Paying Yesterday’s Bills in Afghanistan

Let’s get one thing clear: withdrawing from Afghanistan and ending America’s longest war was the right policy. It was Trump’s policy, but one he was blocked from implementing by the bipartisan war caucus in Washington. The fact that the Biden Administration executed this policy with staggering incompetence does not compromise the policy itself. In fact, it underscores the necessity of leaving Afghanistan and ending the two-decade fantasy that cost $2 trillion, more than 4,000 American dead in combat, 20,000 Americans wounded, and a much larger—but still unknown—amount of death, destruction, and misery on the people of Afghanistan.

On July 8, Biden was asked by a reporter if a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was inevitable. Biden responded, “No, it is not. Because you have—the Afghan troops have 300,000 [sic] well-equipped, as well-equipped as any army in the world and an air force against something 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.” The video of this press conference is now infamous.

 Then on August 9, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, who was last seen testifying in front of Congress defending the military’s new woke curriculum for its recruits and professing his profound interest in systemic racism and white supremacy, said that “Afghan security forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country, and we will continue to support the Afghan security forces where necessary in accordance with the guidance from the president and the secretary of defense.” This was posted on the Twitter account belonging to the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

A week later the Taliban had taken control of Kabul, was broadcasting from the presidential palace, and had declared a general amnesty for government officials of the U.S.-backed regime that had already left the country, reportedly with four cars and a helicopter full of cash (American cash, mind you).

It was all a charade, a 20-year daisy chain of lies written in blood. The way it ended is about as good as anyone could have hoped for. These are bills that have been stacking up for a long time. And as with what Hemingway said about bankruptcy happening gradually and then suddenly, so it is with the reckoning in Afghanistan.

After years in-country, our national security establishment had no clue about the state of the country they were charged with governing as a far-away American colony. Biden believed that the Afghan army was a real fighting force committed to defending President Mohammad Ghani and that they were capable of doing it because their American Sugar Daddy had showered them with tens of billions of dollars worth of training, arms, and materiel. But in the end, they didn’t care about the man America made president or the government over which he presided. In fact, that government didn’t last a week without the backing of American arms.

Worse, America’s ruling class was so confident in their assessment of the weakness and lack of popular support for the Taliban (wrong), the strength of Afghan arms (wrong), the stability and legitimacy of the Ghani government (wrong), and our ability to keep all of these balls bouncing forever (wrong) that they didn’t even have a plan to evacuate Americans still working in Afghanistan including at the U.S. embassy. Biden assured reporters that there were absolutely no similarities between Afghanistan and the fall of Saigon in 1975. But the pictures of the embassies being abandoned says otherwise.

The fecklessness, lies, parochialism, and incompetence of America’s ruling class are laid bare in Afghanistan. Even in 2018, American military power could not secure the two-mile stretch of road between the embassy and the Kabul airport, forcing U.S. personnel to make the short trip by helicopter. This was par for the course. Now, President Ghani, whose administration existed as a creature of American power, has since left the country reportedly with $169 million of U.S. taxpayer cash in bags. His nephew had time to post a picture walking to a private jet on his Instagram page. 

Ultimately, a relatively small, unpopular, secular, urban managerial class propped up by foreign money could not enforce its will on a large, traditional population that lives mostly outside of the country’s urban centers and is united by a common religion forever. Now, we must ensure that we don’t lean into our mistakes and make things worse. Republican politicians are particularly susceptible to the temptation to lapse back into old Bush-era talking points. 

At the same time Amrullah Saleh, a former vice president of the U.S.-backed government, and Ahmad Massoud, an ethnic Tajik and commander of a militia, have reportedly formed an alliance, vowed civil war, and disappeared from view into the Panjshir Valley in the northeast part of the country. American support for militias in that part of the country dates back to the early 1980s when they were fighting the Soviets, and continued throughout the American invasion and occupation of the 2000s. As such, there will be a gravitational pull between these militias and Washington’s deep bench of war enthusiasts. If they are allowed to unite, they will drag America back into an endless twilight war in Afghanistan. To that, we must say no.

These warlords have been the recipients of tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars over the years. They use it to enrich themselves, to settle scores with their rivals, and to fight over control of the country’s various tribal regions. 

In return, America has received a massive flow of cheap heroin. Afghanistan produces as much as 80 percent of all of the heroin in the world, contributing greatly to the opiate crisis in America. And lest you think that, but for America’s presence, the heroin crisis might be even worse, the facts are to the contrary. During the years of the American occupation, the number of hectares devoted to opium cultivation more than tripled. Prior to the U.S. invasion, the Taliban had banned opium production and since retaking Kabul, have said they will ban it again. It’s fair to be skeptical of this promise, but they did it before and there’s no arguing with the fact that opium farming enjoyed a two-decade surge during the U.S. occupation.

To the rejection of an ongoing twilight war, we must also add rejection of a refugee program. Democrats are open to a very broad program that could resettle hundreds of thousands of Afghans in the United States. Few Republicans back anything so broad. But many believe that we should offer some form of safe haven to “the good ones.” Generally, Republicans who support this mean something like “the Afghans who I worked with” (if they served in-country) or “the Afghans who worked for the U.S. government” and who might be subject to some sort of retribution. This, too, should be rejected.

It’s also worth noting that the Taliban came to power in part by campaigning against child rape which was being conducted by the warlords who eventually became American allies. After the U.S. invasion, they resumed the practice to which America turned a blind eye throughout the occupation despite it being widely reported over a long period of time.

We should be clear-eyed about the reality of any Afghan immigration program. Whatever criteria might be established to “only accept the good ones” would certainly be gamed by the NGOs whose mission it is to import foreigners into the United States under our various refugee programs. They employ teams of lawyers who analyze the law and the forms that need to be completed and then teach their outreach teams to coach all of those who want to claim refugee status how to answer the questions so that they will get it. It’s a sham, but that’s how the system works in real life. It’s been happening in Latin America for years. This will be the same.

Afghanistan was a failure. It was a waste of money. It was a waste of time. It was a waste of talent. Worst of all, it was a waste of American lives. And during the 20 years we were spending hundreds of billions in the mountains and valleys of central Asia, the American middle class got smaller, poorer, and less healthy. 

What could we have accomplished with all of that money, all of that talent, and all of those American lives if they had been focused on revitalizing our own country? We’ll never know for sure, but the cost is surely huge. So, now is the time to pay the bills that have been coming due in Afghanistan for a long time and learn some hard lessons. If we do that, if we spend our blood and treasure on our people and our country, we’ll find that we can do some amazing things. 

And before we consider wasting anymore bloor or treasure in Afghanistan, everyone needs to ask themselves, are you willing to die to secure the pecadilloes of Afghan warlords on either side of the conflict? Are you willing to send your sons to die so that the United States can prop up a president who flees the country with millions in American cash? I hope these questions answer themselves and inform our future policy.  

Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

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