Like most Americans my age, I have grown up with the War in Afghanistan. When President George Bush launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” – the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan – I was less than a year old, but U.S. involvement in that conflict lasted long enough for me to cast my vote for the President who has now withdrawn American forces. As mass human tragedy plays out in Afghanistan, and with more suffering to come for its people, it is hard to be proud of my vote, despite having had no real alternative to it.
The U.S.– and our NATO partners, whose efforts are often underappreciated – are certainly not leaving Afghanistan victorious, but it would be wrong to say we have been defeated in battle. U.S. forces proved for 20 years that they were willing and able to combat the Taliban, IS-K, and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We are leaving Afghanistan because we lack the will, not the capability, for war. We are giving up.
Despite Republicans’ current point-scoring against the Biden administration, this withdrawal is fundamentally a continuity from the Trump administration, and stands out as a point of agreement between the Right’s growing America-First isolationism and the Left’s skepticism of America’s right to global hegemony. Despite the chasm of differences between these camps, neither is willing to present a real alternative to surrender; we are really only arguing over which flavor of decline and abdication is least bitter.
What is lacking from that argument is any appreciation of the extent to which the future of tens of millions of Afghan people have been abandoned by this nation, after putting them through great violence and trauma justified by the notion that American
involvement might actually be to others’ benefit. Yes, we lament the suffering in Afghanistan while it is on cable news and the New York Times’ frontpage, but not with any real sense of responsibility.
None of this is to say the war was particularly pure, heroic, or even a good idea to begin with, but to pretend that this ending was inevitable is indicative of a people who have entirely lost faith in their country’s ability to do good in the world. It also demonstrates a double standard in the way America treats their foreign engagements; the tens of thousands of troops in Germany or South Korea do not draw the same ire as smaller forces in the Middle East.
Our military presence in “developed” nations is institutionalized as “alliances” and “commitments,” while those in nations like Afghanistan are denigrated as neo-imperial “forever wars.” As a result, while reconsidering its engagements abroad, this country has found that the people easiest to give up on are those who will be harmed most by its absence.