Twenty years ago a nation comfortable but aimless was thrust by violence into a new reality. “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?,” asked one conservative columnist a few weeks later. “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago. I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events.” He was not the only one to feel this way. A week or so before George Packer quoted an investment banker he found sitting dazed on Manhattan streets: “I like this state. I’ve never been more cognizant in my life.” Packer added that he too was “liv[ing] through this state… and I like it.” What he “dreaded” most was “a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek.” One professor awed by the change she saw in the people around her “found myself wishing [months later] that something else terrible would happen to renew the effect—and then, of course, recoiling at myself.”1
David Brooks, “Normal, U.S.A.,” Weekly Standard, October 5, 2001; George Packer, “The Way We Live Now: Recapturing The Flag,” The New York Times, September 30, 2001, sec. Magazine, Zena Hintz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), 11.
Many did not need to wish. Knick-knacks and stickers popped up in federal offices to express the new way of living seized by so many of our countrymen: “Every day is September 12th.” It was a slogan of fierce urgency, a determination to keep terror and horror from returning to our shores—but it was also something more than that. Each sticker was a little declaration that the comity and common purpose of late 2001 did not have to die away. Something greater could still be lived for. In our hundreds of thousands we decided to live for it. We became soldiers, airmen, and Marines. We trained as spies and diplomats. We volunteered as aid workers. We staffed offices, wrote laws, and spent years in study. The select of an entire cohort joined the cause.
The joint project of this generation began as the first horse-borne operators snaked their way into Panjshir. This week that project has undeniably, irrevocably ended. It was a venture bookended by images of falling men. To watch videos of desperate Afghans flung from U.S. Air Force cargo planes is to recognize this grim reality. The aspirations of an entire era died as the last Afghan man crashed onto Kabul tarmac.
Now lessons must be learned.
I belong to the tail end of the generation who found meaning in terror. In 2008, I tried to answer that call in a recruiting station for the U.S. Marine Corps. I discovered to my sorrow that men with eyes slowly going blind could not be riflemen. I was left to contribute what I could as a normal citizen. That is how my writing began, all those years ago: it was a modest attempt to contribute my mite to the cause of our times. We believed in those days that the furious debates being hashed out in the shadow of war might just save millions. I wanted to contribute. My contributions were paltry. Others gave far more. Some gave all. This week those who gave much and those who gave little find themselves sharing the same defeat.
Now lessons must be learned.
My youth was witness to a catalog of catastrophe. Our leaders proved unworthy; our institutions were found unsound. One after another, disasters rolled: the invasion of Iraq. The criminal mismanagement of its occupation. The inundation of New Orleans. The open misery of global recession. The quiet suffering of opioids turned epidemic. The election of Donald Trump. The constant churn of crises produced by his misrule. The malfunction of one governing body after another in the face of a global pandemic. Through it all, the slow unraveling of America’s civic culture.
Yet in this chronicle of shame the American intervention in Afghanistan stands exceptional. There is no partisan dodge that escapes it. There is no domestic rival to pin blame on. There is nothing to shield any of us from the sting of this defeat. Yes, events of this week reveal enormous and largely unnecessary failures in intelligence, logistics, operational planning, cross-government coordination, public communication, and broader strategy on the part of the sitting administration. Yet we must see these humiliations for what they are: the final chapter of two decade long disaster. The scale of these failures are too big, and they occur on a timeline too long, to be excused as the other side’s fault.
American policy in Afghanistan has always traced closely the impulses of the American people: we entered Afghanistan with an unparalleled majority of our nation in support; we surged into it ten years later with another national majority rallied; we now leave the country with a commanding majority of the country in agreement. Only one congresswoman voted against the initial invasion; regardless of which party has controlled the Hill, each subsequent step of this war has been waged with strong congressional backing. Four presidencies, two from each party, have presided over our long defeat. This is disaster a borne by us all.
16 commanders of American or ISAF troops in Afghanistan, ten commanders of CENTCOM, six Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ten Secretaries of Defense, two special envoys to the region, seven administrators of USAID, 11 Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, seven Secretaries of State, nine Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, seven Directors of National Intelligence, ten National Security Advisors, five chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee, six chairmen of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Select Committee on Intelligence, seven chairmen of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, their staffs, and several dozen secretaries, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, deputy assistants, desk officers, station chiefs, and division or brigade commanders have directed this defeat. 2The war in Afghanistan is not the failure of a man, or even of a few men, but of an entire leadership class.
Now, lessons must be learned.
In a just world some congressional Commission would drag each and every one of these individuals before the nation to demand explanations for our twenty years of failure—and to make clear that public servants who move on to well-perked perches at consultancies after presiding over a hundred thousand Afghan dead, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, and years of worthless toil and tears, stand last in the hearts of their countrymen.
One of these ten SecDefs was only “acting,” but held the station long enough for me to add his name to the count. Not included here are ambassadors to Pakistan, though perhaps they should be.
