I can’t help commenting, along with everyone else, on America’s Afghanistan disaster. But I’ll try to keep it short and to the point.
Marx famously quipped that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.”
What’s now happening in Afghanistan is tragic.
Just watch the footage of thousands of Afghans swarming Kabul airport, brandishing documents proving they’d made the mistake of working with the U.S. or its allies as they desperately try to push their way onboard one of the last flights out of the country before the Taliban can have their way with them; watch as they cling to the outside of America’s departing cargo planes, even as Apache helicopters have to clear the mass of humanity off the runway so those planes can take off; watch as their bodies fall hundreds of feet out of one of those plane’s wheel wells as it soars out of their country forever. If you do, it would be forgivable, I think, to break down in tears like Britain’s Defense Secretary did live on television.
But it is also farce.
Farce because, despite Secretary of State Antony Blinken appearing on four separate Sunday talk shows to make noises about this is all being “manifestly not Saigon” all over again, this was manifestly “Saigon on steroids,” as one aid worker reported from Kabul.
Farce because our State Department and embassy spent much of the last month tweeting out chiding messages to the Taliban warning them not to be mean, and to respect human rights and the “peace process,” or face international condemnation, before simply begging them to spare our embassy, and then ultimately rushing to burn the embassy’s own American flags before the Taliban could do it in the streets.
Farce, because our leaders spent a month assuring us this exact scenario would definitely not happen – as in July, when President Biden was declaring that “the likelihood that there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” and that, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy,” since the situation was “not at all comparable” to America’s retreat from Vietnam.
But most of all, farce because our political leadership was somehow reportedly “stunned” by the speed with which the allegedly 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), despite twenty years of training and almost $90 billion in U.S. security assistance, threw down their weapons and totally collapsed, letting the Taliban seize control of the country in less than a week, instead of the year and a half the military and intelligence establishment had assured them it would take.
But how, exactly, did this come as a shock? Why in the world did they seriously believe those estimates?
Did they somehow fail to read their own thousands of pages of government “lessons learned” reports, as obtained and published by the Washington Post in 2019 as “The Afghanistan Papers,” that described in minute detail how the vaunted ANSF was nothing more than a Potemkin paper army, inflated only by lies, corruption, and pederasty?
About how as many as 100,000 of the 350,000 figure was made up of “ghost soldiers” who didn’t exist, except on pay rolls?
About how recruits would often enlist for two weeks of training, “get their uniforms, then go back to the province and sell them,” and then, “unworried that they might get in trouble,” reenlist and “come back to do it again”?
About how the AN Police were “the most hated institution” in the country, because an “estimated 30 percent of Afghan police recruits deserted with their government-issued weapons so they could ‘set up their own private checkpoints’ and extort payments from travelers”?
About how U.S. military officers estimated that a full third of recruits were either “drug addicts or Taliban”? About how only about 2 in 10 could read and therefore follow written instructions and training materials? About how they were so preoccupied with looting fuel from U.S. bases that they “perpetually smelled of gasoline”? How Special Forces teams also “hated” the Afghan police whom they trained and worked with, describing them as “awful — the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel”?
About how Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Kabul, reported that they were useless “not because they’re out-gunned or out-manned,” but “because they are useless as a security force and they’re useless as a security force because they are corrupt down to the patrol level”?
About how, when asked “why is it possible that a large number of about 500 security forces cannot defeat about 20 or 30 Taliban,” exasperated community elders told one Interior Ministry advisor that “the security people are not there to defend the people and fight Taliban, they are there to make money”?
About how, “The less they behaved, the more money we threw at them,” so “there was no real incentive to reform,” as one former U.S. official put it?
But most of all, about how the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction concluded that “the American people have constantly been lied to.” About how nearly everything coming out of the Pentagon claiming progress was essentially a complete fiction for the last two decades, and they knew it? About how, “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” and, “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone,” as one U.S. Army colonel reported?
This has all been on the record for years. So there is only one way the Biden administration, the Pentagon, the State Department, the intelligence community, and all the finest minds of the U.S. foreign policy establishment involved managed to find themselves shocked by what happened: they were consuming their own bullshit… high on their own supply… accidentally living in the fantasy world they’d created for the public.
The cliché is that Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. But the real empire the U.S. spent over $1 trillion to build in Afghanistan over 20 years was an empire of lies. That empire produced a bureaucratic incentive structure within the military and political establishment that by its nature relentlessly churned out an endless stream of propagandistic falsehoods, delivered not only to the public but to themselves.
This was the context in which such luminaries as then Lt. Gen. Mark Milley could make an entire career as a senior officer out of claiming, as he did in a 2013 press conference, that thanks to his work the Afghan “army and this police force have been very, very effective in combat against the insurgents every single day” – and then continue to insist, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 2021, that, “The Afghan Security Forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country.”
U.S. Senators told Axios on Monday of their experience sitting through briefings by Milley, Blinken, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and feeling that it was “surreal” to hear them deliver bromides “while looking at their phones and seeing real-time chaos unfolding in Kabul.”
“Surreal” (not seeming real, dreamlike, mixing fact and fantasy) is almost the right way to put it. What they were experiencing was this empire of lies shattering as it made hard contact with reality.
No one, of course, has ever been held, or will ever be held, to account. Although politicians of each party will of course blame each other vociferously.
But then, the essential element of any traditional Greek tragedy is that the hero’s tragic fate is inevitable. So may an ending like this have always been for the United States, once it embroiled itself in Afghanistan.
Ironically, it appears to have been Biden’s understandable rejection of his generals’ credibility that led to the present circumstances. When Milley and Austin tried to convince Biden to stay longer in Afghanistan in a meeting back in March, according to an account in the New York Times, “the president was unmoved. If the Afghan government could not hold off the Taliban now, aides said he asked, when would they be able to? None of the Pentagon officials could answer the question.”
Biden was right: there was likely never going to be a point at which the ANSF was going to hold off the Taliban alone, and to stay would have only meant more American time, money, and lives spent in pursuit of that hopeless goal. But his decision nonetheless led to televised disaster; that’s what makes it tragic.
The problem is that, as was once said of one of Napoleon’s follies, this entire fiasco has been “worse than a crime; it was a blunder."
As I have written elsewhere, a central fact – perhaps the central fact – in our current age of upheaval is the collapse of any coherent collective authority. At home, a blundering government can hardly afford to lose any further legitimacy, not when public trust in nearly every institution of American life is at record lows.
Abroad, the United States has little credibility and respect left to squander. Within hours of the Taliban entering Kabul on Sunday, the op-eds started appearing in Chinese media: “U.S. Abandons Afghanistan, Taiwan Should Feel Uneasy”; “Failure of America in Afghanistan serves as warning to Taiwan secessionists.”
A nation’s hard-fought defeat can be absorbed and forgiven by its people, and by the world, even by its enemies; a vast and farcical display of rank systemic incompetence, hollow leadership, and duplicity: never. That will echo through the ages.
Farce is more fatal than tragedy.