The Taliban recently seized Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, after President Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S forces. This withdrawal signaled the end of a twenty-year war President Bush initiated shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
People are gravely concerned about the way this seizure will negatively affect Afghan citizens. They are especially concerned about women and children who face severely restricted lives under Taliban rule. Others express concern with President Biden’s apparently haphazard evacuation plan. Such a plan, they argue, has left vulnerable many American civilians and Afghani allies to the U.S.
What are we to think about Afghanistan and the dire events unfolding there? Who is to blame?
To answer this question, we must understand the history of these events. For this problem did not begin a few weeks ago. It began over twenty years ago and even long before that.
Let’s start with the rise of Taliban.
The Taliban, an extremist Muslim group, took control of Afghanistan in the early 90s.
Afghanistan had faced years of bloody civil war between Afghanistan factions. These factions had the funding of both the former U.S.S.R. and U.S. who continued fighting the Cold War on Afghani soil.
Exhausted by these constantly warring factions, many Afghans initially welcomed Taliban rule. The group restored a semblance of law and order and promoted Islam, the religion of most people in Afghanistan.
They forbade girls over age ten from going to school and forced women to wear burkas and stay primarily at home. The Taliban also censored most forms of TV, music, and movies. Most disturbingly, they held public executions of those who violated Taliban law. And the Taliban rulers also reportedly aided terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks. These are just a few of the crimes and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Taliban.
After 9/11, the United States occupied Afghanistan as a part of President George W. Bush’s counter-terrorism strategy.
And for the last twenty years, the U.S. has been trying to resist the Taliban and foster democracy in Afghanistan.
This was not a completely ludicrous strategy. Research suggests that the more democratic a country is, the less likely it is to engage in acts of terrorism. Thus, supporting democratic regimes in foreign countries is a legitimate counter-terrorism effort.
Nevertheless, the twenty-year U.S. war has been costly. It is the longest running U.S. war and has cost 2.3 trillion dollars so far. And U.S. taxpayers will continue to pay for this war long into the future. We will do this through funding pensions, health care, and disability for war veterans (which, of course, we should do.)
And this is only the financial cost of the war. The war has cost many lives as well.
Over 20,000 Americans were wounded in the war, and more than 6,000 Americans died in it. In addition, around 100,000 Afghans perished. And despite all this, over the last twenty years, the Taliban has continued attacks on Afghanistan, regaining ground in the country.
It is not surprising, then, that a recent survey showed that seven out of ten U.S. citizens support withdrawal of our troops from the country. And this support is bipartisan. And in fact, presidents from both parties have worked on withdrawing troops.
President Obama pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops in 2016, a goal which he only partially accomplished.
Most recently, in the Doha Treaty, President Trump negotiated to release Taliban prisoners and withdraw U.S. troops. In return, the Taliban promised to negotiate peacefully with the current Afghan government and prevent extremists, such as ISIS, from using Afghanistan as a base to attack the U.S. We should note that President Trump negotiated the Doha Treaty with Taliban leaders whom he invited to Camp David. He did not invite any representatives from the current Afghan government.
One may wonder how wise it was for President Trump (or anyone else) to believe that the Taliban were highly motivated to keep their promises. After all, the U.S., which was already extremely war-weary, was increasingly losing ground to the Taliban.
Nevertheless, President Trump (and it seems we as a country) decided to take the Taliban at their word.
President Trump planned to withdraw U.S. troops on May 1st, after a period of de-escalation. After taking office, President Biden extended the stay of U.S. troops. He announced in April that all troops would be gone by September 11.
Biden began evacuating troops in May, with the largest military installation evacuating in July. At this point, the Taliban began seizing major cities in Afghanistan. And on August 15 they seized Kabul, the nation’s capital.
Photo by Mohammad Rahmani, courtesy of Unsplash.
In the U.S., widespread shock and outrage erupted over the event.
President Biden and government officials admit that they were surprised by how quickly the Taliban seized Kabul. And Biden has criticized the Afghan government for refusing to fight.
One wonders how fair this criticism is. After all, the U.S., which occupied Afghanistan for twenty years, made a treaty with the Afghan government’s enemies while excluding this same government from the treaty. And then the U.S. withdrew most military support. This would demoralize anyone.
Both Democrats and Republicans blame Biden for handling the evacuation badly. They criticize his seemingly lack of a clear plan for evacuating all U.S. citizens, as well as hundreds of Afghani U.S. allies. These are people like the Afghani translators and informants who served U.S. intelligence during the twenty-year war. Such allies most certainly risk Taliban reprisal in the current upheaval.
Critics suggest that Biden’s seemingly chaotic evacuation makes us look incompetent in the eyes of a watching world.
Such criticisms have escalated with increasing reports of human rights abuses committed by the invading Taliban, as well as a recent suicide bombing in Kabul. The bomb reportedly killed 170 people, 13 of which were U.S. military.
There is no way around it. These events are horrific.
If their current trajectory in any indication, The Taliban will most certainly execute at least some of the leaders of the Afghan government whom they view as enemies, rather than allies. And women and children, as well as other Afghan citizens, will suffer human rights abuses and even death under Taliban rule
There is no way to sugar-coat this.
When tragedies like this occur, it is natural for us to cast blame. After all, if we can clearly identify who is to blame, perhaps we can avoid such tragedies in the future.
So, who is to blame?
Is President Biden to blame?
Possibly. But consider this.
President Biden’s choice was either to adhere to Trump’s Doha Treaty with the Taliban and withdraw troops or break the treaty and keep troops on the ground. If the current actions of the Taliban are a result of President Biden keeping the Doha Treaty, imagine how the Taliban would have reacted if President Biden broke the treaty.
