In the summer of 2002, Karl Rove arranged a meeting with journalist Ron Suskind to tell him that reality was a thing of the past. Rove was the most senior and best-known advisor to President George W. Bush, the mastermind behind his election almost two years earlier. The meeting with Suskind happened as the Iraq War was looming. Public debate about invading Iraq revolved around forensic evidence and intelligence reports, taken more or less seriously by the members of what Rove called the “reality-based community”—people emotionally attached to reality the way their ancestors were attached to God.
Suskind did not disagree. He liked to believe that solutions emerge from the “study of discernible reality,” but when he started to mumble something about the values of the Enlightenment and the ideal of empiricism, Rove cut him off. “Not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality . . . we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort themselves out.”
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the point of the enterprise was to act decisively against an old foe and bring him down. What might happen afterward was not really considered. The connections linking the invasion to the surrounding context, the parallel plot lines, the vast network of unpredictable consequences that the wars would inevitably bring about or the new possibilities that they would open up—all these elements were mostly ignored. If the invasions and wars were a story, they were an adventure tale, composed of the simplest elements: the hero sets out to defeat a cruel enemy and returns home, covered in glory.
In the movies, everything is much simpler. Look at the credits: people are clearly identified as Nazis, and assigned actors play the roles. The real world is more ambiguous. What the American forces started to discover once they were on the ground in Afghanistan in December 2001 was that the Taliban were less a band of criminals or fanatics than a sociological reality. One could be a Taliban this week and something else the next. At the same time, they were deeply implanted in Pashtun society, and any attempt to extract the body of the Taliban from the body of the Pashtuns was by definition impossible.
Craig Whitlock’s recently published Afghanistan Papers include evocative passages describing the moments when Pashtun elders tried to explain the laws of sociology to the foreign generals they entertained for tea. “There are three kinds of Taliban,” they began. The Americans listened in wonder, as if being introduced to a new way of looking at the world.
Once these new thoughts were processed, the conviction in something like a final victory started to dissipate. How could the Taliban be defeated? They could certainly be overcome, but that would require a radical transformation of Afghan society, and the Americans weren’t really interested in that. The Soviets had tried to do it and failed, but for America it was never a serious project.
It soon became time to leave, but there was one last problem to overcome. How was the United States to make sense of the whole adventure? The literary theorist Frank Kermode wrote an influential book on what he called the “sense of an ending”: to make sense of our lives, we need to find an inner logic connecting the beginning, the middle, and the end. The American adventure in Afghanistan, it turned out, wasn’t about eliminating a terrorist threat. More poetically, but also more nebulously, it had been conceived as a moment of redemption. As Kissinger put it, “The radical Islamists want to humiliate us. And we need to humiliate them.” According to Bob Woodward, Rumsfeld told his closest colleagues in the Bush administration: “We have to have something to hit.” Cofer Black, director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, told Rumsfeld on September 13, 2001: “Sending only Tomahawks would be like sending a letter saying, We surrender. We must have troops on the ground. Otherwise they’ll think we’re weak.” Rumsfeld concurred: “We don’t want to run the risk of being laughable.” In other words, the burning towers collapsing on the television screen had to be subsumed under a larger story of exalted American power.
In adventure stories, the hero saves the day and leaves behind a better world, having eliminated the threat to peace and happiness. The Afghanistan adventure still lacked this sense of an ending; the second stage of the war was spent in an increasingly desperate search for it.
Whitlock gives us a good account of the almost comedic efforts to create an Afghan army that could stand on its own feet. A geography instructor from West Point recounts tutoring a class of young Afghan officers in Kabul. As he explained the significance of high tide and low tide during the invasion at Normandy, his interpreter, a trained medical doctor whom the instructor described as “a very smart man,” “interrupted and said, ‘Tides? What are tides?’”
By the time Barack Obama assumed the presidency, the United States was no longer calling Afghanistan a “war in the conventional sense.” At military headquarters in Kabul, at the Pentagon, and at the White House, statistics were skewed to make it appear that the United States was winning the war when this was not the case. In December 2014, Obama declared the end of the conflict, saying, “Our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” The president not only created but perpetuated the fiction that American troops were only bystanders. There was no reference to any enemy, much less to an instrument of surrender—but the war was over. To the troops on the ground, Whitlock says, Afghanistan remained a combat zone. To maintain the fantasy for Americans at home, the Pentagon continued to deliver upbeat reports from the front.
The fantasy grew; the metaverse advanced. The United States had performed a feat of great valor by punishing its enemies and overthrowing a supremely cruel government. Now the war had ended. Enormous efforts were put into creating a great illusion, in which Afghan soldiers were paid to pretend they were the army of a sovereign state fighting an insurgency, one that had nothing to do with the American bystanders.
Some, of course, could see through the fiction. One of my favorite documents from the war is an exchange between General John Campbell and Senator Lindsey Graham during a 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Graham asks Campbell if his forces can shoot at senior Taliban leadership. Campbell admits that they cannot unless they are being shot at. The United States is no longer at war with the Taliban, a decision made by the civilian leadership. Graham shifts to the question of whether the Taliban are at war with the United States, something Campbell has no trouble agreeing with. The senator can barely contain his derision.
Fiction all the way down. The more the U.S. strove to create its own fictional world, the less this world could stand on its own. If you dispose characters and events according to your own wishes, the more dependent they become on your will and command. The American forces wanted the best Afghan army money could buy and the most advanced and able government that academic Ashraf Ghani could devise. They ended up with a ghost, destined to disappear as soon as the lights were turned off—as they literally were when the U.S. military abandoned Bagram airfield in the middle of the night by shutting off the electricity, without so much as informing the Afghan commanders.
We create our own reality, Rove said. What he failed to add was that this manufactured reality could not exist without its creator. It’s easy to create beautiful fictions, but to create something more solid involves accepting the limits of our powers and the contingency of the world. In Afghanistan, the dream of total power ended in collapse. The U.S. did not withdraw from Afghanistan so much as it crashed out of Afghanistan.
We were left with that extraordinary telephone exchange between presidents Biden and Ghani on July 23, something to match or surpass the exchange with which I began. Biden starts: “As you know and I need not tell you, the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things aren’t going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban.” This was correct, as everyone in Kabul could readily testify. That it directly contradicts later statements coming from the administration to the effect that no one could have predicted the defeat against the Taliban and the fall of the Afghan government is intriguing. What explains Biden’s inability to act in July and August according to the facts he so accurately portrayed to his interlocutor? It seems that he did not regard them as facts but as a perception that could be more or less magically replaced with a different perception. As he put it: “And there’s a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.” We make our own reality, whether it is true or not.
Ghani, who henceforth had always been ready to play his part in the great illusion, is suddenly less sure of himself. He still has faith in the world’s great superpower, but doubts are creeping in. Could it be that the Americans really do believe the world is no more than a picture? But now the Taliban are descending on the presidential palace and a picture is not enough. In desperate tones, he pleads: “Mr. President, we are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support, and at least 10–15,000 international terrorists, predominantly Pakistanis thrown into this, so that dimension needs to be taken account of.”
It’s worth noting, as a final point, that in this phone call Biden is striving to export the core values of the American regime to Afghanistan. But these values are for him no longer Lincoln’s rule of the people and for the people, but the rule of the picture, of the perception. If only Afghans could dispense with the brute logic of reality and live by fiction alone, everything would have worked out. The world has to be made safe not for democracy, but for the growing virtual space we call the metaverse.
Photo by Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images