Let’s talk about Afghanistan.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a month since Kabul fell to the Taliban, bringing down with it what was left of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Like with so many other things from the past couple years, it simultaneously feels like that event occurred only yesterday and also years ago, both at the same time. It was one of those events where time seemed to lose all meaning as you watched it happen in real time over the matter of a few days.
I had considered writing something about Afghanistan sooner, but I had decided to wait until the next monthly essay to do so, mainly because I was emotionally and physically exhausted both by those events and other events in my own life, but also because I was still mentally processing it and figuring out how I felt about it. I was still in elementary school when 9/11 happened and we first went into Afghanistan and we’ve been occupying that country for the majority of my life so far. Needless to say, watching the Taliban roll in produced a number of powerful, conflicting feelings – especially given how my politics have changed in adulthood.
I was actually struggling for a few days trying to figure out what exactly I was going to say about Afghanistan. Certainly, there’s been no shortage of think pieces and op-eds about big, brained columnists and pundits trying to score political points or cover their own asses and what have you (I’d give you some examples to share here, but I value my sanity and your own to inflict psychic damage of that caliber on you all so if you really want to see they’re not that hard to find). I wasn’t sure what I could contribute that would be different or of any value. In the end, what I decided to write about is centered around the phrase I’ve kept finding myself repeating to myself and others as I’ve watched Afghanistan disintegrate over the past few weeks and the United States and the West completely fuck up its endgame to a long, bloody, pointless war:
It didn’t have to be like this.
I keep finding myself thinking that both about the fact we went into Afghanistan in the first place, the way in which we went in after we decided we had to, all the decisions we made along the way, and then the way we left. I think about these things, and all the ways in which we made decisions and undertook actions disrupted, destroyed, or outright ended the lives of countless Afghans – as well as U.S. and allied troops – wasted countless resources, and other actions I may not even be able to comprehend, and think “it didn’t have to be like this at all.”
That’s the most frustrating, heartbreaking, enraging, depressing thing about watching everything unfold in Afghanistan now, as the Taliban establishes its new government as it attempts to snuff out any remaining resistance and is engaging in reprisals and punishments against those who had opposed it. The most frustrating thing as I watch people in my field that actually mean well – if maybe misguided at times – grappling with how the twenty years of blood, sweat, tears, riches, and more meant absolutely nothing. The most frustrating thing as I watch others who shamelessly plugged and supported the war over the years bend over backwards to explain how they weren’t wrong but were let down by whoever their favorite scapegoat has to be – Afghan soldiers who “didn’t fight hard enough” in the case of Joe Biden, apparently.
This was all so avoidable, in so many ways, to so many extents. So completely and totally unnecessary. And yet, we plowed ahead.
How very American of us, right?
I wasn’t quite old enough to really understand the invasion of Afghanistan. After the initial shock of 9/11 wore off, I went back to the pre-middle school age distractions of playing video games, building LEGO sets, and walking the dog. When we invaded Afghanistan, I didn’t even really know it was occurring until it was already almost over. Once it was over, I assumed that was that and proceeded to stop paying attention to it as Iraq eventually overshadowed it, until Afghanistan began to make its presence known again more forcefully some years later.
What I did understand – and still thought to a degree until a few years ago – growing up, was that compared to Iraq, Afghanistan was “the Good War.” While Iraq seemed so clearly to be unjustified and a bad decision to liberal-progressive households like the one I grew up in, Afghanistan was either seen as being “done” (at least in the early 00s), or even after it began to heat up more, it was still the war that was justified and necessary to embark upon given the events of 9/11. As time went on, we found other justifications for being there to build upon that “Good War” narrative that made Afghanistan somehow different from Iraq, whether it be promoting democracy, the rights of women, or what have you.
This is something I’ve grappled with and had to fight years of bias on as I’ve grown older and more politically self-conscious. The conclusion I tentatively arrived at only recently is that, while there are people who genuinely thought we were doing the right thing in Afghanistan and wanted to help, they weren’t the ones who made the decision to go in and the ones who made the decision to go in or engineered our long stay. Those people were decidedly not as idealistic and pure of heart and mind as some of the rank-and-file people I know who are torn up about Afghanistan. Those who made the call likely made it for far more cynical political reasons – both domestically and internationally – and committed us to something that did not need to happen.
