The Failure of Woke Soft Power in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, America is experiencing its own Dunkirk, but without rescue boats or a Churchill on the horizon.

While pundits, pooh-bahs, and political prophets presently are in finger-pointing mode over the debacle, one lesson is apparent.  For decades, American foreign policy has been committed to a failed political and military philosophy.  Afghanistan is the symbolic and real indicator of the total collapse of the liberal/left Weltanschauung.

During America's twenty years' war and occupation of Afghanistan and well before that enterprise, somewhere along the way, the definition and goals of the war radically changed.  The idea of military objectives surgically carried out and missions accomplished was tossed in the trash bin in favor of a transition to what euphemistically has been termed "soft power."

As Kevin Ofchus, an associate fellow of the think-tank Narrative Strategies notes in his book Delegation of Blame: Insurgent Violent Extremism, after the failure of intelligence brought on by the Snowden revelations and the institution of the drawdown, soft power became the chosen policy in Afghanistan.  He writes:

The paternalistic soft power mantra ... went something like, "Look people, we can bomb the hell out of the insurgency but the whack a mole strategy hasn't defeated the enemy's ideology which outlives those we kill, our best bet is to try and provide resources and stabilization inspiring ideological change from within instead of forcing a solution by threat or mandate from the outside."

To put it another way, a "soft war" was meant to address the root causes of social disturbances that led to discontent and then to violence, which led in turn to terrorism.  Boiled down to its philosophical essence, the change from hard military policy to soft power reflected the mantra "it takes a village."  Military policy became much like LBJ's War on Poverty and all the other "wars" aimed at social improvement. 

But the soft power policy put in place in Afghanistan blurred a critical distinction between the enemy and American and allied soldiers.  Seeing the enemy as a victim of societal pressures that could be relieved by an occupying force with social justice ideals meant the loss of the original ideals of soldiery.  The idea of robust soldiery expressed in the rousing lyrics of the Marine Corps hymn was replaced with ideas similar to the Coke commercial's soothing words, "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony."

In the abstract, the idea of changing hearts and minds by nation-building via changing hearts and minds seems a noble goal.  But no government should try to put the equivalent of a Marshall Plan in effect until after the enemy is defeated.  One does not institute the Marshall Plan while the Wehrmacht is still in control.  One does not attempt nation-building in 1940, while the outcome of the battle is not clear and the enemy still has enormous strongholds of power.  One waits until 1948.

The danger to the U.S. military and to those contractors engaged in soft-power "nation-building" has always been apparent.  During the years he was in Afghanistan, Ofchus and his co-workers recognized they were in continual danger.  He prophetically wrote (italics mine):

My concern was for the safety of our employees first and foremost.  If the environment did deteriorate into chaos, we had at least attempted to mitigate civilian casualties.  Even with proper planning, if things turned really bad, we (among many others) were likely going to have to fight our way on the ground to safe zones either at Bagram or at the RS airfield on the other side of the Kabul International Airport.  No one was going to come and get us.

He continued:

Bottom line: There was a stunning lack of continuity, adaptability, and singular oversight, coinciding with a massive output in tax dollars on noble objectives but positioned within a policy objective which had no unified coherent strategy.  At the very least not a strategy recognizable matching the resiliency and mutability of IVE terrorism[.] ... Crippled largely by blind arrogance ignoring the host nation frame of reference from the beginning, the foundation for counter-IVE (terrorism) stabilization was cracked when it was poured.

In other words, the abstract ideals of leftist liberalism did not consider the fact that the people soft power was supposed to convert did not wish to be converted to the liberal Western viewpoint, as many of the beliefs of leftism are absolute anathema to Muslim Afghanis' cultural norms.  The attempt to gradually change the hearts of people committed to a religious worldview that repudiates leftist/liberal Western ideals was not a winning military strategy.

Who was even thinking about and understanding the Muslim theology foundational to the worldview of those who are in charge of and living within Muslim-dominated countries?  Who really considered the fact that the average Muslim is diametrically opposed to ultra-liberal mores, just as many Christians and others in the West also are opposed to leftist beliefs such as same-sex "marriage," abortion on demand, and gender-bending ideology?

In brief, most Muslims do not wish to be and will not ever be converted by soft power to "woke" ideology, even though many repudiate or at least resist the harshness and cruelty of the extremists among them — namely, the Taliban and like-minded terrorists.

The "woke" mentality that has guided the disastrous efforts in Afghanistan has long roots — roots that need to be cut now.

As Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn notes in his book Leftism Revisited, the American left has continued to follow the disastrous political philosophy of Woodrow Wilson, who turned WWI from a "conflict among nations to a crusade for democracy," thus changing the goals and philosophy of war for one hundred years.  Like present soft power, Wilson's abstract goals depicted wholesale conversion of nations to democratic ideals that were to replace narrow national self-interest.  One might say Wilsonian political zeal was a secularized version of conversion efforts by the deeply religious.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn added that prime minister of Victorian England, Benjamin Disraeli, noted that zealous leaders of England drew the country into complicated messes that did not serve the true interests of Great Britain (italics mine):

You looked on the English Constitution as a model form.  You forced this constitution in every country.  You laid it down as the great principle that you were not to consider the interests of England or the interests of the country you were in connection with, but that you were to consider the great system of liberalism, which has nothing to do with the interests of England, and was generally antagonistic with the interests of the country with which you were in connection.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn continues: "How easily one could substitute 'democracy' for 'liberalism' and address these sentiments to American as well as British leftists who served neither the real interest of their country nor of the countries which they saddled with representative governments of democratic character."

He added that though millions were killed and billions spent, in the end, not only was democracy defeated and the ideologies of fascism and communism facilitated but far worse happened — namely, "the destruction of the liberal principle of personal freedom."

In other words, the missionary zeal of liberals led by Wilson, who wanted to make the entire world "safe for democracy," was and still is a failure in times of peace and war, as it always leads to endless conflict.

What is needed at this time of national humiliation? 

What is necessary is a complete rejection of the philosophy that has been the root cause of the domestic and foreign disasters in which America is currently entangled.  Leftism must be repudiated in all its forms.

But to begin with, American leaders need to realize that the military arm of the United States is primarily for the defense of the United States against her sworn enemies.  It is foundational to success to articulate and put into action a winning strategy: identify the enemies who are attempting to destroy us, cordon them off, and then annihilate them.

Those strategies employed by WWII military leaders such as General Patton are why the United States helped win the war.  It is also why since abandoning them, the country has lost its way concerning the true purposes of our mighty military force.  Soldiers and officers are not social workers.  They are not nurses, schoolteachers, or counselors for those who are struggling with identity issues.  They are soldiers.

The policy of soft power must be utterly rejected and a return to hard power embraced.  Foreign and domestic actions deliberately aimed at hurting America and her people must be met with military force.  Enemies must be defeated, and governments harboring or assisting terrorists must be punished.  America requires more of a Churchillian attitude toward enemies and less of the Chamberlain attitude that we may achieve "peace in our time" by futile soft power. 

Such changes will require a drastic reorientation away from leftism and the soft power/woke mentality presently infecting the government and the military.  The changes will be difficult and disruptive.  But that critical reorientation must be made.  Otherwise, America will continue to suffer enormous consequences as her military might proves useless because of the wrongheaded non-strategy of soft power.

Fay Voshell holds a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, which awarded her the prize for excellence in systematic theology.  Her thoughts have appeared in many online magazines.  She may be reached at

Image: stevepb via Pixabay, Pixabay license.

To comment, you can find the MeWe post for this article here.

If you experience technical problems, please write to