Did we owe Afghanistan anything?

Photo by Andre Klimke on Unsplash

Do we owe anyone anything? If murderous fanatics take over a country, do outsiders have any duty to protect the innocent — to intervene? That’s the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, and such is the question.

It is widely held that the United States these days has neither ability nor inclination to police the world. Evil has always existed, Western values cannot be imposed and few Americans are willing to sacrifice for others unless American interests are at stake.

Sure, sometimes not stepping in seems absurd. Should the world have stood by while versions of genocide unfolded in Rwanda, Sudan and Bosnia? While Mideast despots gassed their own citizens? While Islamic State unleashed spectacular cruelty on helpless people?

Most of the time, it did. And while Americans sometimes claim the mantle of morality, usually they too let national interest point the way: the World War II Nazi genocide of the Jews in Europe was only impeded by America after Japan unwisely attacked Pearl Harbor.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban were allowed to run riot until America suffered its brutal awakening on Sept. 11, 2001. That created a clear American interest to go after Al Qaeda, which the Taliban regime harbored in Afghanistan. The Taliban were overthrown, Al Qaeda was effectively routed and its leader Osama Bin Laden was ultimately killed.

And that’s where things started falling apart. Is it the right thing to try to impose democracy and liberal values? Do all people yearn for the model we apply (with decreasing success) in the West? Or is it unnatural in some societies? Is thinking that way a surrender to local thugs — or a form of humility?

These questions do not really have an objective answer. But what is certain is that if you are going to try to reform a place like Afghanistan, you must be as determined as the Taliban. You have to play to win. There are a number of reasons why the Taliban has not been crushed by history’s most formidable military machine.

  • America and its NATO allies did not impose decency on the Kabul governments they propped up; corruption continued unabated, including under Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul this weekend. And although it spent tens of billions arming and training a force four times larger than the 80,000-strong Taliban, it didn’t make sure the government was paying that force its salaries on time.
  • Meanwhile, the Taliban were permitted to amass enough money through criminal activity, from mafia shakedowns to the opium trade, to pay off local officials to surrender without a fight.
  • America did not put its foot down with Pakistan, which, with global-historic chutzpah, continued throughout this period to harbor Taliban forces in its tribal regions. Pakistan assumed its nuclear weapons gave it latitude; this is a bluff that was never called.
  • Critically, the U.S. never decided to bring the same crushing firepower to the war against the Taliban that it did against the Islamic State outposts in Iraq and Syria. Instead, the U.S. entered a war of attrition on the Taliban’s terms, with scheduled winter respites and an annual return to the “fighting season” — with its regular attacks on military and civilian targets both local and foreign.

Playing to win seems the obvious way to go, but it carries a terrible price in civilian lives because Islamic insurgents always embed among helpless civilians. Whether that price is worth paying cannot be answered: should Tokyo have been firebombed?

One could argue that such a policy would have bolstered support for the Taliban — which, amazingly to outsiders, does exist. Thank for that the prolonged occupation allowing the militants to cast themselves as freedom fighters, the grave corruption and ineptitude of the local government, and a strong illiberal mindset in the tribal countryside. That last factor is an extreme manifestation of the town-versus-country chasm that exists also in much of the West.

I oversaw news coverage of the Middle East for much of the past decade. I admire my former colleagues in Kabul and other towns and fervently hope their families somehow get away. Photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed in 2014 trying to bring the story of Afghanistan to the world, one of many journalists who died. It is heartbreaking that this is how it ends after all the lives lost — thousands of foreigners and tens of thousands of Afghanis.

The Taliban claim to have marginally changed, but few doubt that they will again be crushing secularism, trampling on women’s rights, imposing Islamic theocracy and massacring rivals.

Meanwhile, the credibility of American planning, intelligence and diplomacy are in tatters. Many around the region will see it in simple terms: Syria’s Bashar Assad had Vladimir Putin; Ghani had Joe Biden. Which one is still in power?

Biden blames Donald Trump’s “peace treaty” with the Taliban last year in which the group was cynically handed the right to negotiate a share of power, and America signaled it did not have its allies’ backs. But there was no reason to stick to this inartful deal once the Taliban themselves tore it to pieces. That is a sucker move.

Biden was understandably eager to up stakes but he did not have to cut and run at the height of the “fighting season,” almost guaranteeing the outcome of recent days. A few more months of air cover and intel support would have gone a long way.

He seems to have concluded that those Afghanis who do not want Islamic theocracy and who had thrown their lot in with the West can be abandoned without political cost.

Ending the “forever war” sounded good, and still sounds good, to many. But images of a ragged retreat, of desperate Afghans fleeing the country as those who helped us are hunted down, of a trillion-dollar, 20-year project ending in shocking defeat — this is not the stuff of 2024 electoral glory in the United States.

Does Biden think that his losing that fight too, to the Republicans this time, will serve the national interest?

(Appeared originally in the NY Daily News)