Now, it was next to impossible to argue that the invasion of Afghanistan was unnecessary or even wrong back in 2001 if you wanted any hope of not being a pariah – or unless you were Congresswoman Barbara Lee and cast the sole ‘no’ vote against invading Afghanistan. But now, as a national security professional with the benefit of age and wisdom it seems pretty clear that to me that it wasn’t absolutely necessary. There were multiple, direct and indirect measures at our disposal short of invasion and occupation that could have gotten us the desired effects or something close.
I’m going to try and not go as far as the certified big brain genius who opined “if only we had just killed Bin Laden right after 9/11,” But I am going to engage in a similar kind of exercise here. What I am going to try and do is look over some credible or plausible alternatives to the path we went down to drive home that the path we took wasn’t the only one. Please keep in mind that while I’ll try to keep these somewhat grounded, they are just musings at the end of the day with a fair amount of wishful thinking on my part. What I’m really trying to do is drive home how unnecessary this all was with all the potential options that were available as a whole (and maybe cope and vent a bit).
First of all, we could have launched a campaign of air and missile strikes that stopped short of an actual ground invasion. Obviously, this may not seem like an improvement given when you consider the thousands of civilian fatalities from US and Allied airstrikes over twenty years of occupation in Afghanistan (over 2,000 just between 2016 and 2020). But even then, a short but intense campaign of bombing against al Qaeda and Taliban military facilities probably could have done just as well in damaging both of those organizations capacity to threaten the United States and others as twenty years of occupation would have. If necessary, those could have been followed up in the future as well. It may have softened the Taliban up for the Northern Alliance without ever needing any boots on the ground. It wasn’t even unprecedented, as we had done the same thing in Afghanistan just several years prior. The entire Afghan invasion initially started out just as a campaign of airstrikes before troops were sent in a couple weeks later. An air-only campaign wouldn’t have defeated al-Qaeda of course (we still haven’t done that regardless) but it probably could have weakened them enough in Afghanistan to prevent them using that country as an effective base for an extended period of time – maybe even force them out of Afghanistan indefinitely, in combination with Northern Alliance pressure on the ground.
On that note, what if you want to go further and keep U.S. military power (directly) out of the equation, completely? Then we could have provided more extensive material support to the Northern Alliance in their battle against the Taliban (rather than taking our ball and going home not long after the Soviets were forced out in 1989). We could have provided them with more and better weapons, training, political and diplomatic support, and so on. We could have worked to try and help them find broader appeal across the rest of Afghanistan and muster more support within the country. We could have coordinated with the Northern Alliance’s supporters in the Central Asian republics bordering them in carrying out that support. We could have worked to more actively muster support throughout the world for the anti-Taliban resistance. That may not have been as ‘shock and awe’ as going in on the ground or bombing from the air, but it still likely would have been the better choice both for ourselves and the Afghan people even with how much of a prolonged bloody conflict it still might have been.
But we can go even farther. Did we need to have any military involvement at all, period? Regardless of whether it was us directly shooting, or supporting someone else in shooting? One narrative is that we could have had Usama Bin Laden right then and there after 9/11 if we had struck a deal with the Taliban. Initially the Taliban refused any demands to turn over Bin Laden to the U.S. government when being threatened with military action, but it left the door open to negotiation. This willingness to negotiate increased once the bombs started falling, by which point President George W. Bush dismissed it out of hand. This raises two questions, the first being; was there more room for negotiation or even coercion short of military action prior to embarking on military action in Afghanistan? Was there a stick or carrot that may have been able to convince the Taliban to sell out al Qaeda before a shot was fired? Or even after the first bombs were dropped, once the Taliban were more willing to discuss terms, may we have been able to get Bin Laden right then and there without committing to an invasion and regime change? And could we have explored these options without completely setting aside the threat of invasion as leverage? It seems to me that all of these could have been plausible options – but weren’t. For one reason or another – a desire for revenge, a desire for a war, and other reasons that would take too long to explain here – we cast all of those aside and embarked on a path to invasion and occupation.
So, we’ve seen that there were at least some plausible alternatives to avoid an invasion or even potentially avoid military action outright. But let’s assume we couldn’t avoid a ground war no matter what. That then raises the question, did the ground war have to pan out the way it did? Did it have to turn into a twenty year long bloody quagmire.
