America’s longest war is over. We lost.

By Tasawwar Rahman (‘22)

Outside the US embassy in Kabul. Photo courtesy of Paula Bronstein and Getty Images.

Twenty years, two trillion dollars, and 200,000 lives later, in a matter of months Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. Despite tens of billions of dollars in financial support to the Afghan security services, Afghanistan was largely taken without bloodshed. The road ahead lies dim.

The Abandoned

A chinook helps evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Kabul (Aug. 15, 2021). Photo courtesy of AP Photo and Rahmat Gul.

The feeling in Kabul is distinct– anger and abandonment. For any close observer of the region, it was clear from the get go that Afghanistan was not ready to stand on its own. Though corruption and mismanagement had long taken its toll on the Afghan forces, on paper numbering 300,000, it was still a formidable force. The recent and precipitous collapse did not stem from a lack of arms, indeed the Afghans (and now the Taliban) were well equipped by their American patrons, but rather a lack of morale. Months of withheld pay, a lack of reinforcements, a constantly shifting strategy, and a sense of inevitability lead the Afghan troops to decide that this is not a government worth dying for. 

As Richard Fontaine of the Center for New American Security bluntly put it, “Everything depends on the will to fight for the government. And that, it turns out, depended on U.S. presence and support. We’re exhorting the Afghans to show political will when their’s depends on ours. And ours is gone.” The American withdrawal, dire intelligence reports leaked to the press, and the subsequent embassy evacuation made clear the US knew where the winds would blow. Whether Kabul fell in a day or a week is a moot point to Afghan soldiers. The end result is the same, whether or not you die fighting.

But that’s not to say the fall of Afghanistan was a foregone conclusion. Both the current and the former administrations played a decisive role in the collapse. Firstly, the Trump ‘peace deal’ set an arbitrary withdrawal deadline without preconditions (a deadline that also happened to fall in the peak fighting season). While this temporarily safe guarded American troops, it created a facade of stability when really the Taliban was biding its time. It was a bad bargain by any sense of the word. It essentially bartered Afghanistan away for safe passage and left the government’s fate up to negotiations after taking away all its cards (the foreign troop presence). The Trump deal gave the Taliban international legitimacy and weakened the central government who was barely consulted in the negotiations. As one officer put it, “[we] saw that document as the end. The day the deal was signed, we saw the change. Everyone was just looking out for himself. It was like [the United States] left us to fail.”

President Biden saw Afghanistan as a zero sum game– He believed he could either honor the US’ commitments under the peace deal or order a surge to protect our troops from a spiteful Taliban. But this argument is not entirely convincing as American troops offered only air, advisory, and most importantly moral support. While yes, America’s forever war would continue in a limited capacity, 2,300 Americans would not have died for nothing.

Afghanistan’s defeat to the Taliban will certainly tarnish our reputation at home and abroad. Allies will take note of how we readily abandoned Afghanistan as soon as it no longer fit neatly within our broader geopolitical aspiration. My hope is that we are at least able to provide safe passage to the 17,000 Afghans who helped us during the war.

The Ungovernable

Taliban insurgents in the Afghan presidential palace after President Ghani fled the country (August 15, 2021). Image courtesy of Zabi Karimi and the Associated Press.

“My dear boy, as long as you do not invade Afghanistan you will be absolutely fine.” That is the advice British PM Harold Macmillan is reported to have given to his successor. Bush didn’t get the memo.

Despite fighting in Afghanistan for much longer than the British and twice as long as the Soviets, the US efforts have ended with the same conclusion. A confluence of feudalism, geography, and underdevelopment have made it painfully obvious: Afghanistan is ungovernable. Perhaps invadable, but ungovernable.

When the US first invaded Afghanistan, our intentions were clear– defeat Al Qaeda and bring Osama bin Laden to justice. OEF forces were able to take control of the country and severely weaken Al Qaeda in a matter of months, after which bin Laden fled to Pakistan. Twenty years later and it is still unclear why we stayed after these objectives had been achieved. Or why we thought we could maintain stability in Afghanistan and simultaneously launch Bush’s oil war.

While there is no doubt that Afghanistan has made significant gains under the leadership of the Afghan government (life expectancy, literacy, HDI, GDP per capita, etc are all up), the US nation building effort was largely a failure. Despite having spent more on rebuilding Afghanistan than on Western Europe after WWII, the US effort failed to establish strong democratic institutions and a security service that could independently defend itself. Afghanistan is not Western Europe.

After ousting the Taliban, the feeling in the West was that Afghanistan needed a strong leader, so we established an American-style presidency and a strong central government in a nation which has never had consolidated control (a consequence of its mountainous geography). We forced democracy and all of its necessary bureaucracy on a nation lacking a robust civil society and where power flowed through the patronage system. We developed cities ignoring that it is the rural communities who have the guns. We destroyed opium where there is nothing else to export. We prioritized education in a country that has no jobs for its graduates. And worst of all, we made them dependent and expected them to stand alone.

When we first launched our ambitious effort in 2001, a great majority of Afghans were illiterate, lived in rural areas, and had little knowledge of the outside world. It didn’t really matter whether it was the Taliban or the Americans who ruled in Kabul, because for the most part they were left alone either way. Our great hubris is that we thought we could transform Afghanistan in only 20 years when our political will was limited and our patience scarce. But for the Taliban and others who have nowhere else to go, they could fight forever. Transforming Afghanistan is impossible until there is peace and they (the Taliban, the rural communities, etc) want it.

In a press release addressing the crisis, President Biden states “One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference.” An apt observation, but much too late. We went all in on Afghanistan, and in the end we folded. 

The Oppressed

The return to Taliban rule all but surely means a return to brutality and oppression. Already, there are reports of revenge killings, forced marriages, among other atrocities. In the past, the Taliban restricted women’s education, freedom of movement, and access to healthcare; banned media and music; and implemented inhumane penalties such as public executions and amputations. The UN warns that women and children are particularly vulnerable and account for 80% of the 250k Afghans forced to flee since late May. Afghanistan is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that will result in death and despair as thousands flee west. This will only be exacerbated with the cessation of aid and foreign development that 18 million Afghans have become dependent on for basic survival.

Afghanistan has many difficult days ahead. Change, whenever it comes, will be slow, and it will be painful, but hopefully there is some light at the end of this long and winding tunnel. Today, three in four Afghans, especially the urbanites, are too young to remember the brutality of the Taliban. They’ve grown accustomed to some modicum of freedom, tolerance, and modernity; that is not something easily extinguished. If Afghanistan, this ungovernable land, is to have a future, it must now come from within.

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