Hindsight on Afghanistan

From The Washington Post:

Twenty years ago, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were still smoldering, there was a sense among America’s warrior and diplomatic class that history was starting anew for the people of Afghanistan and much of the Muslim world.

“Every nation has a choice to make,” President George W. Bush said on the day that bombs began falling on Oct. 7, 2001. In private, senior U.S. diplomats were even more explicit. “For you and us, history starts today,” then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told his Pakistani counterparts.

Earlier this month, as the Taliban raced across Afghanistan, retired Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, a two-time veteran of the war, stumbled across Armitage’s words. To Dempsey, the sentiment was “the most American thing I’ve ever heard” and emblematic of the hubris and ignorance that he and so many others brought to the losing war.

“We assumed the rest of the world saw us as we saw ourselves,” he said. “And we believed that we could shape the world in our image using our guns and our money.” Both assumptions ignored Afghan culture, politics and history. Both, he said, were tragically wrong.

The near-collapse of the Afghan army in the space of just a few stunning weeks is prompting the military and Washington’s policymakers to reflect on their failures over the course of nearly two decades. To many, the roots of the disaster go back to the war’s earliest days, when the Taliban were first driven from power and the United States, still reeling from the shock of the 9/11 attacks, set about building a government in Kabul.

The Afghanistan Papers: Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were dogged by incompetence and corruption

Some two dozen prominent Afghans met in Bonn, Germany, with officials from the U.S. government, NATO and the United Nations to form a new Afghan government crafted in the image of the United States and its European allies.

“You look at the Afghan constitution that was created in Bonn and it was trying to create a Western democracy,” said Michèle Flournoy, one of the architects of President Barack Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan in 2010. “In retrospect, the United States and its allies got it really wrong from the very beginning. The bar was set based on our democratic ideals, not on what was sustainable or workable in an Afghan context.”

Flournoy acknowledged in hindsight that the mistake was compounded across Republican and Democratic administrations, which continued with almost equal fervor to pursue goals that ran counter to decades — if not centuries — of the Afghan experience.

By 2009, when Obama took office, it was clear to just about everyone that the United States was losing the war.

To reverse Taliban momentum and give U.S. officials a chance to build up the Afghan government and security forces, Obama signed off on a surge of troops that more than doubled the size of the American force in Afghanistan.

Flournoy said she was initially hopeful that the plan could work. On trips to Afghanistan, she met frequently with young Afghans, including women’s groups, who shared America’s vision for the country. They wanted to send their daughters to school, serve in government, start businesses and nonprofits. They wanted women to be full participants in society and craved a predictable political and legal system. “We found all kinds of allies,” she said.

But those individuals were no match for the rot that had permeated the Afghan government. She and other U.S. officials understood that with all the U.S. money floating around in Afghanistan, there would be “petty corruption,” she said. What U.S. officials discovered in 2010, after the surge was already underway, was a corruption that ran far deeper than they had previously understood and that jeopardized their strategy, which depended on building the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

“We realized that this is not going to work,” Flournoy said. “We had made a big bet only to learn that our local partner was rotten.”

Now, as Taliban fighters race toward Kabul and the Afghan military crumbles, Flournoy said her thoughts often turn to the Americans who sacrificed for the mission and to those “wonderful allies” who shared the U.S. hopes for a democratic Afghanistan. “That’s what makes me so sick to my stomach,” she said. “We invested in this whole generation that is about to suffer through this very horrible chapter.”

As Taliban widens its grip, Afghans reckon with life under militant rule

Meanwhile, current and former U.S. officials are trying to make sense of why a government and security forces built over two decades at a cost of more than $100 billion dollars are collapsing so quickly.

Carter Malkasian, a longtime adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, has pegged the weakness of the Afghan forces on their lack of a unifying cause that resonates with Afghans, as well as their heavy dependence on the United States. By contrast, the Taliban were fighting for their culture and Islam. They “exemplified something that inspired, something that made them powerful in battle, something closely tied to what it meant to be an Afghan,” Malkasian writes in his new book, “The American War in Afghanistan.”

