One argument of critics is that, as Bret Stephens claims, the US had a cozy minimal presence which "Any American president could have maintained ... almost indefinitely — with no prospect of defeating the Taliban but none of being routed by them, either"…
"In other words," Stephens adds, "we had achieved a good-enough solution for a nation we could afford to neither save nor lose. We squandered it anyway." This is far too simplistic, a dangerous and misleading straw man. Many problems with this vision of a Permanent Minimal War:
1. There is no end to the effort in this scheme. None. If we agree that governance + other key indicators were stuck or in reverse, this clever stratagem ties the US to a truly forever war. What major democracy has ever maintained such a role (in *active* combat) for 3+ decades?
2. Even w/small force levels there are economic costs. Proposed 2021 spending was $14B assuming big drawdown; if violence fluctuated, we could easily have seen spikes. So, with potent domestic needs, we spend $20B+ a year on an endless war?…
3. The "stay forever" plan assumes the Taliban would have tolerated such a stalemate forever. They would not. The last few days suggest they had major untapped political + military power. If they sensed the US was digging in to stay, they would escalate, not abandon their cause
4. Indeed, the best guess is probably that there was never a stalemate to preserve. Mapping Taliban control is tough, but lots of indicators showed gradual rise in power. Last days indicate that they were accumulating more influence than we thought…
And so, the US would not have had a calm perpetual position but rather more likely confront a series of "2009 moments": Trends look bad, we can surge or watch it fall apart. That's not a sustainable long-term strategic position to be in. Biden did future presidents a huge favor
5. Staying forever makes the US complicit in maintaining a permanent state of war in another nation. However bad Taliban rule may be, the costs of war must weigh as well: 240K deaths since 2001 including 70K civilians. Thousands still dying in 2020-2021…
6. Finally, other risks in withdrawal--to the US homeland, to Pakistan, to US reputation, of refugee flows--exist at least to the same degree in an ongoing war. Spikes in violence, spreading fighting + eventual Taliban desperation could have produced all manner of perils
Stephens says we've stayed in Korea for 71 years, so why not Afghanistan? Well, how about this: *Because there is not an active conflict underway in Korea,* and we are not targeted by an insurgency.
He admits that "the Afghan gov't [is] corrupt and inept" but at least it isn't "massacring its own citizens or raising the banner of jihad." That isn't the point. If your partner can't govern effectively, you can't simply dig in: Eventually, your position will become untenable
He says departing a war without victory amounts to "squandering the sacrifice of so many Americans who fought the Taliban bravely and nobly." As opposed to staying in a war you know you cannot win, and demanding that till more sacrifice for a callous strategic gambit?
Finally, the moralistic crescendo: "Our inability to help everyone, everywhere doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to help someone, somewhere," and "America’s power and reputation" rely on "being a beacon of confidence and hope." Good argument for foreign aid, not for making war
Bottom line: There simply is no magical, "leave the minimum force to tamp down the Taliban and look the other way" option for Afghanistan. It doesn't exist. You can't halfway fight a war--not in general, and surely not for a whole generation
It's ironic that this idea is appearing alongside moralistic repudiations of the administration. The Permanent Minimal War option is nothing more than institutionalized avoidance of responsibility, a callous dance around the real decision, dressed up to look like clever strategy

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More from @MMazarr

16 Sep
Much more to find out about AUKUS and the process by which it came about. But the more detail + official reactions emerge, the more one wonders: Did we have to alienate *the* major European advocate for a stronger EU role in Asia in order to get this trilateral connection?
Australia's frustration with the French deal had been brewing. It may have been headed for an exit anyway. But to engineer that outcome in a way that infuriates the French, *on top* of other US-EU economic + geopolitical disputes, seems gratuitous ...…
... and *on the very day* that the EU announced its new Indo-Pacific strategy. That strong statement should have been an unqualified win for the US. Instead it lands w/a thud + an echo of resentment. The timing seems almost calculated to embarrass the EU…
Read 9 tweets
15 Sep
A couple of profound lessons the United States should learn from the Afghanistan experience--one that go well beyond CT and COIN and corruption and nation building, to the broader principles of a post-primacy foreign policy acutely aware of America's shifting global position
1. Stop being infuriated with others for having different interests + perspectives on issues and refusing to accede to US demands. Often we "blame" others for behavior that we could easily have anticipated (and often did). That's on us, not them…
Whether it's Pakistan's view of Afghanistan, or China's interests in DPRK, or India's view of Russia, or EU's of Iran: We need to work around others' divergent perspectives rather than trying to bully them into our lane. One lesson: Stop w/the sanctions, especially secondary
Read 6 tweets
15 Sep
Many complex aspects here. But it's interesting that we just spent months berating senior officials for sitting by + doing nothing amid the self-deceptions of the Afghan war. And now some are berating a senior officer for *not* standing by + doing nothing when risk of war loomed
If we want a system able to correct itself in real time, we must accept the risk--and it is a risk--of officials sometimes stepping outside their lane. The alternative to conformism isn't always tidy procedure. It can require bureaucratic rebellion that breaks rules
To those who say, "Follow the rules + work w/in the system," I'd reply: That's what George Ball did in 1965. It's what Powell did in 2002. It's what people using "official dissent channels" do. Mostly, *it doesn't work*: The system grinds on; path dependence + conformism win out
Read 4 tweets
14 Sep
Important essay in FA which hints at a very plausible route to a collapse of US policy toward Iran. First: more evidence that the bullying approach just doesn't work. US "maximum pressure" didn't cause back-down + deepened IRGC economic role in Iran…
Then, on future: Space for grand bargain is gone. Tehran doesn't see value of abandoning JCPOA but feels no urgency to fully revive it. Potential = public Iranian claims of willingness to renew while demanding US concessions (sanctions) + slow-motion expansion of nuke capability
This NYT story has been rightly criticized as alarmist + too simple, but it does highlight a seemingly clear underlying trend. An actual time frame of 6 months vs 1 won't reassure the US, Israel or others…
Read 6 tweets
3 Sep
For those hardy few interested in professional military education: Another misleading take on the role of war colleges in producing national tragedies. I get the idea and agree w/their ire at jargon + abstract guidance. But many problems w/this thesis…
1: Generals don't set national strategy. Blaming the "graduates of this [PME] system" for Iraq and Afgh. presumes that bad military strategy was the source of failure. Instead it was the choice to go to war combined w/fact that the conflicts weren't resolvable by military means
No magic PME curriculum will generate strategists able to overcome the problems the US faced in Afghanistan. We do need military leaders more willing to state openly that a given mission isn't feasible--but that's an issue of service culture + civil-mil relations, not PME
Read 19 tweets
23 Aug
Someday we'll know the full story of what the US told its allies and when, how much time it gave them to react. Many reports do make it seem like this was terribly botched. But the general narrative of US unilateralism + European victimhood is too simple…
Take 2009: Obama decides to surge; US military knows it needs more troops than he'll give them. The appeal goes out to NATO, and: NATO leaders "gave a tepid troop commitment to President Obama’s escalating campaign in Afghanistan ...…
... mostly committing soldiers only to a temporary security duty. ... Despite a glowing reception and widespread praise for Mr. Obama’s style and aims, his calls for a more lasting European troop increase for Afghanistan were politely brushed aside"
Read 13 tweets

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