Lessons of Afghanistan: cynicism versus humanism

“Hubris” is the word of choice to sneer at America’s global engagement. Now we’re scolded that we arrogantly deluded ourselves we could do good in Afghanistan. When a hard-nosed realism should have told us to forget it. And so we wasted 20 years, trillions of dollars, and many lives. With, in the end, nothing to show for it.

But 20 years in which millions of Afghans — especially women — could live decent fulfilling lives is not nothing. Legions of girls getting education was not nothing. Which could have continued, for what would really have been very modest cost to us. Quitting was penny wise and pound foolish. Any savings surely outweighed by the damage to America’s global standing. Just in casualties, the 13 soldiers killed in the Kabul airport bombing (a consequence of our leaving) exceeded those lost in Afghanistan since the start of 2020. And never mind the immense damage to Afghan people.

A New York Times essay by Ezra Klein* casts as a failure not the Afghan outcome, but the entire effort. Indicting our whole foreign policy mindset. It’s the “hubris” argument again. The problem with our Afghan venture, Klein argues — as with Iraq — was not merely flubbed execution, but “overreach.” He quotes scholar Emma Ashford: “we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.” Klein thinks focusing on botched implementation just obscures the deeper problem.

He sees it too as “not just the illusion of our control, but the illusion of our knowledge.” Again, Iraq — all the smart people were sure Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. When in fact he was bluffing. (I felt we couldn’t take the risk that he wasn’t.) Anyhow, Klein says, “we do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.”

And, he writes, “to many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop.” And so forth. You know the cynic’s tropes. And, says Klein, binding humanitarian ambitions with “delusions of military mastery” too often end badly — and bloodily.

Klein’s critique itself overreaches. Nobody imagines America is omniscient and omnipotent. If that were the requisite for action, we’d be paralyzed. Sometimes action can make sense even knowing the outcome is uncertain. Indeed, it’s rarely otherwise.

This all recalls Andrew Bacevich’s 2008 book, The Limits of Power. Arguing that because historical processes are too vast and messy for anyone to really grasp, let alone control, and given the law of unintended consequences, trying to remake the world is futile. Reprising Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History, similarly disparaging what he deemed a misguided “messianic” effort to manage history. Writing at a time when the U.S. had adopted an over-arching foreign policy vision to help rebuild nations walloped by WWII, including our former foes; to support democracy; and contain Communism. All rather successful.

Bacevich would have said: don’t even try.

But history is not some ineluctable force impervious to human effort. America is not on some “messianic” mission to democratize the world or “manage history;” rather, we merely believe the world can improve if certain countries can be helped to progress, and some problems can be ameliorated. True, we’re not always consistent, and as Klein notes, we tolerate some bad situations. But is inability to do everything a reason to do nothing?

The whole human story is unwillingness to accept things as they are, trying to do all we can to better our situation. In that, humanity has spectacularly succeeded. And U.S. foreign policy has not been a total failure either.

Some see the Afghan denouement as proving that nothing ever changes; that people never change. It’s certainly disheartening that Afghanistan’s rise from barbarism could not be sustained. Yet people do change. Societies progress. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature documents how we’ve literally become better people over time. What Afghanistan really proves is that hard men with guns (especially with religion) can defeat such progress, and how to fight them remains a tremendous challenge.

But Klein concludes thus: “if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees . . . Only 1% of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that too.”

We have learned that trying to solve problems by military means often turns out more problematic than we imagined. Of course the whole realm of nonmilitary global engagement — foreign aid and all that — also tends to be pitfall-ridden. The law of unintended consequences is powerful indeed. But throwing up our hands and doing nothing is again not the answer. We do the best we can. And Klein is right that we err in over-reliance on military efforts. Those resources are much better devoted to non-military initiatives:

“We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.”

* https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/opinion/afghanistan-us-withdrawal.html

17 Responses to “Lessons of Afghanistan: cynicism versus humanism”

  1. Doug Weston-Kolarik Says:

    To simply summarize; your an idiot! You imply that we should succeeded in Afghanistan because we enhanced the rights of women. Spare me that crap. How many Americans have died there so Afghan women gained more rights. You have never served your country as a combat veteran, have you? So, shut up!

