America’s longest war, we are being told, should be remembered for its pain and its folly: the suicides of veterans, the sham of Afghanistan’s military, the greed of the contractors, the immolated wedding parties, the pederast warlords. The valor to be celebrated is now reserved for the airlift that commenced after the fall of a Potemkin regime, not the 20-year mission that allowed that government to survive until it didn’t. As the New York Times news alert to mark the exit of the last soldier put it: “The U.S. Occupation Ends.”
This is President Joe Biden’s narrative, a narrative in which America is no different from the past empires whose headstones dot the landscape of Afghanistan. The narrative claims they too tried to tame an untamable country, and we followed foolishly in their footsteps. As Biden quipped to a reporter on July 8, “it’s up to the people of Afghanistan to decide the government they want, not us to impose the government on them.”
It is an appealing pose for Democrats looking for a reason to support their president’s betrayal. It also suits the purposes of the America-Firsters who dance to the beat of Donald Trump’s drum. Why are we building schools for girls half a world away when our own schools are failing? they ask. Besides, the Afghans never wanted democracy. If they did, their army would have fought for it, and their government wouldn’t have collapsed.
How does this theory account for Afghans such as Hamed Kohistani? He is a doctor at a Kabul hospital who, in 2018, waited for five hours to vote in his country’s parliamentary elections. He told the New York Times, “The problem is not waiting, the problem is security. The longer you wait in line, the more the risk is.” That risk was the Taliban. Throughout the seven national Afghan elections since 2004, the Taliban waged a vicious war on voting itself. They warned Afghans on social media and official communiqués not to show up on Election Day. They targeted poll workers and police chiefs. They sent volunteers and conscripts with suicide vests and car bombs to polling stations. And in the territories the Taliban controlled or contested, they outlawed voting entirely.
Yet millions of Afghans showed up to cast their ballots anyway. This fact is all the more remarkable considering how corrupt those elections were. The Taliban’s campaign of terror made it nearly impossible for outside monitors to observe vote counts. A national voter registry was riddled with errors and easily manipulated. Every major Afghan election featured accusations and counter accusations of fraud. Thus, the act of voting itself must be seen as a protest against its potential negation.
Successive elections were not the only or even the most important achievement of American and Western arms in Afghanistan. The war was waged in Afghanistan to prevent the next 9/11, and in this respect it succeeded. But the resilience and courage of Afghan voters put the lie to the glib slander that millions of Afghans did not want democracy.
Think of the women in the larger cities such as Kabul and Kandahar. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan before their ouster in late 2001, girls were banned from attending school. As of 2020, 3.5 million out of 9 million students were girls. Between 2005 and 2017, the female literacy rate nearly doubled from 20 percent to 39 percent. As of 2020, there were 70,000 women teachers.
The gains were not limited to women. As the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said in a recent report, “the lives of millions of Afghans have been improved by U.S. government interventions.” In 2018, the SIGAR noted that life expectancy had jumped from 56 to 65. Between 2001 and 2019, the mortality rate for children under five decreased from more than 50 percent to 28 percent. And Afghanistan’s overall Gross Domestic Product tripled between 2002 and 2019.
These successes are most apparent in Kabul. Under the Taliban, it was a joyless, culturally barren city. After the American and NATO intervention, Kabul hosted film festivals, art exhibits, and new universities. In 2014, a group of young female orphans formed the Zohra Orchestra, named for the Persian goddess of music. In August, as the Taliban swept to power, the orchestra’s 24-year-old conductor, Negin Khpalwak, prepared for the worst. According to a heartbreaking Reuters dispatch, Khpalwak “grabbed a robe to cover her bare arms and hid away a small set of decorative drums. Then she gathered up photographs and press clippings of her famed musical performances, put them in a pile and burnt them.”
It’s a mistake to say America fought a 20-year war only for Negin Khpalwak’s orchestra or female literacy or Kabul film festivals. But it’s also true that the war to keep the Taliban in their caves created the space for civil society to grow, particularly in the big cities.
Initially, counterterrorism and nation-building were meant to be complementary. As former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told SIGAR in a report released this year, “The goal was to help Afghanistan build a government, provide a prosperous life for the Afghan people, and thus create a resiliency against al-Qaeda’s return.” In other words, nation-building was America’s exit strategy.
This may sound ludicrous in 2021. But in the early 2000s, it was conventional wisdom. As George W. Bush put it in his second inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” This is one reason why Biden’s and Donald Trump’s joint theory of Afghanistan—that this “graveyard of empires” proved the burial ground for the American empire—is wrong. When Soviet special operators invaded Afghanistan in 1979, they installed a puppet. America had the vision and hubris to attempt to make Afghanistan freer. At least that was the stated goal of the Bush administration—and, ironically, the Obama administration in its first term.
But there was a catch. Or a glitch. Or an internal policy catastrophe. Take your pick. It’s important to remember that the first forces to land in Afghanistan after 9/11 were not soldiers in the U.S. Army, but CIA officers. The agency had real experience in Afghanistan. It had worked in the 1980s through Pakistan’s military intelligence service to fund and equip the Mujahideen warriors who drove the Soviets out of the country. The CIA learned during that proxy war that Afghanistan was more a patchwork of clans than a nation-state. So it aligned with some of the country’s worst brutes to rent their militias in a war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The conduct of one of those brutes serves to exemplify the wider CIA approach. In November 2001, a militia commanded by Abdul Rashid Dostum summarily executed 2,000 Taliban fighters who had surrendered, by placing them in shipping containers and then firing their rifles into them. The CIA ended up building him a mansion. And he later went on to serve as a vice president to President Ashraf Ghani. Men like Dostum may be necessary to defeat a vicious foe like the Taliban. But they can play no meaningful role in the founding of a democracy.