It’s an observation that speaks to the limits of American power and raises the broader question of how the catastrophic and embarrassing failure in Afghanistan might constrain U.S. foreign policy moving forward.

“We know what happens when we fall to imperial hubris. What does one do with imperial heartbreak?” asked John Gans, who served as a civilian in the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

So many of today’s rising military commanders and foreign policy experts were drawn into government service by the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan. After the relatively low-stakes peacekeeping missions of the 1990s, America and U.S. foreign policy suddenly seemed to be at the center of the world in the years after 2001. A whole generation of leaders driven “by ambition, ego and a desire to shape world events” ran toward the action, Gans said. . . .

It seems certain that in coming years the use of military force will be informed by this searing experience. U.S. foreign policy will be guided by more modest ambitions, especially when weighing the use of military power. Flournoy imagines a future in which military force is limited to more sharply defined objectives and informed by far greater humility when it comes to spreading democracy or changing societies.

In many cases, it’s a vision in which force is used to manage chronic problems, rather than solve them.

Another possibility is a U.S. foreign policy that is increasingly focused more on issues such as pandemics or climate change, which require U.S. leadership and a global response. Gans noted that more than 600,000 Americans have died of covid-19, far more than the number of U.S. lives lost to terrorism and war over the past 20 years.

For now, though, it seems unlikely that these threats will take center stage in U.S. foreign policy. The Pentagon, with its $740 billion budget, still sucks up a larger share of discretionary spending than any other government agency. Meanwhile, the foreign policy establishment has shifted its focus increasingly to the competition with the likes of Russia and China.

“After 9/11 everyone raced to become a Middle East or counterterrorism expert,” said Gans. “After covid, you don’t see many foreign policy people racing to become global health experts.”

On one subject most foreign policy experts agree: America needs to temper its faith in its armed forces. “We had so much faith in our military that we were inevitably going to overstep,” said Dempsey, the Afghanistan veteran. “A military bureaucracy unchecked never yields good outcomes.”

Too Long in Afghanistan

A Twitter thread about the U.S. and Afghanistan from David Rothkopf, a political scientist, etc.:

US policy in Afghanistan has been 20 yrs of bad decisions & bad execution in the face of an insoluble challenge. Our local allies were very flawed, our enemy was resolute & the last 3 US presidents have wanted out & knew what’s happening now would happen. But sure, it’s on Biden. 

The original sin and greatest blame goes to George W. Bush who got us involved in a protracted mission when the only right mission was to go in, get Al Qaeda & leave. That was compounded by the catastrophic decision to enter Iraq–an enormous distraction. 

Obama and T____ compounded the problem by failing to find a way to exit. Why didn’t they? Because their advisors knew that the center (the Afghan gov’t and forces) couldn’t hold and that ultimately collapse would follow the exit. Those advisors were right. 

Those who recommended staying indefinitely did so in the full knowledge that 20 years of massive expense and effort could not produce a stable central government or a secure Afghanistan. There is zero evidence any outside force ever could do that. None ever has. 

There are profound human rights issues–particularly women’s rights issues–that should be of great concern and a priority for the international community. But the answer is not a costly U.S. & allied military Band-Aid. 

The military is not the only tool in what Madeleine Albright would call our diplomatic toolbox. Moreover it is one that has proven wholly ineffective to produce lasting change in Afghanistan. We must shift to other tools–at the top of the list being multilateral diplomacy. 

Bringing together all the major powers with a stake in Afghanistan and institutions to communicate to the effective leaders of the country that if they respect the rights of women they will benefit and if they do not they will be severely penalized. 

Letting them know that they will be subject to military strikes if they harbor terrorists is also fair. The notion that the only path is continuing to do what hasn’t worked to date is ridiculous. And the costs & pitfalls of alternative paths aren’t worse than what hasn’t worked. 

