We Must Learn From Our Defeat

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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

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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:

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.

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46 Comments

Maybe we learned something. There’s no appetite now for interventions or invasions anymore – when the Iran hawks like Bolton tried to escalate things under Trump, it led to nothing. Under Biden, it will also lead to nothing. What interventions do happen are done quietly and cheaply, with no public loss of American life and quiet use of defense spending.

But beyond that, I’m not hopeful. The imperium rarely learns or adjusts in time to save itself, or adjust to a weakened position. Great Britain kept trying to be the hegemon of the early 20th century order long after it was neither the greatest military power nor greatest economic power of the era, and only stopped trying when war made them do so. And they’re the hopeful case, pivoting to prosperity and smaller-tier Great Power status from it all.

“There’s no appetite now for interventions or invasions anymore”

Quite so. There was a bit of a fuss over Cuba (the Right was divided, the Left against intervention), but it didn’t amount to anything. Americans didn’t care at all about the Second Karabakh War. They didn’t care about the recent Donbass flare. They waxed poetic on Israel and a Gaza for a week and then didn’t care. They don’t care about the rampant disorder in South Africa. They probably think Amhara and Tigray refer to types of fabrics or curries.

Afghanistan, Iraq, and to a lesser extent Syria and Libya, substantially discredited the humanitarian intervention. The other thing is that Coronavirus and Culture War issues suck the oxygen (joke not intended) out of political discourse, leaving little for foreign affairs.

That said I have been surprised to see that Americans still have an antipathy towards China. There appears to be an elite anti-China consensus. The public is lukewarm but the “Chimerica” stuff has no takers besides utter cretins. But Americans are truly turning inward, so it remains to see whether the anti-China zeitgeist will survive that.

If the only thing you learn from twenty years of effort at something, is that you are bad at thing, you have learning difficulties.

Briefly:

1. Your call to look at the leadership class as a whole is spot-on
2. Your apparent valorization of the post-9/11 militarization of meaning dismays me

I can’t find a reference to Hedges’ War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning on your site, but it might be a worthy addition to your reading list.

I do not know if I ‘valorize’ it so much as simply describe it. One could say that the entire terror moment was, in part, a desperate grasp for meaning.

In any case, there may be consequences for dashing a generation’s source of meaning and reason for sacrifice. Pooh-poohing or ridiculing the notion that people find purpose in events like these blinds one to those consequences.

1. “simply describe”: OK
2. “consequences for dashing”: yes. I think we mostly agree. More when I have time.

Adam Tooze:

“The tragedy is that the one thing that those with power and influence could agree on was war-fighting. In a profoundly divided polity, with deep divisions extending into the elite itself, national security is the one area where a degree of bipartisan agreement was still possible.

Other than making good the damage done by the frailty of the financial system, the War on Terror was by far and away the largest collective undertaking of the United States elite in the last twenty years. That is what the numbers so carefully compiled by the left critics of the war show. It is indictment enough.”

https://adamtooze.substack.com/p/chartbook-34-how-we-paid-for-the

Regarding “finding purpose”: I am glad to see you are starting with two books on the Bush Administration’s choices. I agree with Yglesias[1] that, feckless as we have been over the last decade, everything when Bush pivoted to Iraq in 2002. I do not see the value to reviewing accounts of what we did after committing to invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan in response to a terrorist attack by Saudi nationals—the purpose of terrorism being in part to provoke such a self-defeating response. Perhaps your reviews will enlighten me.

[1] https://www.slowboring.com/p/afghan-war

Great initiative. Curious to see the absence of a Trump admin source on your list — not sure there’s anything Afghanistan-specific out yet, but Trump is notable for being the first to voice unspoken truths about the disaster of Afghanistan. Why he was unable to act on his apparently correct instinct seems a story worth telling.

President Trump, having exerted the least amount of control over his Administration of any President in recent memory, was both cajoled and stymied by key individuals and institutions, including the Pentagon, which both sincerely believed in some sort of positive outcome In Afghanistan, but also had numerous rice bowls being filled by the existence of the “forever war”.

What surprised me about this otherwise interesting article is how Mr. Greer listed a series of disasters, including the opioid crisis, the financial crisis, the mismanagement of the occupation, and then added the election of Trump there, as if it belongs in the same category and is not in the least bit debatable. Seems that extreme partisanship is still possible even one strenuously attempts to be objective. And neither did he add, though it may be placed under the heading of the unraveling of the civic culture, the politicization of intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the purpose of internal politics, including the spying on the Trump Campaign, the impeachment saga and so on.

