Born to Lose

America in Afghanistan

When William Westmorland led American forces in Vietnam, he kept a copy of Bernard Fall’s devastating critique of the French war in Indochina, The Street Without Joy, on his night table.

Allies one day, enemies the next. Kandahar, 2012.


If so, he didn’t learn much from it. Or, more probably, he simply committed that fundamental mistake of American hubris: the assumption that previous attempts had simply been done badly.

On 17 January 2001, The Onion ran a headline that read, “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over’.” As it turned out, it was the most devastatingly accurate piece of American political humour the genre has ever seen. 

The eight years of the Clinton Administration had been an era of prosperity, if not exactly peace. The following years would see significantly less of either.

There was an uncanny interlude during which Florida’s contested presidential vote faded into memory (the Supreme Court put George W. Bush in office) and before 9/11, during which the Bush Administration was a war in search of a reason. 

When America’s new government finally found one, it was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and for all the wrong reasons. 

The most disheartening feature of the twenty-year quagmire in Afghanistan has been that it was the result of Washington’s propensity to keep finding new ways to make the same mistake.

No event so profoundly marked the psyche of the United States at the turn of the century as Vietnam.

The shock of failure and the recriminations that followed it, as well as the profound rifts that the war exposed in American society, shaped the country’s public sphere in myriad ways.

By the early 1980s, it became common for characters in television shows (Magnum P.I., Riptide, Simon & Simon) to be given a pedigree of service in Vietnam as a cheap way to add depth. 

None, of course, were ever broken in the way that the characters in The Deer Hunter were. Most seemed to view their service as an unpleasant but honourable necessity, in much the same way that their fathers had viewed service in World War II. 

American popular culture came to express an obsession with somehow winning the lost war. 

Along the way, the enemy changed, with action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone coming up against brutal terrorists of Middle Eastern provenance, although Chuck Norris’s 1984 release Missing in Action played out the fantasy of rescuing prisoners of war still languishing in Vietnamese prison camps.

Foreign policy under Ronald Reagan became a series of attempts to reassert US hegemony in the Americas. This included propping up brutal authoritarian regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala and funding the homicidally anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. 

Perhaps the capping moment in post-Vietnam era posturing was the four-day long invasion of Grenada, an event which recalled Henry Adams’s jubilant remark after the Union Victory at Gettysburg: “I wanted to fight some small man and lick him.”

Throughout the decades between the end of the war in Vietnam and the turn of the century, Washington’s military policy was strongly marked by the disinclination of American politicians and presidents to have to explain flag-draped coffins to grieving families. 

The United States fought wars by proxy, or struck from the air with smart bombs or cruise missiles. Even in the case of the First Gulf War, the goals set out for the boots on the ground were distinctly limited. 

(Comparing it to a video game, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard is famous for his series of articles in leftist newspaper Libération, contending that “The Gulf War did not take place” because of America’s over-reliance on airpower, and hyper-management of press coverage of what he called a “massacre’.)

If nothing else, Ronald Reagan created the opening for the more muscular and invasive policies that would characterise the second Bush Administration. Although Reagan presided over (and in some respects brought about) the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, his tying together of military and fiscal policy had more profound results in the long run.

While Reagan came to power as an avatar of fiscal conservatism and budgetary probity, his actual policies, a mix of tax cuts (which mostly favoured higher incomes) and increased military expenditures, resulted in a dramatic expansion of the federal deficit. The economy grew, but this growth was the result of a sort of Keynesianism as if it had been run by Darth Vader.

The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 was a profound shock to the Republican Party, not least because Clinton appropriated much of his opponents’ platform. “Bubba”, as the president came to be called, rode the first Internet tech boom, which helped disguise the austerity of his budget-cutting. 

Lacking a platform of their own, the Republicans were reduced to moralistic scandal-mongering, abetted in doing so by Clinton’s abhorrent sexual conduct, such as his affair with his White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

There was talk that the United States was over Vietnam. Clinton had not served. His successor, George W. Bush had been sheltered in a unit of the Texas Air National Guard reserved for the children of the prominent. 

