This is a dangerous article to write. I bet I lose subscribers over it, and if so that’s fine. But I think it’s more important now than ever to challenge your priors and consider ideas outside of the Overton Window of acceptable thought, especially when those ideas are actually hopeful.
There’s a lot of doom and gloom around the current pull out from Afghanistan, with regards to the Taliban seizing control, the potential for loss of life, people falling out of airplanes, wasted lives and effort, the fact that the Taliban now has an air force, and such. I find it’s instructive to look for positives in all situations, and one occurred to me today about the “sportsmanship of war” that I’d like to share, using two personal anecdotes of relationships with foreigners.
I’m not saying these are applicable to the wider case necessarily. They’re just my experiences. Let’s do Germany and Vietnam, and circle back to Afghanistan at the end.
The 1996-97 school year I was at the Georgia Institute of Technology pursuing my undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering. There’s a small community north of campus called Home Park, comprised at the time of a smattering of cheap ghetto-tier houses with sketchy landlords, no AC, and bars on the windows, which was how college students chose to live in those days instead of the modern University Resort that’s erupted on the backs of all this student loan money. This was my home.
My second year in Home Park my friends and I upgraded to a fancy seven bedroom house on Hemphill Avenue (with air conditioning!) that had been renovated to house athletes during the Atlanta Olympics. I ran the place, got five friends to go in on it with me, and we had one room empty when we moved in. We put out a sign. Frank showed up.
Frank was the most German motherfucker I have ever met. Blond, pale, square jawed, pedal bike riding electrical engineering nerd getting his Masters after a stint at the University of Berlin, who liked Star Trek and Baywatch. I loved Frank. We introduced Frank to the great American past-time of the day, which was to sit around on the front porch smoking cigarettes and drinking bourbon while debating the merits of different political systems and the counterfactuals for the United State’s actions in prior wars.
Maybe this wasn’t a universal American past time, but it definitely was in my circles. Maybe we were weird. Let’s continue.
Frank lived four blocks from the Berlin Wall, in East Berlin, when the wall fell. And yet, everyone on that porch knew about it before he did. We all watched it on CNN and popped popcorn, he had no idea it was happening when it happened. Someone on the street told him about it the next day while he biked to grade school.
On one night we had the seminal “Star Trek versus Star Wars” argument, but he didn’t know what we were talking about. He’d never heard of the Star Wars movie. He thought it was Ronald Reagan’s program to nuke the eastern bloc from space. He was incredulous to our descriptions of “light sabers” and thought we were pulling his leg.
The porch discussion with Frank that most sticks in my head, though, was the one where he was ashamed of his accent. He had a tremendous accent, but was constantly trying to hide the fact that he was German. A pointless endeavor. We didn’t understand why he’d be ashamed of it. He said he was worried people wouldn’t like him for being German, because of World War Two, and Hitler, and such. Our response was pretty universally, “yeah but we won.” We held no animosity against someone who fought a war against us and lost, why would we?
When you win a game, you don’t hate the losers.
I dated a lady for bit last year from Vietnam. Born and raised communist, accounting degree from Oxford in England, total western capitalist now. She had some very interesting takes on things like the Floyd Protests, (“Why don’t they just shoot them? In my country this would be over in a day”) on Covid (“this disease is a non-issue” but also “Vietnam has no Covid because the people do what the government says”) and on politics in general I won’t mention. I had to explain to her that riots were an American tradition. She liked tea, but being a product of both east Asia and England she had no preferences on what kind.
When we started dating, I felt an obligation to brush up on my history of the Vietnam War. I knew a bit before but I wasn’t an aficionado, and our discussions about her perspectives of that war have always fascinated me. I watched the Ken Burns, read a couple books, and listened to her. I now have a laundry list of very interesting places to go in Vietnam as a tourist if I ever make it, such as the beautiful tropical resort island of Phú Quốc where they restored a US Military prisoner torture camp, replete with mannequins showing American and South Vietnamese forces torturing the North Vietnamese.
And here she is, in America, loves Americans, excited to advance her path to citizenship. Invited me to visit Vietnam with her someday.
I pulled a Frank.
I was very concerned that people would severely dislike me for being an American if I visited. She assured me the exact opposite was true, they love Americans. And part of it, according to her, was that they won. The fact that North Vietnam could repel an invasion from the world’s most imposing superpower was a source of pride. They held no animosity against someone who fought a war against them and lost, why would they?
When you win a game, you don’t hate the losers.
I am told, however, that they do still hate the French, and blame them for the whole thing.
