The banner headline on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times contained what can be interpreted as either a promise, a prophecy, a wild hope or a meaningless truism. It read: “Withdrawal of U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Will End Longest American War.” The headline linked to an article with a slightly less assertive title: “Biden to Withdraw All Combat Troops From Afghanistan by Sept. 11.” Nevertheless, it quickly returned to the prophetic tone, while adding one significant dramatic detail: “President Biden will withdraw American combat troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, declaring an end to the nation’s longest war and overruling warnings from his military advisers.” Instead of the traditional tactic of divide and rule, Biden will be applying a new one: withdraw and overrule.
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How can The New York Times promise that an event “will” happen months before the date? Does The Times, as the “paper of record,” have the authority to report future events? Expressions of intention, even by a sitting president, are not predictions. Is The Times now in the business of publishing prophetic journalism? More likely its certainty about what will happen in the future should be branded a wild partisan hope. The Times has been willing to go overboard to give the Biden administration credit long before credit is due. It has become a pattern since the election in its reporting and even the opinions of its Republican editorialists.
The Times’ initial affirmation can nevertheless be justified as a truism. Though it fails to refer to a real event, its meaning is undeniably true. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan at any time in the future — whether it’s September 2021 or even 2051 — will effectively end the longest war in US history, simply because in April 2021 it is already the nation’s longest war.
To underline the very real seriousness of President Joe Biden’s resolution and to support the idea that the future will happen as reported, The Times cites a significant fact: “A senior Biden administration official said the president had come to believe that a ‘conditions-based approach’ would mean that American troops would never leave the country.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A tactic that allows a government to promise to carry out an action and then, at the critical moment, announce that it is justified in refusing to carry out that action
The resolution of any serious problem in the realm of geopolitics is subject to conditions on the ground. That is why negotiations are important. But the situation in Afghanistan has always been so complex and asymmetrical that even attempting to negotiate is doomed to failure. The current situation involves three parties: the US, which is seeking to withdraw after 20 years of failed military efforts; the Taliban, who control most of the territory of a country traditionally administered by local warlords; and the so-called legitimate Afghan government initially put in place and supported economically and militarily by the US.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump both announced plans to withdraw from the conflict. But as soon as discussions began, the US insisted that certain conditions must be met. Those conditions were always framed as minimal criteria of political stability and a guaranteed role for the official government, even in a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. There was never any serious chance of realizing those objectives. Withdrawal dates could only be formulated as a target, not as a predefined moment. It also meant that those who opposed withdrawal simply needed to make sure that things on the ground remained suitably unstable.
President Biden has clearly, even shockingly, innovated by unilaterally canceling the criterion of conditions. It appears to be a move designed to counter not the actors in Afghanistan, but his political opponents in Washington and the Pentagon. He has done so because in every case from the past, Congress and the Pentagon have managed to declare that the sacrosanct conditions were not met. The US economy thrives on military engagement. The Afghan government has had a permanent incentive to maintain the presence of the US, which guarantees the billions of dollars funding of the government’s operations. Once the US leaves, even while promising to provide aid to a new composite regime, the Taliban will undoubtedly have the upper hand in a negotiated power-sharing arrangement.
In other words, there are two actors in the drama who have used the idea of conditions to oppose withdrawal: the NATO-supported Afghan government and the Pentagon. Obama and Trump failed in their plans to withdraw because they placed all their trust in the Pentagon. That is why the Biden administration’s decision to abandon a conditions-based approach may not only be constructive but absolutely necessary to achieve a goal ardently desired by the American public but opposed by the military-industrial complex that includes the Pentagon, the defense industry and members of Congress who depend on the defense industry for funding their campaigns and providing jobs in their jurisdictions.
How inevitable is The New York Times’ bold prophecy that withdrawal will effectively happen in September? Already, powerful senators who can stop it from happening, both Republican and Democrat, are beginning to speak up to condemn what they call a shameful and humiliating retreat from an engagement that began 20 years ago. The lobbyists are mobilizing to make sure the interests of the defense industry and the Pentagon continue to exercise effective control of US foreign policy.
But on April 14, Biden himself made it clear that there actually is a condition. The Times reports that he warned the Taliban “that if American forces are attacked on the way out of the country, ‘we’re going to defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal.’” That certainly sounds like a condition.
When running for president in 2000, George W. Bush asserted that he wanted the US to avoid any temptation of nation-building. Eight months into his presidency, using the pretext of the 9/11 attacks, Bush initiated a foreign policy that obliged the US to engage actively in nation-building, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq.
The foreign policy of the past three presidents has transformed both Afghanistan and Iraq into examples of what may be called “government-creating and defending” rather than “nation-building.” After toppling an existing regime and putting in its place a puppet government committed to Western liberal values, the game has consisted of ensuring the minimum required to keep such governments from collapsing as they take on the impossible burden of defeating America’s designated enemy.
It is a recipe for geopolitical failure that worries presidents, who prefer being thought of as winners. But it comforts everyone else in a system with its own internal logic. Spending money on weapons, selling those weapons to a captive client government and deploying them operationally whenever necessary in real, non-simulated wartime situations constitute a major factor of motivation for all parties concerned.
The beauty of it is that they can count on the US taxpayer to foot the bill. In the parlance of sports, the Middle East and now parts of Africa have become the equivalent of the expensive training facilities of a professional sports franchise motivated to push competition to its extreme and emerge as uncontested champions. Training can be carried on at all times and can endure decades, but when things get hot, these exotic locations also serve as the stadium itself, where the games are played and the scores tabulated.
It took decades after World War II to build such a coherent system. For multiple reasons, however, this system is incompatible with the idea of democracy and the morality of a civilized society dedicated to the idea of human rights and responding to human needs. It is coherent to the extent that those who exercise power — in government, industry, the media and academe — share a common interest. The system provides them with the lifeline they need to maintain their activities. The problem is that the only parties left out and left holding the bag are… the people.
Today’s economico-political situation reflects a “conditions-based approach.” The condition is that the interests that control the machine must never be forced to lose their control, because the result would be anarchy. And no civilized person — apart from the late anthropologist David Graeber — can seriously defend the idea of anarchy.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.