Our recent history’s rhyming patterns are not exactly poetic
In 1938 the Army of the United States was smaller than that of Romania, as befit a nation bent on avoiding foreign entanglements. In 2021, the United States maintains a military presence on six of the seven continents and on every sea; its Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world. No nation has been as militarily active as the U.S. since World War II, whether measured by deployments, occupations, special forces operations, or drone strikes. Something has clearly happened since the 1930s.
By way of explanation, historians point to a familiar set of events: Henry Luce’s call for “an American Century” in 1941; the Truman Doctrine, which pledged America’s support for free peoples resisting tyranny anywhere; the Cold War; Europe’s declining power; the emergence of dozens of nations from colonial bondage; the evolution of a “military-industrial-complex”; Reagan’s defense budget; the Global War on Terror, which saw Republicans and Democrats unite in their determination to guarantee there would be no more 9/11s.
It is a truism in foreign policy that wars are exceedingly difficult to end, especially for a nation with the financial wherewithal to keep them going forever. Once troops are stationed anywhere, that becomes the status quo; tweaking it is one thing, flipping it another. We still have troops in Cuba and the Philippines after occupying those islands in 1898; also in Germany, Japan, and South Korea, though those wars ended three-quarters of a century ago. We signed a treaty pledging to leave Iraq in 2011, tried to do so, but then thought twice. The only place where the U.S. has fought a substantial war and withdrawn entirely is Vietnam.
And now, Afghanistan. There were good reasons to believe it would never happen. Vietnam, after all, was a statistical outlier. Its evacuation only occurred as the result of the confluence of several circumstances, including pronounced strategic difficulties, unprecedented domestic trauma, and a president and congress (of opposite parties) determined to end it.
Since Vietnam a number of innovations have made warfare far less objectionable than it was in the 1960s. Among them: the all-volunteer force; efforts on the part of the military to minimize civilian casualties; the increasing robotification of the battlefield; a mainstream media concerned to be seen as not obviously anti-war or anti-military; the top-secret classification of most information on military operations; a deep lack of interest on the part of the American public in events overseas since 2007 or so—even in our own ongoing wars.
But several things did make Afghanistan, like Vietnam, an unattractive site for a prolonged war. It is extremely far away and difficult to supply. Culture, religion, and history made it impossible for Afghans to reconcile themselves to a U.S. troop presence or a U.S.-sponsored regime. That regime was notoriously ineffective and corrupt. The enemy was ideologically irreconcilable and enjoyed cross-border sanctuaries as well as foreign support. Afghanistan held little economic or strategic importance for the U.S.
We stayed only because no one knew how to withdraw without incurring a loss of political capital they weren’t sure they could afford. As long as casualties were kept low, there was little reason to risk that capital. The costs were all on the side of doing something different that might attract attention. Ending the war would initiate a series of events beyond any administration’s control. It might entail the collapse of the regime we’d created, or sensational atrocities from the Taliban, or even invite blame for a new act of terrorism. The buck stops with the president, after all—so the safest course was to muddle along forever. By the last years of the Obama presidency, that is what it seemed we would do.
It’s true that by 2016 few Americans in Washington, let alone on Main Street, thought victory in Afghanistan and elsewhere was possible, if it meant we had to be ready to “change entire societies,” as counterinsurgency enthusiast Lieutenant John Nagl advised. Since the killing of Osama bin Laden, two out of three Americans have believed the war in Afghanistan not worth fighting. At the same time, it didn’t appear as if many Americans were allowing the fate of any of our wars to decide their choice of commander-in-chief. The Afghan war was mentioned once, in passing, during the 2016 presidential debates.
As polls revealed it to be the most unpopular war ever in American history, President Trump pursued negotiations with the Taliban that resulted in an agreement in early 2020. America would leave completely in fourteen months. As per that agreement, U.S. battle deaths soon dropped to zero. President Biden was determined to see the agreement through—although, unbeknownst to the Americans, the Afghan military was cutting deals with the Taliban to ensure a peaceful transition. That allowed the latter to take control of the country before the U.S. expected, this past August. Several days of chaos ensued as Afghans desperate to leave besieged the airport in Kabul and ISIS-K carried out a suicide bombing, but after sixteen days some 120,000 Afghans had been ferried out of the country in the largest air evacuation in American history.
Like almost all our previous wars since 1945, the exit was anything but pretty. As in both Korea and Vietnam, our ally on the ground had to be sidelined just to get a deal. As in Vietnam, the logistics around Afghans who had collaborated with us bedeviled the process; Republicans blamed Biden for not getting them out fast enough while also accusing him of making America unsafe by importing terrorists disguised as refugees. As with China in 1949, Korea, Vietnam, and both exits from Iraq (1991 and 2011), who was to blame for what magnitude of failure became, briefly, a topic of political dispute.
The images of Afghans passing babies over a fence to U.S. troops or clinging to airplanes brought back memories of Vietnamese being punched off helicopters and “boat people” crowding onto sampans, but it isn’t clear that the disorganization surrounding the collapse of Afghan security forces was avoidable. As Anthony Cordesman reminds us, the sudden disintegration of a client government is not unusual, and much of the data essential for a thorough assessment of the war’s ending is classified and may not be available for many years.
Meanwhile, Republicans have seized on the chance to score whatever points they can, hoping to make Afghanistan into “Benghazi multiplied by 10,” as one strategist put it. This too was to be expected. However confused and bipartisan the exit was, the buck stops with the president. Now we will see whether the American people care more about the messy execution of the withdrawal or the fact that someone finally pulled the plug on a $300 million-a-day unwinnable war.
John H. Haas teaches U.S. history at Bethel University in Indiana