Last month, Democrats and Republicans in Congress once again joined hands to block White House efforts at bringing American soldiers home from the war in Afghanistan. By itself, this was nothing new. The Afghan war has lasted into its 19th year without any strategic purpose—and therefore any prospect of victory—because the American ruling class sees greater benefit in allowing it to grind on. The war is a honey pot for military contractors, and a credentialing mill for generals and wannabe national politicians. Otherwise, it is easy enough for politicians of both parties to ignore the steady trickle of deaths of American soldiers who are not their children, often at the hands of their supposed Afghan allies.
What was different this time was the instrument that the pro-war lobby chose to effect its goal of endless engagement in a faraway territory whose strategic value to the United States is nil. Rather than relying on the same stale rationales in use for the past two decades—“leaving Afghanistan now would dishonor the memory of those who died in 9/11,” is one favorite, “we’re about to turn the corner in the war,” is another—the U.S. military and security bureaucracies and their pet media parrots employed the Russiagate playbook. Timed leaks by security state officials were fed through press channels, amplified by high profile partisan messaging, and then repackaged in legislative language—all framed in the context of shadowy Russian machinations that branded opponents of the war as Putin’s dupes.
On June 26, as reports were circulating about a plan being pushed by President Trump to withdraw nearly half of the remaining 8,600 troops from Afghanistan, The New York Times revealed a secret plot that supposedly showed America’s arch foe meddling in the country’s longest war: “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says.” The report was vague, sourced only to anonymous security officials, and generally seemed out of place to anyone who pays attention to developments in Afghanistan. The obvious problems with the story—starting with the fact that it was brazenly planted in the press at the precise moment where it was most useful as a political weapon—seemed to only increase its momentum. It was picked up, re-reported, treated as a settled matter, and a grave scandalous crisis by politicians and pundits willing to accept any tale, no matter how politically convenient or deranged-sounding, that suggests Trump is in league with evil Russians.
A few days after the initial story, former Obama national security adviser and possible Biden pick for vice president, Susan Rice, appeared in The New York Times op-ed pages asking: “Why Does Trump Put Russia First?” While there are endless grounds for complaint about Donald Trump and his record as president, “putting Russia first” is an especially rich charge coming from the former White House official. It was Rice who helped to architect and implement President Obama’s famous “reset” with Russia, including his decisions to ignore Russia’s invasion of Crimea and occupation of Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s decision to take control of Western Europe’s gas supply through the Nord Stream pipeline project, and Russia’s use of high-altitude bombers and special forces troops to aid Bashar Assad’s genocide in Syria.
What worries Susan Rice isn’t Trump’s Mar-a-Lago hotline to the Kremlin, but the possibility that he might end the nearly two-decadeslong, and counting, war in Afghanistan. It was not the first time Rice used her biweekly platform in the Times to undermine efforts at ending the war—something Obama refused to do. Accusing U.S. negotiators of having “legitimated the Taliban” and “weakened the Afghan government,” she had previously underlined the need for any negotiations to “achieve critical shared objectives” including “protecting democratic gains” and “preserving the rights of women”—in other words, the United States must stay in Afghanistan forever.
If Russia really is targeting American forces, reprisals should be swift and severe. But it wouldn’t fundamentally change anything about the war or crack the top five threats to Americans in the country, nor would it bring the United States any closer to victory—or even to being able to reasonably define what “victory” might look like.
After two decades, more than 2,300 American lives lost, and some $2 trillion spent, the Taliban is stronger than ever. Virtually every signature American effort in the war—from opium eradication to the all-important training of Afghan security forces—has ended in failure for reasons I’ve explained in detail and are rooted in the endemic incapacity for strategic wisdom within the American ruling class—a class that does not pay the price of its own failures and so does not learn from them. In private, top military officials have admitted for years that the war is hopeless and that signs of progress are routinely doctored to mislead the American public.
One of the great tragedies of the Afghan war is that the United States had effectively won it in 2004. But rather than recognize that victory and convert it into a peace dividend for Americans at home, America’s leaders looked victory in the face, panicked, and froze. Because we decided to stay for the “long war” of nation building in Afghanistan—a euphemism for forced modernization—and tied success to the conditions of Afghan civil society, our policy was doomed to failure. As I’ve written:
We tried to imagine, inspire, bludgeon, and bomb Afghanistan into a recognizable democracy organized around the capital, Kabul. But Kabul is not Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is not a Western nation-state—it’s a collection of village hamlets encircled by nearly impassable mountain ranges, long river valleys made for ambushing foreign enemies, vast plains of farmland, and other harsh and sometimes beautiful marriages of local land and culture that only sporadically tie together into a system of unified administration and governance on the provincial scale. The diverse people who live in this countryside—Turkmen in the north, Hazaras in the east, Tajiks near the Iranian border, and Pashtun majority—are connected to each other by two great forces. The first are the bonds of tribal and kinship networks, a form of social organization that has no equivalent in the West and is motivated by fundamentally different values than those esteemed in a liberal democracy. The second is their hostility to foreign invaders.
