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Biden and the Surrender of Victory in Afghanistan

Reflecting on the recent liberation of Cuba and other Spanish territories, Teddy Roosevelt wrote:

The guns that thundered off Manila and Santiago left us echoes of glory, but they also left us a legacy of duty. If we drove out a medieval tyranny only to make room for savage anarchy we had better not have begun the task at all. It is worse than idle to say that we have no duty to perform, and can leave to their fates the islands we have conquered. Such a course would be the course of infamy. It would be followed at once by utter chaos in the wretched islands themselves. Some stronger manlier power would have to step in and do the work, and we would have shown ourselves weaklings, unable to carry to successful completion the labors that great and high-spirited nations are eager to undertake.[1]

No one can claim that Teddy Roosevelt could conceive of settling for something less than victory, whether in politics, the building of the Suez Canal, or in warfare. It is also clear that Roosevelt assumed that with winning came obligations for success in the post-war environment. Peace was the fruit of victory, and winning was nothing to be ashamed of. What would President Teddy Roosevelt say of President Joe Biden and his Democratic administration abandoning the Afghan people? Perhaps Biden, and many in the West, have turned away from winning because they have lost a sense that victory, even an unsatisfying partial victory, is politically and morally viable.

The surrender of victory as a political and ethical concept is a moral and strategic failure, both for classical just war thinking and for broader political and military ethics today. Handing the keys of Afghanistan starkly demonstrates it. We need to recover a conception of what winning looks like (defensive, offensive, moral), even if the settlement is a sort of vigilant occupation, armistice, or cold war. Since 1945 we have won those wars in Europe and the Far East.

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What is victory? Victory, in this context, is winning or success in war. Although there is a large literature and thousands of aphorisms, from Aristotle to Lombardi, about victory as mastery of self, this is not what is meant by victory in war. More specifically, victory in a specific contest can mean any one (or more) of three things:

1. Victory is not allowing an opponent to win.

2. Victory is defeating an opponent.

3. Victory is the vindication of values.

The strategist Basil Liddell-Hart contrasts offensive and defensive types of victory: “The acquisitive state, inherently unsatisfied, needs to gain victory in order to gain its object… The conservative state can attain its object by foiling the other side’s bid for victory.”[2] Often time and expense are the factors for a defensive victory. For instance one key element, though not the only one, of George Washington’s long-term strategy was not to lose to the world’s greatest navy and second greatest army. Time was on the side of the Continentals if they could avoid major defeats. Historians typically call such a strategy “Fabian” after the Roman general and dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator. The title “cunctator” (“lingerer”) was added to his name, first as an insult but became a badge of honor due to his strategy opposing the Carthaginian military genius Hannibal in the Second Punic War. Rather than fight Hannibal openly and experience defeat like other Roman generals seeking decisive battlefield conquest and personal glory, Fabius employed a scorched earth policy of retiring before Hannibal and at times harassing his supply lines, not allowing the Carthaginians to live off the land while on campaign. Similarly, the over-extension of ambitious leaders’ armies, like those of Napoleon and Hitler in the vast Russian heartland, can result in defensive victory. As Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace, described the disintegrating French Army of the Republic, “The strongest of all warriors are these two: Time and Patience.”[3] Fierce defenders, from the Viet Cong to the Afghan mujahedin, exemplify how time and patience can be decisive by blocking victory to one’s adversary.

Not everyone agrees that defensive victory is satisfying or even possible. Field Marshall Haig, during the First World War, observed how defensive stalemates can be costly for all involved: “The idea that a war can be won by standing on the defensive and waiting for the enemy to attack is a dangerous fallacy, which owes its inception to the desire to evade the price of victory.” However, if we look at what the US and its allies were doing in Afghanistan in recent years, one could argue that a robust defensive posture is not losing. There were no American battle deaths in the past 18 months. The snail-pace development of modern Afghan society, including is security institutions, continued to crawl along. When we think about not losing, one can easily imagine a long-term, low-cost continuation of vigilance as we have done in South Korea and Eastern Europe for so long.

Field Marshall Haig’s ally, French Field Marshall Foch, rightly argued that “the will to conquer is the first condition of victory.”[4] Successive European and US governments never had will to pursue this conventional definition of victory: outright defeat of one’s opponent. This is the orthodox vision of victory: compelling one’s opponent to one’s will, generally through offensive military action. Underlying this definition of victory is a notion that war is not an activity isolated unto itself; rather, it is an expression of politics and political will. As Clausewitz famously wrote:

The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes,

and

War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.[5]

The Fabian strategy was ultimately not sufficient to defeat Hannibal, who occupied a large swathe of Italy for 15 years. Scipio Africanus ultimately beat Carthage by first besting Carthaginian armies in Spain and then taking the fight to Hannibal’s homeland in North Africa, destroying Hannibal’s ability to fight. This created a peace that lasted 50 years. So too, Wellington beat Napoleon, Grant beat Lee, Montgomery beat Rommel, and we remember momentous battles not just for the bloodshed but for their long-term political consequences: Tours, Gaugamela, Blenheim, Waterloo, Puthukkudiyirippu. Battlefield victories are important, but it is the strategic, political context that is of greater importance when a group or government capitulates to the demands of its enemy. Defeat need not mean “unconditional” surrender, but it does mean surrender and we often remember the political systems and leaders who won such as Alexander, Lincoln, and Churchill.