And perhaps President Biden should have broken the treaty. Perhaps he should have then re-deployed scores of U.S. troops to battle the inevitable Taliban retaliation. What then? More U.S. military and Afghan citizens would have died in the skirmishes. And we would have ensured that the longest war in U.S. history would continue indefinitely in the future.
All we would have accomplished was postponing into the future the very same events unfolding now. Because the Taliban doesn’t take vacations or retire.
But perhaps Biden should have fully evacuated all U.S. citizens and Afghan allies to the U.S. before troop withdrawal. In hindsight, this seems reasonable.
The problem is that the U.S. initiated troop withdrawal based on the Doha Treaty President Trump made with the Taliban. Once again, in the treaty, the U.S. pledged to withdraw troops, and in return the Taliban would negotiate a peaceful relationship with the Afghan government.
Such treaties require, at the very least, a show of good faith. Otherwise, we communicate that we don’t truly expect the other party to follow through with their end of the bargain. And such a show of bad faith certainly encourages them to break their promise, especially when they have little to lose.
It is hard to see how a sudden, mass evacuation of all U.S. troops and Afghan allies would have communicated good faith in the Doha Treaty. In fact, President Biden has said that some Afghans did not want to leave early because of these very concerns.
But what about all the Afghani U.S. allies who did want to leave early? Shouldn’t we have evacuated them?
Well, it’s not that easy. For the troops to evacuate these allies and bring them to the U.S., our country would need to have granted them Special Visa Status. As you may recall, during the Trump administration, the U.S. made it more difficult, not less difficult, for immigrants and refugees to get such visas.
Our current laws do not permit rapid processing. And in fact, it can take years for immigrants and refugees to gain Special Visa Status. This has further complicated the evacuation process. And the U.S. cannot just unilaterally relocate refugees to other countries which also have their own immigration laws.
So, is President Trump to blame for all this?
One wonders how wise it was for President Trump to trust the Taliban. Or how wise it was to leave the Afghan government out of negotiations with the Doha Treaty. Such a treaty left little incentive for the Taliban to follow through on their promises.
And we should also note the logistical problem President Trump created for Afghan citizens when he tightened immigration laws in the U.S., encouraged anti-immigrant sentiment, and also set a quick deadline for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. Given all this, it is not likely that either President Trump or his administration had any clear plan for relocating Afghan allies to the U.S. or even other countries.
So perhaps President Trump shouldn’t have initiated the plan for U.S. troop withdrawal at all.
Certainly if President Trump had not set such a rapid deadline for evacuation, we may have had time to develop a better evacuation plan.
But U.S. troops could not stay in Afghanistan forever. We could not continue to fight an interminable, deadly, costly, and unwinnable war. So, we had to leave eventually. It is not clear things would have been any different had we postponed leaving into the future.
So, was it President Obama’s fault? Should we have already left Afghanistan?
But Obama did begin the withdrawal of troops, which most people in the U.S. supported. He also worked to strengthen a neighboring country, Pakistan, which helped to stabilize Afghanistan, encourage democracy, and discourage terrorism.
And President Obama also approved the mission that eventually located and killed Osama Bin Laden. This would have been difficult to achieve had U.S. troops not been present in Afghanistan.
And President Obama didn’t start the war; President Bush did.
So, was it President Bush’s fault?
It seems that President Bush and the U.S. government did not fully understand how difficult it would be to fight a string of wars in Middle Eastern countries. They especially failed to realize how difficult it would be to do this in countries almost wholly unfamiliar to them but very familiar to their enemies. It is likely that the United States, prone to overestimate its strength and intelligence, suffered from war hubris.
But President Bush initiated the war in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His goal was to disrupt and destroy the network of terrorist cells that had perpetrated this attack. This seems like a reasonable goal, and the majority of Americans initially supported the war, even if it took a long time and had serious consequences.
So, is it our fault?
Perhaps. Fueled by fear and outrage over 9/11 attacks, many U.S. citizens supported a war in countries we had never visited, knew little about, and couldn’t even find on a map. Many of us, fueled by fear, blindly trusted our leaders and believed that war was the only solution to the problems we faced.
Given the immensity of the 9/11 attacks, it is understandable we behaved this way. But this doesn’t make it excusable.
In listing all the possible people whom we could blame for the current Afghanistan crisis, my point is not that we should blame everyone or that we should blame no one.
My point is that if we really want to learn from Afghanistan and avoid similar tragedies in the future, here is what we cannot do:
We cannot enter wars with blinders on and then act surprised when they turn out badly.
And we cannot rely primarily on violence to solve international problems and then act surprised when the nations we attack do the same.
We cannot support wars with no clear end and then get angry when they last twenty years, people die, and the wars cost a lot of money.
And we cannot make it harder for refugees and immigrants to enter our country and then act outraged when they perish in countries they can’t escape.
We cannot destabilize and then occupy a nation for twenty years and then further act surprised when they behave as a destabilized, occupied nation.
And we cannot both negotiate a peace treaty that requires good faith and then blame a President for acting in good faith.
We cannot make a treaty with violent extremists, with no real incentive to change, and then act surprised when they behave like violent extremists.
And we cannot create an international problem through bi-partisan presidencies and solve the problem with partisan outrage.
We cannot demand that a President prevent the loss of more U.S. troops and then demand he keep U.S. troops on the ground.
And we cannot will the President to do something through our votes and then blame him for doing our will.
We cannot cultivate short memories and then use them to solve problems that require complex, historical thinking.
And we cannot hope to learn from our mistakes when we demand logical impossibilities and then blame others for failing to meet our demands.
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