Failure In Afghanistan, Over 40 Years in the Making
The wrenching scenes at the Kabul airport and the justified fears of what will happen to Afghans under a new round of Taliban rule have formed the backdrop of a heated national conversation about what the United States should or should not have done in Afghanistan. Much of the criticism has landed at the doorstep of the Biden administration for a poorly planned withdrawal that has left U.S. citizens and Afghan allies at risk. Some aspects of the immediate crisis might have been averted if evacuations of U.S. personnel and Afghans who worked with the U.S. had started sooner. And the administration clearly underestimated the speed at which the Afghan security forces would collapse in the face of the recent Taliban offensive. But even if the U.S. exit had been better planned, the Taliban takeover would have occurred sooner or later, with harsh consequences for the people of Afghanistan. The short-term priority must be to evacuate U.S. personnel as quickly as possible, and to provide safe havens – including visas and financial support – for Afghans fleeing the Taliban.
But as for the question of what should have been done differently, keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely was not a viable answer, as President Biden noted in his speech earlier this week:
“After 20 years — a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded, and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health — I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”
Given this reality, we should resist the arguments of those who have long advocated for our failed military mission in Afghanistan that if only we had “stayed the course” militarily things could have turned out dramatically differently. As the Washington Post made abundantly clear with the release of the “Afghanistan Papers” – which are elaborated upon in a new book by Post reporter Craig Whitlock – U.S. officials have long known that U.S.-backed military and police personnel in Afghanistan were not a viable fighting force, crippled by corruption and lack of basic support from the top levels of the Afghan government. Even as the final Taliban offensive moved forward, there were Afghan troops forced to leave their posts due to lack of basic items like food and ammunition. The will to support a corrupt government in Kabul of questionable legitimacy just was not there. The repeated public claims by U.S. military and civilian leaders that the Afghan forces were improving and were combat capable belied their private pessimism – in short, they were lies designed to sustain U.S. public support for
As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, it’s long past time for a radical reassessment of America’s overly militarized, relentlessly interventionist foreign policy. According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, America’s post-9/11 wars have incurred obligations of over $6.4 trillion; costs hundreds of thousands of lives on all sides; and left hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel dead, or with severe physical wounds, or with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. In Iraq, the result was a corrupt, repressive, sectarian regime that opened the door to the conquest of large parts of the country by ISIS, as Iraqi troops evaporated in the face of their 2014 onslaught – for many of the same reasons involving corruption, lack of supplies, and plummeting morale that characterized Afghan troops in the face of the Taliban’s final offensive. In Afghanistan, the result was 20 years of devastating conflict followed by the rise to power of the Taliban. Both cases should be object lessons in the limits – and dangerous consequences – of relying on military force as the primary tool of U.S. global engagement.
Any reasonable assessment of U.S. military efforts of the past two decades and beyond must also grapple with the fact that U.S. interventions often make matters worse by paving the way for the development of new, more determined, and more deadly adversaries. This was the case in the Carter and Reagan administration’s decisions to arm and train anti-Soviet mujahadeen to fight back against Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan. A significant portion of the fighters trained and armed by the U.S. – including foreign fighters like Osama Bin-Laden – went on to form the core of Al Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS grew up out of the extremist Iraqi opposition to U.S. intervention there, and its leaders plotted the creation of their new organization in U.S.-run Iraqi prisons. This phenomenon has been referred to as “the boomerang effect” – arms sales, training, and military intervention coming back to haunt (and lead to attacks on) the nation engaging in them.
The critiques of how the Biden administration handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that getting out was the right thing to do. The failure of our multi-trillion-dollar military misadventure in Afghanistan should prompt a thorough rethinking and revision of a foreign policy that has for far too long prioritized arms and military dominance over diplomacy and global cooperation.