Dishonor in Afghanistan

This is not the way to get out of this war.

A Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out. (Photograph by AFP via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (Including all the new Remnant Bingo players),

The New York Times, August 12, 2021:

U.S. Asks Taliban to Spare Its Embassy in Coming Fight for Kabul

The demand seeks to stave off an evacuation of the embassy by dangling aid to future Afghan governments — even one that includes the Taliban.

If this wasn’t all so infuriating and depressing it would be funny. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of one of those scenes from a high school movie. A bully approaches a kid walking to school carrying his social studies project on crop rotation in the 14th century:

“Butch, leave me alone. Please don’t smash my project, I’ve been working on this diorama for a long time. It’s very fragile.”

“What’s in it for me, dork?”

“Well, if you leave it alone, I’ll be able to give you my lunch money from now on.”

I shouldn’t joke, because this situation isn’t funny.

The Taliban is already executing people on the suspicion they may have worked for the government at some point in the past. An evacuee from Kunduz told Agence France-Presse that the Taliban beheaded his son. “They took him ... as if he was a sheep and cut off his head with a knife and threw it away,” he said.

The Taliban’s “cultural commission” reportedly issued a letter demanding, “All imams and mullahs in captured areas should provide the Taliban with a list of girls above 15 and widows under 45 to be married to Taliban fighters.”

And prior to Biden’s deployment of troops to help with the U.S. bugout, the response from the State Department amounted to dire warnings that such behavior would make the Taliban “isolated” in the international community and could be––could be!––described as war crimes.

I understand that when all you have is a hammer, you have little choice but to treat every problem like a nail. But the dark, depressing comedy of this is just stunning. It strikes me as axiomatically true that an organization willing to murder people wholesale and force 15-year-old girls into sexual slavery won’t find threats like this very intimidating. If you told Jeffrey Dahmer that if he kept eating people, he’d have lost any chance of being named Vegetarian of the Year, it wouldn’t have had much effect.

It reminds me a bit of a terrible church shooting back in 2000 that Democrats tried to use against George W. Bush. As governor he opposed a bill that would have made it illegal to bring a gun to church. The upshot of the argument was that a guy willing to slaughter innocent people in a church would have been deterred by a placard outside the church saying, “No guns allowed.” If the laws against murder didn’t dissuade the guy, why on earth would the threat of a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully carrying a gun do the trick?

The idea that the Taliban cares enough about being an upstanding member of the “international community” that it’s willing to not be the Taliban is Aesopian in its folly. If only the frog had explained to the scorpion that he understood the scorpion’s interests better than the scorpion did, everything would have been fine. There’s just one problem: That’s not how it works. 

Members of the League of Extraordinary Cookie Pushers think being a part of the Eloi guild is the greatest thing in the world. And what’s not to like? Who wouldn’t want to travel in style to Geneva and Brussels with an entourage and per diem, spending their days in posh hotels, eating clever cheese, and “dialoguing” about what’s good for the great unwashed Morlocks below?

The Morlocks, that’s who.

Oh, and by the way, even if the Taliban did care about being isolated from the international community, there’s no evidence that it will be

Interests, real and unreal.

Let’s break things down. Believing we should no longer be in Afghanistan is an entirely valid and defensible position. I disagree with it, but I can certainly see the merits of the argument, and I definitely empathize with the desire for withdrawal. I don’t want America there, either. Which is to say that if the rosy scenarios peddled by both the Trump and Biden administrations had been believable, I’d probably change my mind or at least consider it a tough judgment call.

But when Mike Pompeo boasted of his deal with the Taliban and assured the public that the Taliban would not only break with al-Qaeda but fight alongside the U.S. to help destroy it, it was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard from a secretary of state in my lifetime. It was akin to announcing a strategic accord with bears to get them to stop crapping in the woods.

It was either an insanely cynical lie or a profoundly naïve version of reality. (Given that Pompeo likes to pretend he’s a tough-minded realist on national security issues, it wouldn’t shock me if he preferred that people conclude he was lying out of loyalty to Trump. Either way, I never believed it.)

Likewise, despite saying over and over again that I hoped to be proven wrong, I never thought Biden’s assurances that Afghanistan wouldn’t descend into chaos, civil war, or an outright rout by the Taliban was remotely plausible or persuasive.

But that’s not my point. You can believe that getting out of Afghanistan is the right policy––again, I have friends whom I respect who believe that––while also understanding that this was a terrible way to get out of Afghanistan. We can all agree that it’s time to leave a party; that doesn’t automatically mean you should jump out the nearest window to make your exit.

But given that so many people have already made peace with the idea that handing Afghanistan to the Taliban is an acceptable price to pay for withdrawal, I’m not going to run through all the humanitarian arguments against withdrawal. This was, by their own admission, a price they were willing to pay in the name of “realism.”

There are several serious schools of foreign policy realism. But in Washington, realism is often code for “my preferred policy.” No one likes to say their position is “unrealistic.” More to the point, “realism” is often what ideologues of various stripes call their point of view after they lose a foreign policy argument. “Look at those crazy ideologues,” the avowed realists shout from cable news studios. “We need some realism in foreign policy and we’re not getting it from these radicals. We should only do what is in America’s vital interests.”