That’s an interesting story, but its not going to come out for a while. I think a partial story that covers 2017/2018 would be kind of useless without telling the story of Doha, so its for the best if we get that narrative all at once in the future…probably through Khalilzad’s memoirs (ugh).

Excellently written. You summed up a lot of what’s been bugging me. Specifically this: “How did we give so much yet get so little”?

Najibullah ruled over rubble and faced an enemy backed by both Pakistan and America. He waged offensives even after formal Soviet withdrawal, fighting on for years until he ran out of food and fuel and the situation’s prognosis was dismal.

Our satellite state had a functioning capital, the finest weapons known to man, unfathomable sums of money…and it crumbled while we were still there, gradually and then suddenly.

When compared to how the Soviet satellite did with what it had, our failure looks even more terrible. I just can’t summon any emotion besides anger at the fact that nobody is going to face any repercussions for what happened. A Subway franchise has more accountability than the American government and armed forces.

I have a suspicion that the only thing our ruling class is going to learn from Afghanistan is that they can steal 2 trillion and get away with it.

That our bureaucratic and political systems are unable to accommodate (or even tolerate) challenge, dissent and disagreement is, I think, the central lesson to take from so much of the last 20 years. Afghanistan is just the latest example. I’m confident that the reading list will turn up not so much a golden thread as a rich golden seam of self-delusion, groupthink, short-termism, careerism, bureaucratic infighting and straightforward mendacity. If this moment of reflection can bring about a return to open and self-critical debate then maybe some good can be salvaged from the wreckage of the GWOT.

I’ve been reading this book for most of the past month. It is very good. I think if you pair it with Coll’s Directorate S you have a very good nnarative history of the Afghan war

Not so hard to understand how the Pashtuns fought so long and hard against abortions for their teenage girls and the gay pride flag. They have some self respect. Next time the United States decides to spend decades in a foreign country slaughtering people, it might think a little bit harder about the local population’s willingness to digest the purported blessings of American civilization, especially where masses of people even here in its country of origin resent and despise those purported blessings. Sad that the endgame was botched so badly, but relieved that the American effort to crush this country and turn into a half baked version of our own loathsome cultural pile of shit is finally over. There is zero chance that even one single person will pay any personal or professional price for what they did to the USA, to our military, or to the people of Afghanistan is a pipe dream, including thousands killed and maimed. They are just mad that they’re 20 year rice bowl has finally broken, and that’s why they are turning on Biden. The only conceivable ray of sunshine here is that they are prevented from doing this ever again. You’re also right that the strange sense of national unity and fellow feeling which came along after 9/11 was real. It was viciously and cynically exploited by opportunists, and we will never fall for it again.

People said similar stuff after Vietnam. If the American empire survives, we’ll be having this conversation again in a generation.

I liked your article, but I would like to suggest that perhaps you are allowing yourself to fall into the same sort of group-think and false assumptions which led to the Afghanistan debacle. I read an assumption in these lines: “The challenge posed by an ambitious and revisionist Communist Party of China dwarfs any problem a movement of illiterate poppy farmers could create.”

As an American who lives in China and speaks Chinese, I think this framing is wrong. It’s a Cold War style of thinking that assumes violence and conflict are inevitable between America and China. That’s certainly a popular frame in Washington, but so was the belief that we had to topple the Taliban in October of 2001. And so was the idea that we should fight the Communists in Vietnam 40 years before that!

Shouldn’t you take your own advice about learning from this disaster and make your second task to look more critically on the emerging DC consensus when it comes to China? (Your first task is this wise project of reflection and reading about Afghanistan.)

THAT seems like the next place where the leadership class is likely to screw things up again and yet in the very article where you excoriate this class of people you uncritically accept their entire framing!

Dude, read the rest of the articles on this site! I have written more about this than almost anything else… and perhaps had bit part in creating this new “establishment” thinking (though it was establishment heresy 5 years ago!)

As a non-American, I truly don’t have a dog in this US-China fight. Mild poxes on both houses in my book (of the very mildly-dangerous kind!).

But I do find it very funny, having read a lot of your prior stuff, that you are shilling for a massive confrontation with China for ‘reasons’ all the while castigating the foreign-policy apparatchiks of yesteryear for apparently not having the correct ‘reasons’ on behalf of their particular pet project (War on Terror).