Some suggest that Biden could have planned this better. First, Bush, Obama and T____ could have and should have planned and executed this better. Next, there is plenty to suggest that whenever the US decided to leave, what is happening would happen. 

The Taliban want to embarrass us and claim victory. They have known all along they would not get much resistance in most of the country from the central government. This was so predictable everyone predicted it–and no one, no one offered a viable alternative solution. 

Only one president has had the courage to do the right thing in Afghanistan. It is the same man who advised we do this in 2009 when he was Vice President. It takes courage because he knows that he will receive the critiques his opponents are heaping on him now. 

But doing the right thing even when it is likely to be politically controversial and even when it reveals uncomfortable realities is what strong leadership is about. 

Biden & his team have already committed to using other means to advance US interests in Afghanistan-as we should have done long, long ago. It’s fascinating that so many who opposed nation building, who do not believe the US should be the world’s sheriff are now criticizing Biden. 

America’s war in Afghanistan will rank alongside Vietnam as one of our great modern failures of strategy and execution. Many are to blame for that. Whatever arguments might be made that the US departure could have been better executed, one thing is absolutely clear. 

The bulk of the responsibility for that failure lies with past administrations and with the leadership in Kabul (and to some extent with Taliban enablers beyond the country’s borders). Biden is doing what is right and what must be done. It is time to turn the page. 

American Hero: Why They Gave Him a Giant Tomb

You might not want to read a 1,000 page biography of one of your heroes. After months of reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, I’m more aware of Ulysses S. Grant’s mistakes. But I’m more appreciative of his accomplishments.

A low-ranked graduate of West Point, he served in the Mexican War while later condemning it as “one of the more unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”. He left the military under a cloud, failed at farming and ended up working as a clerk in his father’s store. When the Civil War began, he took command of some Illinois volunteers and was made a colonel. After a series of victories, Abraham Lincoln made him General of the Army, the army’s senior officer, responsible for directing the Union’s entire war effort. In his final campaign, he outmaneuvered Robert E. Lee and respectfully accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

In 1868, the Republican Party, back when they were the liberals, chose him as their presidential candidate. He served two terms, rare for presidents in the 19th century. His administration was plagued by scandals, but none involved him personally. As president, he oversaw the South’s re-entry into the union while protecting the rights of former slaves. He overcame political resistance in order to suppress horribly violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan. He sought peace with the Indians, admitting that white settlers were often the source of conflict in the West. He was the president who most attempted to reform the South in the process known as Reconstruction (which ended when he left office). As the victor in the Civil War and a popular former president, he took a triumphal tour around the world, was the naïve victim of a serious financial scandal, and wrote one of history’s best memoirs while suffering for months from throat cancer.


These are some of the final pages of that very long biography. They show what the people who knew him best thought of him:

Characteristically, the dying Grant was stoically concerned with his family’s well-being after he was gone, saying, “I hope no one will be distressed on my account.” . .  At 8:08 a.m. on July 23, 1885, Grant died so gently that nobody was quite certain at first that his spirit had stolen away. . . .

With flags lowered to half-mast across America and mourning symbols swathing the White House, the Grant family conducted a private funeral . . . on August 4. Two days later Grant’s casket began a journey southward from Albany to New York City, where three hundred thousand people filed past the open coffin as it lay in state at City Hall. People descended on Manhattan in record numbers for the public funeral on August 8. They poured on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge, descended from elevated railroad stations, and slipped into the city through Grand Central Depot. The 1.5 million people flooding the city would make it the grandest funeral in New York history. At 8:30 a.m. on August 8, Civil War veterans hoisted Grant’s coffin to a waiting catafalque that had black plumes sprouting at each corner. Twenty-four black stallions, arranged in twelve pairs and attended by black grooms, stood ready to pull the hearse. Twenty generals preceded the horses . . .  Every protocol for a military funeral was followed, including the riderless horse with boots facing backward in the stirrups. The funeral was a vast, elaborate affair, befitting a monarch or head of state, in marked contrast to the essential simplicity of the man honored.

