The US is a democracy. If the people don’t want to continue an endless war in Afghanistan, that’s a good reason not to. It’s not everything, but it’s a lot. Opinion polls suggest that a strong majority of voters feel exactly that. And those voters have now elected three straight presidents with the belief that they would curtail or end our involvement in the Bush-era wars. Joe Biden is doing what his constituents want.
I’m a liberal and humanitarian interventionist: I believe in intervening to end illiberalism and suffering, and more so when those are worse. By either measure, the Taliban qualify. In principle, I support continued intervention, and I would make the case for it, even if it is unpopular. But we cannot intervene everywhere, and I have come to conclude, sadly, that the Muslim world is one of the last places we should intervene, because of groups like the Taliban: Salafist jihadis. The existence of Salafist jihadism is a harsh fact of the present Muslim world. Anything we do militarily (and sometimes otherwise) in the Muslim world, no matter how justified or well-intentioned, no matter how welcome among the general population, will be met with violence by Salafist jihadis from all over the world. There will be warfare and terrorism, and our enemies will care less for lives — ours, their own, or those of noncombatants — than we do. These jihadis are nihilists on the question of life, and fighting them brings you into their world. For the same sacrifice of blood and treasure, we could do a lot more good in a different world, a world with the same desire for liberalism and security but many fewer murderous nihilists.
Providing air support to the Kurds to fight ISIS seemed a reasonable middle approach: our technological superiority, but Muslim troops on the ground, fighting in their own lands — ultimately the people who will have to defeat the jihadis. Was that approach available to us in Afghanistan? Evidently not. The Afghans could not defeat the Taliban on the ground with our air cover and our ground presence; how would they do it with air cover alone?
Two correctives to how we speak of Afghanistan. First, the Taliban became a government in Afghanistan before they took Kabul the first time. They have remained a government from that time to the present. Controlling the designated capital does not make an organization the government of a recognized territory, and Afghanistan has not had a single, unified government since long before the Taliban. The Taliban is back to being the most powerful government in the map territory of Afghanistan, as it was in 2001, but it is still not the only one.
Second, the US didn’t “lose” in Afghanistan in any meaningful sense. There really isn’t anyone in the world right now we could lose to. There is just what we are willing to do, and what we are not willing to do. We could always do more than we do. (To be fair, Great Britain didn’t lose to the North American colonists in any meaningful sense, either. We just pushed Britain to the limits of what it was willing to do.)
Blaming Joe Biden for the withdrawal or its problems is mostly wrong. Trump negotiated the withdrawal with the Taliban. It was a corrupt deal and the Taliban were dubious partners, but the deal was what Biden inherited. Biden’s options were: back out of the deal and recommit to the war while seeking a new deal; forget withdrawing and surge more troops; or make the best of this particular deal. Option three was the only one that definitely got us out, which was his objective.
It is not true, as many have claimed, that twenty years and a trillion dollars prove that we simply couldn’t reform Afghan society at all, or provide it the space to reform itself. The Taliban are not popular and they will, like all proponents and practitioners of illiberalism, fail, brought down by a human desire to live in freedom and peace. The longer we had stayed, the closer that day would have become. But the pace of liberalization in Afghanistan, particularly outside of Kabul, suggests that the day was still decades off, probably many decades.
The seeming chaos of the withdrawal was apparently the result of an Afghan-led decision not to evacuate earlier so as not to signal our expectation of the collapse of the Kabul government — which would have led to the same problem, but earlier. In other words, if ever we left Afghanistan and it was not controlled by a friendly government, it would have looked just like this; the only question was when.
Meanwhile, the seeming calm of the last eighteen months was based on Trump’s deal to withdraw, and the Taliban’s desire to ease us out the door. They held back so as not to give us an incentive to stay. Had we decided to stay anyway, that incentive went away. So the option where we stayed indefinitely and continued the relative calm of the last eighteen months didn’t exist. Those pushing it, such as Mitch McConnell and Rory Stewart, are ignorant or dishonest. And the comparisons with Germany, Japan, and South Korea are facile. We are not fighting wars in those places. Whether the people, the Congress, and Joe Biden would be willing to pay for a long-term presence in mere dollars is hard to know; but that would not be the cost. A long-term presence in Afghanistan would cost US lives.
And, despite being an interventionist, I agree with the criticisms of the media over the last week. We are witnessing a frenzied pile-on, but instead of internet randos, it’s journalists and their chosen commentators from the national-security community. Their various interests happen to align in portraying Biden’s withdrawal as a world-historical fiasco with lasting implications. And they’re trying very hard to distort the picture of what’s happening on the ground. The evacuation has moved a lot of people. It’s a success, about as good as could be hoped for, and the press has presented a very different story. As the evacuation has continued, I am still waiting to see a correction to the narrative.
I wish we could have brought lasting liberalism and security to Afghanistan. The people deserve it. The fears, for women and girls in particular, are real, not a neocon smokescreen. We should find other ways of helping them. But unlike the predominant voices in the media this week, I am not willing to tell the US voters that that they are wrong about this. We did what we went to Afghanistan to do. We tried to do other things for twenty years and failed. It was righteous to try, but perhaps the people are right: it’s time to try something else.