Out of curiosity, have you ever stopped to imagine a world in 20 years where, say, the China Threat decreases (i.e, there’s a grand deal or 1 side ceases being a geopolitical threat to the other) and the new threat is (purely hypothetically speaking) an India or an Indonesia or a Nigeria: States with an economic/military heft/potential to challenge elements of the US order and which might be hiding behind the fig-leaf of liberalism and democracy, all the while pursuing aims at odds with US policy. What if two-bit bloggers c.2040 then proceed to criticize your ‘reasons’ as missing the ‘true picture’, as the symptoms of a strategically myopic age and misguided pathologies that ‘squandered resources’? What I’m getting at is that this self-flagellation and belly-aching/navel-gazing is ultimately pointless. Especially given that memories are short, mistakes are repeated indefinitely and the military-industrial complex is a beast with a life of its own.

Also, let’s look at some of the reasons you give for a China confrontation and see how similar they are to the arguments made by neocons in 2001-2003:

1) “We could pragmatically deal with Taliban/China if they weren’t so ideologically bent on our destruction/demotion?”. A laughably self-serving reach (in both cases). You’re very fond of this one Tanner. Ultimately its an extremely flimsy claim. The gist of one of your prior pieces on this topic went along the lines of (I believe): “We could theoretically cut a deal with China to split/share the Pacific. We might even entertain such an offer if we didnt have all these military/strategic reasons. But but but but, even if we did, the Chinese wouldn’t be pacified and they would continue to fight/hate us because ‘ideology’!” Just a tiny bit self-serving…

2) “We pose(d) no active threat to them but they are now directly endangering the safety of our allies”. Ah, the ‘allies’ card…love it! Very nebulous of course and a slightly dubious take from a state with a long history of adopting ‘spheres-of-influence’ thinking.

3) “We’re doing this to uphold international law and defend freedom everywhere”. Awfully-selective-state-on-the-international-law-front says what?

4) “We are nowhere near as bad as they are – so kindly don’t engage in whataboutism or false parallels!”
Oh boy…when you have to invent an entire term to try and deflect accusations of rank hypocrisy, that’s when you know things are getting bad.

America is on this train of course, yesterday’s establishment heresy is now in vogue and everybody’s got a one-way ticket to cold war 2 (all the while screaming that the Chinese are the ones who started it). And I’m sure this new thinking will be around for a while at this point. But, I’d love to be around when it shifts and see how the literati laud/justify/abandon/demonize today’s consensus.

Your snideness is not appreciated; lose it, or I don’t think I will let your next comment through.

As it is, I *have* considered the general problem you propose. It is one reason why I read Mazarr’s Leap of Faith about once a year. I think every person who leans hawk has a responsibility to read it, at least, and try very hard not to fall into the same mistakes.

You mis-characterize my #1 position. The CPC is very specific about what ideological retreats, and practical organizational retreats that follow from those, would be needed for a stable accommodation between the two sides to even be possible. I think their position makes eminent sense: the West *has* engaged in activities that threaten regime change in China; from the 1989 forward, the West *started* it. There is just a question of what would need to happen for us to stop being the threat they perceive. I doubt America will make those changes; I do not think we should. Your snideness changes none of that.

I’ve never argued #3; #4 depends on the issue. #2 — either the lives of 23 million Taiwanese matter or they don’t. I think they do.

Actually, just don’t come back. If you can’t debate with honesty, there is no reason for me to tolerate your comments here.

Its not snide mate. And even if it were, you won’t have to dig deep to find my central point: The literati are very good when it comes to calling for lessons to be learnt, past mistakes avoided and a web of scrutiny to be cast, and even better at finding extenuating circumstances for their own pet projects/peeves to escape such comparisons.

Case-in-point, a lot of the arguments you make for a China confrontation are simply mimicking older talking points. I don’t care enough to debate you on all four of the statements I highlighted (even the first, which stretches pekingology to breaking points), but my claim stands: The wheel isnt being re-invented. Not a lot of ‘learning’ is going on. Just the blind hope and the same earnest conviction that this time, this time its serious/different!

You deem yourself a public intellectual, so I’m sure your ‘snido-meter’ is better than mine and let’s leave the eminently labored debate around ‘honesty’ in online forums to one side. I don’t even what being ‘dishonest’ in this context even is…I do know that slightly thicker skin wouldn’t go amiss, especially since mine was hardly a troll comment.

Another non American here. Sorry but you just lost me, maybe for good. TimBo was humorous and light hearted. You’re obviously taking yourself very seriously. Here is what I wrote on that subject elsewhere.

t seems the view from outside the US was radically different from the dreams of the US elite. I had no idea that the US had an actual feeling of purpose and mission post 9-11. I thought this was mostly a PR thing concocted by the neocons. I mean, terrorism has happened all over the world pre 9-11. The French warned you. In the 90s, terrorists came to a hair of flying airplanes into the Eiffel tower. America is not special. It just got spared longer. Here is what I thought post 9-11, as I had just left the US for Asia.

