As the Taliban reconquers Afghanistan, producing bloody scenes of reprisals and desperate attempts to get on some of the last planes out of the country, the blame game is operating at full tilt. Who’s responsible for all this? It can’t be America’s fault writ large—a colossal tale of imperial hubris and corruption that left an already war-wracked Afghanistan in shambles while our homeland slipped further into disrepair and authoritarianism. No, that would imply that America is not exceptional; that all of us have some penance to perform for what’s been wrought in our name. Another enemy is needed.
For the far right, many of whom supported the U.S. withdrawal when it began under President Donald Trump and have spoken out against fruitless nation-building abroad, the emerging disaster in Afghanistan—with its echoes of American flights out of Saigon in 1975—can be blamed on President Joe Biden and the Democrats. But the fault goes deeper than that, as religious conservatives, MAGA heads, paleocons, and right-wing extremists seem to have found some bizarre and creative ways to shoehorn their culture-war grievances into the Afghanistan debate. The problem, you see, is not the inherent injustice of occupying a foreign country for 20 years, the ineffectiveness of nation-building and counterinsurgency, the destabilizing effects of the global war on terrorism, CIA-trained death squads, or any matter of geopolitical strategy. The problem is, obviously, wokeness and the gays and gender-neutral pronouns and U.S. cultural decadence, all of which have conspired to make our military soft and incapable of ruling Afghanistan with the iron fist it required.
Take it from Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of our country’s leading exponents of U.S. military might—even if it’s deployed against the American people. “It’s clear President Biden and his Department of Defense have been more concerned with critical race theory and other woke policies than planning an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan,” tweeted Cotton.
If this all sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. But it’s also an emerging part of right-wing Afghanistan discourse, finding expression throughout the Twittersphere and in conservative publications like Breitbart, where General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was derided as too “woke” to have seen this collapse coming. “The US government is so busy centering wokeness that it is ignoring the real world,” said Rod Dreher, the religious traditionalist and Viktor Orbán fetishist. “Our military is telling itself woke lies,” he wrote in another tweet. Right-wing news personality Greg Kelly, whose tweets have the overweening self-parodic quality of the popular @dril Twitter account, expressed the same sentiment, writing that for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, “TRAGICALLY, Planning and preparing for AFGHANISTAN wasn’t a priority. Instead, he made the Military WOKE.”
Cast a net and you can reel in a huge catch of these confused geopolitical complaints, filtered through tired culture-war talking points. Bella Wallersteiner, a British commentator, blamed “G7 nations spending too much time focusing on their woke rebrand and pleading with the world to bow to their green agenda.” One of her followers asked, in an attempt at humor, what pronouns Afghan women should now use. “Afghanistan Falls as Biden and Woke Generals Nap,” went the headline from right-wing influencer Mike Cernovich. On Gab, a social network with a large far-right user base, one popular post waxed nostalgic that when the Afghan war started, the U.S. was “a Christian nation” that banned gays in the military, considered trans people “mentally ill,” and outlawed gay marriage. “We definitely lost the Afghanistan war,” wrote one person in the replies. A user with the Ayn Rand–inspired (and oddly misspelled) Twitter handle @WhoIsJohnGault offered a response that spoke to what they saw as the larger stakes: “We lost the culture war first.”
In some of these expressions, especially from religious traditionalists, you can detect dueling strains of contempt and respect for the Taliban. I don’t mean to say that these right-wingers are Taliban sympathizers, but they see Taliban foot soldiers who were nurtured by America’s foreign policy complex in military misadventures that predated the war on terrorism as relatively admirable precisely because their austere religious fundamentalism—and their opposition to the cultural decadence ostensibly corrupting American life—offers a familiar image of theocracy that they wish to emulate at home. Riffing on an Army document that casts “cultural and ethnic differences” as a strategic asset, Dreher wrote, “There’s nothing diverse about these hillbilly adversaries, but they drove us out of Afghanistan. There’s a lesson here.”
After 20 years of warfare, the lessons of Afghanistan should be numerous and obvious, but they have nothing to do with what Rod Dreher thinks. We never belonged there in the first place; President George W. Bush should have accepted the December 2001 offer from the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden; nation-building at gunpoint is a moral and administrative disaster; and practically everything we did made the country worse and the Taliban, who now sport an impressive array of U.S. armaments, more powerful. As an infamous headline once declared, the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan may have been the United States, whose bags of CIA cash bought the putative loyalties of politicians and warlords while further immiserating an already impoverished country. In the meantime, the flourishing of the opium trade, under the watchful eyes of U.S. forces, gave the Taliban all the money it needed.
There will be other lessons to extract, testimonies to collect, maybe even a blue-ribbon oversight commission or two. In a better world, the U.S. would offer Afghanistan reparations and take in a million refugees. In a similar spirit of wish fulfillment, we could hope for some accountability for U.S. officials who spent years lying about the progress of the war—which conservatives should view as a far greater outrage than liberal gender politics. (Based on the fact that the Republican National Committee deleted a section of its website celebrating Trump’s signing of a peace agreement with the Taliban, it would seem that the GOP is not quite ready to undertake the necessary reflection.)
These and other basic insights surrounding the war’s failure should be self-evident by now, unless you happen to believe a long-term neocolonial occupation is in America’s interests. As the far right ignores the more obvious lessons of Afghanistan and retreats ever deeper into culture-war absurdities, one can see where Trumpism and right-wing traditionalism comfortably intersect. The result is that any U.S. failure can be blamed not on politics, leadership, or policy, but on decadent elites and culture-war grievances that run bone deep.
Media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart somewhat famously pronounced that politics was downstream of culture. For today’s far right, that is an indelible truth. Wokeness, LGBTQ rights, and other forms of progressive belief are, in the eyes of Dreher and his fellow travelers, the real cause of American decline. Above all, this is what has contributed to our impossible-to-ignore national drift. This particular culture war, especially over LGBTQ rights, may be another conflict that the far right is fated to lose. But as in Afghanistan, they are willing to battle as long as others bear the costs, and they can do a lot of damage before they’re done.