A parable of the absurdist bureaucratic state.
How the Lizard People Took Over America’s War
Our worthless elite were not always, and will not always be, in charge.
It wasn’t always like this. It didn’t have to go the way it did. There were in fact signs of early success when we started bombing the Taliban in October of 2001. This was a raw time. We were hurt and aggrieved. If you squinted, you could still see the smoke coming from the rubble of the Twin Towers. We put our best guys on the ground, a few hundred Delta forces to track down Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden—modest, but vital objectives. Righteous objectives.
This limited operation had near unanimous support. Even Ron Paul voted for it. No one in D.C. was talking yet about modernizing Afghanistan, or about the women, or about fanciful dreams of watching the seeds of liberal democracy bloom in the Graveyard of Empires. All of that soaring rhetoric about human rights and the destiny of free men came later.
In that first month of fighting, we didn’t lose a single soldier. The first American casualty was a CIA interrogator named Mike Spann who’d tracked down the traitor John Walker Lindh and then died in a prison riot. A bad loss, but this was war, and in war men die. Otherwise we were doing what needed to be done. The Taliban was swiftly forced out of their provincial strongholds. We did it smartly. We were efficient, prudent, hands-off where we could be. We fought like an empire at the peak of its powers. Slowly and surely.
By December, Omar and bin Laden had slipped past our dragnet and fled to Pakistan. We missed our first and best chance. Okay. These things happen. When there’s a rat in every cave, you don’t always get the one you’re looking for. But this was no catastrophic failure. We’d put the Northern Alliance back in control. We could have left it that way. We could’ve let them stand or fall on their own. All of the problems and lies and wasted belligerence were coming to a head 2,000 miles west along the Silk Road in Baghdad, but whatever mistakes we’d made in Afghanistan were still forgivable.
The Rise of Big Fantasy
Over a few short years, all of that changed. With bin Laden on the run, out of country, it was no longer clear what our purpose was. The Taliban had been subdued but they could not be exterminated. We could play whack-a-mole with the Pashtun fighters for eternity and still never get them to put down their weapons. But we were still there. Power abhors a vacuum just as generals abhor idle hands. Where there wasn’t an objective, we would invent one. Clear-eyed realists don’t thrive under these kinds of circumstances. Pragmatists make way for the dreamers.
The particularities of the place and of its people were glossed over when they were not simply denied all together. The Pashtuns never wanted peace. What made anyone think such a thing was even possible? They certainly never wanted peace at the hands of the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, their sworn tribal enemies. This wasn’t religious war. Or anyway this wasn’t only a religious war. It was more primal than that. But we didn’t get it, or chose not to.
When the Pashtuns say they are only at peace when they are at war, they mean it. When they say they don’t want our way of life, they mean that too. Nevertheless, we persisted. We had, by the mid-aughts, recovered from the shock of 9/11 and seduced ourselves by the unearned promise of new technologies and a new kind of “public sociology.” With just a bit of tinkering at the edges, man could finally be perfected. With 10,000 hours of practice we could all be Mozart. If we understood our biases in just the right way, we could all make optimal decisions and finally, at last, reach the just and true conclusions about the nature of the good life and how to live it.
Moral certainty was no more than a few “major university studies” away. Everything mutable. Every man a block of wet clay to be molded by the right incentives. Even in Afghanistan.
Nation Building: A Parable
Often, the Big Story is best understood by way of a smaller story within it. For this period of the Afghanistan War and its fantasies about what could be accomplished there, the 2006 book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission To Promote Peace—One School At a Time by Gregory Mortenson is a worthy synecdoche. It is not a widely remembered book, for good reason, though it spent four years on the New York Times bestseller list. It was a pop-lit touchstone for a certain class of person who religiously watched The Daily Show and carried NPR tote bags and stayed up late at night achingly deliberating over whether to cast their primary vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
The title tells you all you need to know about the book’s utter banality, but at the time this was the sort of thing serious people who read the news and were willing to make the tough choices about America’s role in the world considered a worthy topic of discussion at dinner parties. Mortenson, a nurse and mountain-climber turned “humanitarian,” recounts in his book the harried adventure of his failed summit of K2 in the early 90’s, after which he gets lost on his solo descent, only to be taken in by Afghan goat herders, whom he repays by building a school for young girls in their village, a project so spiritually rewarding for the otherwise driftless Mortenson that he rededicates his life to building more schools in more remote Afghan villages.
Along the way, Mortenson secures funding from a Silicon Valley so-and-so and starts the Central Asian Institute to manage these humanitarian efforts. He earns the praise of liberal taste-makers like Nicholas Kristoff and Jon Krakauer. He encounters many trials of course, including resistance from Taliban warlords who kidnap Mortenson, but are eventually charmed by his saintly ambitions, some of them even renouncing their fundamentalist lifestyle to assist in his school building jihad.
For his efforts, Mortenson was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize. He eventually lost to Obama, as we all did, but not before accumulating tens of millions of dollars in donations from inspired readers the world over.