I was horrified at the attacks and thought the US had a right to retaliate as hard as it wished against the point of origin of the terrorists, here, Afghanistan. But I thought this would be a purpose-led enterprise, with a clear goal and a clear end, related to the terrorists. When the “war on terror” was announced, I realized this would turn into an endless crusade.

Two mental models came to my mind: one, that this was to become a hysterical over-reaction on a global scale, creating massive collateral damage domestically and internationally, just like an autoimmune disease where the reaction to an infection eventually becomes worse than the disease and threatens its own body. Second, that the US had no right to make an act of self defense into some chest thumping remaking-the-planet-in-its-own-image thing. As much as I feel awful about the decent people of Afghanistan, and as much as I am a Westerner through and through, as much as I know that many people world wide aspire to the same views and open society life, while being oppressed at home: this kind of change can only come from within, and not against a majority of people in many countries who do not want these things. It can’t be done coming from the outside only.

Then Iraq came along. On that I started to get really cynical. America’s bizarre obsession with all things Middle East is unbelievably self destructive. At the time, Kissinger had made some noises about how the US ought to control the Middle East to control Europe and China through oil. Au contraire, I thought, Iraq will become the massive quagmire the US needs (as a damper to its overreach and hubris) and that distracts the US just long enough to give China a chance. That Iraq will make the US forget China for a while, and that this will be a good thing for the world, because it will allow China to develop, at the enormous sacrifice of, mostly, the Middle East bearing another useless war. Not sure what I think about China now, but that’s what I thought then. Before Iraq, there had been noises that the US should counter the rise of China. After Iraq, the US just went into navel gazing over its own sacrifices there (as with Vietnam before, oh how the US suffered! oh dear! the horror, the horror!), Afghanistan became a forever war instead of a short, sharp retaliation, civil liberties were massively curtailed domestically in the West in the name of the “war on terror” and China was forgotten until Trump. And as it had to happen, with absolute certainty from the beginning if you ever knew anything about the word “culture”, Afghanistan was eventually abandoned to its own devices. Not in defeat, but because it ever only was just another US vanity project.

Those were my thoughts ca. 2003-2005. I can’t quite believe how right I was. I don’t think it was hard to guess how this would turn out. How can so many smart people be so blind?

Great scholarship aside, which you seem to have, if you display that kind of blinders, I can’t really trust your opinion any longer.

The problem is that if you wrote anything critical about your hosts (The Chinese Communist Party), then your stay in China would be short-lived. I wouldn’t believe a hostage’s testimony about the benevolence of his captors any more than I could believe you.

Thanks You may be the only one of our public intellectuals with the range of knowledge and daring to attempt this project. Count me in.

My one criticism of this project, would be that all these titles are about Americas war in Afghanistan. So there is no opportunity to compare a problem with Americas experience in Afghanistan, with similar problems elsewhere. For example, if Afghanistan was corrupt during the American war there, was it equally corrupt during the Russian war there? How did it compare with South Vietnam, French Indo-China, British Dhofar, and so on? Comparative history is the closest thing we have a controlled experiment in history, and it is not used enough.

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Indeed.

America is not the first country to taste defeat in Afghanistan.

The British army was wiped off the face of the Earth in the first Anglo-Afghan war.

The Soviets too were expelled; utterly humiliated and exhausted.

So we really do need a more broader, more comparative approach.

Furthermore, we need to understand the people to whom we lost: the Pashtun.

The Taliban is a Pashtun organization; our allies were a mix of Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Qizilbash, and a minority of Pashtuns.

Again, a narrow focus isn’t fruitful.

Let’s try to understand the country on its own terms. If we do that, everything else will be comprehensible.

And for that task, you only need two books:

1) Mountstuart Elphinstone’s “Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India”.

An old, old book; yet, still foundational to every other work on the anthropology, sociology, economics, and early political history of Afghanistan. Nearly everything else on Afghanistan and the northwestern frontier of Pakistan is derivative, and shockingly shallow in comparison.

2) The only other work on this country which isn’t derivative, and which contains substantial information and interpretation not found in the book above, is “Afghanistan” by Louis Dupree.

Another classic… another exhaustive introduction to this country.

Truthfully, if you read these two books, then you don’t need to read any of the books on that list.

And if you had read these two books at any point within the last 20 years, you would’ve seen our failure in Afghanistan coming, from miles away.

I have a rule that whenever someone mentions the retreat from Kabul, I should point out that that war ended with a pair of British columns razing much of Kabul to the ground, before withdrawing with a number of liberated prisoners. And that the second Anglo-Afghan war ended with the British imposing their preferred ruler and reducing Afghanistan to a protectorate for the next forty years.

