We're All Wrong About Afghanistan

At a moment of crisis, there's no shortage of self-appointed experts—but what do we really know?

Partly, it’s the dizzying speed of the collapse in Afghanistan that turned this story into such a storm. Most of us weren’t paying attention. (Just last week, I was going to write a column about a ridiculous New York Times piece on how we can no longer view Renaissance art the same way in the age of #MeToo.) Now, we’ve been forced to pay attention by the terrible reports and the terrible scenes unfolding before us on film.

The visual symbolism is wrenching. The embassy evacuation by helicopter from the rooftop obviously recalls the fall of Saigon. The Afghan men trying to escape by clinging to the wheels of U.S. planes and falling to their deaths recall, heartbreakingly, the September 11 victims leaping from the windows of the burning World Trade Center. The evacuation of Americans is now proceeding more smoothly than at the start, but it is still far from a success.

We have opinions, nearly all of them uninformed. And the truth is that if you read the informed opinions, you’ll find some compelling ones all over the spectrum.

For instance, in The Wire, Pakistani-American columnist Mohammad Taqi makes a powerful case that Joe Biden botched the withdrawal in the worst possible way and made a lot of unforced errors.

In The Atlantic, Daniel Silverberg, former Department of Defense official and national security advisor to Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, makes a powerful case that Biden did the right thing.

On her blog, journalist and military adviser Sarah Chayes, who has extensive experience in Afghanistan, argues that failures of American leadership abetted and worsened Afghan corruption over the years and that we are probably missing some major pieces of the big picture, including the role of Pakistan and the role of Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed post-Taliban leader of Afghanistan who was a Taliban accomplice in 1994 and has played many sides throughout the last two decades. The collapse of our effort in Afghanistan, Chayes compellingly argues, began long ago.

And so the questions remain. Did the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces suddenly pull the rug out from under the Afghan forces—or did the rapid collapse of the Afghan forces make the U.S. withdrawal so chaotic? Did the Afghan government press the U.S. not to start evacuations early so as not to sow panic (and if so, should the U.S. have rejected that request)? Was Afghan president Ashraf Ghani well-meaning but clueless and incompetent (as Taqi argues) or dishonest and corrupt? Was Biden intransigent with the Afghans or was he misled by flawed intelligence analysis? Were Afghan security forces unwilling to fight the Taliban or placed in an impossible situation? They certainly died in vast numbers: by some estimates, nearly 40,000 casualties in just the last four years.

Could we have stayed in Afghanistan much longer with a minimal presence and minimal casualties, enabling Afghan security forces to hold off the Taliban and keep the country’s fragile centers of civil society alive? It’s a common argument. It is true, of course, that we can’t be the world policeman; but as Eli Lake points out on Bari Weiss’s blog:

The question is not whether America should prevent an atrocity in a country where it is not fighting. It is whether America should keep a few thousand forces in a country that have prevented the atrocities that are now unfolding.

Yet critics say this argument disregards the realities of the conflict: the recent lack of U.S. casualties and relative stability with a small American presence were possible because of Donald Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban, under which the Taliban held back from attacking U.S. forces in anticipation of the Americans leaving. Some also point out that the reduction in U.S. casualties was achieved at the cost of stepped-up aerial bombings and a spike in Afghan civilian casualties—which poses both moral and practical issues, since it antagonizes the populace.

Who’s right? Short of an alternate reality simulator that can play out different scenarios, we’ll never know.

Is Afghanistan under Taliban rule going to become a terrorist haven—and a security threat to the United States—once again? Or has the Taliban learned its “don’t mess with America” lesson? It may be a while before we have the answer. (But do we want to take the chance?)

Is it possible that the Taliban will be “better” this time—less brutal and oppressive to women, religious minorities, dissenters, etc.? There is every reason to be skeptical of Taliban rebranding claims. So far, reports are not encouraging: for every possible sign of change (a Taliban official being interviewed by a female television newscaster), there are signs that this is not a better Taliban (other female newscasters being taken off the air). Maybe the policy is to allow female newscasters on private but not state TV, or maybe they’ll all disappear soon, or reappear on state TV. No one knows, as yet. It’s also worth noting that the treatment of women in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan in recent years has varied from place to place; much depends on local field commanders.

