Streetwise Professor

August 15, 2021

Dizzy With Success, Biden Administration Version

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:59 pm

As I suggested in my previous post, the “who lost Afghanistan?” debate is in full swing. And again I say: this is the wrong question. Everyone loses the un-winnable, and Afghanistan was un-winnable if one defines victory as the establishment and maintenance of a stable, centralized civil government. Believe me: the Taliban will fail at this too.

It all comes down to timing. When would the US choose to reap the whirlwind? When, not if.

The possibilities frontier does not, did not, and never will include a stable centralized civil government, let alone one that proudly flies the pride flag–or lets women out of the house. The US basically had two choices: bug out and let the Taliban run rampant, followed by another Afghan civil war or stay in and play Whac-a-Mole year after year after year after year after . . .

The “optimal” choice depends on the carrying cost and how heavily one discounts the future. The carrying cost ran into many tens of billions of dollars per year, and at least tens of American lives, and in some years many more. One has to discount the future fairly heavily to justify incurring such a cost.

Politicians discount the future very heavily. They do not personally bear the carrying costs, and are willing to pay a lot to defer disaster until after they leave office.

Politicians also tend to take the past into account, when they should not: as Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break noted in the comments, the sunk cost fallacy is a fallacy, but one that people fall for over and over and over–and politicians more than most.

So the incentive structure is perverse, and leads to procrastination and doubling down on un-winnable bets. And this is why the US stayed long past the time that it was clear that the war could not be “won.”

It’s plausible that the speed of the rout would actually have been slower, had the US bugged out in 2005 or 2011 rather than 2021. The US succeeded in keeping the Taliban at bay, but their strength actually increased over time during the resulting stalemate while the Afghan government and army treaded water at best and in fact probably regressed because of the moral hazard created by American protection and insurance.

The Biden administration and its myriad lackeys are trying to blame Trump. Well, if Trump had been reelected and followed through on his plan to withdraw, it’s certain that the outcome would have been the same. But the Biden administration chose to withdraw. If the Trump plan was so flawed, why did Biden follow through with it? After all, he’s had no reservation about reversing every other Trump policy (e.g., the border). So the choice to pull the plug is Biden’s and Biden’s alone. So he owns this.

The military and “intelligence” communities are covered in ignominy for their failure to predict this outcome, although their ability to prevent it was minimal or non-existent.

Ultimately the fundamental problem was the failure to develop an effective Afghan army despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars. The US should have spent money on speed bumps: they would have slowed down the Taliban advance far more effectively than the Afghan army on which the US lavished so much money and effort, and at much lower cost.

And why? Culture. As The Pilot noted in a comment, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Read John Keegan’s A History of Warfare: he emphasizes the cultural dimension of warfare It’s obviously not that Afghans are not warlike. They are obviously one of the most warlike people on the planet. It is that their cultural mode of warfare is guerrilla, tribal conflict, not regular battalions like a Roman legion or an American airborne outfit.

The United States attempted to create the simulacrum of a regular, western army, and failed miserably. This tweet is illuminating:

Can you imagine being one of the trainers?

I could go on and on about the underlying reasons. But the main question is why are the guerrillas so tough, and the regulars so pathetic?

Self-selection is the root of the issue. Guerrillas like the Taliban are self-selected, and committed for ideological/religious, tribal, or mercenary motives, or all of the above. Conscripts or those who volunteer for a pittance (much of which is stolen by their commanding officers) are drawn from the left tail of the distribution because their opportunity costs are low: you have to be pretty desperate to want to join the Afghan army. This is especially true in a “nation” that has no national identity and where military service does not generate any social status or prestige: can you imagine any Afghan saying “thank you for your service” to this lot? As for post-military employment, no doubt service in the Afghan army is (was) a negative signal of intelligence, motivation, etc. So the equilibrium is an army consisting primarily of unmotivated misfits who get trounced by steelier if less well-equipped guerrillas.

But it’s not as if this should have been a surprise to the US military in 2002, let alone in 2021. Yet year after year, we pretended to train them, and they pretended to be a military force. And we lied–to ourselves–about the results.

The American model of training indigenous forces to fight in the western fashion has failed over and over again. Vietnamization sort of worked when backed by massive American airpower (as in the Easter Offensive of 1973), but not when that airpower was withdrawn. Elsewhere it has failed time and again (again remember the rout of the American trained and equipped Iraqi army before ISIS).

And as numerous Middle Eastern wars have shown, it’s not an American problem alone: Middle Eastern states have not been able to produce regular western-style forces that can stand up to stalwart opponents (e.g., the Israelis, the US, or local guerrillas).

