As often happens when I take too long to get a post published, things have shifted, and so must I. What was intended to be this topical post is now being reworked into my upcoming #1000Speak post, that in-progress post has been shifted to next month, and this post is now on the far more immediate topic of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The best laid plans, and all that (oh – and my travel plans changed also – more on that later in the week).
The situation in Afghanistan is quite fluid right now, and so I’m not attempting much more than an overview of where we are, and how we got there. Things on the ground can and will change, and Joe Biden has been giving frequent updates. I’m going to share some opinions up front since this is a long piece with many thoughts – Could/should Joe Biden have handled the withdrawal better? Yes, and for better or worse (mostly worse), he has taken responsibility for his choices. Would Donald Trump have handled it better? No, and more on why I’m sure of that later. A crisis 20 years in the making, by four US presidents should make it clear that our exit was never going to be good – but it was necessary. Were there times over the years that may have been better? Perhaps, but likely not.
It may or may not be useful to start with a very brief overview of Afghanistan’s history. Despite its relatively isolated, landlocked location, Afghanistan has been a part of critical Eurasian trade routes for most of its history. Like many of its neighbors, it has had centralized governments, but due to economics, religion, topography, and other factors has remained largely tribal. To skip over a few centuries, and most of the 20th, the modern era of Afghanistan as a center of Islamic terrorism largely began with a coup in 1978 by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan – which displaced the semi-democratic government that head displaced a monarchy five years earlier. The communist party takeover led to a civil war, with the US and Pakistan investing heavily in the rebellion, while the Soviet Union felt compelled to actively invade the country in 1979 after internal issues in the ruling party led to further deterioration within the country. Over the next nine years, war raged in Afghanistan, leading, literally, to million of deaths. The Soviets completed their withdrawal from the country in 1989, and the communist government fell in 1992. Following the Soviet withdrawal the country experienced more internal conflict, and by the mid-1990’s the Taliban had been formed, assumed control, and declared themselves an Islamic state (and were recognized by neighboring nation Pakistan, as well as by Saudi Arabia and the UAE). They were not good leaders, in any sense of the word.
The US, and her geopolitical views, were dramatically changed by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, funded by Osama Bin Laden. At the time, he was in the mountains of Afghanistan, as a guest of the Taliban. Tribal custom made that “guest” status inviolable, which is likely why he was there in the first place. As a result, Afghanistan declined to turn Bin Laden over to the US. That October, the United States launched an invasion into Afghanistan, with assistance from the United Kingdom, and by December 2001, the Taliban had been removed from power. It may be worth noting that the removal of the Taliban was reasonably popular (they really were not good leaders). And the process of nation building began – as did the process of other Islamic nations funding the Taliban. Could/should we have left rather than continuing, with the UK, to stabilize governments of varying degrees of popularity, while also training and equipping the Afghan military to stand on its own? Probably, but the outcome would likely have been the same as it is now. We stayed because the time never seemed right to leave – conditions never stabilized enough. But would it be better next year? In 10 years? Another 20? The sad truth is – no. And, unlike the far different situation in Iraq, the argument that we broke it so we should fix it is not accurate – it was already broken, and under Taliban control, when we got there. We spent twenty years failing to fix a nation that seems unable to fix itself.
Who is to blame? No one. Everyone. All four US presidents – Bush, who learned nothing from history, and never should have overthrown the government; Obama who did little to change the situation despite assurances to the contrary; Trump who thought a deal with the Taliban was possible – and arranged the release of 5000 Taliban fighters as a show of good faith before discovering that the Taliban had no intention of negotiating past the 2021 withdrawal date we’d committed to; Joe Biden who began a troop withdrawal without fully ensuing the security of our Afghani allies on the ground. Not one administration seriously pursued the arrangement of expedited visas for those allies and their families – people at incredible risk with the Taliban back in control. In fact, the Trump administration seemed to seriously oppose bringing any Afghani refugees to the US, at all – as do many of his far right supporters now. And for anyone that seriously thinks, despite his role in where we are now, that his approach to withdrawal would have been better or smoother than what is happing now, let me just say “Syria”.
We are exiting a country we should not have been in from the start. We, and the United Kingdom, over twenty years, spent billions of dollars, devoted time, energy, and our soldiers lives and health to train, and support, an army that, when left on their own, showed little inclination to fight what they saw as inevitable. Perhaps that should be our biggest lesson.
I’m horrified by what the Taliban did to Afghanistan the first time, and I’m deeply pessimistic about the near future, as they purge enemies, and push society back to the awful conditions that existed in the 1990’s. But I also know that we, as a nation, cannot fix everything and everyone. It is a moral catastrophe, but it is one that needs to be addressed through means other than occupation by a foreign force. I’m heartbroken for the people of Afghanistan, and I strongly urge our government to pick up the pace on allowing refugees into the US – even in a pandemic, this a a humanitarian crisis for which we bear a good deal of responsibility. I hope, also, that the people of Afghanistan eventually see their own way to building themselves a better country. I wish there was better solution.
Sunset, June 7, 2019, Rock Tavern NY.
Explainer/disclaimer: I’m an equal opportunity offender, and a member of no political party (no primaries for me to vote in, alas). I grew up in an environment (and time), at home and at school, where reasoned debate and logic were respected, and expected. Objective facts still held meaning. Even in my Catholic elementary schools, logic won points over emotion, and sometimes, even faith, in debates (at a time before Roe v Wade, I took a pro legalized abortion stance in an 8th-grade debate – and won). Not that I would ever claim to be free of emotional appeals (that’s sometimes the only way to decide between equally valid views, and sometimes things just are – or should be – viewed compassionately rather than coldly). At times over the years, my moderate, socially-liberal-yet still-in-touch-with-my-conservative-upbringing, opinions and ideals have annoyed, and actually angered, friends and family on both sides of the spectrum – particularly those on the extremes. I don’t enjoy the hostile reactions – or family tensions, so I often looked for ways to state my case without causing those that disagreed too much offense. A tactic that failed an unsurprising amount of the time because we all tend toward defensiveness when our belief systems are challenged. I enjoy the dialogue, though, so I put my thoughts out there, regardless, with mixed results. After (still) dealing with cancer and its long-term repercussions, as a senior – a time when our perspectives and priorities often change, I find that I am no longer inclined to always be quite so constrained.