This always begs questions. Everyone agrees we should do what is in our interests; the argument is what constitutes our interests. One school of realists says our interests are only economic. This geopolitical version of homo economicus––call it patria economicus––is itself rife with question begging because economic interests can be defined as a defense of the current status quo, which can either require military intervention or require non-intervention. At the same time, economic interest can weigh in on the side of changing the status quo.

For instance, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a devotee of patria economicus realism could have said, “It doesn’t matter who controls Kuwait’s oil fields, he’s gotta sell the oil to somebody.” Alternatively, he could have said, “We have to repel Saddam because in the long-term letting such acts stand will be destabilizing to oil markets.” Or, “It will give Saddam Hussein too much power over the price of oil.” Or a dozen other things.

Honor among nations.

But the bigger flaw with such realism is that economic self-interest is only one of several factors in foreign policy. It’s important, of course. But it’s not everything.

At the end of the day, it’s night time. But more to the point, foreign policy––like all major aspects of politics and statesmanship––is going to be about a lot of different considerations. Why do we defend democracies? It’s right to do so for a host of reasons. Some have to do with economic self-interest. Others have very little to do with economic self-interest. The point is most important choices involve multiple factors, trade-offs, and considerations. Reducing important affairs of state to a sole variable is the opposite of realism.

Think of most of the important decisions you’ve made in your life. Did you marry your wife because she’s tall? Did you marry your husband because he’s not bald? Did you buy your car because it’s blue or your house because you liked the paint job? I hope not.    

Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were the only times in the 20th century when going to war didn’t require a checklist. Our enemies made the decision for us, because self-defense is always self-justifying. Everything else involves weighing all sorts of factors. 

And one of those factors everyone understands at some level––but few like to discuss––is honor. I don’t mean some flowery chivalric concept or some gitchy-goo platitudes––though I do subscribe to some of that stuff. I mean a very basic concept of how nations comport themselves in the world. A nation without a sense of honor is a nation begging to get pushed around. Contrary to all of the treacle we hear about the “international community,” the international realm isn’t a community. It’s a contested sphere of power where individual actors and coalitions of actors exert their will. And honor is a major currency of this realm. It’s what binds allies together when other forms of self-interest militate against loyalty.

If invading Afghanistan in the first place was a bad idea for us, how crazy was it for Estonia, New Zealand, and Poland? Except it wasn’t crazy for them. They had lots of reasons for coming to our aid, but one of them was national honor. America was in the right, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were in the wrong, and it was in their interest to be on the right side of the struggle.

What is national honor? Well, a thorough answer to that requires a lot more space than is available here. But part of it is self-respect. Part of it involves the ability to tell the story of ourselves with pride. Another part of it is to communicate to the world––and especially our allies and enemies––that we are willing to defend our honor, not just our interests. “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” is a very dumb sentiment in a world of patria economicus, but it gets to the heart of the idea that a nation stands for something.

And here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter if you, or the entire political establishment, thinks it’s idiotic to care about honor. To a certain extent it doesn’t even matter if most Americans don’t care about honor. Why? Because the rest of the world does. Honor is in many respects just another word for reputation, integrity, or credibility. These forms of geopolitical capital buy goodwill, cooperation, and deference in the international realm. Fritter them away and you’ll get less of all three over time––and you may need them later. 

So even if you think leaving Afghanistan is the right thing to do, it doesn’t matter, because this is the wrong way to do it. If Trump and Biden wanted to get us out, fine. But they had an obligation to do so in a way that didn’t lead to this.

People who relied on us are going to be murdered––lots of them. And if reports are true, many of them will be murdered with the war materiel we abandoned alongside the Afghan people. That is a blow to American honor. It is shameful. And we’ll be paying a price for it internationally and in our hearts for a long time to come, because this sorry chapter in the story we tell ourselves about ourselves will be written in the blood of people who took our commitments seriously. It will be celebrated as a victory by people who call us their enemies. This news-footage snuff film about a democratic project’s destruction will unfold with narration from a president who keeps saying he’s the leading champion of democracy and keeps promising the world “America is back”––even as he orders a race for the exit.

So please don’t tell me that’s in our vital national interest. Because it’s not.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So I think Zoë is starting to see ghosts. The other morning she refused to come down the stairs. The only time I’ve ever seen her like that was when Gracie was playing Balrog to Zoë’s Gandalf. (Many dogs do not like passing cats on stairs.) But Gracie wasn’t on the stairs. And she was even reluctant to go down the front steps of our house, too. Since then she’s gotten more comfortable with stairs. But the reticence hasn’t completely vanished, either. 

I have no good explanation for it. I thought maybe her eyesight was going, but she can still spot a crow or rabbit from 50 yards. I’m open to your theories. Also, this morning, we returned to a trail we hadn’t been to for a while and the girls were both spooked by something. Zoë doesn’t usually get spooked by animals. If she sees a fox or coyote she’ll give chase. So I have no idea what that was about. Otherwise, the critters are good. Except for the heat, which they hate almost as much as I do, and the thunderstorms, which they hate with passionate intensity. They definitely miss winter.

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