The grandeur emphasized the central place that Grant had occupied in the Civil War and its aftermath. “Out of all the hubbub of the war,” wrote Walt Whitman, “Lincoln and Grant emerge, the towering majestic figures.” Whitman thought they had lived exemplary lives that vindicated the American spirit, showing how people lifted from the lower ranks of society could attain greatness. “I think this the greatest lesson of our national existence so far.”

The procession streamed up Broadway until it reached the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square, where it took on a veritable army of dignitaries, including all the members of the Grant family except for [his wife] Julia, who remained secluded . . . President Cleveland headed an eminent escort that included Vice President Thomas Hendricks, the entire cabinet, and Supreme Court justices. Both surviving ex-presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur, attended. Congress and statehouses across the country emptied out to pay homage, sending fifteen U.S. senators, twelve congressmen, eighteen governors, and ten mayors to pay their respects. From city halls across America, eight thousand civil and municipal officers converged to participate in the march.

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Nobody doubted that William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan would serve as honorary pallbearers, but Julia Grant knew her husband would have wanted two Confederate generals to balance their northern counterparts, so Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner represented the South. Predictably, northern military units predominated, but the presence of Confederate soldiers touched onlookers. . . . Contingents of black veterans were liberally represented among the sixty thousand soldiers, supplemented by eighteen thousand veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. Rabbi E. B. M. Browne acted as an honorary pallbearer . . . At Grant’s death, Philadelphia’s Jewish Record observed, “None will mourn his loss more sincerely than the Hebrew, and . . . in every Jewish synagogue and temple in the land the sad event will be solemnly commemorated with fitting eulogy and prayer.”

Southern reaction to Grant’s death signified a posthumous triumph. His onetime image as a fierce warrior of the Civil War had been replaced by that of a more pacific figure. As the News and Courier of South Carolina editorialized, “Had his life ended but a few years since, the mourning for the great leader would have been more or less sectional in its manifestation. Dying as he now dies, the grief is as widespread as the Union.” Grant had won over unlikely southern converts. When John Singleton Mosby learned of his death, he was bereft: “I felt I had lost my best friend.” In Gainesville, Georgia, a white-bewhiskered James Longstreet emerged in a dressing gown to tell a reporter emotionally that Grant “was the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.” In southern towns and border states, veterans from North and South linked arms as they paid tribute to Grant’s passage.

Black churches held “meetings of sorrow” that eulogized Grant as a champion of the Fifteenth Amendment and the fight to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. Summing up Grant’s career, Frederick Douglass wrote: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

Church bells tolled and muffled drums resounded as the funeral procession glided past buildings shrouded in black, The New York Times likening the uninterrupted flow of humanity to a giant “river into which many tributaries were poured.” The honor guard of mourners stretched for miles, taking five hours to reach the burial site. . . . 

By midafternoon, in bright sunshine, the funeral cortege reached the small temporary brick tomb at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street. Warships floating in the Hudson River let loose a cannonade in tribute to Grant. A lone bugler blew taps at the vault—the same tune that had floated over Grant’s army camps during the war. As the notes drifted over the crowd, Sherman stood ramrod straight, his body shaking with tears. It was a memorable sight: the bête noire of the South, seemingly impervious to softer feelings, overcome with profound emotion.

A dozen years later, on a cool spring day, with more than a million people in attendance, President William McKinley presided over the dedication of the General Grant National Memorial—“Grant’s Tomb” in popular parlance—financed by public contributions. Leading the fund-raising drive had been the lawyer Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard College, which would have pleased Grant. An opulent domed affair of granite and marble, Grant’s Tomb was the largest mausoleum in North America. When Julia Grant died of heart failure in 1902 at age seventy-six . . . she and Ulysses were entombed together. They lay encased in red granite sarcophagi housed in an open structure much too monumental for these two simple midwestern souls. The mausoleum’s spectacular scale testified to Grant’s exalted place in the nineteenth-century American mind, perhaps rivaling that of Lincoln, and the site soon evolved into New York’s number one tourist destination, drawing half a million people annually.

