An Afghan Autopsy: Two Perspectives
Two of our political writers take different sides in the Afghanistan debate.
September 20, 2021
Jackson Nealis’s Take
America began the war in Afghanistan with moral certainty. On September 11th, 2001, the terrorist group Al-Qaeda perpetrated the most heinous attacks in American history, costing the lives of almost 3,000 Americans. The government of Afghanistan, led by the Taliban regime, was harboring Al-Qaeda operatives and their leader: Osamba Bin Laden. At the time, it seemed like our moral duty was to launch Operation Enduring Freedom and invade Afghanistan to bring down the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and get vengeance for our fallen citizens.
It’s been 20 years since the Twin Towers fell and that moral certainty is gone. We lost it in the quagmire of stalemate: no progress gained, no objectives met, no peace achieved. Our original enemy, the Taliban, still controlled 20% of the districts in Afghanistan, with another 50% contested by them.
Confronted with this moral uncertainty, the question of what to do next has fallen to the fourth American President to preside over the conflict, Joe Biden. And despite what you hear on TV or read online or on Facebook: the decision wasn’t a simple or easy choice, but the right decision was made: we needed to withdraw from Afghanistan.
First and foremost, Biden had to grapple with the legacy of the previous administration. In Doha, Qatar, Trump administration officials, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, cut a deal with the Taliban. The Taliban agreed, in that February 2020 deal, to not harbor terrorists and take the role of the US as the primary counter terrorist force in Afghanistan. In exchange, the US would release 5,000 prisoners and leave the country by May 31.
The Doha deal left out a key player in the Afghanistan conflict: the democratic government of Afghanistan. After the initial US invasion, our government created a republic in Afghanistan. We built roads and infrastructure, supported elections and an army at a cost of 144 billion dollars.
However, that government wasn’t invited to the negotiating table. Their exclusion sent a signal; that Secretary Pompeo and the American negotiators were willing to let the Taliban be part of the creation of a new Afghan state
It’s hardly any wonder that in the year and a half from the signing of the deal to today, local Afghan officials began to abandon their posts, surrendering some provinces without a fight. They lost hope in the Afghan government we created. Those desertions turned the Taliban wave of conquest into a tsunami, leading to complete takeover.
But the real question is as follows: what were President Biden’s choices? Confronted with the new Taliban wave, Biden was faced with either evacuating on time, no matter how rushed it would be, or escalating the war to stop the Taliban. He described the decision as “either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war.” The Taliban’s rise meant that our force of advisors and support personnel wouldn’t have held back the tide of a furious Taliban and President Biden would’ve been forced to send yet another generation to war.
Americans have become disconnected from the war. A whole generation of Americans, including myself, weren’t even alive when Operation Enduring Freedom began. At the beginning of the summer, a Chicago Council Survey found 7 in 10 Americans supported withdrawing military forces from Afghanistan.
I find it hard to justify a war or escalating one where the vast majority of Americans cannot see the rhyme or reason in it and want to leave.
And while our collective minds were focused on this war, we lost sight of injustices elsewhere. Could we have prevented the Russian occupation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine if we weren’t embroiled in nation building in Afghanistan? Could we have prevented a coup in Myanmar or helped protestors in Cuba? While we spent 2.3 trillion dollars on war costs, veterans’ benefits and interest payments, the world has begun to backslide into authoritarianism. We cannot afford to be trapped in a static stalemate in an unwinnable war any longer. The entire globe needs American leadership, not just Afghanistan
The President made his decision: he would proceed with the evacuation, no matter how rushed it would be. It was fraught with peril: refugees suffering under poor conditions on US bases and individuals clinginging to planes in a desperate attempt to escape.
Then on August 26th, as the sun began to set on another day of evacuations, the unthinkable happened. A member of a terrorist group, ISIS-K, detonated a suicide belt and fired into the crowd killing 13 American service members and at least 169 civilians.
The Biden administration, as well as the governments of our NATO allies, have portrayed this evacuation as a complete success. But many are watching the images of Afghans clinging to planes, watching the wounded fill Kabul hospitals after the attack, US helicopters being flown by Taliban fighters and watching the caskets of US service members deplane and are wondering if the evacuation really was a success after all.
However, with a bigger picture, it becomes clear that the evacuation had to happen quickly. If we had waited, ISIS-K, the Taliban or other terrorist groups would’ve had more time to plan even more deadly attacks and even with that delay, Afghanistan still would’ve fallen to the Taliban. To save American and Afghan lives, we had to sacrifice the timeline we wanted as well as military equipment.
122,300 people were evacuated from Afghanistan. These are local allies who helped the West attempt to build democracy, even as terrorists threatened their lives and the lives of their families. They will soon be arriving in their new homes, throughout Europe, North America and the Middle East, and we should welcome them and honor their service. They were committed to advancing freedom in their own country and I have no doubt they will support freedom here.
