A dear friend of mine – who wants to retain anonymity – wrote a great piece on Afghanistan last week;
Afghanistan is difficult to write about because it is immense, but the gravity of the situation requires comment. America withdraws having not only lost the war, but also its global hegemony and moral clarity. While America twenty years ago was a different country, Afghanistan today is very much the same. We set out to transform Afghanistan, but in fact we are the ones changed.
On the news one sees footage of the Taliban driving into border checkpoints and rural towns, encircling government bastions across the country, and smiling holding captured US weapons. They claim that Afghans are overjoyed at their arrival after 20 years of American occupation. For its part, the Western media publishes articles about the Afghans who lived “under the shield of the US military”, and how athletes, photographers, dancers, teachers, and other “modern” professionals are now in danger. An article in the Guardian celebrating Afghan women who staged an armed protest in defense of their rights exemplifies the tragedy of Western writers, thinkers, and politicians who promote their theories from the safety of their homes to people who face mortal danger for listening to them. It is an awful sin to give people dreams of that which can never be, but Afghanistan has long been a land where hopes are lost.
Guilty like most Americans of having lost interest in the war long ago, only now do I remember the initial invasion, when a just and invincible America retaliated against its attackers. It was an apt event for the turn of the millennium. America was strong, the world was stable, the enemy barbaric. Anything troubling about Afghanistan’s past, about the term “grave of empires”, was dismissed by an exceptional people who had ended history along with the Soviet Union. But our steely-eyed soldiers and multi-million dollar missiles were no match for Afghanistan’s hostile, timeless patience. The invasion went like a rock in water, making a big splash and then falling beneath the surface. With it sunk hundreds of thousands of lives and inestimable wealth in gold, technology, and effort.
It is on this last point that I want to reflect, because although the metaphorical rock becomes invisible to the thrower, it (and the war) remains very real. A war begun with the loftiest of goals – to end terrorism, build a democracy, reorganize Central Asia, and eventually restructure the world – ought to be impossible to forget. And yet somehow we did, as though under a spell, a whole nation “going shopping”, collectively forgetting. Abdicating responsibility while the tanks rolled out.
Are we so removed from the consequences of our actions that we have lost our ability to weigh them? Do we really think that ignoring our mistakes erases them? How is it possible for a healthy, moral America to fight 20 years of war, forget about it halfway through, and then leave like a thief in the night? These and other questions were not answered by President Biden’s 13 minute and 31 second statement on the US withdrawal. At the heart of this brief jumble of platitudes lay a paradox: We shouldn’t risk more American lives in a conflict we have no reasonable expectation of winning, he said, yet we are confident that the Afghan army can win. This argument is a lie or a delusion, and in either case demonstrates how detached our government has become.
Afghanistan’s future is scary. America is weaker, the Taliban are stronger, and new actors make the region more dangerous and chaotic. I will leave to the experts to describe the geopolitical implications – suffice it to say the threats are larger than ever. If America is to face them and survive as a legitimate global hegemon, it must reckon with its defeat. The generals, politicians, bureaucrats, technologists, businessmen, and development leaders who by their incompetence or corruption perpetuated 20 years of death and waste must be held responsible. Otherwise the link between cause and effect, the same principle we teach our children, will be flagrantly broken exactly where it is needed most – in the halls of power.
This may be nearly impossible given the state of our politics, but if our democracy is worthy of its name then it must be done. If not, we will have imported more of Afghanistan’s culture of corruption, tribalism and petty conflict than they will have adopted of ours. There is no way we can ignore such a colossal failure and remain clear-eyed about the future. We are still in time to avoid one final tragedy of the Afghan war – that we do not learn from it.