9 Days vs. 3 Years
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All the way back in 1992, at the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama published a book called The End of History and the Last Man. This book has come under a lot of criticism (including from me before I read it) for claiming that we had reached “the end of history”. But in reality the book’s claims are far more subtle. And its main claim, that liberal democracy and free markets have no remaining viable competitor, has been the default assumption of basically all politicians and policy makers over the last 30 years. But as we conduct our retrospective on the events in Afghanistan, these events are not merely a reflection on the country and its peculiarities, nor an embarrassment for Biden, they are a test of this assumption, a test of the liberal order. A test I’m pretty sure we failed.
It might be helpful at this point to remind ourselves of Fukuyama’s argument. In my review of the book I provided the following summary of his claims:
His strongest claim is that things are different because we can never go back to a condition where we didn’t understand the scientific method.
His next strongest claim is that we are unlikely to lose the knowledge we’ve acquired through that method. At this point we can’t go back to a time when no one knew how to make a thermonuclear weapon.
In the middle, is his claim that war will continue to exist, and those that use science, and the things science can give them, like the aforementioned nukes, are going to have an advantage in those wars, but that advantage requires significant industry in addition to significant scientific knowledge to take advantage of, and that achieving that industry is only possible under certain political systems.
Finally, his weakest claim is that a western style liberal democracy with free markets/capitalism is the best system for achieving both the science and industry necessary to have this edge.
In the wake of our retreat from Afghanistan these claims must all be viewed in a different light. Yes we are probably better at taking advantage of the scientific method than the people in Afghanistan. But as I pointed out in the last post, science did not provide us with any method for turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy of the kind promoted by Fukuyama. It gave us a tremendous edge in fighting the Afghans who opposed us, but in the end it made very little impact on their desire to fight for themselves. (More on that in a second.) It remains open for debate whether there can be said to be a science of politics in general, but science certainly appears helpless when it comes to the politics of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was often viewed as a battle for hearts and minds, and while our science and industry are great at winning conventional battles, they proved powerless to fight these other battles of attitude and ideology.
It's not that the global liberal democratic project ended in Afghanistan, there are still many parts of the world where it (mostly) works. It’s that it didn’t expand into Afghanistan, and this despite an effort spanning 20 years and costing trillions of dollars. Fukuyama never asserted that liberal values were historically inevitable—despite how much he was influenced by Hegel—for him it was a matter of competition. Liberal democratic states would inevitably outcompete nonliberal states economically, intellectually, and militarily. In order to survive, states would have to adopt this ideology, otherwise their defeat was inevitable. Well we spent 20 years trying to get Afghanistan to accomplish exactly that and we appear to have failed. We didn’t outcompete the nonliberal elements either intellectually or militarily. It can be argued that we’re still outcompeting them economically, but that wasn’t enough.
This is of course related to the point Richard Hanania made which opened my last post: that political science has failed. One of my readers asked why, when we suffered a similar failure in Vietnam, no one declared political science to be dead back then? If they didn’t, why should we do so now? To begin with, it’s possible they did (see numerous criticisms of guys like McNamara). Also, in response, political scientists, rather than all quitting their jobs to manage a McDonald’s, probably defended their profession (as people are inclined to do), perhaps arguing that they had incorporated the relevant criticism and improved things. I bring up this first possibility because I’m pretty sure that’s what is going to happen this time as well. But there’s another angle of his question that I’m more interested in.
While our exit from Afghanistan certainly reminded people of Vietnam, in many other respects the two wars were very different. The North Vietnamese had powerful backing in the form of the Soviet Union and China. Afghanistan had no such help (or very little). Also, while people have no problem categorizing communism as a true rival ideology, particularly at the time of the Vietnam war, very few people are framing the Taliban’s victory in ideological terms, and no one is anointing any ideology as potential successor to liberalism. (Islam might be considered for that role, but if anything Afghanistan has been a lesson more in its fractures than in its unity.)
