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.