Why We Shouldn’t Reverse Our Withdrawal From Afghanistan
It’s been 20 years. If there was anything else to try, we’d have tried it by now.
In his op-ed in www.defenseone.com, Brookings Institution President John Allen decries the continuing U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan saying, “Biden’s decision to depart Afghanistan, which to many felt abrupt and against the advice of many of America’s senior leaders and experts, was deeply concerning in its seeming lack of the serious planning one would have expected for such a critical and long-standing policy issue.”
“Abrupt?” Excuse me? In the words of the immortal Col. Sherman T. Potter, played by the legendary Harry Morgan on the TV classic, M*A*S*H…
The United States has been in various stages of drawdown and planning for withdrawal from Afghanistan for a decade, since the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden, after which President Obama announced a significant drawdown of American forces. In 2014, the U.S. and NATO held a ceremony marking the end of the war. Three successive U.S. Presidents have promised to end the war. The latter of these, current President Joe Biden, had ending the war in Afghanistan as one of his top five campaign pledges, as early as 2019.
To call the U.S. departure from Afghanistan “abrupt” is frankly ridiculous. Allen calls his credibility into question with such outlandish rhetoric.
But, nevertheless, I’ll bite. Let’s allow the possibility that September 2021 is not the right time to leave Afghanistan.
So, when are we going to leave? Are we going to stay there indefinitely?
This whole situation sucks, but this was never not going to happen. We made ourselves the primary guarantor of Afghanistan’s internal security and of the legitimacy of its government. We made ourselves the backstop of its military (if the paper mache pushovers who are so-called can be validly called such). We stayed in these roles for twenty years. What on Earth did we think would happen? Surely not that the diplomatic and geopolitical equivalent of helicopter parenting would ever result in a strong, stable, self-sufficient Afghanistan. Because that would be delusional.
As soon as we decided to occupy Afghanistan, things there were always going to go to hell in a handbasket as soon as we left. And the expertise of anyone who says otherwise merits unsparing skepticism.
We should have withdrawn years ago. Bin Laden has been dead for over a decade, and yet we interminably remained — no clear objectives, no clear timeframe, no overarching strategy… just indefinite, bloody limbo.
Make no mistake: what is happening to Afghan civilians, both those who helped us as well as others (particularly Afghan women and feminists) is a historic tragedy. In addition, we must not forget how this must look through the eyes of our veterans; many of whom lost friends, lost limbs, came away psychologically and emotionally scarred; all of whom served our country with honor, courage, and commitment; who now must be wondering what it all was for.
But, if we are horrified by what is now taking place — if we are ashamed and outraged and disillusioned by the light in which these tragic events cast our country, then we must take this as a lesson as to the ramifications and the costs (both to ourselves as well as others) of overseas interventionism. We must take far more seriously the dire responsibility of weighing carefully when and where to deploy our military and under what circumstances. We must think ahead before we begin half-baked misadventures like this and the Iraq war. We must never again begin a war in which we do not know exactly what victory should look like. And we must always remember that leadership is not only acting decisively but also wisely and with forbearance.
We did this to Afghanistan by sending our troops there in the first place. We will not stop it or prevent it by sending more troops back there. What would their objectives be? What would they do differently, so that when they left again, this same thing would not happen again? And if we know what we’d be sending our troops back there to do… then why, in twenty years of deployments, have we not already done those things? What were we waiting for?
The fact is that there is no rational motive behind calls to send troops back to Afghanistan. They’d only be left standing around ineffectually like they had been since 2011, background actors in a game of political kabuki theater.
We can forestall this massive human tragedy. But that’s it. This *is* going to happen. Our only choice is “now, or later?” When one pulls a bowstring back, no amount of holding it will cause it not to snap forward when it is released.
Should we annex Afghanistan and commit to providing security there forever? If not, those who wax poetic about how leaving is wrong need to have a plan — unlike when we went in the first time.
And unless they can come up with one — consisting of clear, well-defined, tangibly achievable objectives which, once verifiably accomplished, will enable us to bring our troops home without leaving behind a war-torn mess — then they need to ask themselves whether going back is really about responsibility — or whether it’s about kicking the can down the road so that we can continue to put off coming to grips with what we have done and so that a different administration and electorate have to wrestle with this dilemma instead of us.
So much of the controversy over when and how to leave Afghanistan has come to seem less like good-faith debate and more like a generation of neoliberal boomers, who don’t want to face the fact that this is their fault, playing hot potato with the blame for what has become a generation-spanning, Vietnam-esque debacle.
It’s time for our leaders to stop blame dodging and step up to take their lumps.
Instead, they’d rather delay, delay, delay the inevitable so that when someone else eventually has to confront the reality that they won’t, they can write vapid think pieces and self-indulgent, revisionist memoirs about what a shame it is that those people couldn’t finish the job and, shucky darns, there goes the neighborhood, and by the way, please note that this didn’t happen on our watch.
It’s nothing but pure, self-centered, careerist ass-covering; moral turpitude, ethical bankruptcy, and rank hypocrisy. In short, cowardice.
What is happening is the inevitable, direct consequence of the 2001 invasion. We can go back 100 times. We can stay 100 years. But when we leave, this *is* what will take place. And the longer we stay, the worse it will be when it finally happens.
Preventing what is happening in Afghanistan is a ship which has long ago sailed. Our best course of action is to let the tragedy play out. It was our decision to impose ourselves on Afghanistan which set these events in motion and to reimpose ourselves, in the long run, will fix nothing. The sooner it’s over with, the sooner the people of Afghanistan can live in peace.