No one should trust the Taliban’s goodwill, obviously, but we don’t know to what extent they will be under pressure from foreign powers (Russia, China, and especially Pakistan) to show a somewhat more presentable face to the world. Nor do we know what impact pushback from the Afghan population will have. To expect things to be better this time around would be naïve; to reject as naïve even the possibility that things may be better is to close one’s mind to new information. But ultimately, this is a question of “how bad will things be,” not “will things be bad.”

Was it a mistake to send troops into Afghanistan 20 years ago? California Democrat Barbara Lee, the lone member of Congress who voted against it, is now widely hailed as a vindicated prophet. But we went in to strike at the terrorists who directed the September 11th attacks, and at the regime that harbored them. It’s reasonable to argue that we should have had a clearer sense of our purpose and exit strategy. Maybe the mistake was to tie the war to a more fundamental purpose of bringing some rudiments of freedom, civil society, and modernity to Afghanistan.

Or maybe not. Andrew Sullivan, who approves of the withdrawal and thinks the war should never have turned to “nation-building,” also writes:

We can flagellate ourselves over this — and the futility of it all seems heartbreakingly obvious in retrospect — but it was not ignoble. Two difficult things can be true at the same time. Lives were saved, minds were opened a little, women breathed freer air for a while, bodies were less frequently bludgeoned by torture and barbarism, and souls were less stricken with constant dread. … Even a futile project can do some good — for a while.

In The Washington Post, my friend Kathleen Parker writes that the terrible scenes we are seeing in Afghanistan—including the deaths of the would-be escapees—are the latest reminder that “we can’t and shouldn’t try to invent other countries in our own image.” But it seems quite an overstatement to say that we tried to remake Afghanistan in our image. And should we assume that the scenes in Afghanistan in 2021 would have been less terrible if we had not had our troops there—or just less visible to us? Would today’s female college students terrified that the Taliban will rob them of their future be better off if they had never gone to college at all but had been married off at 14 for lives as breeders/sex slaves? Would the minority populations that now fear Taliban reprisals be safer in the alternate universe where the U.S. never intervened, or would many of them be dead? (Taliban rule in the 1990s was marked by rampant brutality, including genocidal massacres.)

Many argue that the Taliban will not be able to establish the same kind of regime they did in the 1990s because Afghanistan today is very different from Afghanistan then. More people have experienced a semi-free society with access to secular entertainment and literature, with music bands and beauty salons, with girls going to school in large numbers and women going to college, working, and holding public positions not only in Kabul and other large cities but even in small towns. Maybe such arguments are also naïve and underestimate the speed with which homicidal zealots can crush resistance. (Again, it all depends on the extent to which the Taliban-run regime is willing to dispense with even a modicum of international goodwill.) But if Afghanistan in 2022 is not the hellhole it was in 1996, surely this has something to do with 20 years of American presence.

Is this an argument for interventionism? Not necessarily. Maybe just for a complex moral calculus.

And, of course, the situation in Afghanistan is only part of the bigger picture. China, which is poised to make inroads into Afghanistan after the U.S. pullout, is also using the current American fiasco to saber-rattle at Taiwan, warning that it should not expect the U.S. to be a reliable ally and is better off placating Beijing. Maybe this is just psychological warfare, directed at both Taiwan and the U.S. Or maybe it’s an indication that China is preparing to attack Taiwan. Either way, it’s an alarm signal.

In his remarks last Sunday, Biden referred to China and Russia as “our true strategic competitors” who would love for the U.S. “to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan.” Along with trying to reassure an American audience, this comment seemed intended as a message to Beijing and Moscow that the withdrawal is not a sign of American weakness and that the U.S. will stand up to their power around the world. Did that message work? Again: we don’t know. It’s much too simplistic to assume that China and Russia currently see the U.S. as a bumbling, toothless giant. Both know there’s a difference between great power competition and intervention in strategically peripheral locations.

Maybe this is the end—or at least a major chapter in the end—of America as a global power. Or maybe it’s the start of America’s future comeback on the world stage, as some have argued, with the moment of ignominy propelling the impulse for revival.