Another difference is the history, America’s efforts in Afghanistan were conducted in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s previous disastrous occupation. And I think it’s more instructive to compare the end of our time in Afghanistan with the end of the Soviet’s time in Afghanistan than with the end of our time in Vietnam.
This difference was brought to my attention by Ross Douthat in his column from a couple of weeks ago.
Only recently the view that without U.S. troops, the American-backed government in Kabul would be doomed to the same fate as the Soviet-backed government some 30 years ago seemed like hardheaded realism. Now such “realism” has been proven to be wildly overoptimistic. Without Soviet troops, the Moscow-backed government actually held out for several years before the mujahideen reached Kabul. Whereas our $2,000,000,000,000 built a regime that fell to the Taliban before American troops could even finish their retreat.
Later in the same article he points out that the US backed government was conquered faster by the Taliban than the Taliban were initially conquered by the US. I understand that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but the speed and lack of struggle accompanying this most recent death suggests something closer to euthanasia than murder. And basically this is exactly how Biden is defending his decision.
It feels like it would be hard to overemphasis this difference: the US backed government lasted 9 days while the Soviet backed government lasted several years. In fact I would argue that this difference speaks to a deep truth about the nature of the American effort and it’s associated ideological foundation. The point of this post is to uncover what that truth might be. Like all deep truths I don’t imagine that I’m going to do much more than scratch the surface in the space of a few thousand words, but I think one entry point would be a comparison of two leaders:
The Soviet forces started withdrawing from Afghanistan in May of 1988 with the very last troops leaving in February of 1989. At this point Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan was left to fend for himself. The Soviets were still giving him financial aid, but the US and Pakistan were still giving aid to his enemies. Initially things went okay for Najibullah, but by the beginning of 1991 he only held on to 10% of the country. On top of this the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing by this point, finally collapsing for good in December of that year. Despite this, Najibullah fought on, eventually resigning only in April of 1992. A resignation that came about in large part because of the defection of a key general. After being unsuccessful in his attempt to flee to India, he sought refuge in the UN compound where he stayed for the next four years.
During those years the Afghan Civil War raged. In 1996 the Taliban eventually came out on top, and were on the verge of taking Kabul. At this point Najibullah was offered one final chance to escape which he turned down for reasons which have been much speculated on since then. As one might imagine, when the Taliban took Kabul they didn’t let anything like the UN stand in their way. Najibullah was abducted from the compound, tortured to death, dragged through the streets, and then hung outside the presidential palace.
Now let’s turn to consider Ashraf Ghani, the most recent president of Afghanistan, the one backed by the US. I’m taking most of my information here from the excellent Washington Post article, “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war“. In reading about Najibullah one gets the sense that the Soviet installed government wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did without him. In reading about Ghani one gets the exact opposite sense, that he’s the entire reason everything collapsed so swiftly. That once he fled everyone figured the government had lost, and there was no sense continuing the fight. Now to be fair to Ghani, some of his advisors told him, incorrectly, that the militants were already in the palace and looking for him. So without telling most of his other advisors or the US, he immediately fled. Basically people working for him went to lunch, and when they came back his office was empty. There was no explanation. This paragraph seems particularly damning:
Even after they had reached safety, the president and his party never circled back with senior officials who had been anxiously seeking their help. Some of those who had worked closely with Ghani over the years felt betrayed, believing he had left them to die.
Ghani’s sudden flight from Kabul was a disaster for his government, but it was at least understandable. We already saw what happened to the last president of Afghanistan when the Taliban came to town. Certainly we would hope that he was made of sterner stuff. Personally, I can’t imagine Najibullah fleeing so suddenly. But in a sense all of this is beside the point. In a moment of panic lots of actions are excusable, and while I think there are some insights to be gained in considering his flight from Kabul, I’m more interested in what Ghani did when he had time to reflect. What did he do before and after his panicked flight? We have already seen that he didn’t bother to “circle back” to those he had left behind, but what was he doing in the days beforehand, as all the provincial capitals were falling?
