In Re: Afghanistan

Everyone seems to be in agreement that the final withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is certain to be followed by a swift Taliban takeover of the rest of the area they don’t already control, and likely a bloodbath against large numbers of Afghans who dissent from Taliban rule. The Taliban are determined to keep their appointment with the seventh century. For the U.S. it’s starting to look like a repeat of the humiliating end of the Vietnam War almost 50 years ago.

It’s also long past the point where anyone can credibly argue that we’re doing much good in the country with our military presence there. And we’ve had at least a decade, if not longer, to come up with a strategy to stabilize the country, and throughout all this time our politico-military leaders have settled for “managing” the situation—muddling through with the vain hope that somehow the tribes and factions would settle down. Let’s be blunt: this is never going to happen. Let’s be even more blunt: the only strategy that might have conceivably worked would have been the ancient one: kill the Taliban and their allied tribespeople in very large numbers. That’s called “genocide” these days, and as such would never be considered.

Staying forever is ridiculous. And yet there are leading voices who think we should, such as former President George W. Bush. And then there’s David Brooks at the New York Times. Now, it’s one thing to recoil from the specter of a Taliban bloodbath, but Brooks argues we should stay in Afghanistan in order to . . . spread progressive values, because “at their core the liberal powers radiate a set of vital ideals — not just democracy and capitalism, but also feminism, multiculturalism, human rights, egalitarianism, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the dream of racial justice.”

Yeah—spreading LGBTQ rights in Afghanistan, that’s the ticket! Now what he’s trying to do here is shame the usually anti-war progressive left into supporting our Afghan presence, and all I can say is, good luck with that. But Brooks bends himself into such knots trying to flatter and cajole the progressives that he includes howlers such as this:

The greatest threat to America is that domestic autocrats, inspired by a global authoritarian movement, will again take over the U.S. government. The greatest threat to China is that internal liberals, inspired by global liberal ideals, will threaten the regime.

Seriously—if we don’t stay in Afghanistan we might get Trump back? (That’s the best argument yet for staying that I can think of.) And don’t we want China’s liberals to threaten the regime?

Let’s get out with a meditation on the unsolvable problem of Afghanistan that I posted here on Power Line nine years ago, drawn from Winston Churchill’s first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. Churchill reflected on the exact difficulties we are facing in exactly the same place.  Despite all the advances in American firepower in the century since Churchill wrote, there is very little fundamentally different now—especially the forbidding geography of the country and the unremitting barbarism of the tribes that inhabit the rocky valleys. Churchill was a skeptic that it was wise to pursue a policy of attempting to subdue the region through military means.

Churchill’s concluding chapter, “The Riddle of the Frontier,” ought to be assigned reading in our war colleges, not to mention the Pentagon and State Department.  See whether some of these excerpts don’t sound entirely fitting to our present condition:

The spirit of reaction led to the final abandonment of the venerable policy of non-intervention.  Instead of the “line of the mountains,” it was now maintained that the passes through them must be held.  This is the so-called “Forward Policy.”  It is a policy which aims at obtaining the frontier—Gilgit, Chitral, Jelalabad, Kandahar.

In pursuance of that policy we have been led to build many frontier forts, to construct roads, to annex territories, and to enter upon more intimate relations with the border tribes. . .

It may be said of the present system that it precludes the possibility of peace.  Isolated posts have been formed in the midst of races notoriously passionate, reckless and warlike. . .

The possibility of a great combination among the border tribes was indeed not contemplated.  Separated by distance, and divided by faction, it was anticipated they could be dealt with in detail.  On this point we have been undeceived.

That period of war and disturbance which was the inevitable first consequence of the “Forward Policy” must in any case have been disturbed and expensive.  Regarded from an economic standpoint, the trade of the frontier valleys will never pay a shilling in the pound on the military expenditure necessary to preserve order. . .

The “Full steam ahead” method would be undoubtedly the most desirable.  This is the military view.  Mobilise, it is urged, a nice field force, and operate at leisure in the frontier valleys, until they are as safe a Hyde Park.  Nor need this course necessarily involve the extermination of the inhabitants.  Military rule is the best rule suited to the character and comprehension of the tribesmen.  They will soon recognize the futility of resistance, and will gradually welcome the increase of wealth and comfort that will follow a stable government. . .  Only one real objection has been advanced against this plan. But it is a crushing one, and it constitutes the most serious argument against the whole “Forward Policy.”  It is this: we have neither the troops nor the money to carry it out.

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