What’s transpired in Afghanistan is a much smaller scale version of what happened in Vietnam. What transpired in Vietnam was a much smaller scale version of what happened in World War Two, with the winners and losers flipped. Intermingled in my Twitter Feed today with the Vietnam Comparison Memes and the skies raining Afgan bodies are Taliban riding bumper cars with military rifles, laughing on the merry go round, and generally happy that they’ve won a game. It makes me wonder if a “Taliban that doesn’t hate Americans” might develop in the same way as my prior two examples.
There’s been a great amnesia spread amongst Americans over the past two decades about why we were over there in the first place. Nobody can remember. I remember. I remember Schwarzkopf on CNN saying, “Your Armed Services are Ready.” I remember the government identifying who planned it. I remember them giving an ultimatum to the Taliban to turn him over. I remember the Taliban missing the timeline on it, amongst some disagreement within their ranks over whether they should rat out Bin Laden. I remember us attacking because we wanted to kill that one guy. And then when I perform the Great American Past Time of “counterfactuals for prior wars,” I wonder exactly what would have happened if the Taliban had ratted him out instead. That might have been that.
We weren’t at war with the Taliban for being the Taliban. We were at war because the two biggest buildings in New York got smashed and we’d just watched a bunch of people jump from them, from around the same height that the Afghans were falling earlier in the week. We were at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban were just in the way.
In the beginning, that is.
As the occupation continued, it slowly evolved into the Middle Eastern Americanization project outlined by the Project for the New American Century, where we’d go country hopping through the Middle East and installing Westernism at sword point to broaden our cultural empire on the way to establishing the New World Order. The PNAC neocons and the 3rd Wavers linked hands and decided to drone-bomb basic feminism into the least western country in the world, with the Taliban being the great boogie man instead of Bin Laden.
To be fantastically clear, I do not agree with the Taliban’s approach to gender equality.
But the Taliban were personally responsible for crushing three quarters of the world’s opium poppy supply, by eliminating 99% of opium production within their borders. And without them the heroin came back in the 2000s to the tune of half a million American deaths.
Granted many of the overall deaths inside these bars are from synthetics like Fentanyl, but they probably never would have taken off if heroin was as non-existent on American markets as it was in the 90s.
Locally the Taliban had put the screws down on other weird barbaric shit, like bacha bazi, where bearded men take on non-bearded adolescent boys as group sex slaves. That horrific practice came back when the Taliban was deposed, and to keep order within our own coalition American soldiers were told to ignore it. The Taliban today seems as if they’re going to ban it again, after teaming with the abused boys to kill allied forces at checkpoints over the last half decade.
These are two interesting examples of how repressive religious doctrines act as social controls to prevent worse ills from arising. I don’t know how strong the “Taliban was good for Afghanistan and good for the USA” argument is, but it would certainly worth discussing if not for that pesky Bin Laden thing.
We didn’t go into Afghanistan to promulgate western values originally, but the war got hijacked by moralists and turned into a culture war. A perfect situation for us in the 1990s would be a Taliban that didn’t harbor terrorists. And I suspect at least part of why they harbored terrorists was they hated us.
Maybe they still hate us. HWFO did a point by point of Osama Bin Laden’s Letter to America last month, and the hate in it was palpable, much of it directed at his perceptions of our culture warring. But things are different today for one very significant reason: The Taliban got a win.
When you win a game, you don’t hate the losers?
If what comes out of Afghanistan in the next two years is a group of people who don’t hate Americans, and therefore are active clamping down on terrorist training camps, that’s closer to the situation we would have liked in the 1990s. If they leave the terror camps up but point them at Kashmir or the Chinese, that’s functionally equivalent for us. It may be too late to clamp down on heroin now that so much of the market is pivoting over to synthetics out of Mexico, but it wouldn’t hurt if they helped out on that too.
I don’t advocate losing wars. I don’t advocate participating in them at all. But nobody in Vietnam is trying to fly a plane through a New York skyscraper, so maybe a similar mindset will promulgate through Afghanistan as well. They quit harassing Russia when they beat them.
This is a dangerous article to write. I bet I lose subscribers over it, and if so that’s fine. And there’s a coin flip’s chance that the Taliban goes on a Hitlerian murder spree in a month and things go truly Tango Uniform over there, in which case this article will be pretty embarrassing.
But I’m a positive person, so I’m curious where this ends up. If we get a ten percent drop in global heroin supply alone the death savings from that would exceed the annual troop loses by a wide margin.