The American Conservative

What We’ve Lost in Afghanistan

Donald Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban is a stark acknowledgment of just how much has changed since 9/11.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States on Friday signed a deal with the Taliban. Call it a diplomatic gamble or simply an acknowledgment of reality, but it feels like something greater, a major shift in our national ethos.

The agreement won’t be the last word on our occupation of Afghanistan, which at more than 18 years running is the longest war in our history. The deal guarantees only that America will reduce its troop commitment from 14,000 to 8,600 over the next four months. The rest is conditioned on the Taliban keeping in check terrorists like al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, which they may decline to do. And even if the Taliban does try to manage its allies, it may not be successful. Al-Qaeda has a formidable presence in Pakistan and they’ve more than demonstrated their ability to carry out attacks.

Still, during a seven-day test period, the Taliban did significantly curtail its violence in Afghanistan. If they can exercise that level of control, it’s certainly possible they can extend the peace long enough for American troops to get out. Yet whatever becomes of the deal, what’s most striking is that it exists in the first place. From off its pages glare that single bloody word: “Taliban.” We weren’t supposed to negotiate with the Taliban. George W. Bush made that plain the day of the September 11 attacks when he announced that “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” Now their signatures are on a diplomatic document, while Bush’s words sound like a Victrola, a grainy recording from an age gone by.

Trump’s deal predictably sent Washington’s neoliberals and neoconservatives into a tizzy. For them, the calendar always reads 2001, which, if you squint, looks a little like 1938. John Bolton thus accused Trump of sending “the wrong signal” to America’s enemies, while Liz Cheney warned that the agreement “could threaten the security of the United States.” Max Boot, meanwhile, said the president had been too hasty: “Trump,” he declared, “is plainly itching to leave.” Perhaps. But it isn’t just Trump. It’s the public that’s fed up with our fruitless wars, having gazed upon too many flag-draped coffins and too many Humvees belching up flames. The Blob, busy inserting the word “kinetic” where it doesn’t belong, never noticed that the country around it was changing; it may never be quite the same again.

Is there anyone outside the “expert” class who still thinks we need to be this engaged in the Middle East? The conservative right is presently split between nationalists and libertarians; both agree that the endless wars must end. The Republican Party is headed by a president who campaigned on retrenchment and is backed by such antiwar stalwarts as Senator Rand Paul. Onstage, the Democratic candidates call for troop withdrawals, even as they contort themselves to look like they’re opposing Trump. Of those in uniform, overwhelming majorities say they’re done with nation building. The general public wants out of Afghanistan by a factor of three to one.

On 9/11, we were resolute; now we’re chastened by quagmire, frustrated by enemies like the Taliban who were supposed to be pushovers. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are deep enough in the past that they no longer exert the same emotional charge. And with George W. Bush long out of the White House, the right no longer feels any obligation to defend him. Having grown more dispassionate about our wars, we ask questions once deemed improper. Is this endless fighting really worth it? What about everything that’s transpired since—the recession, the bailouts, Obamacare, Donald Trump’s ascendance, the opioid epidemic, Jeffrey Epstein, the coronavirus—so much of which seems more relevant to our survival than the fate of Kabul?

Back then, we cast the globe as a Risk board, which we divided between the free world and the unfree. As head of the former, we charged ourselves with spreading liberal democracy to the latter. Yet inherent therein was a sloppy assumption: that our own liberalism and freedom were constants, so unshakeable that we could evangelize without self-introspection. The kind of careful housekeeping necessary to maintain liberal values was dismissed as “inward looking,” a symptom of a September 10 mindset. Today, we do little except look inward, as we wrangle with fundamental questions of identity. What does it mean to be an American? Are we more progressive coastal dweller or conservative deplorable? What about guns, sex, education? A nation in the midst of an identity crisis is in no position to tell the rest of the world what it’s supposed to think.

Eighteen years ago, we proclaimed ourselves a beacon of liberal democratic values; today, a growing intellectual movement on the right is questioning nothing less than classical liberalism itself. This group, the so-called post-liberals, is marginal, but the fact that they exist at all shows just how far we’ve come. In 2002, to even be antiwar was to hate your country, as National Review made clear when it excommunicated the “unpatriotic conservatives.” In 2020, polls find disillusionment not just with the Iraq mission, but with free speech, capitalism, things once thought to be hallmarks of America. This comes mostly from the Millennial generation, which can be entitled and ignorant, no question. But they also have good reason to be jaded, drowning in student loan debt and health care costs. How can we justify their ruin while the military-industrial complex’s gilded turbines continue to whir?

We are tens of trillion of dollars in debt. We have entitlement programs that are on track to consume the entire federal budget. There is no money left to push the Sisyphean boulder up the Afghan hill. Hawks once justified these costs by saying we were spreading democracy; now they claim we’re merely beating back “the jungle,” keeping global chaos in check. We can’t withdraw from Syria, they insist, because it could start a great-power conflict, yet we also can’t withdraw from Afghanistan, even though there’s no such risk there. All that matters is that we stay forever, with even a single closed base the Jenga block that could collapse the world. The problem is they don’t have a mandate for this anymore. The nation, in responding to our present problems, has moved on. Bill Kristol twirls his baton and marches through the rain, but the rest of the parade long ago packed up and went home.

The Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy because, recalling Athens, they feared demagogues who could whip up support for, among other things, ruinous wars. What they didn’t anticipate was that similar misadventures could be perpetuated by an unelected technocratic elite, isolated from those whose children they deploy. Now Donald Trump has acknowledged, however fitfully, that this can’t go on any longer. He promised to bring the troops home and voters said okay. What he seems to understand is what the Blob is loathe to admit: it isn’t about the Taliban or even peace in Afghanistan. It’s about an America that long ago turned its gaze back on itself.

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