Once upon a time, an insurgent candidate defeated Hillary Clinton, the most prepared potential president in U.S. history, after a nasty, close and historic race.
That’s the story of 2016. But it’s similar to the story of 2008. For all that Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama differ, both prevailed in part by playing to a sentiment that’s only getting more popular: disdain for idealistic U.S. military adventures. The two spent countless hours reminding voters that Clinton, as a senator, helped authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. (Trump shrewdly spread the lie that he opposed it.)
In office, Obama spent eight years expanding a global drone war. And Trump is no dove. The new president delights in threats, greenlights the use of the biggest U.S. bombs while trashing international humanitarian norms, and cheers military spending, weapon sales and reduced diplomacy. He bashes American allies and urges other countries to solve problems on their own, as brutally as they like, while cautioning that he will intervene unilaterally at his pleasure.
Both presidents ultimately expanded U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
American aggression is alive and well. But American empire is struggling. U.S. taxpayers want to know that threats, from Islamist militants to North Korean dictators, are dealt with ― but only by missions carrying no pilots (and therefore unlikely to incur American casualties) or by shows of force. Polls show that few Americans want to take on the troubles of far-off foreigners. Many feel they receive no benefit from Washington’s influence on world order. And almost no one is cheering the news about Afghanistan, the site of America’s longest war.
For folks stateside, there is no prospect that that entanglement will have a happy ending. Most Americans have no conception — not even a Trumpian illusion — of what “winning” looks like. Instead, there’s a yearning for such a vision that is powerful enough to inspire all manner of fever dreams.
This summer, for instance, Trump’s national security adviser told the president one reason to keep fighting in Afghanistan was that the country could eventually be Westernized. He showed Trump a photograph of women in miniskirts in 1970s Kabul. The subtext: Look, they aren’t all scary Muslims! We can (probably) socially engineer a society we like!
Is it victory to secure convenient representations of women’s bodies that keep policymakers happy?
Blackwater founder Erik Prince, responsible for one of the worst massacres during the American occupation of Iraq, offered Trump another mirage. Prince proposed a viceroy system and foreign mercenaries embedded in every part of the fight against insurgents.
Is it victory to give Afghanistan’s Columbia-educated president a farewell handshake and a murmured line about his people being too savage to run their own affairs?
Experts say U.S. “victory” in Afghanistan is about preventing the country from again becoming a haven for Osama bin Laden-level international terrorism or a playground for Chinese and Russian ambitions. The chief problem, they argue, is a lack of U.S. commitment. This invites brutal refutations: Isn’t so much of the world already that kind of haven? And if Moscow takes on a new crisis, does that really hurt Michigan? Washington’s national security brain trust offers little reason for Americans to try to make the Goldilocks level of investment a 17th time around.
A “win” is nowhere to be found ― and even the half-wins being discussed won’t be easily attained. Afghanistan’s long-suffering people confront the same basic prospect they faced in 2001: a range of pathways to the future. For Americans, there’s only a guarantee of future disappointment.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2017 edition of Newsline magazine in Pakistan, in a section called The Big Question featuring responses to the same prompt from a range of writers.