    On Sun, Aug 29, 2021, 6:12 PM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: ” “Hubris” is the word of choice to sneer at > America’s global engagement. Now we’re scolded that we arrogantly deluded > ourselves we could do good in Afghanistan. When a hard-nosed realism should > have told us to forget it. And so we wasted 20 years, trillio” >

  2. Don Bronkema Says:

    Respondent’s now CU-Boulder enrolled dottir, having encountered Plato’s Gorgias & Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, suggests the rhetoric of mendacious cant is what immolates empire…Pinker is no naif–progress is demo’d by the charts, tables & graphs of ‘Our World in Data’. One of 14 calamities could polish us off at any moment, or we might provolve to H. machinensis amongst the stars. In time, Earth itself will be forgotten. Tell the kids.

  3. Don Bronkema Says:

    Re hubris: alt-orthog hybris suggests a subtle French ‘eu’ as opposed to the doom-like Swedish ‘eeeuw’ in Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night [parodied by Sid Caesar in 1957]. Slow day here.

  4. David Lettau Says:

    If you want a better world,work or advocate for the worldwide education of women.This was one of the nobler aspects of our occupation of Afghanistan. The Taliban recently showed what it thinks of educating young girls when one of them detonated a suicide pack he was wearing outside a school,killing 68 young girls.These are the people we have abjectly surrendered to. Now Afghanistan is free to become a haven for terrorist jihadis around the world,and the victorious fascist of the taliban are free to forcibly marry 12 year old girls,and beat them to death in public for merely exposing their ankles.This is a time of deep shame for our country.

  5. Don Bronkema Says:

    Why omit decapitation? Three sources, incl. Knight-Ridder, reported credible intel that Saddam had dismantled his WMDs. Who can forget the smirking rictus of CIA chief as Powell demanded UN ok invasion of Iraq, based on CIA Uranium yellowcake fabrications. De facto Pres. Cheney nodded assent. How else could dismissal of 9/ll caveats be justified, Nov 2004 won & country saved from Ivy E-lights, abortionists, green atheists, gun-haters, women’s libbers, negroid egality & Scando-socialism? Jingoes swallowed it whole.

    Obliterating Nazis & fending off Soviets Kennan-style was quidditarian & ineluctable: the rest is infamy. This school-boy, having read Thucydides & Gibbon by 21 June, 1941, foresaw engang und ausgang. Isn’t it time to phase out Teddy’s Empire & exemplify ethical hegemony? The Stans are a collective tar-baby whereto Russia, China, Pakistan & Iran will be stuck for a quintigesimal [50-year period].

    W/in 15 years nonagenarian respondent will be reposing on his college dottir’s mantel. Post-2060, survivors of thermageddon will embrace a seamless, quant-informatic, syntelled organism, replicated also at Colonia Martialis [vide his AHA-pubbed Mars Constitution of 1972]. Prep now for fruitful adaptation: from the kismet of jagganath there is no escape.

  6. David Lettau Says:

    Just for the record,I never bought the Saddam WMD nonsense.Hans Blix and the U.N.were all over Iraq and not finding diddly- squat.As Pat Tillman said,just before he was(I suspect),fragged,”This war is so f——g immoral.But as for Afghanistan,we were attacked by terrorist who they were giving shelter to.Even a country as imperialist as ours has a right to defend itself.I suppose Machiavelli was right when he wrote,” on the breakup of empires,you are sure to have wars”

  7. Don Bronkema Says:

    Glad you saw thru ‘gateau jeune’ & fictive WMDs, but invading Stan-dom was a parlous response to 9/ll for any who’d read Diodorus Siculus on Alexander’s colloquy w/Afghan vizier [337 BPE]…Motive was political: to distract precariat ruined by von Mises, Reagan, Ayn Rand, Friedman, Laffer, Norquist, Heritage, CATO, AEI…Machiavelli will remain 100% correct til empires, nations & subordinate polities are subsumed in syntelligent planetary blockchain [viz. MIT Tek Review]. CRISPR, neuro-informatics & miraterials will shake society to its foundations. Can Personkind survive the loss of ontological certainty? Mentation & volition are 20-hkz sweeper-wave illusions; the cosmos [embracing all universes] is endogenous & thus boundless, w/o origin or end. Thus confronted, even the strong tremble. Death is easier to embrace than a mad, meaningless Realnost’, Realitet, Realidad, Realite [ray-ah-lee-tay]. Socrates said the world was real. Plato demurred. Aristotle said all we know arrives via the senses [he had no idea how narrow & misleading they are]. Where do you stand?

