Originally published in OtherWords.
The scenes from Afghanistan are heartrending.
I can’t imagine the desperation of someone who clings to a military airplane as it takes off, as Afghan refugees attempted to in Kabul. Nor is it possible to dismiss the fears of Afghan women, as a faction that once executed them for seeking jobs or education comes back to power.
But in light of the precipitous collapse of the country’s 300,000-man army and political leadership, it’s also impossible to dismiss President Biden’s conclusion that the war was never going to be winnable.
“If Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now,” Biden said, “there is no chance that one more year, five more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would have made any difference.”
Biden is right. And many of the military and political leaders who’ve prosecuted the war agree. In 2019, the Washington Post reported on interviews with over 400 who said the war was doomed even then — including many who said the opposite publicly.
Biden put a finer point on it. Of “those who argue that we should stay,” he asked: “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?”
After years of sacrifice, the only correct answer is none. But Biden is wrong to pin all the blame on Afghans.
The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan not just for the last 20 years, but for the better part of the last 40. Throughout the 1980s, we armed and trained the rudiments of what would become al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
We wanted them to fight off the Soviets. They did. Then 9/11 happened.
We went back, deposed the Taliban, and cobbled together a hopelessly corrupt alliance of warlords, exiles, and opportunists to serve as a new government. To back it, we created the Afghan National Army.
Over 60,000 Afghan troops gave their lives fighting the Taliban. But between the violence, corruption, and poor governance, the U.S.-backed government simply didn’t command the support of the Afghan people. When the president took off with a helicopter full of cash, many Afghan soldiers sensibly concluded it wasn’t worth dying for any longer.
Biden is right to end the war. But he’s wrong to call it just “a civil war in a foreign country.” In truth, it’s a disaster we spent 40 years creating. That project wasn’t just unwinnable — it was wrong.
So now our obligation is to the Afghans living with the consequences.
Groups like Afghans for a Better Tomorrow are calling on the administration to lift refugee caps so more Afghans can come here, invest heavily in humanitarian aid inside the country, and not to relaunch the conflict under the guise of “counter-terrorism.”
We should also, my Institute for Policy Studies colleague Phyllis Bennis adds, work with the United Nations and international community to ensure safe passage for aid workers and help the country respond to the pandemic.
Those are fair demands — and a bargain relative to the costs of war. The IPS National Priorities Project found we could resettle over 1 million Afghan refugees for less than the cost of one year of war.
That’s the least we could do — that, and learn our lesson. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” President Biden said.
Next time, we should be wise enough not to send them at all.