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Today, the United States has withdrawn its military forces from Afghanistan. Whatever one thinks about how the exit was handled, the Biden administration has done what we should have done years ago: admit defeat and come home.

Defeat is probably the wrong word. Five years ago, Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock began to gather government documents that contained frank assessments of the war in Afghanistan. In late 2019, he wrote a series of articles that form the basis of a new book released today, The Afghanistan Papers. Whitlock’s research demonstrates that neither political nor military leaders ever established clear goals for that conflict. 

Whitlock offers convincing evidence that the most informed observers of Afghanistan found the notion of building a “modern democracy” in the country risible. We tried to eradicate opium production—and failed. We sought to promote business activity and entrepreneurship—and ended up empowering a kleptocracy. In view of Pakistan’s ambivalent role—aiding our efforts in the early years, but allowing the Taliban to retreat into tribal regions in northeastern Pakistan—we were never going to prevent the Taliban from retaking control of the country.

Today does not so much mark defeat as the cessation of futilities and the collapse of a dream palace of our own foolish construction.

Archives from the Bush administration include many short, pungent memos from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Whitlock uses these to show that one of the main architects of our strategy was painfully aware of his inability to know if things were going well or poorly. 

Rumsfeld also foresaw (and tried to resist) the temptation of “nation building.” But we had troops on the ground. As long as bin Laden was alive, pulling them out was politically impossible. And after the terrorist mastermind was killed in 2011, our military and political leaders had too much invested to pull out. Nobody had the courage to say out loud that we had reached a dead end.

The leitmotif of The Afghanistan Papers is that our political leaders misled the public, and as time went on, so did the generals running the war. Whitlock lets the material he gathered (often despite resistance from government officials) speak for itself, allowing the reader to judge the extent of prevarication, as opposed to the inevitable political need to massage the message.

That presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump would want to declare victory (or at least avoid admitting failure) does not trouble me. Such are the pressures of elective office. But Whitlock provides evidence that, over time, top military brass became factories of wishful thinking. By 2011, the Pentagon was more of a propaganda machine than a source of sound advice for Obama, and then Trump.

Starting in 1942, General Bernard Montgomery commanded British troops in their major campaigns until the end of World War II. Admiral Chester Nimitz was in command of the Pacific theater from the outset of the war to its end. By contrast, our policy after 9/11 was to cycle generals through commands. The same was true for State Department staff and other diplomats. As Whitlock observes, this meant few cared to own the situation and most “hesitated to pass negative assessments up the chain of command,” fearing that a bearer of bad news would see his career take a turn for the worse.

Whitlock quotes many officers and diplomats who bemoan the depth and scope of corruption in the Afghan government. But few recognize the corruption on our side: careerism. Michael Flynn was perhaps an exception. Whitlock quotes the general: “From ambassadors down to the low level, [they all say] we are doing a great job. Really? So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel we are losing.” Of course, after Trump’s election, Flynn was targeted by our national security state and destroyed.

General David McKiernan was another truth teller. During the lame duck months of the Bush administration, McKiernan “did not deceive the public with specious language.” He allowed that things were not going well. In May 2009, he was abruptly sacked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Whitlock’s analysis rings true: Those running the war in Washington “had sent a message to the rest of the U.S. Armed Forces: They were cashiering the commanding general for telling the truth.”

The Afghan government was often profoundly corrupt, skimming money off contracts and demanding bribes. Americans can be corrupt as well, padding resumes, brown-nosing, avoiding hard truths, and reiterating the party line as they spin their way to the top. As Whitlock demonstrates, after McKiernan was sacked, the top brass churned out empty platitudes: “making good progress,” “real progress,” “substantial progress,” “undeniable progress,” “significant progress.” As one general put it, “Winning is achieving progress.” 

We’re rightly appalled by the chaos in Kabul these last two weeks. But The Afghanistan Papers makes clear a troubling fact: Top-level military leaders had become invested in half-truths and outright falsehoods. In a mismanaged conflict, it’s hard to see how getting out can be otherwise than very ugly.

We need to ask hard questions about how the withdrawal was handled. Yet a larger and much more consequential question looms: Why did we stay for so long, only to leave in disgrace? Whitlock notes the mistake of not including Taliban leaders in the 2002 talks meant to forge a consensus government after our initial military successes. But the wound of 9/11 was too deep and fresh. The surge Obama ordered in 2009 made security worse, not better, paving the way for the Taliban’s return to power. Our nation-building efforts amounted to nothing, as the rapid collapse of Afghan government forces in August indicated. 

But the roots of our failure go deeper than that. Reading The Afghanistan Papers reinforced my judgment that since the end of the Cold War our moral vanity and lack of limits have been our worst enemies. As Whitlock shows, the American-funded NGOs and other do-good organizations were already in Afghanistan in 2002. It would have taken herculean political strength to avoid the slide toward constructing a liberal-internationalist dream palace, making Afghanistan a “modern democracy.” To this day, journalists repeat “women’s rights” as an all-purpose cry of anguish as that dream palace collapses.

America has idealism in her DNA. It can be one of our strengths. But we need to take the measure of our humiliating exit from Afghanistan. We are a powerful country, but we do not have unlimited resources, and our fellow citizens do not have unlimited patience. 

I’m proud of my country, but the experience in Afghanistan teaches us that we need to check our cocksure liberal moralism. It is not the case that “everyone desires freedom,” as Bush intoned in his Second Inaugural, or that our culture is the “envy of the world,” as Obama said after he won in 2012. Quite the contrary, the world is full of determined men who are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices to defend their way of life, which is not at all like ours.

Let’s learn from the futility of our years in Afghanistan. With some moral humility and a renewed sense of our limits, we might be able to use our great power to do some good in the world.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

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