President Biden’s precipitous pullout of American forces in Afghanistan has resulted in the Taliban—enemies so evil they’re almost cartoonish—recapturing a country the size of Texas and 130% as populous. Violence has already begun and the accomplishments of the last two decades are gone.
This was done to extricate America from an “endless war,” an unacceptable and heart-wringing scenario where, the logic goes, we “have no business” shedding blood and wasting resources, having our own problems here at home, in pursuit of an objective we will never reach.
But this thinking misunderstands our presence in Afghanistan in a couple of key ways, and if we want to be a peacemaking and stabilizing force on the world stage in the future, we need to understand when something is no longer a war and what our real objective there was. “War” is a sobering term because it represents mass-scale and apparently senseless violence and sacrifice, but the actual definition of the term is not necessarily obvious; it is something that overlaps with violence but is distinct in some way. It is characterized by sociologist Raymond C. Kelly as “grounded in the application of a calculus of social substitution to situations of conflict such that these are understood in group terms” (emphasis added). The mouthful “calculus of social substitution” basically means that, for purposes of justice, members of a group are interchangeable. On the Normandy beach, you don’t differentiate German soldiers based on their character or relations; the only differences they might elicit are tactical. They are not individual or special, and their personalities and characters are nonexistent.
And, popularly, when we think about war, that is how we think about it: two sides of a chess board, well-defined, opposed, battling it out. But we think in those terms even when that is no longer the case—as in Afghanistan.
The last U.S. combat death in Afghanistan happened in February of 2020. Monthly casualty totals have been in the single digits since mid-2014. That’s because the U.S. had a working cooperation with the authorities in Afghanistan. The enemies were organized criminals treated as individuals who more often than not stood trial for their personal crimes and had done so for years. We were no longer “at war” in any sense deserving the term.
So we were there but no longer at war—but that does not mean that our only other business there was nation-building. Much of President Biden’s stated rationale for pulling out used this language: “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
Now, nation-building may be quixotic or realistic based on the particular circumstances—but Biden is wrong to think of it as the only alternative to a hot war and to conclude that if it is impossible, we may as well leave.
Earlier in those same remarks, President Biden had recapped the objective we had when we first invaded: “the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives. That’s why we went.”
He's right in stating those objectives. But he’s wrong that keeping Afghanistan from becoming a nursery of terror is something that is now over and done with. That’s something that has to keep going.
There’s some conceptual framework from the author and business consultant Simon Sinek that’s helpful here. “It’s not about winning or losing,” he said in a 2016 presentation. “In game theory, there are two kinds of games: there are finite games and there are infinite games. ... A finite game is defined as known players, fixed rules, and an agreed-upon objective. Baseball, for example. ... Infinite games are defined as known and unknown players, the rules are changeable, and the objective is to keep the game in play. ... There are no winners and losers in an infinite game. ... Players drop out when they run out of the will or the resources to play.”
War is a finite game. There are winners and losers, recognized in surrenders at Appomattox Courthouse or onboard the USS Missouri. But establishing justice and securing a peaceful environment for human flourishing are infinite games—and that is more descriptive of America’s project in Afghanistan.
Sinek continues, “Problems arise when you pit a finite player versus an infinite player, because a finite player is playing to win and an infinite player is playing to keep the game going. ... This is the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. They were trying to beat the Mujahideen, and the Mujahideen would fight for as long as was necessary: quagmire.”
This is the heart of America’s public discomfort with being in Afghanistan. We weren’t in Afghanistan trying to reach a finish line and organize a ticker-tape parade. There was no finite game of war for us to win, declare victory, and return from. Our mission in that mountainous, tribal, quasi-nation-state that fostered terrorists was never to achieve a victory and head home. It was to maintain the minimum military presence necessary to ensure order and stop violent terrorists. It was not an “endless war” but an infinite game.
There used to be a more mature recognition of the nature of the mission of peace. President Kennedy said in one address that “genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process—a way of solving problems.” He grasped that it was an infinite game. Or consider the military bases the U.S. established after World War II in its occupation of Japan—an occupation that morphed into a military alliance, the upshot being our continual military presence in that land since their 1945 surrender.
For America to be effective at establishing justice and guaranteeing peace, we must understand the nature of the beast. The popular image of war, and its conclusion, remains more like a chess match than the “wars” that we actually conduct. War is a finite game; establishing peace is an infinite one, one different from the prospect of nation-building—and one far more realistic. The ongoing policing of individual threats against our people is not something that we ever get to “achieve” and then walk away from. And our continual occupation with it is not something to be tired or ashamed of.
In 2003, then-President George W. Bush delivered a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to signal that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” It was not the end of a U.S. military presence in Iraq, but the visible hanging of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished”—a banner intended to celebrate that particular aircraft carrier’s end of deployment—gave the impression that the White House was parading away from a mess that was just getting started.
Bush caught hell for that optical fiasco. It was parodied by “The Simpsons,” “Scrubs,” “Arrested Development,” and many others. It remains to be seen whether a genuine cluelessness about what our objectives are and whether we achieved them—or whether they even are the kinds of objectives you can ever “achieve” with finality—will haunt today’s leadership. If nothing more, these lessons need to be learned by the leaders of tomorrow.