It is wrong to say that America lost the Afghan War. Failure entails having had something that we intended to achieve. In Afghanistan, the United States set several, shifting, competing goals before the twenty-year campaign collapsed under the weight of its own illogic. Ultimately, the decision to leave Afghanistan came down to the fundamental factor in our democracy: the American people didn’t want to stay.
Americans have feared “forever wars” from our earliest days. “Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded,” warned James Madison. “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Worse still, in the view of the Founders, was interference in the domestic affairs of foreign nations. “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations,” explained George Washington, “is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” Invoking Washington’s farewell address and admonition, Thomas Jefferson called at his inauguration for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.”
Over the ensuing centuries, America expanded. Jefferson himself doubled the size of the nation through the Louisiana Purchase. Some new lands entered the union as states. Others remained imperial territories governed as the spoils of war, often to be discarded. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson — our nation’s most consciously progressive president — pushed America into the First World War to “make the world safe for democracy.” After the Second World War, the United States took an even more active role in world affairs to deter the expansion of Soviet communism. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire removed the primary justification for America’s seven decades of perpetual, albeit sometimes proxy, war. But the military interventions continued — first in Iraq, then Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kosovo, and once again Iraq. No longer able to claim “containment” as its grand strategy, the United States justified these military campaigns by appealing to “human rights” and other vague slogans.
After the September 11th terror attacks, America’s foreign policy became even less clear. The group that perpetrated the attacks transcended national borders, and so President George W. Bush declared that the American military response would span multiple nations as well. “Today, we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader,” Bush announced. “Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers, themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril.”
Even this ambitious vow to attack any nation that supported America’s enemies rested upon the perfectly ordinary demand to bring criminals to justice. But in 2005, Bush redefined the mission in Afghanistan and indeed the entire “War on Terror” from a limited demand for justice into a utopian crusade for liberty. At his second presidential inauguration, Bush proclaimed, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands”:
The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time. So, it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
Bush intended not merely to track down the bad guys who toppled the towers but to oust every single government that did not sufficiently reflect Madisonian democracy in order that he might abolish tyranny on earth. Bush justified his messianic campaign on the dubious premise that all autocrats, down to the tiniest tin-pot dictatorship in the farthest-flung region, pose an existential threat to the American homeland. The claim appeared particularly preposterous in light of the historical circumstance that America had not only tolerated but even installed authoritarian regimes around the world that never threatened our nation with so much as an insult.
Bush’s national policy of global regime change promised truly perpetual war; so long as a tyrant breathed, the United States would seek his defeat with the force of the world’s most powerful military. But the American people soon returned to the wisdom of the Founders, and by 2016 both major political parties in the United States campaigned on an end to the “forever war” in Afghanistan.
Desperate to remain in Afghanistan, proponents of the occupation began to change their arguments for staying. If the United States left, they argued, Afghan women would suffer. But women suffer in many nations on earth. Must the United States invade and govern them all? If America withdrew, the defenders of occupation insisted, “LGBT rights” would no longer be protected. But many if not most nations do not recognize “LGBT rights.” Has the rainbow replaced the stars and stripes as the symbol of our national allegiance? If the U.S. left Afghanistan, the occupiers argued, it would constitute a betrayal of the Afghan people. This final justification seemed least persuasive of all. After two decades, two trillion dollars, and 2,448 Americans dead, the United States had given the Afghan people plenty.
Had our ruling class defined the Afghan War in realistic terms as a mission to conquer and hold in perpetuity an imperial territory for the purpose of killing terrorists and checking the ambitions of enemy nations such as Russia and China, the American people might have seen some value in staying. But our political leaders, aware perhaps of our national aversion to continual warfare, failed to make the honest case. Instead, they pretended to build stable institutions and instill a democratic spirit in a godforsaken tribal land—a process that would require centuries of work if it is even possible. They relied on our sympathy for the plight of Afghan women and enthusiasm at the prospect of Pride parades in Kandahar, neither of which will persuade Americans to spend another penny or spill another drop of blood.
America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan has rightly startled our nation. More disconcerting than our loss is our inability to say what it would have meant to win.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
The Daily Wire is one of America’s fastest-growing conservative media companies and counter-cultural outlets for news, opinion, and entertainment. Get inside access to The Daily Wire by becoming a member.