It was bound to fall apart. America’s longest war has come to an abrupt and woeful end. Two decades of exerting the titanic effort of waging an aggressive war of choice in one of the most distant lands from North America has fallen apart in a couple of weeks, leaving coalition forces rushing for the exits without even a breath of what could be considered a victory to speak of.
Footage of chaos at the airports with Afghans scrambling to board civilian and military aircraft out of the country has sparked outrage at the mishandling of the situation by the Western powers. There have also been calls of concern for the women of Afghanistan who may soon return to the oppressive Taliban social norms. The long silent public sympathy in the west for the plight of the Afghan people has emerged now at the end of the conflict to suggest that the foreign forces should have stayed a bit longer or done things differently. However, President Biden has confidently stood up to the ubiquitous political pressure in defense of the withdrawal.
Some are comparing the moment to the images of the departure of U.S. forces from South Vietnam in 1975. The uncanny similarity of the images of American helicopters departing from rooftops in Kabul after the capital’s takeover by Taliban forces is hard to ignore. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s assurances in the early summer that this is ‘manifestly not Saigon’ and that the Taliban would likely not take over the whole country have come back to bite, demonstrating the Washington establishment’s hubris in the capacity of the U.S. to shape the world. The comparisons with Vietnam are fitting, but the conclusions that the media, Washington insiders, and both the right and the left have been rather off the mark. The takeaway of the fall of Saigon was not that the U.S. should have stayed just a little bit longer to smooth out the withdrawal, it was that the Vietnam War was a fool’s errand that the U.S. was long overdue to abandon.
As much as the news reporting has been making attempts to spin the U.S. pullout as a dangerous and irresponsible move. President Biden brushed off a slew of loaded questions at a Fourth of July press conference amid the sudden departure of U.S. forces from the massive Bagram Airbase, as well as a speech from the White House directly after the fall of Kabul. Despite criticism of the decision to leave Afghanistan from all sides of the political aisle, there is simply no more appetite from this country for this war. Even veterans who weighed in on the cost of the war that they served in over the many years doubted if the mission was worth it at all.
Twenty Year Scorecard
With the war in the background, the U.S. has gone through four presidents, the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, increased social polarization and unrest, and dozens of other foreign interventions under the umbrella of the War On Terrorism. Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011, but the U.S. and coalition presence remained, with no clear objectives or indicators for victory. This was revealed in the Afghanistan Papers, a set of internal documents that painted a picture of futility and deception as leadership and decision-makers saw the war as unwinnable, but misled the public regarding the progress while also operating without clear and achievable objectives. Sadly, these revelations, made public by the Washington Post in December of 2019, were overshadowed by the assassination of Qasem Souleimani in January of 2020, and then the COVID-19 pandemic quickly drowned out almost any other news story entirely.
Just as the authorities in charge of carrying out the war have had no effective way to gauge the significance of progress in the theater of operations, the media has also failed to implement effective journalism to assess the conflict over the years. The question of Afghanistan’s peace and stability is the driving factor for the narrative for remaining engaged in the country, but the costs—more than $2.2 trillion spent (in debt at an average of more than $250 million per day for twenty years), nearly twenty years of time, and the nearly quarter-million estimated deaths attributed to the war in the Af-Pak theater among combat and contracted forces as well as civilians—are often swept under the rug. What damage does incurring such debt inflict on a country and what productive capacities were flushed away? Setting aside the moral outrage that would be well-placed for this issue, there has been very little coverage of this cold cost-benefit analysis. Just as the involvement in Afghanistan destroyed the Soviet economy in the 1980s, the 2008 financial crisis, destruction of the middle and working class, and expansionary monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. in the 21st century signal a similar effect in America. Perhaps some reporter out there could try to justify this project in Central Asia as anything more than a tremendous waste.
A House of Cards
The speed at which the Taliban gained control of the country from the Afghan national security forces and the fact that U.S. forces departed Bagram overnight without notifying their Afghan counterparts shows the obvious failure of the war in achieving anything more than propping up a dependent client state that has only limped by with foreign aid money. The U.S. rapport with the Afghan authorities has lacked the respect that would be expected of allies. During the peace negotiations in Doha in 2020, the U.S. did not invite Afghan government representatives to participate as an agreement was brokered directly with the Taliban. The Afghan government’s inability to keep its sovereignty intact is a clear sign of its lack of legitimacy and power. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban closed in on the capital. Like so many instances in the country’s history, it’s an utter catastrophe for the Afghan people.
It was bound to fall apart. The result would have been the same if the withdrawal took place at any point since the invasion or at any point in the future. Sadly, there may be no politician, think tank analyst, arms manufacturer, or any other war profiteer that will be held accountable for this despicable war. It has been shameful for leaders in Washington to kick the can down the road for so long. For the sake of the American public and honesty to the Afghan people, this should have happened much, much earlier. Empires have always marched out of Afghanistan in exhaustion and the U.S. is no exception.
Weimin Chen has been a research assistant at the Austrian Economics Center and is a manager and project/events coordinator at the International Student Center’s Arts for Peace Initiative in New York City.