An Unsustainable and Unwinnable War Finally Ends

The U.S. ended its almost 20-year war in Afghanistan in defeat last week. The speed with which the client government in Kabul disintegrated confirmed that the US military presence in the country was merely delaying the inevitable collapse of a rickety state that the US had propped up at enormous expense and a high cost in American and Afghan lives. It is all but certain that the same thing would have happened whether the US left in a year or in five years or even later. The client state that the US built for a generation was rotten with corruption, lacking in popular support, and so heavily dependent on US backing that it was never going to be able to stand on its own.

Opposing withdrawal of the last remaining US forces amounts to accepting Afghanistan as a permanent protectorate of the United States. The "sustainable status quo" of hawkish fantasy was already deteriorating before the US withdrew, and it imploded as quickly as it did because there was nothing sustainable about it. Biden had the choice of getting out now or escalating to delay the same outcome at a higher price in lives lost. The longer that the US dragged out the war, the more Americans and Afghans would have perished in a conflict that hasn’t had any real connection to US security in more than a decade at least. The US needs to reflect on the fact that our intervention in the country has mostly just fueled conflict to the detriment of the population. It should give us pause and humble all of us to realize that Afghanistan may finally know some measure of peace for the first time in more than forty years because that intervention in their country now appears to be at an end.

Unsurprisingly, the political class, foreign policy establishment, and much of the media that perpetuated and neglected the war in Afghanistan for the last two decades have decided that ending a failed, unwinnable war is the real disaster. There is never accountability for US foreign policy failures, but the architects and cheerleaders of those failures are only too happy to find scapegoats for what they have wrought. They will blame Biden for finally putting a stop to the war, and they will blame the public for supporting it, but under no circumstances will they acknowledge their own errors and poor judgment.

The former generals, officials, and political leaders responsible for the policy that just failed so spectacularly have seized on the Biden administration’s mistakes in recent weeks and months to try to absolve themselves of the responsibility they clearly bear for losing the war. One can scarcely turn around without being assaulted by the unworthy and unwelcome opinions of the likes of David Petraeus, H.R. McMaster, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and an entire roster of pundits and analysts that misled the public about the state of the war for years and promoted the fiction that the US and its client were making durable gains. As if to underscore how preposterous this is, these discredited hawkish critics have been obsessed with the idea that exiting Afghanistan is some sort of devastating blow to American credibility in the world.

Credibility is a much abused and overused concept, and hawks invoke it as a substitute for serious policy arguments. Giving up on an unsuccessful war, especially when vital interests are not really at stake, will not cause other states to question US willingness to honor its important commitments. As a matter of record, we know that allies are typically relieved when the US halts its reckless wars of choice, because they have seen those wars as a distraction and a drain on American resources. Perpetuating a costly error does not give other governments confidence in our leaders’ judgment. Putting a stop to that error reassures other states that the US government is not so irrational and ideological than it cannot eventually make a course correction.

Hawks do not use the credibility bludgeon in good faith. They want to inflict damage on presidents when they do not cave to hawkish preferences, and that is why hawks invoke credibility only when they want the US to start a war or to keep one going. It is their way of trying to goad and embarrass a president into giving them what they want, and what they want is more war. When the president doesn’t give them what they want, they want to make an example of him to discourage future presidents from doing what he did.

When the US reneges on its diplomatic agreements with other governments, it doesn’t bother hawks in the least despite the more straightforward implication that the US cannot be trusted to keep its word. Many of the same hawks that lament lost credibility today over Afghanistan were calling for the US to break its word and tear up the nuclear deal just a few years ago. If the US made a commitment to withdraw and followed through on that commitment, as it did in Afghanistan, hawks deride the decision because their objection is to the withdrawal itself and not its supposed effects on America’s reputation for reliability. The focus on credibility is a tacit admission that they know that the US has no vital interests in Afghanistan, and so they feel compelled to exaggerate the effects of withdrawal on other parts of the world.

The US government mistakenly treated the peripheral conflict in Afghanistan as if it were essential to protecting the country when it was not. Our government keeps doing things like this because its foreign policy is so often divorced from the real security and interests of the United States. The government keeps getting away with this because there is no meaningful accountability for costly failure.

Until the US scales back its ambitions, narrows the definition of its interests, and assumes a more modest role in the world, our government is likely to make the same error of waging another peripheral war sometime in the future. Our government’s habit of fighting unwinnable wars in distant lands is a function of a meddlesome and arrogant approach to the rest of the world. If we wish to avoid these wars in the future, Americans need to insist on changing that approach and pursuing more realistic goals.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.