Despite his virtual military service, Bush was still able to beat 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a former antiwar activist who had served in Vietnam and was twice decorated for valour.

Bush was the figurehead for the more aggressive wing of the Republican Party. His career had been undistinguished up to that point, except in the respect that he contrived to lose money during an oil boom in Texas. 

However, failing upward is the American way. Who better to act as the point man for a pack of bitter veterans of the Nixon Administration bent on expanding the powers of the president and rebuilding the lost American hegemony of the Eisenhower era.

All of this is the backdrop (and really only the most important fragments of it) for the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan. 

After the 9/11 atrocities, it was clear that the United States was going to attack someone. 

Given that Osama bin Laden had planned and prepared much of the operation from a safe haven offered to him by the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, there was not much mystery in terms of who was going to be in the firing line.

Attacking Afghanistan was obligatory. A wide swath of American political opinion was ready to cry havoc let slip the dogs of war, and the sooner the better. 

If a few critical voices arose here and there, the Bush Administration at least made the attempt to link attacking Afghanistan with notionally liberal goals. 

Laura Bush, the president’s wife, made one of her few public political interventions espousing the cause of the benighted women living under Sharia Law.

The problem for the Bush Administration was that this simply wasn’t the war that it wanted. 

The Soviets had provided ample evidence of the difficulties attendant upon fighting in Afghanistan, and the CIA was unable to account for large amounts of military hardware (most worryingly Stinger surface to air missiles) that had been doled out to various anti-Soviet factions.

For better or worse, Afghanistan had little in terms of resources to pique the interest of the American military-industrial complex. 

By contrast, Iraq had oil, lots of it, and a leader that American politicians had spent a decade recasting as the spiritual successor to Adolf Hitler. 

There were many in and around the Bush Administration who still harboured the view that Saddam Hussein was the last bit of unfinished business remaining from the war a decade earlier.

America’s war in Afghanistan began on the horns of two dilemmas. 

On the one hand, Afghanistan had been, according to the most simplistic and palatable account of the attacks, complicit in the misdeeds of bin Laden. 

On the other hand, Afghanistan was a tough place to fight, and the local allies available to the United States were not promising in either numbers or quality. 

The former leader of the Northern Alliance, the experienced guerilla fighter Ahmed Sheikh Massoud, had been assassinated in a suicide attack on 9 September 2001, in what has come to be seen as a precursor of the 9/11 attacks.

The second dilemma stemmed from the difficulty of getting past the war that one didn’t want in order to fight the one that one did. Iraq was, for a myriad of reasons, a preferable target. 

Some optimists argued that, given Iraq’s oil wealth, the whole affair could be made to pay for itself. The main difficulty was that there was no tangible connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

The process moved ahead, creating its own momentum. On 18 September, President Bush signed into law a joint congressional resolution essentially giving him carte blanche to punish the perpetrators. 

The vote in Congress was nearly unanimous, with California representative Barbara Lee cast in the role of gadfly that Wayne Morse had played during the debates over the Tonkin Gulf Resolution thirty-seven years earlier.

The Bush Administration ramped up the talk of nation-building as a stretch goal for the occupation. A combination of forces of traditional Afghan culture and the universal propensity to truck and barter would put the country on the high road to liberal capitalism.

Initially, the campaign seemed to be going well. Bolstered by large amounts of money, ordinance, and air support, the Northern Alliance began to make progress. 

There was talk of convening a Loya Jirga, a traditional Pashtun assembly, as an attempt to revivify the traditional (read pre-Taliban) political forces in the country. According to the neo-con backers of the incursion, Afghanistan was healing.

The true nature of what was going on there was made clear in early December when US Special Forces and elements of the Northern Alliance appeared to have Osama bin Laden bottled up in the heavily fortified cave system at Tora Bora, near the border with Pakistan. 

What followed has been the subject of intense debate ever since, with some citing difficult conditions and others levelling accusations of military incompetence. 

What is clear is that bin Laden was allowed to slip across the border into Pakistan. Thereafter he would spend a decade as the object petit a of the American political and military establishment. Meanwhile, a shift of focus was in the air. 

