The invasion was doomed from the start.
Addressing America’s current political crisis, Ezra Klein’s essay in The New York Times, “Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem,” asserts that the problem is much bigger than the chaotic withdrawal. There was no feasible way to exit gracefully. All the attacks on Biden and the mismanagement of the pullout are a distraction. Focussing on the disastrous drawdown is more palatable than admitting a colossal defeat: The ignominious exit leaves Afghanistan no better off after two decades of occupation at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives lost and an expenditure of more than $2 trillion.
No, the real problem, Klein contends, is our failure to learn from past disasters. We are blinded by the illusion that our military might can force the outcome we seek. We believe the oxymoron that we can impose democracy on a culture that we don’t know. We deceive ourselves by insisting on our honorable conduct despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The misguided faith in our ability to control coupled with our refusal to accept the limitations of our power keep leading us down a rabbit hole.
There’s no denying America is the most powerful country in the world, but what we’ve seen over and over in recent decades is we cannot turn that into the outcomes we want. Whether it’s Afghanistan or Libya or sanctions on Russia and Venezuela, we don’t get the policy outcomes we want, and I think that’s because we overreach — we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
Klein reports that Ben Rhodes, a top foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, told him
Afghanistan. Iraq. Yemen. Somalia. Libya. Every one of those countries is worse off today in some fashion. The evidentiary basis for the idea that American military intervention leads inexorably to improved material circumstances is simply not there.
Moreover, writes Klein, we are holding on to the illusion of our knowledge. The Iraq war should have taught us that
We don’t know what we don’t know, and, even worse, we don’t always know what we think we know [emphasis mine]. Policymakers are easily fooled by people with seemingly relevant experience or credentials who will tell them what they want to hear or what they already believe. … We do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.
Klein alludes to the famous observation of Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense for President G.W. Bush and an architect of the Iraq war:
As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
But Rumsfeld missed another kind of unknown. Klein appends the one that proved the most treacherous, the false known, that is, believing that something false is actually true. Things like Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the conviction that the Iraqis would joyously welcome an American invasion.
We don’t listen to the dissenting voices that recognize the folly of foreign invasions. “That has allowed too much to go unquestioned, and too many failures to go uncorrected,” writes Klein, and
It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America’s defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America’s foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them. [Emphasis mine]
Klein notes the hypocrisy of our foreign policy and its tragic consequences:
To many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop. There are vicious regimes America finances directly. It is callous to suggest that the only suffering we bear responsibility for is the suffering inflicted by our withdrawal. Our wars and drone strikes and tactical raids and the resulting geopolitical chaos directly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis.
But, he concludes,
The choice we face is not between isolationism and militarism. We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.
Will the powers that be embrace that philosophy?