Losing a war by choice

During the last decade, we heard commentators make the distinction between wars of necessity and wars of choice. The line between the two was never entirely clear and the category into which a particular war fell sometimes depended on whether the commentator favored it.

Still the distinction is real and useful in thinking about policy.

The same is true, I submit, of the distinction between losing a war by necessity and losing a war by choice. Japan lost World War II by necessity. So did Germany. The U.S. lost the war in Vietnam by choice, although the choice might have been sound.

Losing wars, whether by necessity or by choice, is a bad thing. It’s bad for morale, bad for prestige, bad all around.

There should be a strong presumption against choosing to lose a war. That’s especially true for a power like America, where one party’s leader talks about American greatness and the other party’s leader proclaims that America is back.

To be sure, the presumption against choosing to lose a war can be overcome. If large numbers of Americans are dying just to preserve a stalemate, that’s a factor weighing strongly in favor of choosing to lose.

If we’re fighting to preserve an evil, highly repressive regime, that’s another factor. So too if the enemy we’re fighting against isn’t particularly evil, has done us no harm, and/or poses no threat to us if we stop fighting.

But none of these conditions applies in Afghanistan. We maintained the stalemate for more than five years with only a small number of American deaths.

The Afghan regime was corrupt and incompetent, like so many others in the third world and some that are higher up the food chain. But it wasn’t particularly repressive or otherwise evil.

The Taliban, by contrast, is probably as evil and repressive as any regime in the modern world. In the U.S., we tend to focus on its treatment of women and girls which is, indeed, horrific. But it will execute people of any age or gender for violating sharia law.

The Taliban has also done the U.S. grievous harm. It protected Osama bin Laden who unleashed the worst attack ever on our homeland. (More Americans died in the 9/11 attacks than have died in nearly 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan) And the Taliban continues to maintain close ties with al Qaeda.

In the context of Afghanistan, I can’t think of any factor that undercuts what is, or should be, the strong presumption against choosing to lose a war. Thus, even apart from the adverse consequences of the defeat for stranded Americans, for the people of Afghanistan, especially those who helped us for years, and, quite possibly, for our own national security, Joe Biden should not have chosen to lose this war.

NOTE: This post has been modified to eliminate the assertion that Taliban leaders rape boys, a statement that, as a general matter, seems to be incorrect.

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