Even the Soviet-installed regime survived for several years after the Soviet withdrawal, until after the Soviet Union itself was no more. That is a lot better than the US-installed regime managed.

And some might call the Taliban an ISI-installed regime.

In keeping with what Brett said above, I think Americans have learnt an important lesson from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the sense that there is now no appetite for more invasions of other countries, in the Middle East or elsewhere.

This is a good thing, because such invasions don’t usually solve much or improve things long-term for the county invaded, they cause innocent people on both sides to die, and they don’t engender feelings of gratitude towards the US in most of the world. In fact, they are a huge boon for Chinese and Russian propaganda, which are still milking the invasion of Iraq for all its worth.

You are not going to learn anything important, by just looking at Afghanistan.
Simple question; Could our capital markets function, without the government siphoning up trillions in surplus investment money? No. The secret sauce of capitalism is public debt backing private wealth.
We are linear, goal oriented creatures in a cyclical, circular, feedback driven reality and while markets need money to circulate, people see it as signal to extract and store.
Since the asset is backed by the debt , storing the asset requires generating debt.
Contrary to Econ 101, the medium and the store are not interchangeable. Blood is a medium, while fat is a store.
The wars did what was required, generated debt.
Now we are staring into the abyss.

“The organs of state must practice democratic centralism, they must rely on the masses and their personnel must serve the people” K.Marx

As long as Pakistan provided refuge for the Taliban and didn’t permit the US to take the battle inside Pakistan, this fight was doomed. Unless and until the US was willing to label Pakistan as a co-belligerent, then we wasted lives and treasure. Instead, we paid tribute to Pakistan to get permission to ship supplies across its territory over land and air while they provided indispensable sanctuary for the Taliban.

It’s too bad John Boyd isn’t still alive. I would love to read something about our decision cycles in Afghanistan. Americans don’t seem to iterate well once they put on a uniform. Thankfully the private sector is full of diversity: lots of successes and failures everywhere. Most of what we tried against the Taliban wasn’t too different from what failed in Vietnam. It turned out the big new idea, precision munitions, didn’t help. I think there is nothing wrong with any of the ideas we tried, but we were slow to evaluate the results, reorient, make a new decision and then act.

First, do NOT War unless it its declared by Congress; If we went back to the WWII laws on the books against unreasonable profits in a time of war, which required taxes be levied in a time of DECLARED War … AND we taxed everyone including the wealthy and corporations … and have a 100% mandatory draft; war would not ever happen by the USA.

I agree with a lot of things you say, but here’s a perspective to consider. The true consequences of American intervention in Afghanistan may not be known for years. I hesitate to point out the “positives” for obvious reasons. But, for example, fighting for 20 years in a war that mostly seemed unwinnable may look bad to us, but it may give pause to potential state-level adversaries. The media narrative (for example) is that this emboldens China vs Taiwan. But if I put myself in China’s shoes, do I really want to take a risk of war with a country that was stubborn enough to keep fighting 20 years in a god-forsaken place like Afghanistan? I mean, who knows the lengths to which America might go in a war that actually matters, such as one in the South China Sea. And to boot, at great cost of course, the American military now has 20 years of fresh combat experience. The PLA has none.

This is not to make apologies for the Afghanistan imbroglio. But just to say that potential adversaries may not see our involvement through the same lens as a war weary American public.

This comment’s gone around quite a bit, the old “our stubborn idiocy actually ‘deters’ our adversaries!” approach.

Number of problems with it. Firstly, war with a nuclear-armed peer is different, in oh so many ways, from a ‘peacekeeping’ operation against a bunch of toga-wearing seminarians. Americans and American rivals understand this point.

Secondly, its like saying “Nigeria’s terrible poverty, mortality and illiteracy ACTUALLY deters invaders, because they can see just how much hardship Nigerians are able to put up with!”. You’re trying to put lipstick on a pig here. Romanticizing stupidity isnt wise. And it definitely doesn’t highlight resolve. Just stupidity.

Finally, Britain had plenty of ‘military experience’ 1871-1914. More than the Germans. Shame it was the wrong sort of ‘military experience’. To paraphrase Blackadder: “I joined up when we fighting colonial wars, where the enemy were forbidden from carrying guns and only armed themselves with hardened bits of fruit. Imagine my surprise in 1914 to find myself face-to-face with 6 million heavily-armed Germans!”

The “toga wearing seminarians” i.e. the mujahideen are a formidable fighting force. Underestimating them is why 3 superpowers have now left Afghanistan in defeat.

Beacuse US didin’t even bother to study about them. It was more about US stupidity than Taliban’s ability.Just like Mike Tylson could get tripped over a stone