Very quickly: I’m not suggesting in any shape or form the war was “winnable,” because it absolutely fucking was not. There was no way we were ever going to win in Afghanistan. Like with the vast majority of counter-insurgencies – as I’ve mused in the past – the most an occupying power or COIN force can ever hope for is to not lose and try and stave that off indefinitely if they’re not willing to make political concessions. We were never going to “win”, if the objective was to completely get rid of the Taliban or any other anti-government insurgent force and create a friendly client-state that wasn’t necessarily in tune with the feelings and desires of the Afghan people as a whole. That was never going to be achievable. As I also have said, regime change enforced from the outside is largely unachievable except for the biggest of outlier cases (your World War II Germany and Japan for example, which have ruined the curve in my opinion).
But what if we had kept our objectives and campaign limited? What if we had stayed focused purely on going in to root out some or all of al Qaeda and to try and track down bin Laden and other al Qaeda leadership? What if once we had either accomplished our objective, or it became obvious that Bin Laden was gone and al Qaeda no longer had a significant presence in the country, we pulled out our troops and continued the search elsewhere? We could have maybe maintained support of the Northern Alliance against the rest of the Taliban that we hadn’t defeated yet, maybe even had some limited special forces operators on the ground, but not the thousands of troops we ended up with at the peak of the occupation.
If you so desire, we can even modify this idea a bit. Regardless of whether or not we found Bin Laden or fully defeated al Qaeda or the Taliban (all things we didn’t do – well, we did find Bin Laden, just not in Afghanistan), we could have continued to fight alongside the Northern Alliance in their battle against the Taliban and then once they had removed the Taliban from power we could have then withdrawn our troops. We could have left the Afghans to their own affairs once the Taliban were no longer in charge of the country as a whole and were much reduced in their capacity to provide safe haven to al Qaeda and Bin Laden. We could have continued to provide indirect support – military or non-military – without being near as involved as we ended up being in their internal affairs. In that case, we could have walked away even if we hadn’t gotten Bin Laden while still having it be a “win” if that’s what Bush really wanted.
To be clear, I don’t necessarily think that whatever Afghan government that would have arisen if we had pulled out immediately after the fall of the Taliban would have been able to do much better then the one propped up by our occupation there. We probably still would have seen a civil war of some kind erupt again and also certainly see corruption and other issues remain endemic. My point here was, there was still a window for some time after the initial invasion that we may have been able to withdraw during which we would have felt like we accomplished more and not done as much harm to Afghanistan as we would end up doing. I won’t go as far to say we would have left Afghanistan a better place – I’m not going to discount it but say that I’m skeptical and also that it’s impossible to say. But what we could have done is left an Afghanistan that, despite the problems it still undoubtedly would have had, may have had more hope today than we find it having now after the path we chose to go down instead.
Speaking of how we left Afghanistan in August of 2021.
If you’ve listened to anything I’ve written in these essays, or posted on Twitter, or if you’re one of my friends and heard me rant and rave in DMs, you know that I think leaving Afghanistan was the right thing to do and we should have done it a long time again (hence, this entire essay in itself). I don’t regret that we left, only that we didn’t do it sooner and smarter.
It is on that note, I have to say, seeing the way we left Afghanistan and how we treated the Afghan people in the process made me some of the most ashamed I have ever been of my country and my government in my entire adult life – right up there with the way it responded to the George Floyd Protests in Summer 2020. Part of the reason I was glad I didn’t have to write this essay right away is its honestly taken an entire month to square away the feelings it invoked in me watching what was happening to Afghans as we left. It felt awful to watch and I can only imagine how it felt for the people living there and trying to survive, as well as people who served there and earnestly thought they were trying to do good only to see how it was all for nothing. Even not being Afghan or a servicemember or veteran, I felt overcome by watching the way in which the war that made up most of my life so far come to a tragic and hubris ridden end. Quite frankly, if watching someone fall from a C-17 after clinging on in a desperate attempt at fleeing for your life doesn’t affect you profoundly in some way, I don’t know what to tell you.
But could we have avoided our exit being as much of a shitshow as it was? Short answer: yes. Longer, angrier answer: of course, we fucking could have we just decided not to.
The moment Joe Biden decided he was going to stick to the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban to withdraw, he could have started taking measures right then and there to try minimize the amount of harm that was going to be done no matter what. We could have made the Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans easier to obtain and start flying refugees out immediately. As a matter of fact, we could have forgone the visa program all together and simply offered to fly out anyone and everyone who wanted to leave the country at pretty much any point between Biden made his call and when the downfall of the old Afghan government was looking all the more certain. We could have attempted to work with allies and partners ahead of time on the issue of resettlement. We could have marshalled far more of the U.S. military much earlier to evacuate vulnerable people from the threat of harm or death. We potentially even could have considered going back to the negotiating table and trying to get a better deal with the Taliban – still committing to a withdrawal but under terms that would have gotten more breathing space. Oh, and since Biden claims he planned on seeking a withdrawal regardless of Trump’s deal with the Taliban, we could have started doing all of these things and more way sooner.
