From Claire—I apologize for the silence. The events of the past weeks have left me so stunned that it’s taken me a few days to collect myself.
In lieu of trying to make sense of what’s happened—because I can’t, yet—I’ll share with you what the Cosmopolitan Globalists have been writing to each other.
Last Man Out, obviously, is a pseudonym.
Last Man Out: Some thoughts on the fall of Kabul and America’s defeat in Afghanistan follow. They are not in any particular order, nor are they fully developed. I am, in candor, angry and depressed in equal measure.
America has been humiliated before in my lifetime—I was born about ninety days after Black April in Saigon, so for me the list of our military defeats includes Beirut 1983, Mogadishu 1993, 9/11, IRGC-USN 2016, and Niger 2017. You can dispute the importance of each, but I don’t think you can dispute that the collapse of Afghanistan eclipses them all.
Let me modify that: it eclipses them all except 9/11. For 9/11, the victory of the Taliban twenty years later is a culmination and an amplification. The bright clear morning almost exactly twenty years ago, in which three thousand Americans were slaughtered in our own streets—I was there with several million other New Yorkers, waiting for my fiancée to come home from lower Manhattan—is bookended by Americans fleeing for their lives, their mission of vengeance and justice defeated by the forces of darkness. On September 11, 2021, veterans of Al Qaeda and the 2001-era Taliban (some of whom were just days ago our prisoners) will be able to gather in Kabul, visit the old Bin Laden and Zawahiri training camps, reminisce, celebrate their ejection of the Americans and their proxies, celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their victory on 9/11—and begin planning anew.
Osama bin Laden himself predicted that this would be the endstate of his daring strikes against the American heartland. Over and over again, he referred to his own touchstone of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, in which he fought, and prevailed. Certainly the probable outcome of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., would be an American invasion of Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East: but, asked Bin Laden, what then? For him, the mujahideen outlasting the USSR, and then the subsequent collapse of the USSR, was a causal pair, a direct line. They did it to the Soviets, and they would do it to the Americans. All we had to do was be as hubristic and foolish as the Soviets were, daring to come and stay, daring to sink a generation’s lives and treasure into grafting alien mores onto Pashtunistan and any other tribal hinterland of our choosing.
To borrow a phrase: mission accomplished.
“I have benefited so greatly from the jihad in Afghanistan,” bin Laden said in November, 1996,
that it would have been impossible for me to gain such a benefit from any other chance and this cannot be measured by tens of years but rather more than that. ...
So our experience in this jihad was great, by the grace of God, praise and glory be to Him, and the most of what we benefited from was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims. Slumber and fatigue vanished and so was the terror which the US would use in its media by attributing itself superpower status, or which the Soviet Union used by attributing itself as a superpower.
Later, in the weeks after the American invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, bin Laden issued a statement addressed to the American people at large:
If the Americans refuse to listen to our advice and the goodness, guidance and righteousness that we call them to, then be aware that you will lose this Crusade Bush began, just like the other previous Crusades in which you were humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen, fleeing to your home in great silence and disgrace. If the Americans do not respond, then their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.
Humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen, fleeing to your home in great silence and disgrace. That’s the phrase. See that Chinook ferrying refugees from the Embassy to the airport? You know the picture by now. That’s what that photograph shows. Osama bin Laden was a madman, a murderer, a depraved fanatic on par with a Hitler or a Mao. Getting shot in the face by a SEAL was the least he deserved. But he was also something nearly everyone in American leadership and elite classes are not: a strategist.
Now the fruits of our strategic incompetence come home. Our total defeat in Afghanistan is the end of one chapter—the chapter in which we learn the awful truth that the 9/11 attacks succeeded wildly in their tactical and strategic goals—and the beginning of another. This new chapter is much darker, more foreboding, and quite possibly more existentially perilous than what came before.
Where to begin? Let me do my best to make a list:
1) Islamist terrorism is coming back to the American homeland. It didn’t ever quite go away, but massacres like the ones in San Bernardino and Orlando were either lone-wolf or small-unit attacks. We mostly stopped worrying about large, mass-casualty events a few years after 9/11—and one of the reasons we did was our willingness to go to the homelands of those who would commit them, and kill them in the thousands. Now, having delivered the strategic win to Al Qaeda after twenty years—mere seconds on the clock, by some mindsets—we have massively incentivized a new wave of them.