  8. David Lettau Says:

    In the arena of the never ending struggle between truth and meaning,truth will always lose.It’s how we roll

  9. Lee Says:

    There are many places in the world that could use intervention, many an even higher priority than Afghanistan. But the choice is not merely between bombs and do nothing. Meddling via diplomatic pressure and humanitarian aid is no panacea, but in modern times it has proved just as effective on the plus side and far less devastating than drones and bombs and guns.

  10. Lee Says:

    Civilian casualties in Afghanistan during the recent “good times” (i.e. before Biden took office) were about 0.01% of the population per year. If in order to keep women’s rights in the United States we had to suffer that percentage innocent civilian deaths (30,000 people in the United States each and every year), would it be a net win? The answer when balancing death and freedom is often “maybe,” but if we instead helped the women via diplomatic and humanitarian means, that would have been a better deal by orders of magnitude.

  11. David Lettau Says:

    Lee is right about the efficacy of diplomacy over bombing.As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote,”no one should ever be bombed”,Then again,he never met ISIS or the taliban

  12. Don Bronkema Says:

    David & Lee: So true. One observes in passing: For the elites, justice & demand-side economics are as terrifying as truth is to a fundamentalist.

  13. David Lettau Says:

    What would our world look like if only Socrates had followed the advice of the figure who appeared to him in a dream and had practiced music. and if ST Paul had gotten some therapy for his disastrous neurosis.One wonders………

  14. Don Bronkema Says:

    Imagine Socrates as a strumming lutenist in the agora. Wood we be here today if he’d become Pythagorean? Tarsian remark right on target: Paul was guilt-laden & likely a nutter of sorts even before his epileptic fit en route to Damascus. For pure Freudian bonkerdom, tho, read Augustine on carnal matters. He did more to confuse & immiserate the Western mind than any other person–more than Jean Cauvin [Calvin]. Still, our reality is a seamless merger of Babylon, Hellas, Rome, Church, Islamath, Science & Aufklaruung. Craig Venter says we should propel it digitally to Mars & via Kardashoff to absorption in the Kosmos. Makes sense to me as a quondam Iowa farm-kid & boy-preacher.

  15. Monkeyman Says:

    ….no secret peace core volunteers often end up being tools of bad foreign policy later on in life as diplomats or whatever. Going to into Afghan to nation build was foolish.. Just knock off Bin Laden’s gang and get the hell out..and use your drones. Cat and mouse to eternity ..accept that reality.
    SO, Trust the guy down the block who went overseas to do peace core work by himself not with peace corps.Have yourself the peace core app. It’s like a screening to make sure you fit it to their role as opposed to a role. The guy down the street isn’t likely to think he can do anything beyond digging a well or good gardening in a tribal society. Basic Anthropology.
    Biden did the right thing in the right way. End the occupation and war asap.

  16. Monkeyman Says:

    Also, lots of $ made by contractors . Any moron could see including Military Industrial Complex who knew better than anybody the Afghan. forces weren’t cut out as a group for a 1,000 000 reasons for a war when they wouldn’t know what a western democracy is about in the 21st Cent. It was just about grifting the taxpayers on part of US defense contractors in collab. with a so called Afghan “govt.”.

  17. Don Bronkema Says:

    Simianus dicet veritas: monkey speaketh true re Stan…volunteering solo o/seas noble, but parlous absent bakkup: recall son of Nelson Rockefeller, roasted for a snack by cannibals in Papua, New Guinea [or the Amazon].

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