(By the way, one of the worst talking points from recent days is “Afghanistan is the ‘graveyard of empires’—British and Soviet—and our withdrawal signals that we’re a collapsing empire too.” Yes, the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1979-1989 no doubt contributed to the collapse of the USSR in December 1991. But the British “Disaster in Afghanistan” in 1839-1842 was not even close to the decline and fall of the British Empire more than a century later, after World War II. )

It’s hard to dispute that Afghanistan’s collapse makes American interventionism—or, more broadly, interventionism by liberal powers—look bad. But the unfolding tragedy also shows that where liberal democracies retreat, there is a strong chance that brutal oppression will triumph. Right now, in the face of horrors in Afghanistan, leftist celebrations of the defeat of “liberal-neocon imperialism” look positively ghoulish, especially when coupled with hollow sloganeering about solidarity with women in Afghanistan.

(Obviously, the same goes for right-wingers joining the Taliban fan club because the Taliban is supposedly more pro-free-speech than “Big Tech,” or because they’re anti-gay marriage and anti-COVID vaccination.)

“We need smarter intervention” is a trite argument. (Every interventionist thinks what he or she doing is the smart version, and most acknowledge that even the best plans fall short of perfection.) But power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The retreat of “liberal-neocon” American power means that the likes of China, Russia, and Iran will be ascendant. That is not a path to a better world. Quite the opposite.

Public opinion reflects this ambivalence. Polls taken in the last week show that support for withdrawing from Afghanistan has declined precipitously (20 percentage points or more). A plurality still support it, but it depends on how the question is phrased. According to Five Thirty Eight:

When YouGov/The Economist asked, “Do you think the United States made a mistake by recently withdrawing troops from Afghanistan?,” Americans were divided: 33 percent said yes, 36 percent said no and 31 percent weren’t sure. Similarly, when Morning Consult/Politico asked, “​​Do you believe the U.S. should still withdraw its military presence in Afghanistan if it means the Taliban regains control of most of Afghanistan?” — something that has indeed come to pass — only 38 percent of registered voters responded that troops should still withdraw, while 45 percent said that they should not.

And more confusing results:

In the Ipsos/Reuters poll, Americans supported completing the withdrawal of troops on schedule, 61 percent to 25 percent. But they also said, 50 percent to 36 percent, that they supported “sending combat troops back into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.” Likewise, 68 percent of adults agreed with the statement that the war was going to end badly no matter when the U.S. left, while only 18 percent disagreed. But the same respondents also agreed, 51 percent to 32 percent, with the statement that “it would have been worth it for the United States to leave troops in Afghanistan for another year.” These conflicting results might reflect how little Americans know about foreign policy and how, until recently, they spent very little time thinking about Afghanistan as an issue.

Maybe support for withdrawing from Afghanistan was never as strong as the polls made it look. Maybe the problem is also that few public figures talked about what we were doing there. But instead of a real discussion, we’re getting clichés about “forever wars,” as dumb a trope as “the graveyard of empires.”

Far too much of Afghanistan discourse is (of course) about scoring political points. Republicans are scrambling to obscure the degree to which they backed withdrawal from Afghanistan until five minutes ago. Trump and his former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are bashing Biden despite the fact that their withdrawal plans, and deals with the Taliban, paved the road for the current crisis. Biden says that he takes responsibility for the situation while blaming the Trump administration in the same breath. This defeat has a thousand fathers (and mothers), but everyone is pointing to the other guy.

Biden deserves the scathing criticism (and it’s good to see the mainstream media aren’t cutting him much slack). But Trump supporters should probably sit this one out. If you think Trump would have handled the withdrawal better because he’s a superior strategist or is more concerned about “optics,” it’s legitimate to ask where you have been the last four years (e.g., when he botched the withdrawal from Syria, screwing over America’s Kurdish partners and creating terrible optics such as videos of Russian soldiers gloating at abandoned U.S. bases).

Of course we’re going to have opinions in an ongoing crisis which is likely to have long-term repercussions. But here are a few suggestions:

This is a really good time to discover the virtue of epistemic humility, i.e. awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge—knowledge of the facts on the ground, but also of important context.

“Trust but verify” is a good principle. A lot of unvetted information reported in the heat of the crisis will turn out to be wrong. Eyewitness reports may be exaggerated, overdramatized, lacking context, or in some cases made up. (I hesitate to say this, but even reports of Taliban abuses should not always be taken at face value: there have been plenty of instances in the past of wartime atrocity accounts that later turned out to be false.)

While excessive optimism would obviously be feckless and stupid right now, catastrophism should also be avoided. We have no idea how any of this will play out in a year, let alone three, five, or twenty.

And for God’s sake, don’t use the crisis to score political points.