Wars can be won. Permanent occupations cannot.
Why Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan was not a “defeat” or a “surrender.”
A villager is searched after US Army soldiers from Task Force Panther 82nd Airborne Division found weapons and a photo of Osama bin Laden at his home on Monday, September 23, 2002, in southeastern Afghanistan. (AP Photo / Wally Santana)
America’s 20-year long war in Afghanistan finally finished Monday. Most of the media have described it as a “failure. ” The Wall Street Journal went so far as to define it as a “Surrender“To the Taliban. NBC journalist Richard Engel called him “capitulation. “But the framing of America’s exit from Afghanistan can only be accurately described in these terms by describing its involvement in Afghanistan as a ‘war’ in the traditional sense. We shouldn’t.
There is a clear difference between the nature of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and, say, the American Civil War or World War I and World War II. During the George W. Bush administration, I began my writing journey under a pseudonym at DailyKos. My thoughts were often inexperienced and poorly formed, and my writing style, in hindsight, was more than a little embarrassing. But one wrench thesis What I continue to defend is that America has not been in war in Afghanistan or Iraq for a long time. We drove activities of those countries. Bloody and violent occupations, yes. But occupations nonetheless.
What is the difference, you might ask? Well, words matter both emotionally and practically. In a war, well understood, two opposing armed forces come into violent conflict. The strongest force wins battles and takes over the territory. The losing side eventually capitulates. Flags are raised over capitals, treaties are signed, new governments are formed, and that’s it, until, perhaps, the next war.
But an imperial or colonial occupation is different. In an occupation, there is never a doubt which side has the strongest armed force and who will win the main pitched battles. The empire, or the colonialist power, will almost always win. The key question is whether the occupation can be maintained without too much cost in blood and treasure for the stronger power, and whether it remains in the national interest of the empire. The end result of a war it is always victory, defeat or (occasionally) stagnation. The end result of a occupation it can only be withdrawn or annexed.
The actual war in Afghanistan ended almost as soon as it began: the Taliban were driven out of the main centers of power in Afghanistan and rendered in Kandahar in December 2001. The terrorist organization was more routed from their strongholds in the Shah-i-Kot Valley by Operation Anaconda in March 2002. Then Bush and Cheney stupidly and greedily turned the military’s focus on Iraq, but the war as such in Afghanistan was over. The Taliban did not have large centers of power, they were no match for the US military, and the transitional government had the capital.
Like the war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s army, the war it ended very quickly. But occupation had just begun. The central government of Hamid Karzai and subsequent leaders was an incompetent joke. Pakistan continued to train and not so secretly fund the Taliban’s rural raids. No sustainable and profitable alternative to Afghanistan’s commercial opium crops was established for local farmers, who in turn found it more profitable to sell to the Taliban and local warlords aligned with the Taliban. The central army that the United States funded to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars was so riddled with corruption that local commanders, police, and soldiers sold themselves to the Taliban for a few hundred dollars because they hadn’t been paid in months. And the bipartisan establishment of American foreign policy continued to lie about all of that for decades.
The awkward conversation between the more aggressive elements here and around the world has not been about whether the war could be “won.” The hawks have been more or less explicit by suggesting that the United States should have committed itself to a functionally indefinite occupation of Kabul. They have defended that position by comparing it to the permanent presence of the United States in Germany and South Korea. (The difference, of course, is that the U.S. deterrent presence in those countries, whether supported or not, is peaceful, while the presence in Afghanistan has been marred by continued bloodshed and carnage, including 5,183 civilian casualties only in the first half of 2021). This position is not only impractical. It is morally indefensible. While U.S. involvement in Afghanistan improved women’s rights and several health measures, such as Child mortalityIt could easily be argued that, overall, our participation over the last half century has been much more negative than overall positive.
A permanent occupation of Afghanistan to continue propping up a hopelessly corrupt government at a terrible cost of lives and treasures was not a viable option. Under multiple presidents, the United States also refused for other geopolitical reasons to pressure Pakistan that would have been necessary to cut off support for the Taliban. So the end result was guaranteed: the United States would not annex Afghanistan as a client state. We would withdraw from Afghanistan like many imperial powers before us. But it is not a “surrender” or a “defeat” in a traditional “war”. Calling it that makes it more emotionally difficult for an occupying empire to get out of a morally and virtually untenable situation, and it also insults the professionalism of the military and the sacrifices of its veterans.
The US military has the material power to drive the Taliban out of Kabul and other population centers again if it wishes, as completely and efficiently as it did in 2001. But the result would be dire in human terms; it would be as unsustainable as it has been these last 20 years. And, unlike in 2001, it would be devoid of any claim to moral justification. Afghanistan’s problem is not one that the United States has the power to solve. It was time for the occupation to end and for diplomacy work start.