As the Taliban continued to accumulate gains, American officials began to see the president’s confidence as delusion.
Ghani’s lack of focus on the threat that the Taliban posed mystified U.S. officials, in particular, Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Ambassador Ross Wilson.
In a July meeting with Ghani in Kabul, the two men told the Afghan president that his team needed a “realistic, implementable and widely supported plan to defend the country” and must drop the idea of defending all 34 provincial capitals, said an official familiar with the meeting.
“They had to focus on what they could actually defend,” said the official. “All provinces are important, but some were integral to the defense of Kabul.”
Ghani appeared to agree, but there would be no follow-through, the official said.
“Advice would be given, the right things would be said, and nothing would happen,” the official said. “They never did it. They never came up with that plan.”
Even as a cascade of provincial capitals fell — starting with Zaranj in the far southwest on Aug. 6, and continuing through two dozen others over the nine days that followed — the president appeared distracted.
“Ghani would want to talk about digitization of the economy,” said the official, referring to the president’s plan for a government salary payment system. “It had nothing to do with the dire threat.”
As late as the Saturday afternoon before Kabul fell, Ghani did not suggest any urgency around departure arrangements or the safety of senior staff.
Receiving one adviser in the palace gardens, and speaking in his characteristic soft tones, he made arrangements to shore up the country’s economy. He was supposed to address the nation later that night. But he never did.
The Americans, meanwhile, were suffering their own delusions.
In June, U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that the Afghan government would hang on for at least another six months. By August, the dominant view was that the Taliban wasn’t likely to pose a serious threat to Kabul until late fall.
As you can see the Washington Post doesn’t let the American military off the hook either, but the article does reserve its harshest criticism for Ghani. And perhaps the Soviets and Najibullah were similarly insouciant in February of 1989, as the Mujahideen roamed the country with their American-supplied stinger missiles. But I really doubt it. I suspect that the reason Najibullah lasted so long was not only did he have a plan for staying in power, but he was very good about executing on that plan.
Beyond the general sense that the post-soviet withdrawal Afghanistan must have been a very different place that post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, the thing that really jumps out at me from the Washington Post account, is the idea that as the country collapses around him all Ghani wanted to talk about was the “digitization of the economy”. I understand that it’s possible, even likely, that in choosing to emphasize the differences in how long the two governments lasted, and then further emphasizing the two leaders, and then beyond that emphasizing one line in an article, that I have put an enormous amount of weight on a very tiny foundation. But for me this seems to encapsulate, in one anecdote, the entire problem. During the 20 years we spent in Afghanistan, we didn’t create Fukuyama’s market-fueled, science-driven, war-fighting powerhouse. We didn’t replace their tribal culture with a progressive culture. All we managed to do was create a small group of elites who worry about things like the digitization of the economy.
In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah was an expert in such conversations. Ghani apparently avoided them.
Reading about Ghani one word comes to mind: “untethered” as in untethered from reality. The US could also be accused of being untethered as well. There is of course the disconnect immediately preceding the fall of Kabul: despite the speed with which the Taliban was advancing everyone thought it would take a lot longer. There was the famous assertion that Kabul was not in an “imminent threat environment” made just two days before it fell. And many of the key people were so confident of things that they went on vacation, for example the Secretary of State and even Biden himself. But one suspects we were untethered from reality during the entire 20 years we were in the country.
At the beginning of those 20 years I think most people assumed that progress was possible, in fact they probably on some level imagined that it was inevitable. In a sense this is part of a general view of how the future is going to play out. Most people can imagine that in a 100 years that we’ll have colonies on Mars, very few imagine that when that happens the Taliban will still be in charge of Afghanistan. And yet, though it’s not 100 years, 20 years have passed and at least two trillion dollars have been spent, and rather than getting any closer to this imagined future we appear to have gone backwards. As Douthat says:
Now, though, we know that in terms of actual staying power, all our nation-building efforts couldn’t even match what the Soviet Union managed in its dotage.
