To understand how the Blob gave us Afghanistan — and why it wanted thousands of American troops to remain there indefinitely — we need to unpack the terms foreign policy and national security. They're euphemisms. What we're really talking about here is war and peace. It was much easier to argue for the moral value of aggressive militarism during the years after World War II, when US firepower underwrote sustainable democracies in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Interventionism remained a guiding light during the Cold War, and it somehow survived the US defeat in Vietnam. But today, for someone of my generation, it sounds crazy, even as it continues to walk the earth, a zombie worldview that is endlessly promoted by the legacy media and establishment stalwarts.
As long as the war in Afghanistan continued, the national security elite could go on pretending that foreign policy was still their private domain.Article I of the US Constitution states, "Congress shall have power … to declare War." That sounds like a political process. The Blob's raison d'être is to control the conversation around war by putting it on a plane above politics, in the domain of experts who supposedly know something about the world that voters and elected officials do not. Some politicians, especially august senators like John Kerry and John McCain, have traditionally played a role in these high-level conversations. But the most important parts happen between the military, the White House's national security apparatus, and the array of private interests whose livelihoods depend on the conversation's outcome.
After 9/11, the Blob united behind the invasion of Iraq, working to manufacture false justifications and secure endorsements from The New Yorker and The New York Times. When the invasion went south, and the promised weapons of mass destruction failed to appear, the Blob threw a few scapegoats overboard (Judith Miller, George Tenet) and disavowed the worst excesses (Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib). Then, with freshly soaped hands, the Blob turned its attention to preserving the "good war" in Afghanistan.
Trump was a problem. He was the first president since Jimmy Carter who didn't care about the Blob. He wanted to leave Afghanistan, but he couldn't find a secretary of defense or a national security advisor who would help him to do it. So he wound up settling for a deal with the Taliban that passed the question of withdrawal on to his successor. The Blob, meanwhile, claimed that Trump was an illegitimate exception and that the normal transatlantic warmongering under a Blob-aligned president would resume as soon as he was out of office. As long as the war in Afghanistan continued, even in an extremely limited form, the national security elite could go on pretending that foreign policy wasn't beholden to politics, that it was still their private domain.
The Blob's seductive power was clearest to me on the evening of June 20, 2019. I was at a reception at a prominent think tank a couple of blocks away from the White House, as Trump was considering how to respond to Iran shooting down a US drone. One of my fellow Blobsters passed on a well-sourced tidbit. Trump had ordered a series of missile strikes as reprisal, which meant that war with Iran — a long-standing dream of the Blob — might finally be underway.
Trump wound up calling off the strikes at the last minute. But the fact that the attacks never took place didn't matter. As we stood around munching on roast-beef crostinis, it was the real deal, and what should have been a moment of fear or solemnity was instead charged with excitement. We knew, a couple of hours in advance, what was going to happen. It was easy to confuse that feeling with participation, or even control.
The Blob was optimistic that Biden, like Trump, could be deterred from following through on his campaign promise to exit Afghanistan. Like Trump, Biden could not find a secretary of defense who shared his vision. He chose Lloyd Austin, a retired general who had made as much as $1.7 million from serving on the board of Raytheon, one of the biggest contractors in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Austin wanted Biden to extend the deadline for withdrawal past September 11. In April, according to the Times, Biden had to personally tell Austin that he expected the military to carry out his decision.
But the Blob wasn't done with Biden. Towards the end of Trump's presidency, Congress had established the Afghanistan Study Group, a private body of retired generals, senators, and business executives. The quasi-official nature and neutrality of such groups make them indispensable in public-relations campaigns. And yet the Study Group was anything but independent. Its 15 members held seats on the boards of major contractors and think tanks, including Caterpillar, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, the Atlantic Council, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In an 88-page report published two months into Biden's presidency, they recommended that the US postpone its departure without giving a concrete timeline for withdrawal. The report was rolled out in a congressional hearing and in a Washington Post op-ed article coauthored by a Study Group member, Meghan O'Sullivan, who also sits on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's wrong to pull US troops out of Afghanistan," the headline declared. The Post neglected to mention that O'Sullivan held a seat on the board of Raytheon. It also neglected to mention that it had accepted money from Raytheon for a customized ad campaign, as well as a series of "Post Live" discussions with national security luminaries.
Despite its concerted effort to keep Biden in Afghanistan, the Blob lost. It had issued a public veto, and the president had gone ahead and overridden it. Control of the White House national security apparatus is the Blob's core product. This was like Apple losing the rights to the iPhone.
Even in defeat, though, the Blob has refused to surrender. Richard Haass, who receives $1.7 million in annual compensation as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, remains a leading critic of the Afghanistan withdrawal. "The foreign policy establishment has gotten a lot right," he told the Times. "History suggests there's just as much risk in under-reaching as overreaching." The war in Afghanistan, as his oddly revisionist take made clear, was no longer about Afghanistan. It was about maintaining the reputations and interests of the people who wanted us there.
In retrospect, it's astonishing that the Blob was able to keep the war in Afghanistan going for so long. A decade ago, Obama vowed that the final withdrawal would begin in July 2011. The following year, during a vice-presidential debate, Biden declared, "We are leaving in 2014, period." Two years later, Obama promised to "turn the page" and exit by the end of his second term in 2016. The Pentagon claimed it was using the repeated extensions to build up the Afghan military, investing billions in something that was exposed, in the moment of withdrawal, to be nothing but a fantasy. The Blob wasn't learning what it needed to learn about Afghanistan, but it was perfecting its mastery of the US political process. What may have started as an earnest bid for victory evolved into a domestic opinion-managing campaign to perpetuate an expensive war that voters did not want, without much to show in the way of progress or results. We're seeing the tail end of that campaign now, as the Blob insists that Biden should have kept a small force in place, in perpetuity. If victory was not an option, at least no one had to know that we had already been defeated.
The Blob's pro-war tilt was evident in the Iraq simulation I took part in. The prepared materials we were given laid out five options: maintain the status quo, deploy one of three "force packages" — sized small, medium, or large, like french fries — or withdraw. I instinctively pushed for withdrawal. It was, after all, one of the official "options for POTUS," and I remained unclear about the purpose of our being in Iraq in the first place.
But when it came time for us to debate the options, the Army colonel who was guiding our deliberations quickly relegated my view to the margins. I don't recall precisely what he said, but the gist was that this was a crisis. Conditions on the ground were rapidly deteriorating and would continue to do so until we did something or ISIS came crashing through our front door.
We wound up recommending the small-force package. Today, that colonel is a two-star general.