Again, let me be clear on something: I don’t think there was a way we could have kept the Afghan government from collapsing. That was inevitable from the way it had developed. I think anyone in national security field with more than a passing familiarity with the situation knew that sooner or later after we withdrew, the Afghan government would fall. Those of us who were a bit more in the know felt that it would happen sooner rather than later. Not to be ‘I told you so’ about it, but I was very much in the ‘sooner rather than later’ camp, but even then, I was still shocked at how soon it all unfolded (I had given them until the end of the year, maybe a month or so into 2022 at the most, but apparently I was being too generous even then). The Taliban winning was always going to happen once we gone. Full stop.
What makes me ashamed and outraged is, knowing this, we could have done so much more to protect the people that we knew for a fact were going to be in danger once the inevitable happened. We had the time, we had the knowledge, we had the resources and opportunity, but we didn’t. We left it until the last minute and as a result, so many more people are in danger of death or harm or who knows what else because we simply chose not to do anything. I could give you a laundry list of reasons why we didn’t do this: racism, political ineptitude, racism, self-delusion, racism, overconfidence, racism, and etc. But whatever the reason, we just didn’t.
That reality makes my cry of “it didn’t have to be like this” even more forlorn here than with the other sections. My other “what ifs” thinking about the road not taken in Afghanistan had to do more with having a better handle on the political-military problem and the geopolitical landscape we were walking into. Morality and ethics certainly weren’t divorced from it but weren’t the only force at play. When it came to the evacuation from Afghanistan, we knew damn well what was coming and the right thing to do was obvious to anyone with a semblance of a heart in their chest. But we didn’t anyway. Because of that, I’m never not going to feel some degree of shame in my life for who and what we left behind. It didn’t have to be like this.
It didn’t have to be like this. But it is.
And here we are. The Taliban have announced their new interim government, all the while Afghanistan’s economy continues to take a nosedive and basic services break down. The resistance in Panjshir appears to have been largely conventionally defeated though it has promised to continue the fight (something that I sincerely hope happens). Dark days definitely seem ahead for a country that has had forty years’ worth of very dark days from one source or another. It didn’t have to be like this, but it is. So now what?
There are some actionable things that we can do as individuals to try and help those who have managed to escape Afghanistan, as well as those that remain. We can donate time and money to organizations that are trying to help people survive – whether its back in Afghanistan or trying to forge a new life elsewhere. We can also try our best to the extent that we are able to hold our elected officials responsible for creating this mess over the course of twenty years (if I’ve found anything out on social media in the last year or two, its that bullying upwards can actually work).
Aside from these examples, however, there’s not a lot we can do other than hope for something better someday. We can hope that the resistance does not die out and returns in another shape or form and receives the outside support it needs in order to someday overthrow the Taliban (though I don’t think that should involve any new invasions, suffice to say). We can hope that, just as they’ve overthrown the Taliban and other regimes in the past, the Afghan people will eventually overthrow this one and maybe someday have a government and a system in their country that will bring them peace and safety and the human rights and more that they justly deserve. We can hope for a better system in our own country and others and continue to try and work towards that system – one that wouldn’t create the circumstances that led to August 2021 and interact with the rest of the world in a more just and less imperialistic way.
And finally, tied to all this, we can’t forget. The shame, the regret, the anger, the sadness, and more that I and others feel at watching what has happened – the capstone of twenty years of bad decisions and malintent – we can’t forget any of that. We have to remember what we did and have it fuel our desire for change. Things are going to get worse before they get better, for Afghanistan, for us, for the world. But instead of giving into despair and doomerism and being blackpilled or what have you, we need to take those painful memories and feelings and have them be a motivation to someday, somehow, make a better world. Not a perfect world, but a better one. We need to remember what those in charge now did, so we can try to avoid those actions and make any meaningful attempt at atoning for them. We need to realize we have these feelings because we have empathy for all people the world over and realize we have inflicted awful pain on them and that we want the pain to stop; that we don’t want things like this.
It didn’t have to be like this, and it doesn’t have to be like that again.