2) It is exceptionally improbable that our homeland-security, military, and counterintelligence apparatuses—to say nothing of our national security leadership writ large—is at all capable of grappling with simultaneous major campaigns versus a revived Islamism and the People’s Republic of China.
3) What is the value of an American alliance now? The utility and reliability of America as a partner has taken a terrific beating across the past twenty years. The George W. Bush Administration battered at America’s standing as an alliance leader with its “new Europe—old Europe” nonsense, and especially with its decision to drag nations—all of which trusted our strategic leadership—into the Iraqi miasma. The Obama Administration eroded American leadership’s standing with its flaccid responses to both Russian and Chinese aggression, and with its precipitate withdrawal from Iraq that culminated in the rise of ISIS. The Trump Administration—well, where do we start? Helsinki? The Trans-Pacific Partnership? The Doha capitulations? Perhaps all that need be said there is that the Biden Administration’s extraordinary stewardship of total American wartime collapse is in a real sense the fulfillment of its predecessor’s own agenda.
4) If you’re the so-called Quad, or any of the other nations to be carefully assembled versus an ascendent PRC—Vietnam, Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, or beyond—what exactly do you think the value of American promises is now? If you’re Taiwan, and especially if you’re Taiwanese Kuomintang, does it make more sense to place your faith in the Americans, or in a negotiated capitulation to the Zhongnanhai? Shift the arena to Europe: why would Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics, Poland, or any other object of Russian pressure rely upon us now? Shift the arena closer to home: what incentive does the Mexican state have to arrest its own descent into full narco-state status, with everything that implies for our southern border? We’re a cut-and-run nation, remember. The most recent embattled nation to trust in the Americans is presently having its twelve-year old daughters raped by Pashtun tribesmen.
5) Flip the lens and look at it through an enemy nation’s point of view. What incentive do the Russians have to stand down? What incentive do the Iranians, so recently reeling from a series of blows dealt, have to do anything but redouble their efforts and wait us out? What incentive does a cartel-affiliated head of state—say, in Honduras or Mexico—have to do anything but proceed with business as usual? Most consequentially, what does the Communist Party of China think of our deterrent now? We invaded Afghanistan, after all, after a direct strike on the American heartland—and now we’re retreating in defeat. Is it credible to argue, today, that America would react more decisively to an attack upon—take your pick—Okinawa, Guam, or a carrier at sea? “Well, it may take you twenty years to win though,” if said to a Chinese strategist, will likely generate the response: “And?”
6) If the great universe of our erstwhile friends, and that of our enemies, alike believe America is no longer to be counted upon, then just watch what that does to the Treasury’s ability to issue debt. Watch in turn what that does to the dollar as a reserve currency. The line from the fall of Kabul to an impoverished America may not be direct, but that doesn’t mean it won’t exist.
7) Twenty years of effort culminating in a rapid implosion of the whole project in mere days is a disastrous indictment. Who oversaw the project? Well, the operational leadership was mostly the United States Army. Sure, some Navy, somewhat more Marines, some Air Force, but mostly Army. How did the Army do? How did the Army do in its first (real, long-term) post-Vietnam test? Well, it did about the same it did in Vietnam. It beat the insurgency, sort of, until it left and the insurgency took over absolutely everything. It fought the same war twelve to twenty times over, because that’s how long the in-country tours were. It relentlessly promoted a vision of progress, because that’s what a funding-hungry bureaucracy demands. And then it lost. So tell us a few things: Is the way the Army produces and promotes its leadership, especially at O-6 and above, any good? How many war-winning generals does the Army have these days? Is the Army doing a decent job defending the republic right now?
8) Raise your hand if you believe the loss in Afghanistan will actually spur any reform within the Army, or the Armed Forces writ large. (Here’s a predictive experience: the loss in Vietnam sure didn’t. Not in the way you might think.) Remember that the current senior flag officer in the United States Army, Gen. Mark Milley, is the same man who tried to block public release of the Army’s own Iraq-war performance assessment.
9) Refer back to item 3 above: That’s a record of strategic-level dysfunction sprawling across time and political parties. Sure, we can blame the Army, but the Army answers to these people. What sort of people are they? If the Army is having problems producing competent generals, isn’t that a subset of the ruling regime’s inability to produce competent administrators, leaders, strategists, and statesmen? Why does that inability grip our entire ruling elite? Are they reformable, or do they need to be discarded wholesale?
