan war to be a catastrophic failure attributable to American ‘strategic narcissism’. Who is to blame for the US failure in Afghanistan? McMaster tags ‘a neo-isolationist far right’ and a ‘self-loathing far left’, a judgment that rather too conveniently lets the US military off the hook.
Am I the only one growing weary of the peacock generals who appear before the cameras decked out in ribbons and badges stretching across their chests and extending down both coat sleeves? Do such awards correlate with competence? Who are these officers trying to impress? During the second world war, Generals George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower chose not to display the awards that they had earned. Could that have contributed to the fact that they actually won their war? Might we not have a bit more modesty from today’s three- and four-stars, who don’t win?
‘What did they die for?’ For media outlets looking to add local colour to a story that otherwise unfolds on the other side of the planet, the question is all but irresistible. Afghanistan veterans expressing anger that US troops seemingly died for nothing make for good copy and even better TV. I understand the anger, but the issue is contrived. The cause to which GIs in Afghanistan gave their lives is the same cause for which their predecessors died in conflicts going as far back as the American Revolution. They died for their country. They had no vote on whether and where to fight. Ordinary soldiers seldom do. They just follow orders. The more pressing issue is this: is the United States of America still worth fighting for? That subversive question deserves far more attention than it is likely to get.