David Frum on the Afghanistan Withdrawal

Last week, I had David Frum on the podcast to talk about the Afghanistan withdrawal, the Georgia voting law, the importance of having children, the trend of police shootings, and more.

Last week, I had David Frum, a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, on the podcast to talk about the Afghanistan withdrawal, the Georgia voting law, the importance of having children, the trend of police shootings, and more.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: I'm gonna ask you about the Afghanistan withdrawal. I'm okay with having a few thousand reserved forces there. I don't see that as a huge problem. I'm not sure why other people do. And I think that creating a vacuum could allow another safe haven to emerge. I mean, you know, better than I do the potential, what's your take?

David: Well, My take is a little off beat on this, because and I come at this from with memories of what happened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And how we sort of got involved in Afghanistan. We've had this kind of argument between Democrats and Republicans for 20 years now, where Afghanistan was the good war, the Democrats thought should be priority one… I've always had a suspicion—I don't know this, this is just a surmise—that one of the powerful forces that drew [Dick] Cheney and [Don} Rumsfeld to Iraq was that Iraq gave them an alternative to getting over involved in Afghanistan, which they always thought was hopeless. Now, Iraq turned out to be hopeless, too, but it wasn't as obviously hopeless from the point of view of 2001 and 2002—

Matt: Because we had just had Desert Storm, which seemed to go fabulous.

David: Also, because Iraq looked more like a modern state. And that was a mistake, that was not true. But it looked that way. They had tall buildings, they had a civil service, they had a road network, it looked like a much more plausible place to build a modern state than Afghanistan. Now, again, that turned out to be a mistake, but that's how it appeared. So I think what happened is, in order to criticize Iraq, Democrats needed a war to be for, in the post 9/11 context, and the more you criticized Iraq, the more you had to commit to Afghanistan to show, “I do have a military response to 9/11.” I think the mission of excluding al Qaeda from Afghanistan was a feasible one. The mission of building a functional state in Afghanistan, I don't think it was impossible, but it was going to cost more than any American government—any Western government—was ever going to commit…

Matt: Why not just keep doing what we were doing in Afghanistan? Like, I don't understand the—

David: Because we're losing right now. Because we're losing pretty slowly. Because right now, we're on a treadmill, where in order to keep the Taliban out of all the Afghan cities, we've lost the fight to keep control of the countryside. We are about to lose the fight, at the present level of investment. I don't believe in analogies, history doesn't repeat itself. But one of the lessons of Vietnam, there's a famous book written by Leslie Gelb called The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, and what happened in Vietnam was, at any moment and American president was confronted with “here's the price you need to pay not to lose this month." Now, here's the price, you pay to win.” And obviously, that's ridiculous, because it's way too expensive for what Vietnam is worth. But the price you pay to lose this month, that always seemed like a reasonable bargain. The problem is the price you paid not to lose this month kept going up and up and up and up, and pretty soon, you're paying more not to lose this month than you would ever pay to win at the start. And so we lost sense of what we are doing and why are we doing it, what's this worth? And the mission then develops this self sustaining logic, or we're doing it so as not to betray our commitment? Well, why did we undertake this commitment in the first place? We never really thought about it that hard. So I mean, you're right, it would be it's always a bad thing to lose. But I think we need to look for, if the mission is not to lose, we need to look for the least expensive way not to lose. 

Matt: Yeah, I guess my argument would be like, haven't we lost more Americans to COVID in the past week than we have in Afghanistan in like, 20 years? And if our presence in Afghanistan has actually prevented another 9/11, it seems like a pretty good trade off to me. 

David: Yeah. That's a reasonable way to think. But the human mind is not constituted that way. I'm sure you've seen the scene at the Las Vegas hotel, where someone who just lost $2,000 playing cards is arguing about a $20 disputed room service? Well, they took $2,000 of your money for nothing, why do you care that they overcharged you for the elements? But the mind doesn't work that way. And Americans don't make those kinds of trade offs—human beings don't make those concentrations. AndI think the second thing is, the next 9/11, can come from a lot of other places besides Afghanistan. And when we saw that, with the rise of ISIS, that ISIS was based in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. I think it's something else that was going on about this, which is, it wasn't just that al Qaeda and ISIS were different groups is that the rise of social media has transformed terrorism, as much as it's transformed everything else. Let's put it this way, so when in the 1990s, if you wanted to be an Islamic terrorist, al Qaeda was an institution. It had a physical presence, you had to if you wanted to be involved, get a get on an airplane and go first to Sudan, and then later to Yemen or Afghanistan, and and meet your al Qaeda trainer, and they would give you physical training, and then they would provide you with weapons and a mission. It was a guerrilla organization, but it was still a hierarchical organization with a chain of command and a physical presence. ISIS built a caliphate in the Middle East, it's true, but the ISIS terrorism that struck the West was much more networked. No one traveled to become—I mean, there are people who went to the caliphate to fight that war—but the kind of people who did terror missions, especially in Europe, they got their own weapons, and they got their training, or their impetus from a social media relationship. And then they found their own weapons and found their own targets and chose their own missions, and became a much looser and more decentralized thing. And that's true for all all kinds of terrorism. I mean, like white nationalist terrorism operates in the same way. So, I don't think it's true that by preventing the rise of terrorist safe havens, that you prevent terrorism in the age of social media in the way that you did in the 1990s.

Matt: Yeah, and it very well could be I mean, I'm willing to accept the possibility that I'm like fighting the last war, that I'm thinking about 9/11, and also about the rise of ISIS, which, I believe, was aided by our withdrawal from Iraq. 

David: That's true. 

Matt: But it could be that maybe China is the next big thing? But we have forces in Japan and South Korea and Germany and nobody's clamoring for them to come home. Why is Afghanistan different? 

David: Afghanistan is a more active deployment. It's more hazardous and uncomfortable deployment for the troops. It’s more expensive. Remember, in Germany and Korea, a lot of our costs are met by the Germans and the Koreans themselves. Of course, they're willing, eager hosts, and that's true of some of the people in Afghanistan, and it's true of the Afghan state, sort of, but it's not true of the society as a whole. And of course, it's too poor, the United States bears its own costs, and those costs are high. But I think your instinct is right. I think this is going to look different. I think that one of the things we're going to be seeing… is President Obama fought a very active war in Yemen. But he did it with very few troops on the ground. And remember, that was the original strategy in Afghanistan, to have a minimal physical presence, and to use resources of air and intelligence, and to work with local allies. I think, in Afghanistan, as in so many other places, that a big part of the answer is we have to develop a full spectrum working relationship with India. And which is made difficult because of some of the features of the Modi government that Americans reasonably don't like, but building that relationship is going to be so crucial to the piece of that era, and recognizing that—while you want to cooperate with Pakistan, as much as possible—that Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan are toward chaos, and and toward the Taliban, and the Taliban or the Pakistani state have been kind of quasi allies from the beginning. And that's been a real problem. 

Click here to listen to our full conversation.