10) Finally and most consequentially, does that ruling elite—the American regime, to borrow from the Claremont crowd—actually have any interest in defending America? Does the regime have any interest in defending itself? Losing Afghanistan was an own-goal—we were literally holding back the entire now-victorious Taliban with a brigade’s commitment in the final months—and it isn’t the only one. Consider the botched pandemic response at nearly every level. Consider the tremendous difficulty in even recognizing the PRC threat. Consider the toleration of a national insurrection in 2020. Consider the toleration of emergent and extra-Constitutional state blocs throughout the country across the past two years, from the brief Western States Compact—which actually attempted to relate to the federal government on a peer-government basis—to the coalition of states now dispatching forces to the southern border. Does the apparatus that rules us actually wish to live? And does it wish for us to live?
This is the point at which it gets dark—darkest—and so I’ll end with an except from Solzhenitsyn’s remarks on June 8, 1978:
[T]he most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war … The American Intelligentsia lost its nerve and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your shortsighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam had been a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?
… [N]o weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal.
Humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen, fleeing to your home in great silence and disgrace.
We awaken in a defeated country.
Pax Americana Died in Kabul, by Brahma Chellaney
This is a watershed moment that will be remembered for formalizing the end of the long-fraying Pax Americana and bringing down the curtain on the West’s long ascendancy.
At a time when its global preeminence was already being severely challenged by China, the United States may never recover from the blow this strategic and humanitarian disaster delivers to its international credibility and standing. The message it delivers to US allies is that they count on America’s support when they most need it at their own peril.
The West has Abandoned Afghanistan to Slavery, by Terry Glavin
… like the Sunni-Shia divides we’re always told about, the schism that pits the target audiences of CNN and Fox News against one another has rendered Americans entirely incapable of having an honest conversation among themselves about what they’ve done.
Their shouting emanates outward from Washington to Ottawa and London, and to Paris and Berlin, and drowns out everything else. Smiles curl on the faces of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. There’s laughter sneering from Belarus to Myanmar, and from Tehran to Beijing. And there is no way around it.
The Afghan people, nearly 38 million people, median age 19.5 years old, are now on their own. In the years following the rout of the savage Islamic Emirate in the wake of September 11, 2001, the long-running surveys run by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found Afghans to be the most optimistic people in the world. More recent surveys by the Asia Foundation show that nearly 90 percent of Afghans have no sympathy at all for the Taliban. But it is to Taliban rule we have delivered them.
We are “war weary,” we want out of “forever wars” in the “graveyard of empires,” and other such pretexts and comforting lies we tell ourselves. And so the Afghan people have been sold into the slavery of the most bloody-minded and bloodthirsty sociopaths among the ruling elites of the long-suffering Pashtun tribes of the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands.
Claire: A few more points are worth remark—Syria, the Red Lines that weren’t enforced, the vacuum we left that Russian and Iranian proxies so easily filled.
Vivek: I do believe the Last Man is right: This is what radicals, led by the Taliban and supported by Al Qaeda and others, will take away.
Claire: I don’t think Americans understand what we’ve done. Trump and Pompeo entered an alliance with the Taliban against ISIS-K. That’s what the Doha deal was about. They orchestrated a coup against the democratically-elected government of Afghanistan. And Biden, whom we elected because he promised to end Trump’s insanity, instead doubled down on it. Did he understand this? Did he even think about it?
Adam: The other note of relevance here is, yes, another, yet another, disastrous performance of the IC. Then there are the lies. When the Administration announced the decision back in April they claimed there had been a thorough policy review. But I doubt very much if a genuine review took place, or else how does one explain the almost complete lack of regional diplomatic preparation?
Claire: How could anyone imagine this could be in the US interest? A completely chaotic failed state, run by a terrorist organization, that will destabilize a neighbor with more than a hundred nuclear weapons?
Last Man: The evaporation of the American security blanket means a spate of nuclear proliferation around the world. (By the bye, did you notice that Japan and Taiwan inaugurated military-cooperation talks last week? Not a coincidence!) You can easily envision at least these countries acquiring nukes, in no particular order:
Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Poland.
Adam: What really stands out here, aside from the miscalculation of a decent interval, is the casual insouciance of this group. I think that flows from the fact that they’ve always had a communication strategy, by which I mean a spin machine for political purposes, before they’ve had an actual strategy. It sometimes gives the impression of a kind of magical thinking at work, sort of like a votive act in the Catholic Church in medieval times, where if you can create the impression of an actual behavior through words alone, it’s as if you’ve done the act itself merely by declaring the intention.
