Reading the accounts unfolding in Afghanistan in recent days can be described in one word – depressing. Images of America’s retreat from Saigon in 1975 spring to mind, and many of the headlines are similar today in Afghanistan. The US has already abandoned hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment in Central Asia. The Taliban are expected to capture much of that abandoned supply. Afghans who trusted and supported the twenty-year US military occupation are now in danger of a wave of revenge killings from surging Taliban forces. Then there are the impending crimes against humanity that the Taliban will unleash against women and children across the country, the penalty for those who hoped and believed in the vision of liberty sold by American leaders in the last two decades.
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Afghanistan was always a different kind of fight in the war on terror initiated two decades ago following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Iraq was the fight born of lies over weapons of mass destruction. That country’s leader and people had nothing to do with the terror attacks on the US, and the rationale for that fight, at best, seemed forced. Not in Afghanistan though. The Taliban were giving shelter to Osama bin Laden after multiple countries expelled the terror leader. The 9/11 hijackers trained and planned in Afghanistan. The way of life of the Taliban stood in polar opposition to the west.
Even beyond the fight against terror motive, Afghanistan was the good fight. President Obama won the 2008 democratic Presidential nomination over Hillary Clinton largely upon his record of opposition to the Iraq War. While he opposed the war in Iraq, Obama supported the fight in Afghanistan as “the good war.” The Taliban used children as fighters and as human shields. They persecuted women. They were the forerunners of ISIS with their medieval perspective of the world and human beings.
My children’s generation grew up on the stories of The Kite Runner and other classics that exposed the horrors of the Taliban reality to western eyes.
The fight in Afghanistan was supposed to be the just war. The US and its allies intended to liberate the people of Afghanistan. Skeptics warned Central Asia served as the quagmire for empires since Alexander the Great, but the self-image of American exceptionalism presumed this time would be different. The chaotic history that followed will likely fill fade into the history books as the continuing story of hubris and empire played out to the inevitable conclusion we are witnessing today.
Last week the US withdrew from the Bagram Airfield, apparently without notifying Afghan officials of their departure. Bagram once housed 100,000 US soldiers. On Friday, looters ransacked the barracks and storage tents at the base was once seen as the foundation of American power in the region.
Even as the US announced its complete withdrawal from Bagram later in the day, Taliban forces advanced in strategic locations of northern Afghanistan. Taliban strength is concentrated primarily in the southern and western parts of the country. The north was where the US aided Afghan troops in turning back the Taliban after the 2001 invasion. US-backed strongmen were set up in the northern part of the country, and the Taliban were kept out. According to the Long War Journal:
“The importance of the Taliban’s northern thrust cannot be understated. The Taliban is taking the fight directly to the home of Afghanistan’s elite power brokers and government officials…If the Afghan government loses the north, the Taliban could take the population centers in the south, east, and west without a fight, and begin its siege of Kabul.”
Since the beginning of the month, the Taliban has taken control of nearly 10% of the country. Many districts have fallen without a fight. This weekend, more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled across the border to Tajikistan in the face of a Taliban attack. It was the third mass retreat in the last week. The US commander of the withdrawing US forces in Afghanistan said on Tuesday that the country is heading toward a chaotic multi-sided civil war.
The next stage of the calamity unfolding in Afghanistan leads me to consider the American troops who fought and died for the good war in Afghanistan. What about those who lived but still carry the stains of that fight upon their soul? What are they thinking as they watch this generation’s Vietnam unfold?
Undoubtedly many commentators will interpret the political causes and consequences of Afghanistan. President Bush initiated the war. President Biden voted for it. President Obama supported it. There are no political good guys in the story. History tells us that American failures in Afghanistan will not dissuade future ambitions and hubris on new battlefields in the future.
Ultimately the debacle of Afghanistan needs to be remembered, at least in part, as a human tragedy. We should not forget who we are leaving behind – Americans and Afghanis.
Find more about Afghanistan here at the End of History.