But this is not about settling accounts. It cannot be. The accounts are too big to settle. Two decades of social science, an entire complex of development work and humanitarian aid, and an enormous edifice of panels, magazine columns, think tank reports and campaign promises lie barren. Every party hack, every national newspaper editor, every think tank inside the Beltway, and every voter outside it is implicated in our defeat.
If there is any good news at all in our ruin, it is only this: for the first time in a long while we have been shocked into seeing the world we have made. “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right,” Orwell observed. “It is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”3 That reality has arrived. As Orwell predicted, it arrived on a battlefield. No amount of twitter spin can obscure the scale of our failure or wash away the sting of our defeat.
George Orwell, “In Front of Your Nose,” first published in the Tribune, 22 March 1946; accessed at the Orwell Library website, 8 April 2021.
While we are still shocked by our crash with reality, lessons must be learned.
If our failure was simply a problem of personnel, now would be the time for anger. The rage of a nation betrayed would not be stymied. The blood of soldiers dead would cry from the dust. Accountability would be demanded from the feckless few. But fecklessness is not our flaw, nor are the flawed so few. The ‘professionals’ of this administration were confirmed in their office with the promise that there once again would be “adults in the room.” Perhaps we have forgotten that the appointees of twenty years past—the ones who brought us into Afghanistan—were once hailed with the very same acclamation.4 It is not a lack of professionalism, nor of credentials, nor of high-minded commitments to excellence, that has led us from the heels of one disaster to the maw of the next.
Something more fundamental has gone wrong in America.
Those who govern cannot discover it. They live from moment to moment, trapped in a cycle of news and reaction. They do not have time to think. So we must do the thinking for them. We must cool our fury. We must contain our shame. We will not get a Commission to root out our the failures of Afghanistan. It falls on the citizenry to root them out ourselves.
Dov Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 53; James Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Penguin, 2004), 1-2.
We must learn the lessons of our failure with great urgency. American primacy has insulated America from the pains of our defeat. This will not be true for much longer. As I type these words my nation hurtles towards a dark and uncertain future. The challenge posed by an ambitious and revisionist Communist Party of China dwarfs any problem a movement of illiterate poppy farmers could create. We have wasted the profits of our imperium away; in this more feeble state we now confront the challenge of a century. We must not face it armed with the dysfunction of our past two decades. We must relearn how to be serious.
Every citizen with any heart for public affairs should be absorbed with these questions: How did we give so much yet get so little? Where could things have changed? What were the key choices that led us to waste so much? By what process were these decisions made? What other choices could have been made? Why did decision makers not see them? Why has no one been held accountable for our failure?
To that end I announce a new series of essays that I will be posting on this website. November 13th, 2021 is the 20th anniversary of the allied capture of Kabul. In the thirteen weeks between then and now I shall review thirteen books, each one piece that might help us put together the puzzle of our failure. This is the list:
- Douglas Feith, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terror (2008)
- Dov Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale: How The Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (2011)
- Sarah Cheyes, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (2006)
- Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (2014)
- Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (2010)
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012)
- Wesley Morgan, The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley (2021)
- Noah Coburn and Anna Larson, Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape (2011)
- Astri Sukhre, When More Is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan (2011)
- Bruce Reidel, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad (2012)
- -Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (2015)
- -Antonio Giustozzi, The Taliban at War: 2001-2018 (2019)
- -Thomas Cavanna, Hubris, Self-Interest, and America’s Failed War in Afghanistan: the Self-Sustaining Overreach (2015)
There is a certain logic to these titles. The initial terms and aims of our intervention in Afghanistan were set by the Bush administration. Even though the CIA developed most of the original invasion plan, it was the Department of Defense, not the State Department, NSC, or intelligence community that developed the rationale for our presence is the country. These are set forth in Doug Feith’s memoir of his time as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the early Bush years. His colleague Dov Zakheim was assigned the Afghanistan portfolio in 2002. In combination, their two books provide the view from Washington in our intervention’s initial stage. Sarah Cheyes’ Punishment of Virtue, on the other hand, is a personal account of how American objectives were translated to on-the-ground realities in the old Taliban heartland of Kandahar.
Bob Woodward’s inquiry into Obama’s decision to surge in Afghanistan, combined with the memoir of the general who commanded that surge, provides a similar look at high-level intentions in the early 2010s during the period when the American intervention in Afghanistan reached its height. Little America plays the same on-the-ground account for this era as Punishment of Virtue does for the last.
The next four books cover specific aspects of the American intervention: U.S. military operations, U.S. attempts to state-build and bring about democracy, the international development and aid complex, and Pakistan’s troubled relationship with both Kabul and Washington as the war progressed. The next two books turn the story around to look at the conflict through Afghan and Taliban eyes. Finally with Hubris, Self-Interest, and America’s Failed War in Afghanistan we conclude with a synthetic work which attempts to critique and summarize all that came before it.
I shall read all of these. You are encouraged to read them with me. I understand, however, that not everyone has a job that allows one the leisure to read this much material. That is why I’m doing this: I do have that sort of job, and thus can do this small part in helping my nation salvage something from this mess.
Those who have thought hard about why we failed must be listened to. The past cannot be changed. But lessons can be learned from it.
Now we must learn them.