Claire: I agree with every point the Last Man made save his populist conclusion. I don’t think our “ruling class” is the problem. The people who put them in office are, ultimately, sovereign. That’s the whole point of the US. We the People are responsible for our government. Who put those elites in power? It wasn’t the occupying Afghan army. We have free and fair and regular elections. We have chosen this fate—not “the elites.”
Last Man: You should come back here for a few years. This isn’t the country or the society you and I grew up in. Yes, we have free and (mostly) fair elections—outside of Newark, Brownsville, and Chicago—but the conditions for entry into the public square are remarkably constricted. There’s an apparatus at work, and it is effective—and the web of civil-society institutions that used to mediate all that is mostly gone. Class in the United States matters much, much, much more than it ever has before. And there are some classes in charge of the others.
Claire: I grasp that class matters much, much more. But you can’t argue the “conditions for entry into the public square are remarkably constricted” when looking at the spectacular array of absolute lunatics we have elected to public office—at every level of governance. We put Donald Trump into the Oval Office, for the love of God! The dizzying spectacle of elected lunatics in both parties does not suggest to me an apparatus at work. If only! I cannot accept that We the People have had no choice in this. We’ve made choice after choice. No one else is making them for us.
Last Man: I realize that I sound like a collegiate Marxist at UC-Santa Cruz, but we choose within the framework of the choices allowed. The 2020 Democratic primary was as good an example as any on this. There were a handful of genuinely thoughtful and interesting candidates among them: Gabbard, Yang, heck even Sanders. (Okay, you know what? I might have voted for Gabbard.) What happened to them? They were buried by a press that was nakedly pulling for identitarian totems: Warren is a woman! Harris is black! Buttigieg is gay! On and on. Joe Biden won because—ironically enough—black voters who weren’t particularly hooked in to that elite messaging pulled him through, and he possessed prior status sufficient to overcome the elite freeze-out.
You know who else possessed prior status sufficient to overcome the elite freeze-out? Donald Trump. Of course with him, once they grasped the ratings he’d bring, they swung in the exact opposite direction—and promoted the hell out of him. I know you wonder all the time how we got Trump: well, look to the media elites who rocketed him to the top.
I sure do wish it was possible for thoughtful, sober public servants and good citizens to rise up and contend for high office. But they don’t get there these days, and it isn’t because the American people continue to make bad choices. It’s because the gatekeepers, the ones who set the choices before them, have their own agenda, and it isn’t the welfare of the republic.
A smart observer commented a while back to me that Mexico is an example of what happens when an otherwise decent people are overlaid with an utterly corrupt and sociopathic elite. I think he was right about that, and I think Americans are more or less in the same boat—just on a different schedule. Sure, there’s an element of “we chose this,” and that’s true to an extent—but what were the choices on offer to start with? And why? Oh, and what happens to an American who chooses to dissent from, or defy, that elite consensus?
Why—to pick just one example—has every President since January 1993 been a thorough mediocrity? Is that normal, to have five mediocre (or worse!) Presidents in a row across nearly thirty years? Has that ever happened … outside of the run-up to the Civil War?
Claire: I ask myself that every day. But the answer can only be that we choose them. Tell me: Do you see in our population people who would, but for the malign effect of this apparatus, be a Lincoln or an Eisenhower? I would be most surprised if you said yes. (And Trump was more than a mediocrity. He was a psychosis.)
Claire: Last Man, do Americans around you grasp what a catastrophe this is? Or is life continuing as normal?
Last Man: Most Americans around me don’t seem to understand what’s just happened. And we won’t until we wake up and realize we’re just a big Brazil now—maybe with a fleet at the bottom of the Taiwan Straits to emphasize the point. A couple weeks back, I was reading “Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping,” by a Frenchman whose name escapes me, and it mentioned a CCP strategic analysis of the United States’s general trajectory. The analysis predicted that we’d eventually devolve to a large, poorly governed, English-speaking version of a multiethnic Latin American country, low-to-middle income, focused mostly upon services and resource extraction.
I think that’s right.
Claire: I’m brokenhearted. I really, really believed in it all. Everything I thought the US represented, and which it really did represent to me and my family. The shining city. The last, best hope. “Freedom man.” Who am I, after all, if I’m not American? And what does that mean if America means—Brazil of the North?
Batya Ungar-Sargon @bungarsargonBlessed sight: A family of Afghan refugees arrive at Washington Dulles International Airport on August 27. Photo: Olivier Douliery for AFP. https://t.co/bQcyVyvjpn