In 105 AD, the Roman Emperor Trajan, anxious to control gold mines north of the Danube, built a bridge – the Bridge of Apollodorus — just downstream from Belgrade. At 1200 yards long, it was the longest arch bridge built on the planet for at least the next 1000 years.
Unfortunately, just 165 years after it was constructed, the bridge was torn down by Aurelian, who feared it would become an easy path for barbarians to cross the river and invade the interior portion of the empire.
This intentional contraction of the Roman Empire – and the associated destruction of things they themselves had built — during the long, troubled third century were not mentioned during last weekend’s events in Kabul, but they should have been. They were precursors to the American experience in Afghanistan and throughout much of the last 75 years.
Let’s agree at the outset that most everyone was surprised by the speed of the Taliban, the lack of popular support for the Afghan government, and the weakness and dissembling of Team Biden.
That said, President Biden is an inheritor, a symptom, and an emblem of a systemic failure. The simple truth is that we lost Afghanistan because our military is broken and our political system is broken.
First, the military. In the absence of a draft, our professionalized military has done what professions do – seek to expand their power and influence and exclude laymen from making decisions. Without the draft, citizens have become both less aware and less concerned about what the military is doing; it’s something that other people do. For instance, about two-thirds of American combat deaths in Afghanistan were mercenaries. What does that tell you about the Nation’s involvement in the conflict?
As a consequence of this sort of thing, the number of people involved in decisions about killing foreigners shrinks down to those who have a vested interest.
Not surprisingly, those vested interests have a steady-state preference for conflict, much as surgeons prefer cutting.
A related pathology is the corruption of the officer corps. No active military person has ever been willing or able to articulate a vision of what victory looked like in Afghanistan. If they had reservations, they kept them private. Similar to our experience in Vietnam, reports from the front were consistently overly optimistic and, many times, misleading.
It is tempting to blame the intelligence community as well. Still, it is always difficult to tell whether intelligence sources missed something or whether their primary consumers – political officials – hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest.
Now the political. The last war that we won was also the last war we declared. That is not an accident. When one man can send an entire nation to war for reasons and with goals that are, at best, unclear, it is a recipe for disaster. Because a declaration of war in Afghanistan was never debated or approved by Congress, the nation was never fully committed. The authorizations for the use of military force were Congressional fig leaves; the closing of barn doors after horses were long gone.
Because Congress never did what it needed to do, we never had a clear goal in Afghanistan. Kill terrorists? Sure. Kill all the Taliban (rather than just some)? Well … Occupy the nation and convert it to Christianity? Nope.
Anything as nebulous as a war on terror (terror is a sentiment; it’s like having a war on fear or love) is bound to fail. Wars need to be about something specific (destroying Germany or Japan or the American South), and that needs to be agreed upon by the citizenry. That’s why declarations of war are essential to the enterprise.
There also needs to be clarity about how many people we are willing to kill to achieve our goals. In World War II, that answer was obvious: everyone on the other side (ask the folks in Dresden or Nagasaki). In every subsequent conflict, the answer has been unclear. Consequently, we wind up in “managed” conflicts that serve no material policy or moral purpose.
Did President Biden make a bad situation worse? Yes, he did. Are people going to die who might otherwise have lived because of his actions and inaction? Yes, they are. Is he solely responsible for the mess that is Afghanistan? No, that is a matter of collective responsibility.
The Romans staggered through the third and fourth centuries because they could not reconcile their imperial legacy with the political preferences of their citizens. They became reliant on mercenaries. The average Roman citizen was happy to let someone else decide foreign and military policy and fight the resulting wars.
Unless and until we fix our broken military and political systems, we will suffer more Afghanistans, more Vietnams, more Bridges of Apollodorus.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.