The gut-wrenching images coming out of Afghanistan over the past several days have suddenly thrust American’s longest (and oft-forgotten) war back into the international spotlight. What has happened over there during the past two decades of war is extremely complicated, and I won’t pretend to be an expert of Afghanistan, its culture, its geography, its people, or even U.S. foreign policy more broadly. But I’ve followed it closely enough to come up with the following observations about the ongoing withdrawal of troops:
1. We always knew that completely withdrawing from the country was going to usher in a grim return to the Afghanistan of years past in which the Taliban trampled on human rights with impunity. Years of social progress will be wiped out almost overnight, and that’s something that even the biggest advocates of withdrawal can and should acknowledge. It is going to get extremely ugly there in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
2. That said, the speed with which the Afghan military — which we spent two decades and billions of dollars to train — fell to the Taliban makes me wonder what would have been accomplished by remaining there for another 10, 20, or 30 years. (And yes, it would appear Biden and his team severely underestimated the Taliban’s strength, but that frankly buttresses the point that our staying there longer would not have improved our chances of creating concrete, long-lasting change.)
3. While most of the criticism being leveled at the Biden administration feels way overcooked — criticism that is notably mostly coming from Beltway types, not regular Americans (so far as I can tell) — it does seem like the withdrawal was hasty and that we left a lot of our allies in that country in a precarious position. This was almost surely preventable, and if stories begin emerging about the Afghans who helped us being trapped in the country, captured by the Taliban, and then tortured and/or executed, that is something Biden and his team will have to own.
4. All this is a good reminder that when presidents commit troops to military operations overseas, they need a clear directive and exit strategy. Mission creep is otherwise inevitable, and future presidents may find that the path of least resistance is to continue passing the buck while racking up significant debt and a high body count. The original mission was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden for his role in the 9/11 attacks — that happened a full decade ago (and in Pakistan, no less). Mission creep is what kept us there, nation-building in a country that sadly required more infrastructure and security than we or anyone else could have ever afforded to give them.
5. This is also a reality check for those who abide by the sunken-cost fallacy, which leads people to double and triple down on doomed efforts because they’ve “come too far to turn back now.” This is what led our nation’s leaders to keep us in the Vietnam War long after they knew it was unwinnable, sacrificing thousands more of our young men on the battlefield in the meantime and permanently creating a mass distrust of our government (and we now know our government did the same thing in Afghanistan). For those who thought Afghanistan would somehow be different, ask yourselves whether we should have continued fighting in Vietnam for years on end and what that would have accomplished.
6. It’s also a reality check about what is often the futility of war, especially as a means of nation-building. What did we accomplish in Afghanistan after 20 years that will outlast our presence there? I can’t think of much. But in the meantime, our presence did lead to at least 121,000 lives lost (that’s U.S. military personnel, U.S. contractors, Afghan military and civilians, other allied service members, etc.), $2 trillion of our national wealth sunk (not to mention the estimated interest costs by 2050 of $6.5 trillion), and an untold number of Afghans to rebel against foreign intruders and take up arms against us.
7. Be sad for the Afghans who have been left behind to deal with the brutal years ahead that the Taliban will surely produce for many of them. But also remember that Afghanistan is by no means the only country where travesties such as these are taking place. There has been literal ethnic cleansing in China and Myanmar. Yemen has been in a civil war since 2014. There are atrocities happening around the world, and while America can and should do its best to prevent the mass killing of innocents, we simply can’t be the world’s policeman.
8. There were no good answers in Afghanistan, but Biden did the right thing. It’s notable and disappointing that most members of his party don’t even have the courage to stand by him but have taken the easy way out by releasing statements to appease the DC foreign policy establishment. (It’s also distressing how so many in the news media have abandoned all pretense of objectivity in reporting on this story to demonstrate their opposition to Biden’s moves.) But leaders lead, and that sometimes means not following the crowd. It seems like it was always going to take a guy who has been around the block multiple times to stare down those advocating for a permanent presence in Afghanistan and actually bring an end to our forever war.