The necessity of ending the war in Afghanistan as soon as possible is simple and clear: The war cannot be won by any sane definition. The Taliban does not threaten the American homeland, and the conflict in Afghanistan serves no strategic purpose. Whatever else one can say about him, President Trump, almost alone in the American political class, grasps this openly and intuitively. He initiated peace talks with the Taliban and was trying to bring soldiers home when bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and the House united to block his efforts and prolong the war.
How did it come to be that Russia, a second-tier military power with an economy the size of Northern Italy and its own storied history of disaster in Afghanistan, became a reason that the United States must keep on fighting its own dead-end Afghan war? The answer is that the fantasy of Russia built up in the American imagination since the election of Donald Trump is itself a grave threat to national security. The specter of Russia can now be used to justify anything, while enhancing the power of the political operators who wield it as a weapon.
The purpose of the Russian bounty story was obvious: Tie the president’s hands by using the media to create a public impression that pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan—a move that might otherwise strike American voters in both parties as a very good idea—is a sign of capitulation to Russia, and therefore politically radioactive.
A week after the initial Times report, the House Armed Services Committee passed an amendment effectively preventing President Trump from bringing troops back from overseas—with a 45-11 bipartisan majority. The amendment, tied to the National Defense Authorization Act, was cosponsored by Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, and Democratic Congressman Jason Crow. It prohibits Congress from funding a troop withdrawal until a number of conditions that have been impossible to meet over the past two decades are met. In practice, it is a congressional mandate for continuing the war indefinitely. Days prior to the vote, Cheney released a joint statement with Rep. Mac Thornberry, a fellow Republican member of the House Armed Service Committee, citing the Russian bounty story as a key reason that the American military should remain in Afghanistan.
Russiagate merging with the war in Afghanistan into one grand conspiracy has the quality of something fated; the culmination of inexorable forces. The merger was inevitable because both Russiagate and the Afghan war instrumentalize national security to wield America’s world-powerful military and intelligence apparatus against domestic political foes, dressed up as foreign adversaries.
Everything the American ruling class has ever screwed up over the past two decades is converging into a single superdense black hole of delusion and defeat that warps the gravitational field of American politics and sucks everything into its vortex. Politicians, lobbyists, professional military bureaucrats, defense sector business interests, and the prestige press establishment are all deeply invested in both Russiagate and the war as lies too big to fail—collective enterprises in which, as long as everyone does their part and plays along, no one can be held to blame.
The Afghan war, like the grave threat to American democracy posed by the grand Russia narrative, serves a small ruling elite that is incapable of governing effectively on behalf of the many, but displays a superb talent for subverting the will of the democratic majority in order to stay in power and advance its own interests. Why shouldn’t we stay in Afghanistan forever? If throwing more American lives into the war is what it takes to defeat President Trump, the evil Putin-loving fascist who wants to bring the troops home, isn’t that worth it? Anyway, who’s it hurting? Not us.
In 2012, I served in Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer. Since coming home, I have observed and reported on developments in Afghanistan for the better part of the past decade. The lesson I have taken from those experiences is that the prospect of more American soldiers bleeding to death in a lost cause, does not especially trouble Americans. No one cares.
Generals, ex-generals, and assorted defense functionaries order American soldiers to fight and die in wars where they have already accepted defeat. Despite the scale of our two-decadeslong failure in Afghanistan, they will always have work, in or out of government, within the permanent military bureaucracy. To buck the system and take a stand by demanding a change to failed policies could save lives and save America’s fading military supremacy from being further squandered, but it would threaten the benefits package in the Pentagon tenure pipeline so it doesn’t happen. Congress is happy to chop off the limbs of the American soldier if it makes for a good headline or scores a few points against political rivals. Taxpayers are preoccupied by more immediate concerns like pandemics, rent payments, and unemployment checks. Afghanistan is faintly troubling but so distant it hardly registers. Or else they are lost in the dreamland of online; too distracted by social media and video games to give a damn; too atomized and diffuse to muster the will to imagine themselves as part of a national community and exercise their responsibilities as citizens.
That leaves one person who can bring to an end the interminable war in Afghanistan. Perhaps he is not the person you or I would have chosen for the job. But he happens to be the president of the United States of America.
Donald Trump alone can bring the Afghan war to an end. He should do so now before another American life is sacrificed to no end.
Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.