"The narrative that we're leaving Afghanistan is self-defeating," Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced last week, in justifying the latest course change in U.S. policy toward that country. "We're not, we can't, and to do so would not be to take advantage of the success we've had to date."
Set aside the Defense secretary's dubious reference to the "success" that the United States has achieved in Afghanistan since our intervention there began 14 years ago. The real question is what Carter means when he says the U.S. "can't" leave.
The U.S. is a great power, priding itself in particular on its putative preeminence in the military realm. Power enables a nation to act or to refrain from acting as its interests and its values may require. As Thucydides famously put it, "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." In short, power confers — or should confer — choice.
Americans should wonder how it is that the United States today acts from an absence of choice, as Carter acknowledges in his revealing remark. Why is it that we "can't" leave?
Answering that question requires appreciating the fix in which the United States finds itself, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, where a war once said to have ended has resumed with a vengeance. In both countries, U.S. military policy has met with profound failure. After overthrowing the established order, U.S. forces attempted in each to restore stability while vowing to create a flourishing new order advertised as both humane and democratic. Yet in Afghanistan and Iraq alike, despite vast expenditures and very considerable sacrifice, those efforts never came close to fruition, even as they exhausted the willingness of the American people to do more.
Even today, however, few in Washington will own up to the magnitude and implications of those twin failures. The fact that senior officials from both parties, along with a succession of high-ranking military officers, share in responsibility for the various misjudgments and miscalculations made along the way helps to sustain an atmosphere of collective denial. Members of the national security establishment to which Carter belongs — he is the fifth Defense secretary to have presided over these ongoing conflicts — have a common interest in diverting attention from just how badly they have screwed up.
So the decision to retain 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the Obama administration's previously announced deadline for withdrawal qualifies less as a noteworthy shift in policy than as an attempt to conceal the utter absence of any policy worthy of the name. Does anyone seriously think that what President Obama describes as a "modest but meaningful extension of our presence" will bring hostilities in Afghanistan to a favorable conclusion, when years of effort by a much larger contingent could not accomplish that goal?
What we have here is temporizing dressed up in policy drag. It is a gesture designed to convey an appearance of purposefulness to an enterprise whose actual purpose has long since vanished in the mists of time.
Having inherited from his predecessor two wars begun in 2001 and 2003, respectively, Obama will bequeath those same two wars to the person who will succeed him as president in 2017. It is incumbent upon Americans to contemplate the implications of this disturbing fact. By their very endlessness, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq constitute a judgment on American statecraft, one further compounded by the chaos now enveloping large swaths of the Islamic world. Here are the consequences that stem from misunderstanding military power and misusing a military instrument once deemed unstoppable.
Only by owning up to the mindless failure of U.S. military efforts since 9/11 does it become possible to restore real choice. Alternatives to open-ended war waged on the other side of the globe do exist. Contrary to Carter's lame insistence, the United States can leave Afghanistan. Protecting Americans from the relatively modest threat posed by the Taliban or Al Qaeda or Islamic State — or all three combined for that matter — does not require the permanent stationing of U.S. forces in the Islamic world, especially given the evidence that the presence of American troops there serves less to pacify than to provoke.
In the end, it comes down to interests and values. The primary U.S. interest at stake is self-defense, which in this instance can be best achieved by erecting effective barriers against terrorism here at home. And should our values dictate that we attempt to alleviate the suffering of Afghans (and Iraqis), then honesty requires an admission that our efforts have succeeded only in making matters worse. When it comes to philanthropy, military might tends to be of negligible utility.
Carter is dead wrong. What's self-defeating is the fraudulent narrative of no choice that he insists on perpetuating.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author, most recently, of "America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History," to be published in the spring.