The photographs and reporting from Kabul, the besieged airport there, and from other places in the broken land of Afghanistan are surely most troubling. But they indicate in no way American defeat.
We could fight for Afghans. We could train them. We could give them every weapon and all the materiel a besieged people could ask for. What we could not give them was a will to win.
I had the honor of interviewing scores of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan during my bus tour of 2012. In travel sections from May through November of that year, our Heritage Foundation-Family Research Council cooperative effort to visit the grassroots was a wonderful heartland tour.[i]
From Pueblo, Colorado, to Manassas, Virginia, we met with thousands of Americans keenly interested in the election. In those crowds, I would ask the war veterans—most of them enlisted—about their experiences over there.
Many expressed their hopes for a quick resolution. Not one person I met, male or female, spoke of victory. They were proud of their service—as well they should be.
At the end of each brief interview, I would ask the vets the same question: “What level of trust did you have in our Iraqi [or Afghan] allied soldiers?” Without exception, our brave Americans said, “None.” They had to watch their backs.
The root cause of our failure was President George W. Bush’s freedom house built on sand. With the best of intentions, he sought to help the people of these struggling countries to achieve a measure of liberty and progress after liberating them from brutal tyrannies. He thought they could have democracy by voting for it.
Purple fingers—the emblem of the newly empowered Iraqi and Afghan people—had cast votes for the first time in their lives. Purple fingers showed them willing to risk violence to show their commitment to a better future for their children.
Alas, the people they elected enacted constitutions with the repugnant Repugnance Clauses. These clauses were parchment IEDs.
They say, in effect, “Nothing repugnant to Islam will be done by this government.” It is easy to see how the mullahs, most militant, most heavily armed, would dominate the new regimes.
Among the things that would be ruled as repugnant to Islam would be saying, “Jesus is Lord,” or, “Salvation is from the Jews.”
Purple fingers can cast votes—or slit throats.
Did those American veterans who had left their homes and families for one, two, or more deployments over there know they were fighting for—in the one case—the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA)? American journalists focused intensely on corruption of GIROA—which was horrific. But even had it been clean as a hound’s tooth, is GIROA anything American soldiers should be fighting for?
By contrast, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoirs are titled Crusade in Europe. Everywhere Ike’s soldiers set foot, democracy today is rooted. We liberated peoples struggling to breathe free. In none of the countries we fought to liberate are any ethnic or religious minorities persecuted. Add to this list Japan and South Korea.
We need feel no sense of defeat. We entered Afghanistan and tore down a cruel tyranny. We pursued Osama bin Laden, and in 2011 we struck him down. Surely then, if not sooner, we had achieved our only legitimate goal.
What the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound taught us was that Pakistan had been a treacherous ally all the while. President Barack Obama wisely inserted our SEAL team without alerting the Pakistanis. They claimed ignorance of bin Laden’s whereabouts. But his two-story compound—with no communications system—was found just miles from Pakistan’s military academy.
I live two miles from US Naval Academy’s front gate. If I were building a walled concrete compound here, someone at the USNA would at least be alerted. The Pakistanis pocketed billions of US aid—as did GIROA. And the Pakistanis betrayed us for decades.
Our history should have guided us. Thomas Jefferson debated with John Adams about our response to the Barbary Pirates depredations. In 1785, they both sought French help in an earlier “coalition of the willing.” Foreign Minister Vergennes told the Americans, “The only things they respect in those courts are gold and fear.”
Young Jefferson demanded a military strike. Adams preferred to pay tribute to free our merchant sailors from imprisonment, torture, forced conversion, enslavement, and even rape. Both diplomats thought something had to be done. Adams warned his junior colleague, “Don’t fight them unless you intend to fight them forever.” Wise counsel. Jefferson profited from it.
When he became president in 1801, Jefferson resolved to strike a blow against the North African Barbary Coast. But when he had inflicted punishment by going “to the shores of Tripoli,” Jefferson withdrew.
He made no attempt to reform them, carry Jeffersonian democracy to them on a bayonet. His policy might well have been expressed by the first Navy Jack: “Don’t Tread on Me.” A succinct description of Jefferson’s policy was, “Smash and Dash.”
Americans had more success in the early republic. We were not only realists; we were idealistic realists. We aligned with monarchical France. They supplied thousands of troops and, critically, a French fleet that alone made victory at Yorktown possible.
Still, if we had failed, no one would have called our surrender to the British France’s defeat. Similarly, the British surreptitiously aided the Confederates in our Civil War. They provided commerce raiders to maul our merchant ships (and virtually wipe out our Yankee Whaling Fleet). They provided cannons and rifles. At Appomattox, no one ascribed the South’s defeat to the British.
A short story from an officer whom I knew who served in Afghanistan: Wayne told me he could not train Afghans to fight. They refused even to learn how to drive the half-million-dollar Humvees we offered them. But these primitive fellows did learn to turn on the engines and their heaters. And they used those Humvees as latrines! When I asked my friend Wayne why we didn’t train Afghans to secure their villages while we went out to battle the Taliban, he answered, “Germans secure the villages with us—and they never foul the Humvees.”
Another story, even worse, from my friend Dale: He was a medical officer. When one of our Humvees ran over a child in an Afghan village, all of our troops were horrified. And we quickly paid $10,000 in restitution to the stricken villagers. Then, Dale learned, some Afghan villagers who had heard of the grief payments would throw their children in our vehicles’ path.
As these stories circulated, our own troops became demoralized.
These troops—and their extended families back home—provided the grassroots strength for Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Donald Trump’s insurgent campaigns in the 2016 primaries. Whatever their other failings, both men pledged to get us out of Afghanistan.
A critical weakness of our electoral system assures that just four percent of all voters could deliver the Republican nomination in 2016, and a mere five percent could select the Democratic winner that year. The New York Times noted that it was “blue collar Democrats” who flooded the Republican primaries of 2016 to deliver the win for the insurgent.
We need not be depressed now. Our heroic Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen—if you asked them—were fighting for America. We can be proud of them. They fought for Kansas City and Kalamazoo—not Kabul and Kandahar. They can be proud of themselves.
Historic perspective may help how we react now. British forces surrendered at Yorktown in 1781 and evacuated in 1783. Despite the loss of America, the British Empire went on to its greatest achievements in the following centuries.
Similarly, American helicopters lifted off the US embassy in Saigon in 1975. We felt humiliated. But we lived to see our main adversary, the USSR, collapse in 1991.
I’m heartened by the 1968 last lecture delivered by University of Virginia’s distinguished professor of diplomatic history. Norman A. Graebner was “Graebner the Great” to us. He told us:
I know you are looking out on the world and think America has suffered massive defeats in the Tet Offensive. But let me tell you of the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis. He was knocked down twice. Then knocked out of the ring. But he climbed back into that ring and knocked his opponent out. We should remember Joe Louis because…
America has Power to Spare
[i]The bus tour of 2012 was undertaken by Heritage Action and FRC Action, the 501©(4) entities of these tax-exempt groups.