Perhaps nobody had watched the funeral procession on August 8, 1885, with a wider range of emotions than Mark Twain, who stared down for five hours on the somber pageantry from the windows of his publishing office at Union Square. He would always be indescribably proud to have published Grant’s Personal Memoirs . . .  At the end of the funeral, when the crowds had dispersed, he and William Tecumseh Sherman retreated to the Lotos Club, where they sat down over liquor and cigars to wrestle anew with the mystery of Grant’s personality—a source of never-ending wonder to both men. Sherman always insisted that Grant was a mystery even to himself, a unique intermingling of strength and weakness such as he had never encountered before.



It’s Still the Union, the Confederacy and the Wild West. And Yet . . .

Assuming that the last few projections hold, Joe Biden won twenty-five states (plus the District of Columbia) and lost twenty-five. Our fifty states are split down the middle.

Back in the 19th century, however, at the start of the Civil War, the United States had only thirty-five states. They were all in the eastern half of the country, except for California, Nevada and Oregon in the far west.

Nineteen of those states didn’t allow slavery and stayed in the Union. They voted for Joe Biden this week fourteen to five.

There were also five “border” states that allowed slavery but didn’t want to or weren’t able to leave the Union (Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware). They split as evenly as possible this week, two for Biden and three for his opponent.

Eleven southern states left the Union in 1861, starting a civil war in order to protect (and expand) slavery. Two of them voted for Biden, while nine voted for the racist.

After the Civil War, the US added fifteen more states. Most of them were part of the “Wild West” — the home of assorted rugged individuals. Five voted for Biden, ten for the sociopath. 

Thus, of the twenty-four states that stayed in the Union in the 1860s (the northern, border and Far West states), Biden won nineteen and lost five.

Of the twenty-six states that left the Union or weren’t fully part of the country in the 1861, Biden won seven and lost nineteen.

In some ways, we haven’t progressed much from the 19th century. Divisions between the North, the South and the Wild West remain.

And yet . . . 

From Robin Givhan of The Washington Post:

As the country waited for ballots to be counted, it was Biden — not the occupant of the Oval Office — who was reassuring people that this democracy was intact, that the system was working and that the center would hold. He was the voice of calm optimism in the midst of tumultuous times.

When he became president-elect late Saturday morning, he did something far more herculean than accepting responsibility for a worsening pandemic and a struggling economy. He removed a terrible, suffocating weight from the back of this nation. . . .

His simple dignity and empathy are ballasts for a country that has been teetering between an openhearted, just future and a self-righteous, narrow-minded past. And when he addressed the nation Saturday night, he put his full heft as a statesman and a man of good will to that task.

“What is the will of the people? What is our mandate? I believe it’s this: America called upon us to marshal the forces of decency, the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time. The battle to control the virus. The battle to build prosperity. The battle to secure your family’s health care. The battle to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country. The battle to save our planet by getting climate under control. The battle to restore decency, defend democracy and give everybody in this country a fair shot,” Biden said. “That’s all they’re asking for. A fair shot.”

“Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy” by Donald L. Miller

Ulysses S. Grant was an American hero. After attending West Point and serving in the Mexican War, he had a lackluster civilian career. But during the Civil War he rose to become the Union’s top general. After Abraham Lincoln, he was the person most responsible for ending the war and emancipating the slaves. I’ve read his memoirs and a few books about him and came away full of admiration.

