Like many thousands of American children, I once spent an entire evening running around a forest in my underwear, covered from head to toe in flour. I remember solemnly assuring my father that I had almost caught a “snipe” before he patiently explained that this was impossible, for the not very complicated reason that my quarry did not exist. Rather than accept humiliation, I insisted for weeks that I really had seen some kind of creature out there in the dark.
Snipe hunting is a practical joke, a fool’s errand, like being asked to find a left-handed screwdriver. It is also an accurate description of what we have been doing for nearly two decades in Afghanistan, where American forces have been deployed for most of my life. This is true in an almost literal sense: “Operation Snipe” was an actual campaign that concluded in May 2002 after a thousand Royal Marines and Afghan government fighters, despite American air support, failed to encounter a single member of al-Qaeda after weeks of feverish clambering up hilltops. (They did, however, destroy some old bullets in a cave.)
Much like my younger self, the defense and foreign policy establishment in this country cannot come to terms with their own embarrassment in Afghanistan. Now they are saying that if we withdraw our remaining troops in the next few months, in accordance with plans announced by President Trump and the new acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, it would risk giving our enemies the impression that we had not succeeded in our mission there. And we wouldn’t want that.
Politicians in both of our major parties agree. “All of the military commanders have spoken up and said this is the wrong thing to do. We want our troops home, but let’s not bring them home in body bags,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth said on Tuesday. This is, to be clear, apparently supposed to be an argument in favor of keeping American soldiers there. The Senate majority leader is also very concerned. Leaving now, Mitch McConnell claimed in a recent floor speech, “would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”
What a tragedy. Will no one think of the generals? They have a reputation to think of, one for bullying successive administrations into spending trillions of dollars trying to do what Alexander the Great could not in Central Asia, despite or perhaps because of the fact that both Trump and Barack Obama campaigned on withdrawing from our conflicts overseas.
Besides, the whole civilian control of the military thing is a bit passé. Trust the experts, who have managed in the span of 18 years to shift the goalposts from killing Osama bin Laden to replacing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with some mild-mannered NGO types whom we can bribe to the current wisdom, which appears to involve ensuring that the Taliban has a seat at the negotiating table as long as they agree to stop bombing schools outside of the areas they will be allowed to control indefinitely.
There is nothing to be forestalled in Afghanistan. Our embarrassment, if that is not too polite a description of America’s involvement, has already taken place. That is what this war has been about since the end of George W. Bush’s second term. Pride. Saving face. A delusional belief that a country that cannot create a functioning transit system in its capital city can impose liberal democratic capitalism on the rest of the world.
Afghanistan existed for thousands of years without a centralized government of any sort. The first person to attain anything resembling authority over the whole of the country in its long history was Abdur Rahman Khan in the 19th century, whose son and successor was assassinated following his own death. (Curiously enough, the Iron Amir achieved control only after rejecting offers of cooperation from the British government.) His cruel despotism, made possible only thanks to the suppression of internal dissenters, including many of the ruler’s relations, and the creation of a primitive surveillance state, was a brief interval of peace between centuries of tribal civil war and a series of revolts and revolutions that has continued until the present day. There is every reason to believe that the country’s future will look very much like its past, regardless of what we do.
It’s time to take a bath, put our pajamas on, and go to bed. The snipe hunt is over. We are not going to catch the magic talking bird.
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