Again, it’s a cultural thing. And this should have been obvious long ago, and led the US government to conclude that the Afghan army would never be able to stand up to the Taliban on its own. But the overemphasis on the past and the excessive discounting of the future by politicians and the military and intelligence establishments continued to give life to the lie.

Given all this, I really don’t blame the Biden administration. Yes I’m sure they (and the Pentagon) could have been more foresightful and found ways to avoid the avalanche that has occurred–even delaying the withdrawal to the winter would have bought something of a respite, but the difference would have been in the degree (and only slightly) rather than the essence. They haven’t lost Afghanistan: they have chosen to take the inevitable L.

That said, I do find their response to the debacle to be appalling.

Biden’s condescending and cocky July press conference in which he heaped scorn on the prospect of a rapid Taliban victory is one example.

Was he lying? Was he delusional? Was the Pentagon (specifically, JCS Chair Michael Milley) lying to him–and he was too credulous to question them or understand that they were lying?

Doesn’t matter. This will turn out to be the most grimly farcical prediction made by any president in American history. He should have leveled with the country. He didn’t, and deserves the obloquy that his arrogance will engender.

As bad as Biden’s statements before the fact were, the after-the-fact statements of the execrable Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are even worse. Because he doesn’t acknowledge the facts that are obvious to every sentient being (which may, of course, excuse Joe Biden). Instead, he blows sunshine up our asses, which adds insult to injury.

Blinken’s “success” criterion is that the US achieved its objectives in Afghanistan, but not Vietnam. The US objective in Afghanistan was to defeat Al Qaeda, which we did, he says. Well that happened in 2001-2002 (which would mean the success would be Bush’s). So why were we still there in 2021? Was the post-Al Qaeda mission a success? Obviously not.

Stalin’s “Dizzy With Success” apologia for the catastrophe of Soviet collectivization was more tethered to reality than Blinken’s Dizzy With Success characterization of the Afghanistan debacle.

If this is success, dear Lord spare us failure.

Another loathsome individual is Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, whom I’ve detested since his previous stint as Pentagon flack under Obama–although thank God he’s no longer in a Navy uniform, which was a truly nauseating sight.

I guess you have to say that he’s right. It’s not an “imminent” threat environment (which implies something that could happen in the future)–it’s a full on here-and-now threat environment.

Admit the truth. Level with us. Take the L and admit it is an L. Move forward.

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  1. Well, Dizzy is as Dizzy does—Pelosi, all the while backing the rout, excuse me withdrawal, goes on record asking for the Taliban to respect the women of Afghanistan. WTF?

    As a frequent poster remarked, Chemical Ali of Baghdad had more credibility.

    Thanks for the tip of the hat.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 15, 2021 @ 5:34 pm

  2. Why not wait for all the leaders to gather in celebration and then introduce them to a large-scale fuel-air firework?

    Wouldn’t decapoing all the capo-de-Talibanos sow enough confusion to keep them locally focused on infighting for power?

    Plus the object lesson of don’t mess with us any further might not be lost.

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 15, 2021 @ 5:43 pm

  3. Meanwhile, in Kabul airport:

    Comment by Tatyana — August 15, 2021 @ 5:45 pm

  4. Hey Pat, turns out the Taliban are anti-vaccine as well – who would have thought? (

    Comment by [email protected] — August 15, 2021 @ 9:37 pm

  5. @4 libte, even the mindless get it right by accident sometimes.

    Turns out the Taliban are collectivists, as are Progressives. Imagine that.

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 15, 2021 @ 10:24 pm

  6. An Admiral of public affairs. This might be part of the problem.

    Comment by David Moore — August 15, 2021 @ 11:59 pm

  7. There’s no point blaming the husk of Joe Biden for the defeat. But the shambles of the rout can presumably be laid at his door? Maybe not: a fighting retreat is a hard thing to pull off. I don’t think the US Army does hard things. And anyway, where would they have retreated to, bar the airfields? Obviously the State Department would never have taken the precaution of negotiating asylum deals with neighbouring countries so that the US forces and their employees did have useful lines of retreat. That would have called for a bit of sense, a bit of foresight.

    What a fiasco. G W Bush, Barack Obama, D J Trump, Creepy Joe Biden, you’ve done a heck of a job.

    Come to think of it, maybe the Orange Oaf did the least bad job of the hapless four. There’s an interesting measure of America’s decline.

    How is the reputation of your defeated army to be rehabilitated? I know, they could be used to defend your southern border.