Three Cups of Tea is, in its way, the perfect distillation of what the American Empire had by then become. The War Nerd, Gary Brecher, referred to this time as a “Peace Corps daydream.” The leaders in our State Department earnestly, truly believed we could transform the Pashtuns into Scandinavians. Many of them still believe this. If only they had access to libraries. If only they could be shown the principles of Classical Liberalism. If only their women could be taught to read. If only they could all hold hands and sing Kumbaya until it echoed off the high limestone walls of the Korangal Valley. Then, peace in Afghanistan. Simple as. The entirety of the Afghan War rested on this premise. The lives of our soldiers were put at risk and too often lost on its behalf.
None of it ever amounted to more than a pile of dirt, as we now know. Well, that’s not exactly right. From this project, and many more like it, the NGOs built out the mailing lists that still fund their operations to this day. Starry-eyed graduates got their first taste of missionary liberalism. Contractors got their contracts. The neocons had the Potemkin Village of good deeds to point at to disguise their more cynical motives. There were winners in all of this. It just wasn’t the Afghans. It wasn’t you or me.
But it is not merely the do-gooder delusions that make this story so illustrative. The kicker to Mortenson’s book is that it was all bullsh*t. Mortenson’s story was a lie. The man was a fraud. The precipitating incident never happened at all. He never stumbled into any village. The Taliban never kidnapped him and in fact did not even exist in the country at the time his story takes place. Of the millions of dollars he and his institute amassed in donations, less than half was ever put to use for the purposes it was intended. Of the hundreds of schools he claimed to have built, most of them never existed or were immediately demolished for scraps. Mortenson wasn’t a crook, so much as a fabulist. He fed people a story they wanted to hear. They paid him good money for it. His lies cost him nothing. The lies were the point. For the Afghan War writ large, was it any different?
Afghanistan became Obama’s war soon after. The technocrats were ascendant. They would come in and fix everything with their charts and credentialed knowledge. These guys—sorry, guys and girls—knew the score. They had the answers. They had new plans. What we needed, simply, was more. More troops. More schools. More human rights.
The Experts at places like the Center for a New American Security, who count as their largest donors Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Chevron, Exxon, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, inveighed to anyone who dare question our continued presence in Afghanistan that this was our duty, our responsibility as free people. If we didn’t support the women in Afghanistan who would? CNAS kept a revolving door with the State Department, hosting familiar faces like Michele Flournoy and Victoria Nuland and John Nagl—who, in 2012, wrote in the Washington Post that success in Afghanistan would require “armed U.S. assistance for decades to come” and only a nation of cowards would abandon the Afghans now. The average soldier’s job had been shipped off to China anyway, so at least he could enlist and drone strike an 8-year-old Pashtun boy sent to plant IEDs on a dirt road, and when he got home to the sticks, his psyche fried, he could nod off on opioids until his heart stopped. Our Experts demanded he make that bargain, for his own sake, for the sake of justice in the world. And who was this soldier to object to the Experts?
Finally, Trump promised to put an end to it all. Here was a man who after decades of more of the same, seemed to understand the game and seemed determined to end it. Michael Flynn, one of the earliest and most vocal internal skeptics of the Afghan adventure, was poised to bring our guys home. We would turn off the spigots to the contractors. We would end the human rights farce and get back to a realist view of the world and its affairs. But it wasn’t so clean. The think tankers and their collaborators in the intel agencies made sure Flynn never had his say.
Trump, for his part, was too enamored with the generals to ever defy their wishes. Too much reverence for the military, even long after they’d forfeited the right to it. As with so much else in his presidency, we got gestures in the right direction, a few half measures, bracing rhetoric that has opened the door for a better way, but in the end not enough action. Not enough doing.
Bringing the War Home
Now the war is over. There is not much to say about that, despite all of the heady drama playing out over the last week, the excuses, the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, the 11th hour recriminations. Bad things tend to end badly. And yet it is a good thing when they finally do. Let’s leave it there.
Twenty years. All that exists of this century. As I have written elsewhere, the war was a total failure, by any measure, perhaps the great failure of our age, the nexus of all the malignant forces precipitating American decline—End of History delusions, failed leadership, the ascendant Human Rights NGO complex, public-private self-dealing—venal, arrogant, brain-dead, sclerotic, unaccountable in every aspect. We will likely learn nothing from this catastrophe. Our leadership class will not be chastened by it. They will not reconsider their magical thinking. They will simply redirect it elsewhere. Probably at home. There is already talk of forgetting the terrorists in Afghanistan so we can fight the terrorists on our own soil.
In case there is any doubt, they are referring to you and me. They are referring to anyone who doubts their mandate to rule over us. What comes next will likely be far worse than what preceded it, if equally deranged. And though the architects of this failed war might not take any lessons from Afghanistan, we can. The Pashtun persevered because they had the will to do so. Because they had God on their side.
Hold the line. Call their bluff. They will blink first. The weaker hand always does.