If George W. Bush had been more like his father, it’s likely the Afghanistan war would have remained in the shadows, aligning U.S. Special Operations forces with local warlords. But after 9/11, Afghanistan was briefly a whole-of-government project for an angry and idealistic nation. America was fighting two wars in Afghanistan—one to build a resilient, centralized democratic state, the other to crush al-Qaeda through an alliance with the country’s regional warlords.
This is where the Democrats got it wrong. The problem with Bush’s handling of the Afghanistan war wasn’t, as John Kerry had claimed in 2004 when he dubbed our greatest enemy “Osama Been Forgotten,” that the pivot to Iraq deprived the Afghan conflict of presidential focus and resources. It was that Bush’s publicly stated goal of building a democracy was undermined by his own CIA’s campaign to align with the country’s regional tyrants.
This paradox came to the fore in Obama’s first term. He had campaigned on Afghanistan’s being the good war, and upon taking office, agreed to a surge in forces. General Stanley McChrystal wanted to re-create the counterinsurgency strategy that had quieted al-Qaeda in Iraq. Like Hadley, he wanted to nurture resilient, legitimate local institutions that would win over the population cowed by the Taliban.
But when he arrived in Afghanistan, McChrystal found that in the rural provinces in particular, the real power resided with warlords. Their corruption and criminality at times were so rampant that many locals preferred the Taliban, in much the same way that a majority of Palestinians in the 2006 elections supported Hamas over the party of Yasir Arafat.
General Michael Flynn, who oversaw military intelligence for McChrystal in Afghanistan, was characteristically blunt about the problem in the first months of the surge. “If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan and we are perceived as backing thugs,” he said, “then we are just undermining ourselves.” And undermine us we did. For example, according to SIGAR, the U.S. spent $8.6 billion on efforts to eradicate Afghanistan’s poppy crop and heroin trade. Even as we did so, the CIA was paying off people such as Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the country’s first president, Hamid Karzai, and himself a major drug kingpin. As a result, opium-poppy production in Afghanistan soared after 2002. The U.S. government was literally funding both sides of Afghanistan’s drug war.
This was a pattern. Too often, America was inadvertently funding both sides of its war in Afghanistan. McChrystal, for example, discovered that a major source of revenue for the Taliban was collecting protection money from the truck drivers who supplied U.S. and Afghan forces. The U.S. supply chain became a cash cow for the enemy. Between 2001 and 2011, the U.S. lavished Pakistan’s military with more than $20 billion in subsidy and equipment. All the while, Pakistan’s military intelligence service played a double game, occasionally helping to arrest Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, but also providing sanctuary, funding, and training for the Taliban in its war in Afghanistan.
By 2010, McChrystal was gone. After he and his senior staff voiced their contempt for Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden, in a Rolling Stone cover story, General David Petraeus took over command. And even though he had helped devise the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, Petraeus was never able to make it stick in Afghanistan. He did recapture territory from the Taliban, but as the subsequent years showed, the Afghans had difficulty holding that territory.
Obama’s Afghanistan surge was accompanied by another spending spree. According to SIGAR, by 2010, U.S. funding for reconstruction exceeded Afghanistan’s entire gross domestic product. David Marsden, a former official for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told SIGAR the aid money was “like pouring a lot of water into a funnel; if you pour it too fast, the water overflows that funnel onto the ground. We were flooding the ground.” Take the “justice centers,” walled compounds that housed police stations, courtrooms, and jails. As soon as U.S. forces retreated, these buildings became dormant and rotted away. The power brokers in much of Afghanistan’s countryside had no interest in participating in transparent, Western justice. The old ways were better.
By Obama’s second term, he was looking for a way out of Afghanistan. The mission was significantly reduced, to focus on counterterrorism. And despite a much smaller military surge in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, even his hawks, such as his second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, were no longer trying to build a modern, free Afghanistan. Instead, McMaster pressed the president to embrace a “good enough” strategy that would keep a small contingent of troops on the ground, primarily to conduct counterterrorism and advise a wobbly Afghan military in their war against the Taliban.
Trump grew impatient with Afghanistan by the end of his first year. He wanted to get out as quickly as possible. So in 2019, his envoy, war-on-terror fixture Zalmay Khalilzad, bargained away the one red line Trump’s predecessors would not cross: the legitimacy of the elected government in Kabul. He began direct negotiations with the Taliban, cutting out Ghani’s government in the process. It was ironic that Khalilzad would deliver such a blow because he had helped shepherd the process that led to the first national election for Afghanistan since its days as a parliamentary monarchy in the 1960s.
When Biden came into office, he was not obliged to continue with Trump’s strategy. He had an opportunity to slow things down and give the “good enough” plan a shot. He inherited a very small U.S. military footprint and a government that could at least secure a kind of freedom for Afghans living in the big cities. He could have pressured Pakistan, which armed and trained the Taliban and gave it sanctuary, to end that treachery. But he decided it was not worth the candle. He finished what Trump started and surrendered to the Taliban.
Today, Biden and his administration spin this surrender as prudence. They say the betrayal of Afghan allies was an inevitable consequence of ending a pointless war. They tout an airlift that left so many behind. And they hope Americans will soon forget that for 20 years our national might cultivated a fragile democratic experiment that today lies in ignominious ruins, under the boot of the Taliban.
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