The author of this book, a retired history professor, also admires Grant and recognizes his accomplishments. Here’s how he describes Grant’s campaign to take the city of Vicksburg in the spring of 1863:

It was a Civil War blitzkrieg. In eighteen days, Grant’s army had marched nearly two hundred miles; won five battles — four in six days’; inflicted a loss of 5,787 killed, wounded and missing; compelled the abandonment of two Confederate strongholds;  captured the capital of Mississippi; chased [Gen. John] Pemberton’s army inside Vicksburg; and positioned his own army between the only two rebel forces in the state. Along the way, he suffered only 4,379 casualties, among them 695 killed. It was a tactical and strategic masterwork, and the decisions that decided the outcome had to be made in a flash, without consulting staff, other commanders, or his superiors in Washington. . . .

After landing in Mississippi on April 30, 1863, Grant had conquered space and time, hostile terrain and climate, without adequate cavalry and reliable maps. Most of his men had made the march on five day’s rations, and none had tents…. But under Grant’s resolute leadership, there was little grumbling or complaining, perhaps because the general . . . “shared the hardships of the common soldier, living on hardtack and sleeping on the ground” [413-14].

After a siege lasting sixteen days, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant’s army. The author concludes:

Vicksburg was that rare thing in military history: a decisive battle, one with war-turning strategic consequences. The only Civil War battle remotely like it was Antietam. . . It did more than open the [Mississippi] river and split the Confederacy. It took the river counties of Mississippi and Louisiana out of the war and left the strongest Federal army in the Deep south, where it could move anywhere at will. . . .

Vicksburg was “the stab to the Confederacy from which it never recovered”, [historian] Edward Gregory wrote after the war. No reasonable chance of a Southern “triumph remained after the white flag flew on the ramparts of the terraced city . . . . There were desperate battles afterward, and occasional victories, but their light only rendered deeper the advancing and impending shadow of ultimate failure”. The military historian J. F. C. Fuller had it right: “Vicksburg, and not Gettysburg, was the crisis of the Confederacy”.

Strangely, the conqueror of Vicksburg failed to mention in his memoirs or battle reports the outstanding strategic accomplishment of his Mississippi campaign. At Vicksburg, Grant evolved a war-winning strategy for the North. His triumph led Lincoln to call him east to take on [Gen. Robert E. Lee] in Virginia, and there he fought as he had in the west. Turning the Army of the Potomac into an agile, improvising force, he used lighting maneuvers . . .  patient siege tactics . . . and scorched-earth raids — all of which led to Appomattox and the end. . . Even today, [Gen. William T. Sherman] is seen as the North’s avenging angel, but it was Grant who had “the real core of iron” [482-84].

Well, it sounds like Grant did pretty well.

What was strange about reading this book is that, despite its title and subtitle “Vicksburg: Grant’s campaign that broke the Confederacy”, it isn’t until page 327 of its 500 pages that we read that Grant “would be moving against Vicksburg soon, and with resolve”.  Before that the author explores Grant’s activities in Tennessee and northern Mississippi, including his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and the titanic two-day battle at Shiloh. Then there are Grant’s failed attempts to take Vicksburg in 1862 and 1863 that involved trying to traverse various rivers, bayous and swamps, including efforts to construct canals under hellish conditions, with disease killing more men than enemy fire.

The author gives equal coverage, maybe more coverage, to the navy’s activities, including Admiral David Farragut’s capture of New Orleans and his attempt to take Vicksburg without significant support from the army. The navy played a major role all along the Mississippi and its tributaries, an aspect of the Civil War that usually doesn’t get much discussion. Even Grant admitted that finally taking Vicksburg might not have been possible without the blockade and extended bombardment provided by naval ironclads and gunboats. Those efforts were in addition to what the navy did to transport troops and supplies up, down, across and around the Mississippi.

The other surprising aspect of the book is that it presents a picture of Gen. Grant that is less flattering than other things I’ve read. The author accuses him of sometimes underestimating the forces against him, being careless with his supply lines, launching attacks that were doomed to failure, misrepresenting facts and occasionally drinking too much (although his drinking doesn’t seem to have affected his performance at all).

It’s impossible to read this book without being reminded that historical accounts, even ones as detailed as this, always leave things out and that war truly is hell.