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Afghanistan Is a Disaster. But It Was Always Going to Be.

It’s sickening to see the Taliban taking Kabul. But we could stay another 20 years, or 120, and nothing would change. We must learn the lesson of limits.

The American flag is reflected on the windows of the U.S. embassy building in Kabul as a helicopter flies away.
Sajjad Hussain/Getty Images
The American flag is reflected on the windows of the U.S. embassy building in Kabul.

It was tragic to watch events unfolding Sunday in Kabul. Blame Joe Biden for a terrible miscalculation based on intelligence estimates that were obviously crap. But also blame Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo (who signed the peace deal with the Taliban that forced Biden to choose between withdrawal and expansion of hostilities). And while you’re at it, blame George W. Bush and the neocons, blame the generals, and in fact, blame the whole bipartisan foreign-policy establishment for the hubris of thinking that we could remake the place in our image.

Even blame people like me. I firmly opposed the Iraq War from the start, so at least I got that one right. But I supported the war in Afghanistan because I considered it thoroughly justified under both common-sense morality and international law. The Afghan government harbored a movement, Al Qaeda, that directly attacked our shores. If you’re not allowed to respond to that, when is a response ever justified?

I may have paid attention to the question of whether war was justified. But I didn’t pay quite enough attention to the question of whether it was wise.

I didn’t dismiss this issue; I remember thinking about it a lot. I remember hearing the warnings that, back in 1979, the Soviet Union thought it was going to waltz through Afghanistan—and ended up getting stuck there for a decade and losing in the end. I remember thinking that perhaps waging a full-on war went too far; maybe a mere “police action” (a phrase employed at the time by skeptics) designed just to rout Al Qaeda, not reinvent the country, was called for. I remember my apprehensive reaction when newscasters broke into whatever football game I was watching that Sunday in October 2001 to announce that we’d launched the first airstrikes in Afghanistan.

So I wasn’t exactly in the Wolfowitz caucus. But I nevertheless thought it was justified, and I hoped in that foolish American way that we could build schools and sewage systems and libraries and playgrounds, and air-drop Ho Hos, and show them episodes of Friends, and make them see that we meant well and that our way of life was right for them, too.

I hoped, in other words, that this time, we could reverse history. Well, 20 years later (the Soviets got off easy!), it’s clear that we can’t. It’s been a chastening two decades—or at least, I hope it’s been a chastening two decades for the people who actually decide these things. You have to understand the context in which Afghanistan happened, by which I only partially mean the September 11 attacks. I was never out for bloodlust revenge. In fact, I thought a lot of people, like Christopher Hitchens, had lost their fucking minds. I was appalled at his belligerent and on-the-edge-of-racist rhetoric.

But something had happened earlier that Hitchens and Susan Sontag and people like them were right about: the horrific conflict in Bosnia. In that case, we witnessed the Serbs committing the worst atrocities in Europe since Hitler. The Bosnians were trying to build a multiethnic and pluralistic democracy of people from three different religions, and the ethnonationalist Slobodan Milošević wanted to destroy it.

We should have done something. But George H.W. Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, stood on the sidelines (“We don’t have a dog in this fight,” Baker infamously told Congress). Bill Clinton did better, organizing the 3,500 NATO air sorties that finally led to peace talks, but not before the bodies had piled high and the phrase “ethnic cleansing” entered the Western lexicon.

The horrors of Bosnia made a lot of liberals around my age believe in this thing that we reassuringly named “humanitarian intervention.” It led many such liberal people and institutions, notably this magazine, to support the Iraq invasion.

As I said, I never went for that one, because I saw that that war was premised on a tower of lies about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, and because I knew the history of how Dick Cheney and crew had wanted to use the end of the Cold War to establish American global hegemony (Google “1992 Defense Planning Guidance”). Iraq was twisted like a pretzel to fit into the category of humanitarian intervention.

But even the moral fiasco of Iraq didn’t mean, to me, that we should give up on the idea that the United States could still help struggling small-d democrats around the world. In 2013, I thought Barack Obama ought to be doing more to aid the Free Syrian Army, which he callously dismissed as a bunch of “farmers or teachers or pharmacists.” If we couldn’t be squarely on the side of people risking their lives for democracy against a thug dictator who was dropping bombs that released hundreds of nails upon detonation on his own people, on children, what in the world did we stand for?

A question like the above states a moral absolute. It is tempting, alluring; indeed, nearly irresistible. How can any decent American answer it in the negative?

And yet, the world does not traffic in moral absolutes. The world is a fragile thread of conditional ambiguities. The fact of the matter, with respect to Syria, was that the chance of Bashar Al Assad’s foes, bitterly divided between Sunnis and anti-Assad Alawis, working together was extremely remote, as experts explained to me at the time.

Part of me still wishes we’d done more. But what would it have accomplished? I can’t honestly say. No one can.

The lesson of the post-9/11 era is that American power has limits—very severe limits at that. We can’t remake the world. We couldn’t remake one relatively small country. The post-Vietnam era should have left us well educated in this truth, but a new generation of foreign-policy leaders had to learn it all over again, at a cost (combining Afghanistan and Iraq) of hundreds of thousands of lives and more than $6 trillion. Let that number sink in: In inflation-adjusted terms, that’s about 35 Marshall Plans.

The United States should continue to promote democracy, but only in “soft power” ways. Military interventions, when they must happen, should be short and specifically targeted. Conventional wisdom heaps contempt on what Obama did in Libya, but I actually think that one accomplished its limited mission. Muammar Qaddafi’s son vowed a mass slaughter of innocents in Benghazi. NATO stepped in, and no slaughter ever happened. Did we then leave too soon? That’s what everyone said. But the future of Libya is up to Libyans, not us.

And the fate of Afghanistan, it saddens me to say, isn’t up to us either. It’s up to the people of Afghanistan. It sickens me to see the Taliban take over, and we may need to step in now and do something to shore up the Afghan military for a short time. But here’s the unalloyed truth: We could stay another 20 years, or 40, or 120, and nothing would change. And finally, let us be honest with ourselves: The United States of America is no longer a country that can afford the luxury, if that’s the right word, of promoting democracy abroad. Our first task is to preserve it here at home, where it is under such an extremely serious threat. The best way to show the rest of the world that we treasure democracy is to make sure it triumphs within our own borders. We’d better tend that garden first.