Recent events in Afghanistan call to mind several thoughts. First and foremost is the blood and treasure spent over the past 20 years, in a war where we tried to graft our version of democratic capitalism into what amounted to a medieval Islamic state. Ousting Al-Qaida after 9-11 was a worthy and successful mission, ending in the death of Osama Bin Laden. The subsequent nation building effort, however, was a Vietnam-type sinkhole.
In spite of the changing strategies and assurances from a long line of generals, the enigma of how a rabble of Taliban soldiers could neutralize the U.S. military which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year at being the best in the world remains an unsolved puzzle.
Staying in Afghanistan was a lost cause years ago. President Trump’s and then Biden’s instincts to get out were the right instincts. It is time to repatriate those billions spent in this medieval land and spend some of that money on the anatomy and physiology of the United States of America.
Many questions linger. As the U.S. troops withdrew, why did the Afghan soldiers throw down their weapons and run? Why did some of their pilots climb into their jets and scramble to safer states? Why was the Afghan president one of the first to skedaddle?
I believe the answers to these questions are fairly simple. First, the Afghan state government was essentially hollow and universally corrupt. Second, over the years, the government and its people had become so conditioned to being maintained, sustained and defended by the United States and other NATO nations that they were like children who had become so dependent on and cared for by their parents that they saw no reason to become independent and leave the nest. And a paternal American government was co-dependent, fearful of letting its fledglings leave the nest to make their own way.
The aftermath of all this for many Afghanis is nothing short of tragic, especially for women and the professional and intellectual classes of people who had in many cities come to enjoy greater freedoms. But there comes a time when a people, their culture and society have to adapt, and take responsibility and self-directed action for the changes they aspire to.
In the greater scheme of things, can U.S. policy leaders really believe in the premise that America must, for national security reasons, “fix” countries like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia? It would be easy to name more nations that fall into this same bucket of needs and problems. Our policy makers have failed in the past to make the right strategic calculations and then failed to take into account the degree to which the American people are prepared to pay for these interventions with their taxes.
With all the military tools, weapons, planes, ammunition and training the U.S. gave to Afghanistan over 20 years, why couldn’t the Afghan military keep the Taliban in abeyance, at least at the boundaries of the largest cities? The only plausible explanation I’ve heard, given the billions in logistical support the U.S. provided to the Afghani government, is that their military lacked the will to fight, or at least were unable to outwill the Taliban in the fight for control of their country.
There’s already been a torrent of finger pointing over who’s to blame for our failure to “win” the war in Afghanistan. Was it one of the four presidents who presided over the war in Afghanistan? Was it Congress that essentially ceded decision making on the war to the executive branch and the Pentagon? Was it the generals? Was it repetitive failures within our various intelligence communities? Was it the colossal failure of the Afghani people and their inept and corrupt leaders? Was it the American people who by default gave permission to their leaders to ignore the compounding failures and losses of America’s blood and treasure? Was it a collective failure to remember a principal rule of governance that those who fail to remember the past (e.g. Vietnam) are condemned to repeat it?
No question that we need to take care of business by cleaning up the departure chaos, and that includes getting all American citizens and loyal Afghani allies safely out of the country as soon as possible. But let us not forget, it takes time to vet out pretenders who may seek transit into the United States for nefarious terrorist purposes. This needs to be a careful process, not a stampede.
When we grieve for what may happen to the women, the intellectuals, and the Afghani military who surrendered to the Taliban, as we should, let us first grieve for the American soldiers who trusted their leaders that the post-Al-Qaida Afghanistan War was truly in the national security interests of their country, worth making the ultimate sacrifice for. Here I’m talking about more than 2,000 American soldiers who died in this war and over 20,000 who were seriously wounded. These soldiers did what they were trained to do. Where the U.S. leaders may have failed in their intentions to resolve Afghanistan, these soldiers did their job and did not fail.
In my view, it’s long-passed time to get out of Afghanistan and tend to our own national well-being.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.