No one is sure what will happen to Afghanistan. Will the Taliban’s hatred for outsiders extend to Russia and China who are looking to extend their own interests in the region? Will the Taliban’s feud with ISIS-K extend into the kind of counter terrorism from the Taliban the Trump deal promised? And what will happen to women and minorities in the country? Will they be forced back into the same kind of oppression seen in the 1990s?
I cannot be certain. No one can be certain. We may have withdrawn from Afghanistan, but we cannot forget our commitments to our newly arrived Afghan allies and our veterans who suffer from both the physical and mental consequences of the war.
The world needs America’s leadership. But the world and the American people need an America that’s not trapped in stalemate. Biden made the right decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and allow America to be dynamic in a changing world.3
Jacob Gekht’s take
The reason for the 2003 US invasion of Afghanistan was plain and simple, to find and eliminate Al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama Bin Laden. Nearly 20 years later, it is clear that the intended purpose of the US’ prolonged stay in Afghanistan was not the one that the American people expected.
This 20-year war, the longest in the United States’ history, ends in debt, broken dreams, and the deaths of thousands. So now that the traditional war in Afghanistan is over, it is time to ask why the conflict ended in this chaotic evacuation, who’s at fault, and what will happen next.
Despite all predictions, the republic of Afghanistan, with 300,000 soldiers with “advanced weaponry,” as Joe Biden stated, had fallen. While a military withdrawal was planned, the full withdrawal of US officials, citizens, and allies had not been planned until the Taliban gained control of the majority of the capitol, Kabul.
The collapse of the US-backed regime was seen as inevitable in some parts of the intelligence community, with about 6 months given for the Afghan military to hold out.
General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that “There are no reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days.”
To the surprise of everyone, however, the Taliban took the nation in about 7 days. In reaction to the failure of the Afghan Military, the administration panicked and began an evacuation that could’ve been planned earlier.
Even before the military withdrawal took place, multiple reports stated that the central government was on the verge of collapse, losing strategically important roads outside their supposed bastion of Kabul.
With multiple warning signs coming from reputable sources indicating that a complete withdrawal would lead to chaos, the administration ignored warnings of collapse and decided to withdraw US forces without securing American citizens and Afghan allies.
This move proved to be incredibly foolish and dangerous, and soon enough, it showed.
As the Taliban took over the majority of the nation, and panic ensued, the US had to get its troops back into the warzone to evacuate thousands of people. This came at a cost: hundreds of civilians died due to terror attacks and stampedes, and 13 US service members were killed in a bombing.
No matter who receives the blame, this operation was a failure. The main objective was to save Americans, but the rushed evacuation did just the opposite— it put civilians, allies, and soldiers in harm’s way.
The US citizens who died were several selfless souls laying down their lives to get people to safety.
Joe Biden, on damage control, not only blames it on previous administrations and Afghans but claims the mission was a success. Biden said in a speech to the nation, “The extraordinary success of this mission was due to the incredible skill, bravery and selfless courage of the United States military and our diplomats and intelligence professionals.”
This mission was not a success. Even the evacuation itself wasn’t a success, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying, “We believe there are still a small number of Americans – under 200 and likely closer to 100 – who remain in Afghanistan and want to leave.”
The mission wasn’t accomplished. Without any protection, and thousands of miles away from any US military base, the contingent of Americans and Afghan allies left in Afghanistan will have to stay for a longer period of time.
Looking forward, the situation is rather grim.
Similar to the 1990s in Afghanistan, the Taliban have control, and this will have major consequences for the entire region. The United States has left the nation and abandoned all military bases, despite this, continued involvement is highly likely, as retaliatory strikes against Isis-K have already happened and are expected to continue. The side effects of drone strikes have already been exposed, as one strike has already killed 10 civilians.
While the ground war is over, US airstrikes on terrorist targets will cause the death count to rise, and continue the humanitarian crisis that has caused millions to seek refuge in neighboring countries.
With Sharia Law being reinstated through the new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the human rights that Afghans had while living in democratic Afghanistan will be gone. These rights being freedom of speech, right to a fair trial, women’s rights, and others.
When the dust settles, and the international attention shifts elsewhere, the US’ rival, China, will begin their Belt and Road initiative in Afghanistan due to its mineral wealth.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese program sponsored by the state to spread influence through the investment of infrastructure projects. With Afghanistan in ruins, and nobody willing to lend to the Taliban, the group will have to resort to accepting money given from China in return for valued natural resources.
Afghanistan boasts nearly 1 trillion dollars worth of minerals. With the Taliban promising to protect Chinese investments in Afghanistan, mineral extraction on a large scale is verylikely to occur, as long as there is no conflict in the region.
When Afghanistan becomes allied with its neighbors, it will be impossible for the United States to have any influence in the area, and if anything warranted an armed response, it would be impossible to act. Any sort of attempt of US intervention could grow to a proxy war or even a war against China and the US.
In the end, the massive, preventable mistakes made by Joe Biden’s administration and the US intelligence community, have put American and Afghan lives in danger, gone opposite to US interests, and given the entire region to our political rivals on a silver platter.5