Wars Can Be Won. Permanent Occupations Cannot.

Why Joe Biden’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan was not a “defeat” or a “surrender.”

America’s long 20-year war in Afghanistan finally ended Monday. Most of the media has portrayed it as a “defeat.” The Wall Street Journal went so far as to define it as a “surrender” to the Taliban. NBC journalist Richard Engel called it a “capitulation.” But the framing of the United States departure from Afghanistan can only be accurately described in these terms by portraying its involvement in Afghanistan as a “war” in the traditional sense. We should not.

There is a clear difference between the nature of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and, say, the American Civil War or the first and second World Wars. During the George W. Bush administration, I began my journey as a writer under a pseudonym at DailyKos. My thoughts were often callow and ill-formed, and my writing style, in retrospect, was more than a little cringeworthy. But one key thesis I continue to defend is that America has not been at war in Afghanistan or Iraq for a very long time. We have been conducting occupations of those countries. Bloody and violent occupations, yes. But occupations nonetheless.

What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, the words matter both emotionally and practically. In a war, properly understood, two opposing armed forces come into violent conflict. The stronger force wins battles and seizes territory. The losing side eventually capitulates. Flags are raised over the capitals, treaties are signed, new governments are formed, and that’s the end of it—until, perhaps, the next war.

But an imperial or colonial occupation is different. There is never any doubt in an occupation which side has the stronger armed force and who will win major pitched battles. The empire, or colonialist power, will win almost every time. The key question is whether the occupation can be maintained without too much cost in blood and treasure to the stronger power, and whether it remains in the empire’s national interest. The end result of a war is always victory, defeat, or (occasionally) stalemate. The end result of an occupation can only ever be withdrawal or annexation.

The actual war in Afghanistan was over almost as soon as it began: The Taliban was driven out of any major power centers in Afghanistan and surrendered in Kandahar back in December of 2001. The terrorist organization was further routed out of their redoubts in the Shah-i-Kot Valley by Operation Anaconda in March of 2002. Bush and Cheney then stupidly and greedily turned the military’s focus to Iraq, but the war as such in Afghanistan was over. The Taliban held no major power centers, they were no match for the U.S. military, and the transitional government held the capital.

Much like the war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s army, the war was over very quickly. But the occupation had only just begun. The central government under Hamid Karzai and subsequent leaders was an incompetent joke. Pakistan continued to not-so-secretly train and fund rural Taliban incursions. No sustainable and profitable alternative to Afghanistan’s opium cash crop was established for local farmers, who in turn found it more lucrative to sell to the Taliban and local Taliban-aligned warlords. The central army America funded to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars was so riddled with corruption that local commanders, police, and soldiers sold out to the Taliban for a few hundred dollars because they hadn’t been paid in months. And the bipartisan American foreign policy establishment continued to lie about all of it for decades.

The awkward conversation among more hawkish elements here and around the world hasn’t been about whether the war could be “won.” The hawks have been more or less explicit in suggesting that America should have committed to a functionally indefinite occupation of Kabul. They have defended that stance by comparing it to the permanent U.S. presence in Germany and South Korea. (The difference, of course, is that America’s deterrent presence in those countries—whether one supports it or not—is peaceful, while the presence in Afghanistan has been marred by continual bloodshed and slaughter, including 5,183 civilian casualties in the first half of 2021 alone.) This position is not only impractical. It is morally indefensible. While American involvement in Afghanistan did improve women’s rights and various health measures, like infant mortality, one could easily argue that, on the whole, our involvement over the last half-century has been far more negative than positive overall.

A permanent occupation of Afghanistan to continue to prop up a hopelessly corrupt government at a horrific cost of life and treasure was not a viable option. Under multiple presidents, America further refused for other geopolitical reasons to put the pressure on Pakistan that would have been necessary to cut off support for the Taliban. So the end result was guaranteed: America would not be annexing Afghanistan as a client state. We would be withdrawing from Afghanistan like many imperial powers before us. But it’s not a “surrender” or a “defeat” in a traditional “war.” Calling it that makes it more difficult emotionally for an occupying empire to extricate itself from a morally and practically untenable situation—and it also insults the professionalism of the military forces and the sacrifices of its veterans.

The American military has the material power to rout the Taliban out of Kabul and other population centers again if it chooses, just as thoroughly and efficiently as it did in 2001. But the result would be horrific in human terms; it would be just as unsustainable as it has been these last 20 years. And unlike in 2001, it would lack any pretense of moral justification. The Afghanistan problem is not one that America has the power to solve. It was long past time for the occupation to end, and for the work of diplomacy to begin.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.