Afghanistan: Is Anyone Surprised?
I had a brother at Khe Sanh / Fighting off the Viet Cong / They’re still there, he’s all gone.
--Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.”
As we glance at or obsess over images of what’s happening now in Afghanistan, it really comes down to one question: What exactly did we expect would happen when we left?
I’m not an expert here. Never been in the military, no special expertise in the socio-political nuances of the Middle East. I’m a civilian who reads the news, print and digital, and watches some television.
And yet from the moment we effectively launched our invasion of Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, I could have told you what would happen when our military presence ended: precisely what we see happening now. The rulers we ousted would move back in and reclaim everything we ousted them from.
This doesn’t make me some sort of know-it-all genius loftily declaring I told you so. It just makes me an average person with an average grasp of the obvious.
I’m pretty sure that smarter people than I knew this, too. I’m guessing they concluded that other considerations, many of them legitimate, were important enough to mandate that we stay for almost 20 years.
Only thing is, none of those considerations was going to change the endgame. From the moment the first American boots hit the ground, there have really only been two options: Stay indefinitely, with the requisite commitment of resources and American military personnel, or step out and accept that things would revert to where they were before we stepped in.
To most Americans, that’s two bad choices.
We’ve spent more dollars and lives than most Americans now think it was worth. At the same time, leaving feels like losing and we hate to lose.
But what we see now would have happened a dozen years ago had President Barack Obama pulled our troops out instead of buying into the idea that a “surge” would shift the wind. It could have happened 10 or 20 years in the future, under President Whoever, if President Joe Biden hadn’t pulled the plug now.
The dynamics here are not complicated. Indigenous people, who actually live on a given piece of land, will almost always eventually claim it if — okay, big if — they aren’t overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
We kicked out the British in 1783 not because we were a mightier military power or had God on our side, but because we made it too expensive and difficult for the Brits to hang around and keep ruling us. We became more trouble than we were worth.
More recently, we could have stayed in Vietnam indefinitely and maintained a friendly regime under our military protection. The North Vietnamese figured we would eventually get sick of doing that. So they waited us out, as they had waited out the French before. We left, they took over.
In the case of Afghanistan, we also could have gone to school on the Soviet Union’s 11-year intervention misadventure, which ended the same as ours has. We just have this macho gene that says they couldn’t do it because they weren’t Americans and we are.
Our initial premise for invading Afghanistan, it’s worth remembering, was to root out Al-Qaeda, the militant group that executed the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our intelligence said Afghanistan was their base and shelter, so with solid support from a stunned and outraged America, we moved in.
While our initial invasion drove the Taliban into the hills, it did not convince anyone to spit out Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. That would require many years and, unsurprisingly, a more covert mission.
Meanwhile, we decided to stick around and rebuild Afghanistan in a model more to our liking. That’s how we’ve spent most of the past two decades, helping to construct and protect a friendly oasis in a part of the world that even we civilians know is riddled with mystery, anger, misdirection, suspicion and danger.
We could presumably have sustained that oasis in perpetuity if we were willing to keep paying the cost.
Most of us, according to the polls, were gradually coming around to saying we’re not.
Now two important things must be stressed here.
One, the fact that much of what we built in Afghanistan collapsed almost immediately upon our departure does not make the whole mission a failure and more importantly does not negate or reflect badly on those who served there. Everyone would presumably rather march home in triumph, but it’s not their fault that’s not how this one was ever going to work.
Two, very little is pretty about what the Taliban is now doing. While the oppression of women is the most searing initial headline, that’s presumably just the opening act. It’s a moral killer to know our pullout helped crush the hopes we had built, mitigated only by the unsatisfying truth that the world is riddled with oppression and we can’t alleviate all of it.
The spark of hope here is that because nothing in the human race is permanent, perhaps at some point Afghani women — and men — who had an extended taste of a less regimented life will find ways to soften the harshness of Taliban strictures. Not today or tomorrow. But maybe.
Toward that end, we need to remember the Taliban isn’t the only group that feels about Americans the way most Americans feel about them: that the values they hold are corrosive to human life and toxic to the human soul.
That’s not an equivalency, just another illustration that in the wide scope, socio-political and cultural issues get complicated.
What’s not complicated is the physics. When you take down the dam, the water flows back.
They’re still there, we’re all gone.