So is progress possible? Will the Taliban or some roughly similar organization still be in charge of Afghanistan in 100 years or will Afghanistan, to borrow another idea of Fukuyama's, have turned into something resembling Denmark?
If so, how might this progress actually occur? I’m not sure. I’m not one of the people who think it’s inevitable. I think it could very easily not occur, but if I were going to take some guesses here are a few:
Time: It may just be that it will occur, but that we can’t hurry it. That in fact by trying to intervene we actually slowed it down. By making progress seem to be explicitly foreign it becomes more difficult for people to adopt it.
Economic Necessity: It has long been thought that countries will progress towards liberal democracy out of a desire to be part of the global economy with all of its advantages. This was the major justification behind normalizing relations with China and inviting them to the WTO. That didn’t work out quite the way people expected. Even so, at the moment it looks like the best lever we have with Afghanistan.
War: People will argue that we already tried war. But I’m not sure that we have. The great transformation of Germany and Japan happened after the most brutal war imaginable. Taking such a course in Afghanistan would be horrible, but repeated and violent demonstrations of the military superiority of a western liberal democracy vs. Islamic tribalism might be the only thing that gets people to abandon the latter in favor of the former. At its core I think this is Fukuyama’s argument.
Muscular Ideology: Whatever our plan was for “nurtur[ing] the shoots of Afghan liberalism”, it had some curious holes. The US turned a blind eye to ridiculous amounts of corruption. It’s my understanding that this corruption was a major factor in the ease with which the Taliban took over. The US forces also turned a blind eye to traditional Afghan pederasty. Despite these examples of extreme tolerance it’s not like we didn’t impose any ideology on Afghanistan. Much has been made of the expansion of women’s rights and their subsequent retreat now that the Taliban are back in power. But if you’re an Afghan looking for an ideology to give your allegiance to this combination is a very weird mish-mash to stake your future on.
I think this last point starts to get to the heart of the matter, and illustrates the ultimate difference between Ghani and Najibullah. The former did plant his flag in this vague ideological mish-mash where digitizing the economy somehow took up more of his attention than ensuring the survival of his administration. Whereas the latter was almost certainly laser focused on survival and maintaining power. This is the difference between a regime which lasts 9 days and one that lasts three years.
Of course the default American regime has lasted nearly 250 years. Why don’t we just use that ideology? Well that would obviously open us up to accusations of colonialism (it’s interesting what sort of things do trigger those accusations and what things don’t.) But also it’s an ideology which was being developed for centuries even before it provided for the foundation of the United States.
Examining this development makes the situation even more baffling. The countries which would go on to become western liberal democracies eliminated wide scale corruption and pederasty fairly early on. I’m not an expert on the level of corruption in 17th century Europe, but by the time of the American Revolution corruption was relatively rare, certainly far more rare than what we saw in Afghanistan. And of course pederasty had been taboo for centuries. On the other hand at the time of the American Revolution women’s suffrage was still more than a century away. And the digitization of the economy was another century or more beyond that. But somehow this is what we ended up focusing on, the fruits of liberal democracy rather than the foundation. It’s as if people think they can skip ahead and go straight to the parts they find attractive while overlooking all the steps that were initially required. We’ve become untethered from the ideology that got us here, and without it our days are numbered. We have more than 9 days our Afghan proteges lasted, but beyond that, I’m certain we have fewer days than we think.
Until writing this I didn’t realize how close we are to the Semiquincentennial (Wikipedia tells me it’s also called Sestercentennial or Quarter Millennial). I hope to still be writing about events when it happens and as that is many days hence I hope it does happen. If you’d like to help ensure that (my writing not the existence of the country) consider donating.