    And it’s not just the USA – the whole of The West is in a rotten state.

    Comment by dearieme — August 16, 2021 @ 4:21 am

  8. The Prof mentions the cultural differences that cause certain armies in the Middle East to not perform very well, and it reminds me of this excellent article: (Which I might know from seeing it somewhere on this blog previously, I’m not sure).

    @Dearieme: I think that’s a bit harsh, and I don’t think that’s how it looks to most of the world – The US held big chunks of Afghanistan, until they simply decided not to.

    @Pat & [email protected]: Given that the Taliban keeps half the population under permanent lockdown, and bans music, dancing and apparently all kinds of social gatherings besides executions, I’d imagine COVID doesn’t stand a chance either way…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — August 16, 2021 @ 9:37 am

  9. @8 HibernoFrog, infectious viruses will always have their way, no matter what anyone does.

    The ascension of the Taliban will only mean a reign of religious terror and the abuse of little girls.

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 16, 2021 @ 11:34 am

  10. Hiberian:I see you make exceptions to executions. Since those are coming in en mass, there’ll be no pause to C19 transmissions.

    Comment by Tatyana — August 16, 2021 @ 12:01 pm

  11. HF: looks like you share priorities w/ leftist scum, here’s for you personally

    yes, I know it’s BB. “every joke contains a bit of a joke]

    Comment by Tatyana — August 16, 2021 @ 12:22 pm

  12. @Pat Frank. And little boys. But that was happening under the current government too, notably by the Afghan officer corps.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 16, 2021 @ 1:05 pm

  13. @12 Craig, normative pederasty is an open secret throughout Muslim lands.

    I did a postdoc in Israel. One day, walking in the Arab Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, a group of school kids went past me. A cute little boy, couldn’t have been more than 6, stopped in front of me, looked up, smiled, rolled his hips and made kissing noises.

    I walked on. But it was an object indicator of something I’d only read about.

    I was thinking more of clitoridectomy and childhood marriage (9 yrs old is the Muhammad-approved age for girls).

    I wonder if they’ll bring back slavery, another god-approved fixture of Islam.

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 16, 2021 @ 1:22 pm

  14. “slavery, another god-approved fixture of Islam”: and not so long ago of Christianity.

    Until a strange new religious cult arose among English Quakers and Evangelical Anglicans and, poof!, slavery vanished. It was one of the most remarkable events in centuries, maybe in millennia, and yet it now seems entirely natural to us. Not that I’m suggesting that Islam will follow suit.

    Comment by dearieme — August 16, 2021 @ 2:05 pm

  15. So what is it you’re suggesting, dearie?
    There is no Christianity in Afghan, Taliban thugs are not Christian, so why the strawman?
    Or is that reflexive with you – if someone mentions slavery, your knee jerks immediately to cry “in England it was abolished long time ago!’

    Pat, Craig: the message is sent to all islamic world – and they react immediately. Just look at the headlines at Jihad Watch.

    Comment by Tatyana — August 16, 2021 @ 2:23 pm

  16. Yup, bit of a clusterf*ck all round. Who was the genius that suggested we can all rely on the ANA etc to cover our exit?

    @Pat. Well we finally agree on something. I too wondered why the US didn’t take the shot at those f*ckers in the Presidential Palace, especially the ones gloating that they’d been in Guantanamo. A parting gift to the country, and a little reminder.

    Comment by David Mercer — August 16, 2021 @ 2:25 pm

  17. @14 dearieme, slavery was practiced but never god-approved in Christianity. Paul and the Gospel and Epistle writers in Antiquity accept the reality of slavery but do not lay out laws permitting the taking and keeping of slaves.

    In the Islamic lexicon Muhammad owned slaves, took slaves, and raped female slaves. The Quran is full of instructions about the taking and disposition of “those whom your right hand possess,” i.e., slaves.

    Slavery disappeared in Europe with the Enlightenment and the rise of reason. “Poof” doesn’t quite describe the price England paid in treasure and men scrubbing out the slave trade.

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 16, 2021 @ 3:50 pm

  18. Afghanistan is another case of “died of a theory”. Theory being we could stabilize different cultures by making them just like us. Except, to the everlasting regret of progressives, different cultures aren’t just like us, malleable to Western values. They. Are. Not.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 16, 2021 @ 4:17 pm

  19. @Tatyana: Not entirely certain if you’re angry at my comment… but that link got a proper lol out of me, so thanks for that.

    It’s just a pity that, as everybody has observed, this is going to be a very tough time for the Afghan people…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — August 17, 2021 @ 5:35 am

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