War in Afghanistan. In my mind, after all these years, those two words sound like a rock dropped into a bottomless well.
Forty years ago, the whimsy of Cold Warriors motivated the United States to turn its imperial gaze upon that long-battered country. The subsequent actions and decisions — from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan to the first George Bush — led directly to the attacks of September 11 and the U.S. invasion of that nation. Twenty years later, the U.S. military remains in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, generations have seen foreign armies invade, retreat, invade again, yet never ultimately prevail. The Persians, the Greeks, the Mongols and Murghals, the British, the Soviets, and finally the United States … all have come, and all have gone, except for us, lo these 20 long years.
What began — this time — with George W. Bush has passed through the hands of Barack Obama and Donald Trump to land on the desk of Joe Biden. The specific circumstances of the moment may differ, but the decision before Biden is age-old: Leave in defeat, or remain and be defeated. What do you get when you sift through ashes? You get ashes.
The Afghanistan situation at present serves to highlight one of the most galling elements of the now-departed Trump era. Trump campaigned on the idea that he would not repeat U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he would bring the troops home, and would not start any new wars unless provoked. These were hopeful notes — for those who believed him. That folly was not long-lived, except among those who accept something as true only if Trump says it is.
Trump did not start any wholly new wars, but the rest of these promises were, of course, flat-out broken. He didn’t bring the troops home, but merely moved them like breathing chess pieces to various points on the map, deranging a number of long-standing alliances in the process.
Aside from Syria and the Kurds, nowhere was this wrongheaded approach to policy more vividly apparent than Afghanistan. The Trump administration negotiated a May 1 withdrawal date with the Taliban, on the promise that the Taliban would end attacks on U.S. forces and cut ties with al Qaeda. According to observers, the Taliban has failed to live up to those terms.
Perhaps worse, the kind of military drawdown promised by Trump requires an extensive array of logistics, plus the time to effectively implement them. When President Biden took office, none of those logistics were anywhere near being in place, even as the May 1 deadline was breathing down his neck. As with all things Trump — COVID and vaccines most particularly — there was a whole lot of talk but almost no work put into the effort.
Biden had a front-row seat to the eight years President Obama failed to extract us from Afghanistan. He is on record as having opposed Obama’s decision to increase U.S. forces there, and today is confronted with a public that has soured deeply on the Forever Wars. Will that be enough to motivate him to finally end this two-decade disaster? “It could happen, but it is tough,” he told ABC News on Tuesday. “The fact is that, that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that (Trump) … worked out.”
The reasons why it is so “tough,” of course, are chalked up to “national security,” the always-available excuse for those who wish to continue dodging this decision. “We’ve got to be able to assure the world and the American public that Afghanistan will not be a source of planning, plotting to project terrorist attacks around the globe,” Sen. Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently told reporters. “That’s the minimum. I’m not sure we can do that without some presence there.”
The government’s policy shops unsurprisingly concur. “The Afghan government would probably lose the capability of flying any of its aircraft within a few months and, to be quite blunt, would probably face collapse,” John Sopko, special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction with the US Department of Defense told a House committee on Tuesday.
Is that it, really? I believe this goes far beyond concerns about national security, and deals far more deeply with the hubris of empire and the colonial mind.
Afghanistan was an attractive target not just because it is a profit engine for the “defense” industry that drives so much of U.S. military policy, though that is certainly an unblinking truth and motivating factor. There are also the investors into wildly profitable pipelines and mineral rights to consider. Estimates say there could be $3 trillion in natural resources waiting to be plundered, if only the problems with the Taliban could be settled.
The U.S. has already spent nearly $1 trillion on that war, so maybe if we stay a little longer — undoubtedly killing more people — we can lay that pipe and dig those mines, and maybe make our money back. U.S. capitalism is plunder, and there sits the prize.
The hubris of empire and colonialism, and the lure of profit. We are the United States: When we come, we seldom leave until we get what we came for. On the rare occasions we have been forced out of somewhere, the world was greeted with images of defeat and humiliation that no modern politician wishes to risk repeating. Presidents from Carter to Biden — with a brief Clintonian interlude while Afghanistan was left to burn from the inside out — have played a politics of merciless intervention in that country. This meddling wrought a terrible price 20 years ago, in Afghanistan and the U.S., and the bleeding has never stopped.
May 1 will come and go, and like as not U.S. forces will still be in Afghanistan to see their 21st year in that place. Biden has said that even if the May deadline is missed, our troops will not be there for much longer. By my count, he will be the fourth president to say some version of that since 2001.
It is time to leave.