Biden's Afghanistan Failure

Unless a miracle happens Afghanistan is a lost cause.  Our friends there now face slaughter and slavery because of our betrayal.  Too bad.  Although Afghan society is, by our standards, corrupt from top to bottom, it is their culture, not ours.  In Afghanistan, we were winning militarily despite major strategic blunders.  We only needed to stick it out long enough for its society to transform itself into something the world could live with.  The developing disaster there is entirely of our own making.

Our liberal leadership may have been to the finest schools. However, they are clearly not sufficiently educated to properly lead our nation.  Because most liberals have an aversion to military history they don’t learn real history.  That is unfortunate because war is almost all of history.  The rest is mostly about geography, politics, personalities, and how things can go wrong.  Instead, liberals focus almost entirely on the rare periods of peace.  And that is of little use for foreign policy.

From military history there is one most essential foreign policy lesson to be gained from the past:  Without faith in its commander, an army cannot survive.  This is true even if the army is winning.

Armies disintegrate when the commander is killed or flees.  After the battle is when most of the defeated soldiers are cut down, not during the battle.  This lesson should be the central guide to an interventionist foreign policy and to maintaining such a policy’s political support among the American people.  Sadly, this key understanding is almost unknown in the corridors of power.

Military history teaches us that a battle is lost in one of three ways:  The opposition is overwhelmingly stronger; the other side’s commander is a military genius; the losing commander is killed, or he panics and flees the battlefield.  It is this last situation that we are faced with in Afghanistan, for we have been the real commander there and we have fled the battlefield. The result: Afghanistan is lost and the slaughter is underway.

This basic pattern has been repeated endlessly throughout the ages.  Two case histories are particularly instructive:  Actium and Hastings.

At Actium, the combined fleets of Antony and Cleopatra significantly outmatched Octavian and Agrippa’s fleet both in numbers and in the size and power of their ships.  Antony was poised for an overwhelming victory. 

According to Antony’s battle plan, Cleopatra was to safely sail away at the onset of the battle.  Unfortunately, apparently, Antony failed to inform his captains of this.  As a result, when the battle commenced and Cleopatra sailed off, Antony’s fleet believed that Antony was fleeing as well.  He wasn’t.  He was still in active command.  It didn’t matter. The fighting spirit of his fleet was gone and Antony’s ships also fled.  There was nothing left for Antony and Cleopatra but a sword and an asp.

The Battle of Hastings is interesting because both commanders were lost and both armies disintegrated.  As it turned out, one of the commanders, William of Normandy, was lost only temporarily. 

Harold Godwinson formed up the English shield wall on a ridge – an essentially impregnable position.  His army was infantry and archers.  William’s army was half infantry and archers and half cavalry.  His archers were shooting uphill and had little effect.  William’s cavalry was useless under the circumstances because the horses could not successfully attack a shield wall. 

William’s foot was repulsed by the English and a rout began.  Part of Harold’s wall broke ranks and chased William’s fleeing soldiers.  William’s cavalry charged into the confusion and William, his horse killed, was rumored to have perished.  His army began to fall apart and flee upon hearing this.  William grabbed a new horse, removed his helmet to show his face, and rallied his troops.  But Harold still strongly held the high ground and was winning the battle.  The battle was decided only when Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow and killed.  Now leaderless, his army evaporated.  As a result, we now speak a very different English from that spoken by Harold.

The king is gone, long live the king.  What does this have to do with us and Afghanistan?  I propose the actual role of America in Afghanistan was that of the king, or commander.  People are used to thinking that a king is an individual person.  That is not always the case.  An institution can serve this role just as well as an individual. 

We have done this before.  Consider Germany and Japan.  Consider South Korea.  And, consider South Vietnam.

At the end of the second world war Germany and Japan had been reduced to uncivilized chaos by the insanity of their barbaric ideologies: Nazism in Germany and Militarism in Japan. 

South Korea, at the beginning of its war, was still devastated from the brutal Japanese occupation.  Although an old civilization, Korea was pre-modern. 

This was the situation when the United States took over and essentially became the king of those nations.  Rebuilding, and re-civilizing, proceeded at different paces in each case but it still took multiple generations.  We stuck it out and are still there – maybe no longer king, but maybe now an admired grandfather and still protector.

Viet Nam was different.  We had completely won on the battlefield – and at the peace table, as well.  The Viet Cong had been annihilated – it no longer existed – and the North Vietnamese Army had been decimated beyond immediate recovery.  But then we abandoned our responsibility and fled the scene.  Our client state instantly collapsed and savage bloodshed ensued as the conquered became the conqueror.  Shame on us.  Shame on the Liberal establishment that made that happen.

The lesson is clear:  If we are going to fight in a backward society, we must commit ourselves to stay for however many generations it will take to convert that society into a stable, peaceful, modern nation. Without that explicit long-term commitment, fully accepted by the American public, we are guaranteed to lose – but only after a vast expenditure of lives and treasure.  Yes, I know this sounds a lot like “White Man’s Burden.”  That is exactly what it is – and it is necessary.  I would reword the expression to say:  “Civilization’s Burden.” 

Or, we could find another solution to avoid catastrophe.  We can look to history to inform us.  In order to safely leave Afghanistan before fully civilizing the place we needed someone, or something, as strong as us, but probably unacceptably ruthless, to take our place.  That region being tribal, a warlord was what was really needed to take over.  He would have to be the kind of man disposed to “crush his enemies and hear the lamentations of their women” in John Milius’s unforgettable phrase.

God forbid!  We are too liberal and kind-hearted for that solution.  In Afghanistan, we actively suppressed such a development even though we had suitable candidates.  Instead, we imposed a constitutional democracy in a land that had no cultural basis for such a system.

It is not up to us to decide what form of polity a nation chooses.  Be it a democracy, a monarchy, or something else, our interest in the result is satisfied if that society offers no threat to us and our friends.  Even better for our conscience, we would hope the client society is reasonably humane – but that is their choice, not ours.

For many years to come our shame from the debacle will not be quenched.  Trust in America may be depleted for generations.  We can now reasonably expect that the Afghanistan disaster will trigger an avalanche of other foreign policy disasters.  Our leadership has gravely wounded the United States in the international arena.

Let us learn from this bitter lesson.  Make major commitments only if the American public is willing to see them through for the generations-long haul.  Otherwise, when a crisis appears that we must respond to: get in, clean up the mess, and get out – promptly.

Image: Screen shot from video posted by Bloomberg Quicktakes/al Jazeera, via YouTube

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