To this point, we have two types of victory: avoiding defeat and outlasting your adversary, and, outright beating your opponent. We have typically though that the US should mobilize its massive resources and only do the latter. Many of us wish we had smashed the Taliban a decade ago, but that was not what happened. But, a middle ground was certainly possible, a sort of strategic muddling along that kept terrorists from openly operating from Afghanistan, kept the Taliban somewhat at bay, maintained a regional cold peace, and continued the slow evolution of Afghan society and institutions. Such an approach would also have had a diplomatic component, but we are now seeing that China, Russia, and others have successfully outmaneuvered us in the political realm. It was stunning to see Americans fleeing while the Russian ambassador in Kabul graciously entertained a Taliban delegation.

Part of what makes the Afghanistan debacle so heartrending has to do with a third type of winning, victory that has a moral dimension because the contestants represent utterly different views on what the world should look like. World War II was clearly this sort of war. Western Europe simply could no longer tolerate both the diabolical Aryan supremacy of National Socialism and the Christian and Enlightenment values embodied by England and its allies. Although some, such as Michael Walzer, see the Pacific theatre differently, the clash between Washington and Tokyo was not simply conventional, but contrasted Western liberalism with the racial supremacy and associated barbarism of Japan.[6] World War II was a vindication of a set of Western liberal values, however imperfect, applied to the post-war environment. This became the basis for the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and similar standards such as the Genocide Convention and human rights laws, as well as a set of related institutions including the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods system.

Imagine, in contrast, how an Axis victory would have resulted in a different set of opportunities and institutionalized values. Had the Nazis won, it still would have been “moral,” but in a terrible, wicked sense. “Vindication” is not a moral judgment in retrospect about which values are superior—it is the recognition that at the end of some wars “victory” means more than going home with some material loss for the loser. “Vindication” means that the values of the victor become the worldview framing a new status quo. Tours confirmed continental Europe as Christian, setting the foundations of the Carolingian empire; Alexander’s victories brought Hellenism to the Near East; Napoleon’s victories and “Continental System” changed the role of church-state relations, legal codes, and many other elements of life across Europe; and the US Civil War abolished slavery once and for all and dramatically altered the course of the country. So too, victors like Lenin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge imposed a value system on their populaces and foes after winning. In each case, victory had far-reaching moral, social, and political consequences.

The fact that global human rights norms, such as religious freedom for all and the equal citizenship of all adults—including women and religious minorities—never fully took root in Afghanistan is clearly a failure. But it is one that could be predicted because from the earliest period, including US counsel on Afghanistan’s constitution, we pulled our punches on these critical issues. None of us expect Afghanistan to look like Canada, but it should have more of a flavor of Pakistan and India, where large swathes of the country are pro-democratic, despite terrorism, violence, criminality, and inequality.

Even though the Afghan government seems to have surrendered and its Western allies are on the run, the US still has responsibilities, both to ensure that Afghanistan never becomes a focal point for threats to the US and to protect our Afghan friends who fought with us for their country.

Portions of this are excerpted from Patterson’s “The Morality of Victory” in his book Just American Wars: Ethical Dilemmas in US Military History (Routledge, 2019).

[1] Roosevelt, Theodore (1999). The Rough Riders. New York: The Modern Library, 1999; originally published: New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1899, 46.

[2] Quoted in Walzer, Michael. (2000). Just and Unjust Wars, third ed. (New York: Basic Books). Pg. 118.

[3] Tolstoy, Leo. (2010). War and Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Pg. 524.

[4] Haig’s quote is from his “final dispatch,” dated March 21, 1919. Foch’s dispatch in complete primary textual forms is available here. Accessed September 5, 2016. Foch’s quote has been widely replayed, and can be found in (1918) Littell’s Living Age vol. 298, pg. 264. Available here. Accessed September 5, 2016.

[5] Howard, Michael and Paret, Peter. (1984). Clausewitz: On War. (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[6] Walzer, Michael. (2000). Just and Unjust Wars. See his argument in chapter 7, “War’s Ends, and the Importance of Winning Well.”

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