Not all battles can be won with language, arguments, conferences, or diplomacy.
By Anne Applebaum
AUGUST 20, 2021
Of all the empty, pointless statements that are periodically repeated by Western politicians, none is more empty and pointless than this one: “There can be no military solution to this conflict.” That was what Ban Ki-moon, then the UN secretary-general, said back in 2013: “There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.” John Kerry, then secretary of state, echoed those same words—“No military solution to the conflict in Syria”—on many occasions, including in 2013 and again in 2015. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, said this on August 3: “We believe there is no military solution” in Afghanistan. “Ultimately, for Afghanistan to have peace and stability there needs to be a negotiated political settlement.” Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeated this, solemnly, in July: There is “no military path to victory for the Taliban.”
The phrase sounds nice, but it’s not true. In many conflicts, probably Syria and certainly Afghanistan, there is a military solution: The war ends because one side wins. One side has better weapons, better morale, more outside support. One side has better generals, better soldiers, more stamina. Or, sometimes, one side is more willing to use violence, cruelty, and terror, and is more prepared to die in order to inflict violence, cruelty, and terror on other people.
Peace negotiators, experts in conflict prevention, UN officials, European Union officials, and myriad American and international diplomats don’t want to believe that this is true, because it doesn’t reflect the values of the world that they inhabit. They don’t know any Taliban fighters, Hezbollah militants, or Russian mercenaries and can’t imagine what the world looks like from their point of view. But violent extremists, contrary to the popular image, can be quite rational: They can calculate exactly what they need to do to win a battle, or a war, which is precisely what the Taliban has just done in Afghanistan. There was a military solution, and the group has been waiting for a long time to achieve it. Now it will convert the violent extremism of its movement into a violent, autocratic, tyrannical state.
The need to prevent this from happening in other places—to prevent violent extremists from invading places where people would prefer to live in peace and in accordance with the rule of law—is precisely why we have armies, weapons, intelligence agencies, and spies of various kinds, despite all of the mistakes they make and the ugly things they sometimes do. The need to prevent violent extremists from creating structures like al-Qaeda or rogue, nuclear-armed regimes is precisely why North Americans and Europeans get involved in distant and difficult conflicts. That’s why the U.S. has military bases in Germany, South Korea, and Kuwait, among other places. That’s why even the Dutch were persuaded to set up a base in Afghanistan, which I visited in 2008 (and which even then seemed pretty precarious).
That’s also why the phenomenon of liberal internationalism—or “neocon internationalism” if you don’t like it—exists: Because sometimes only guns can prevent violent extremists from taking power. Yet many people in the liberal democratic world, perhaps most people, don’t want to believe this. They have long found these tools either too distasteful or too expensive. Like Ban Ki-moon and his many imitators, they sometimes even pretend that these tools are not necessary at all, because conflicts can be resolved by “talks” and “dialogue” and “cultural exchange.” They pretend that there are always peaceful solutions that have somehow not been considered, that there is always a nonviolent answer that has somehow been ignored, and that “solidarity” with the women of Afghanistan, without a physical presence to back it up, is a meaningful idea. “Hang in there sisters!” wrote the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, in a tweet that celebrated the fall of “liberal neocon imperialism” and unwittingly illustrated just how delusional the anti-war left has become. Hang in there, sisters? The fall of Kabul makes a mockery of that kind of language and shows up those who use it as fools.
Many will argue, in the coming days, that Afghanistan was not in fact an American defeat or a Western defeat, and in a sense they are right. The U.S. did not surrender; it lost patience and decided to leave. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former President Donald Trump signed a deal, announced the withdrawal of troops, and then began to withdraw them. President Joe Biden simply completed that task. But the pictures from Kabul tell a different story, one that isn’t just about decisions made by Biden or Trump, or anything to do with U.S. politics at all. The story is this: A theocratic, misogynistic, militaristic organization is rapidly destroying whatever elements of liberal society managed to take root in Afghanistan during two decades of “neocon imperialism.” Within hours of the Taliban victory, women were told not to enter Herat University, Taliban forces fired on peaceful protesters, and those who worked with Americans or Europeans in any capacity went into hiding or tried to escape. In the streets of Kabul, men began hastily whitewashing posters showing the faces of women, who will now once again be banished into the shadows.
The events in Afghanistan are part of a much bigger story, and they illustrate that story with painful clarity. Rarely is the contest between “open” and “closed” societies, between democracy and dictatorship, between freedom and autocracy so crystal clear; rarely has the victory of the latter over the former been so rapid or so complete. A Hugo Chávez or a Vladimir Putin needs years to impose repressive control on their nation. The Taliban might carry it off in days or weeks.
For that reason, the fall of Kabul will necessarily cause some U.S. allies to question whether their own liberal society is safe. They understand why Americans were tired of Afghanistan; maybe it’s true that the country was too distant, too alien, to justify a continued presence, as Biden has so forcefully said. But which countries are close enough, or culturally similar enough, to be confident of long-term American support? They aren’t at war right now, but still: If the U.S. military were to abruptly withdraw air support and logistics from Europe, say, or from the South Korean peninsula, then many countries might suddenly find themselves vulnerable to aggression. Germany would not be able to defend itself from one day to the next. Nor would Poland. Or Estonia. Or Japan. An enormous question mark lies, of course, over the islands of Taiwan.
The fall of Kabul should refocus Americans—in the administration, in Congress, in the leadership of both parties, but above all, ordinary Americans across the country—on the choices that are now coming thick and fast. Afghanistan provides a useful reminder that while we and our European allies might be tired of “forever wars,” the Taliban are not tired of wars at all. The Pakistanis who helped them are not tired of wars, either. Nor are the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian regimes that hope to benefit from the change of power in Afghanistan; nor are al-Qaeda and the other groups who may make Afghanistan their home again in future. More to the point, even if we are not interested in any of these nations and their brutal politics, they are interested in us. They see the wealthy societies of America and Europe as obstacles to be cleared out of their way. To them, liberal democracy is not an abstraction; it is a potent, dangerous ideology that threatens their power and needs to be defeated wherever it exists, and they will deploy corruption, propaganda, and even violence to do so. They will do it in Syria and Ukraine, and they will do it within the borders of the U.S., the U.K., and the EU.
We might not want any of this to be true. We might prefer a different world, one where we can stay out of their way and they will stay out of ours. But that’s not the world that we live in. In the real world, the battle to defend liberal democracy is sometimes a real battle, a military battle, not merely an ideological battle. It cannot always be fought with language, arguments, conferences, or diplomacy, or by deploying human-rights organizations, UN declarations, and fierce EU statements of concern. Or rather, you can try to fight it that way, but you will lose.
Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.