On 29 January 2002, Bush used the annual State of the Union address to deliver his notorious “Axis of Evil” speech in which he lumped together Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the sources of badness in the known world.

What followed was a conscious shift of focus away from reconfiguring Afghanistan into 1950s Cleveland and toward removing the real villain of the piece, Saddam Hussein. 

Kabul had fallen to Northern Alliance troops in November and a provisional government was put together the following month. Over the course of the next 15 months, the Bush Administration’s attention centred on creating a pretext for attacking Iraq.

US troops fought on against the remnants of the Taliban and whatever elements of Al-Qaida were still in the country. The United Nations announced that it was partnering with the American military and NGOs to spread the blessings of reconstruction outward from Kabul into the provinces. 

On 1 May 2003, around the time Bush was giving his “Mission Accomplished” speech marking the “end” of combat in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave a similar press briefing in Kabul. Rumsfeld foresaw, “a period of stability, stabilization, and reconstruction activities”.

Still, the conflict bubbled on. The Taliban managed to recuperate their losses and reassert their strength in rural areas. 

Once again, the pattern of counterinsurgency in Vietnam became the norm in Afghanistan. The Americans could push the Taliban out of any particular place. The minute they left, however, the Taliban would return, often punishing anyone deemed to have collaborated with the outsiders.

The war in Afghanistan lost its spatial dimension. Or, rather, its spatial dimension changed from definable lines and objectives to nasty firefights and ambushes. 

With the Bush Administration obsessed with Iraqi oil and WMDs, Afghanistan was subject to malign neglect for much of the next decade, punctuated by the occasional presidential photo op or heartwarming story about GIs bringing the benefits of civilization to farmers in mud huts.

By 2006 the Taliban was fully resurgent. The US military was faced with a battlespace similar in many ways to that in Vietnam. There were no jungles or rice paddies. There was a dedicated, resilient, heavily armed, tactically agile opponent, fighting on home ground and practically indistinguishable from “civilians”.

The conflict was also subject to the relentless algorithm of counterinsurgency warfare. When the fight is about killing people rather than controlling territory, collateral damage (especially of a human kind) is practically unavoidable.

The family members of those who die have a quite powerful motivation to take vengeance. Killing “terrorists” tends to create more “terrorists.” Thus, the horrific paradox of Afghanistan: the only measures that Washington and its NATO allies viewed as viable for attaining victory resulted in a conflict whose only stable quality was lasting forever.

Fortunately, nothing is eternal. While Donald Trump had started the process of drawing down forces in Afghanistan, Joe Biden began the process for real. In doing so, Biden created one of the few situations worse than the one already obtained. 

The defining ideological feature of insurgencies in the post-colonial world is the certain knowledge that eventually industrialised liberal democracies get tired and bail out.

In bailing out this way, the United States created a free fall, rather than something vaguely approximating a stable transition. 

Once again, we got the depressing scenes of people who once bet on the promises of democratisation trying desperately to get out of the country before they become the subject of retaliation. It’s a sucker’s bet to begin with, but it doesn’t make their fate any less grim.

The no-plan exit has had the collateral effect of making both US forces and those desperate for their help into targets for the extremists who have thrived in the disorder. Washington and NATO have left the country in the same condition they found it: broken.

While the manner of the US exit from Afghanistan is unfortunate, the departure itself was inevitable. The failure of American policy in Afghanistan was inscribed from the beginning in a manner depressingly similar to the way that it was in Vietnam. 

Once again, the government managed to learn the wrong lesson. The French war in Indochina failed because it was doomed to fail. Likewise, the American effort to reconfigure Afghanistan in something like its own image was just as doomed to failure.

This defeat was inscribed in the project to begin with. 

American foreign policy has for a century or more been driven by the underlying proposition that other people want to be like us and would choose to if only given the chance. 

For better or worse, liberal individualism is only one way among many. Recognising this may not be of great account in the larger struggle for a decent and sustainable world. 

But the war in Afghanistan, whether now ending or simply adopting another form, has shown the vanity of American universalism.

Photograph courtesy of Brendan Mackie. Published under a Creative Commons license.