I must say, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes,” to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who yesterday said that “40 years is enough” of foreign powers in Afghanistan. Speaking to reporters before a meeting with India defense chief Nirmala Sitharaman, Mattis explained that “it’s time for everyone to get on board, support the United Nations, support Prime Minister Modi, support President Ghani and all those who are trying to maintain peace and make for a better world here.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but you have to wonder if even Mattis fully appreciates just how wrong our Afghan mission has become — and just how quickly it got that way.
We aren’t a colonial power, although colonialism is exactly what we’ve been trying to do in Afghanistan since 2002 — remake it in something like our image. Even worse, Afghanistan is not a colonizable country*. At least, not without wanton killing and destruction that would make Curtis LeMay blanch.
So it’s been time to leave for a long time already.
And if the Taliban comes back and welcomes in ISIS or al Qaeda? Well, what of it? In 2001 we showed how to topple a government there, on the cheap, in six weeks or less — or your next invasion is free!
And the “next invasion” wouldn’t have been a joke.
If necessary, we could have replayed something like the 2001 invasion a half-dozen times by now, for a fraction of what we’ve spent in blood and treasure on our haphazard and doomed attempt at semi-colonization.
Best of all, we wouldn’t have poured untold hundreds of billions of dollars into a corrupt and useless government — which only incentivizes more bad behavior. Why make peace, or even govern decently, when the other guy keeps giving you money not to?
A sane Afghan policy would have consisted of kicking in the door, killing a bunch of bad guys, and then skedaddling until and unless we have to do it again. Eventually, the Afghans would figure out this terrorist-harboring stuff doesn’t pay. What has paid for their elites, quite handsomely, is our perennial occupation.
And let’s take this thought a step further.
Inexpensive automatic weapons and copious explosives have become the great democratizer of industrial-level violence. What I mean by that is this: 21st Century tech still gives us the decisive and rapid edge at toppling foreign governments, as we saw in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but easy access to 20th Century small arms makes it nearly impossible to conquer foreign peoples. That’s a huge distinction, and one seemingly lost on the Pentagon, the White House, and our endlessly chattering class.
So we need to rethink what it means to win a war, and realign our military aims accordingly.
“Winning,” except perhaps in the most extreme cases, should not require completely remaking our former enemies, à la Germany and Japan after WWII. In the parts of the world where we’ll be fighting our small wars — likely in the Greater Middle East and perhaps the failed-or-failing bits of Latin America — doing so just won’t be possible. And if God forbid we ever get in a war with China? Fuggidaboudit. Occupying and remodeling a nation the size of our own and with quadruple our population just ain’t gonna happen.
Here’s what we can do, and what we already do well: Topple enemy governments, rescue hostages, neutralize enemy movements, provide military aid and comfort, blow up bad guys from afar, etc. In other words: The high-tech, globalized version of Imperial Rome’s punitive expeditions. Get in, commit maximum violence, then get back out.
ASIDE: Some missions will require longer commitments, such as rooting out the last of ISIS. But ISIS is also a good example of the importance of not letting a terrorist group fester before we get serious about doing what needs to be done. Had Obama acted aggressively in 2013, the group would have been shut down in weeks or months, rather than years. Small amounts of violence applied early on prevents larger wars later. Just ask the French troops idly watching Nazi Germany reoccupy the Rhineland in 1936.
Imperial Rome didn’t have much in the way territorial ambitions — they did their big conquering as a republic. We’re in a similar position. We conquered most of the best bits of North America early in our history, and now we are, to borrow Bismarck’s phrase, a satiated power. So while there’s no more land we want to take, we do have global interests to protect — and terrorists who will kill us here if we don’t kill them there first. So, like Rome, we should defend what’s ours and aid our allies, but without engaging in fruitless quests to Romanize the Germans or Slavs. Or in our case, try to Americanize the Afghans or Iraqis.
So Mattis is right: It’s time to get out of Afghanistan. What he’s wrong about is the need to negotiate first. Negotiate what, for how long, with whom, and to what achievable end?
No, it’s time to pack our things and go, without leaving so much as a goodbye note on the nightstand.
*It’s a convenient shorthand, but it’s wrong to call Afghanistan a country. Afghanistan is a region on the map where neighboring countries aren’t.