Kaplan says it’s time to get out of Afghanistan. But there’s a catch

Time to Get Out of Afganistan” over the byline of Robert Kaplan grabbed my eye this morning. Of course, it did so in part because I’m one of the dummies who confuses him with Robert Kagan. But it was still interesting.

It starts out this way:

Kaplan, not Kagan

Kaplan, not Kagan

The decision by President Trump to withdraw 7,000 of the roughly 14,000 American troops left in Afghanistan, possibly by summer, has raised new concerns about his impulsive behavior, especially given his nearly simultaneous decision to pull out all American forces from Syria against the advice of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But the downsizing of the Afghan mission was probably inevitable. Indeed, it may soon be time for the United States to get out of the country altogether…

And then continues with words that sound like they should be read aloud by Peter Coyote, as I’ve been rewatching Ken Burns’ series on Vietnam during my morning workouts lately:

No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy community has mostly been unable to accept….

Not only that, but he suggests that our efforts there, which provide a modicum of stability for the moment, are actually proving to be an advantage to the Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians and Iranians — allowing them to operate in the area with some safety at our expense — than they are to us and out interests.

But before we stark striking camp and heading for home, read what Kaplan writes further down:

An enterprising American diplomat, backed by a coherent administration, could try to organize an international peace conference involving Afghanistan and its neighbors, one focused on denying terrorist groups a base in South-Central Asia.

It is the kind of project that Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke, James Baker III or George Shultz would have taken up in their day. But it is not something anyone can reasonably expect this administration, as chaotic, understaffed and incompetent as it is, to undertake, especially with the departure of Mr. Mattis….

Oh, well…

9 thoughts on “Kaplan says it’s time to get out of Afghanistan. But there’s a catch

  1. Doug Ross

    Henry Kissinger? Henry Kissinger?! As the model for what America should do in a country we don’t belong in? He was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths of American soldiers and innocent men, women, and children. Trump isn’t even close to the heinous person Kissinger was and is.

    1. Doug Ross

      Imagine if Trump said this: From Wikipedia – Henry Kissinger had also come under fire for private comments he made to Nixon during the Bangladesh–Pakistan War in which he described Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a “bitch” and a “witch”. He also said “The Indians are bastards”, shortly before the war.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I just don’t even know what to say to that, Doug…

      How about this: Who do you think opened sensible relations with China? The ping-pong players?

      And Trump, after handing the Pacific Rim to them, launches a trade war with them. The implications of those two actions alone will harm this country, and our friends in Asia, for the rest of this new century — all in the name of his “America First” nonsense.

      Oh, but wait — I forgot that American leadership liberal global order after 1945 is nothing but us messing in “countries we don’t belong in…”

      1. Doug Ross

        Kissinger is considered to be a war criminal by many, many intelligent people. Trump’s tweets.

  2. Phillip

    If Kaplan had just cited Holbrooke, Baker, and Shultz as his examples of “enterprising” diplomats representing “coherent” administrations, his point would have been a lot stronger.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      But surely you agree that Kissinger knows his stuff — which puts him in sharp contrast to the denizens of this administration (now that Mattis is gone).

      That’s the way I understood his point.

      At some point, we’ve got to get to where folks don’t have such a knee-jerk reaction to anyone who at any time had anything to do with Vietnam. At the very least, we should be able to restrain ourselves from over-the-top demonization — i.e., Doug’s “war criminal” reference.

      I seem to recall the same term being flung at LBJ. Fortunately, I think with time folks have managed to calm down a bit and appreciate the miracles Johnson achieved in domestic policy. I can’t think of anyone but FDR who might have done more on the home front.

      But when Vietnam comes up, things get… visceral.

      I was watching another episode of Ken Burns’ series this morning, and I saw a clip in which a protester at a Hubert Humphrey campaign event in ’68 yells a bunch of emotional nonsense at him, saying, “We did not come to talk with you, Mr. Humphrey. We have come to arrest you!”

      And I’m like, really? Unadulterated nonsense like that, uttered by puffed-up young people WAY overimpressed with the supposed power of their own righteousness, gave me a distaste for that sort of political street theater at an early age — as y’all have probably noticed since.

      We need to find ways to look at our recent history more dispassionately.

      Of course, perhaps that’s impossible. Maybe centuries have to pass; I don’t know…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, watching that series yet again, I am again struck by how unmanageable the situation was.

        It’s like Rashomon. So many people look at it and think they see SO clearly what should have been done. I don’t. I fully see why it was so hard to extricate ourselves from the conflict we had sleepwalked into.

        First, it was practically impossible for members of that generation, who had beaten world powers in their youth, to believe they couldn’t prevail against such a ragtag opponent as the Vietcong, or as relatively weak an enemy as the NVA. And in a sense they were right: If we’d ever tried to win conventionally — by which I mean driven on Hanoi the way we did on Berlin — we’d have prevailed.

        But that was politically and diplomatically impossible. Even the people who were most sanguine about our military chances lived in fear of something happening like what happened in Korea — China (or the Soviets) going all in on the side of the North.

        It couldn’t be risked. So we fought defensively. And that was a doomed effort, since the guys on offense — the NVA and VC — were never, ever going to quit.

        And even when the leaders could see it was NOT working — as McNamara, and Clark Clifford after him, eventually saw — it was such political poison, to be the American leader who “lost a war” to a Third World adversary. Even if the WWII vets in the administration finally saw it (and many did), the average veteran out there in the electorate would not.

        Of course the protesters would say, “LBJ is putting his ego and his political career ahead of people’s lives.” But I say to that that LBJ wanted to ACCOMPLISH things for the country, and he did accomplish a great deal. He wanted more than anything to have Vietnam off his plate — he just couldn’t figure out how to get that done. But to hear protesters talk, it was like LBJ just thought up this whole Vietnam thing because it pleased him to do so.

        And if you think it would have been easy to walk away, look at what happened when we finally did. Look at those South Vietnamese people, people who had trusted us, trying to clamber onto the last helicopters. Look at the “re-education” camps. Look at the Boat People, 200,000 of whom died in their desperate attempts to flee. It was very much a low point for our country. And one way or another, it probably would have been somewhat like that if we’d tried to leave in the ’60s as well.

        In the ’50s, maybe. If we just could have said no to the French trying to keep their empire. That always seems like the cleanest and easiest time to stop it from happening. But we were too scared of France, and others, drifting toward the Soviet sphere.

        It was NOT an easy problem to solve. If it had been, we probably wouldn’t still be traumatized by it today…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And one of the lasting effects, unfortunately, is that so much of our population truly believes — which is counterintuitive to me — that there are clear, simple “lessons” to be learned from Vietnam, easily applicable to present situations. But there aren’t. It was an extremely knotty problem, and we never did find a satisfactory, fully honorable and strategically sound way of extricating ourselves from it…

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