The precipitous fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a painful lesson for US foreign policy and, by extension, for all Americans. While the abject failure of the Biden administration’s planning and implementation of the US withdrawal cannot be overlooked or excused, the first lesson we must learn is how the roots of this tragedy have festered just below the surface for a generation.
There is a reason that Afghanistan is known as the place where empires go to die: the British in the 19th century, the Russians in the 20th century and now the Americans have all entered Afghanistan, presuming to know what was best for “them” while failing to fully understand Afghan culture and history. The disturbing images at the Kabul airport only scratch the surface of our failures in this 20-year war. We need to begin by acknowledging the arrogance of Western policy makers who have assumed from the beginning that securing a Western-style democracy was feasible in a nation with no history or experience in this form of governance. Nowhere is this attitude more apparent than in the dismissal of traditional Afghan tribal structure.
Jeremy Suri writes in Foreign Policy, how failure of this basic understanding of Afghan society has led to decades of missteps by multiple US administrations in dealing with Afghanistan. He writes, “Climate and topography empower pastoral and decentralized forms of social organization on the edges of empires and states. The groups in these regions survive through kinship networks and adaptation to the land. They resist powerful intruders, and they adapt creatively to wider changes in politics and the economy.”
American elites—academics, journalists and policy makers—tend to describe tribes “in static terms, almost inevitably freighted with assumptions about cultural inferiority. If states are rational and innovative, tribes are depicted as static and tradition-bound. Americans of all political stripes cannot shake the belief they know better than the tribal inhabitants of Afghanistan they spent 20 years trying to organize as a modern military and state bureaucracy.” And after two decades of such effort, we see the results in scenes from the Kabul Airport.
Like in Vietnam (though the Biden administration is loathe to make such comparisons), we have believed that our way of life is the best way to build a sustainable democratic society. But, imposing a national government upon a fractured populace (think Yugoslavia, or Iraq), divided by ethnic loyalties and religious rigidity, has proven to be a mountain that is too steep to climb.
Keeping Our Promise
Propaganda from the Taliban says that they have changed and, indeed, this may be true. The strictures they face today—largely because of social media and global awareness of their past acts—cast a harsher spotlight on them. But, to assume that they have fundamentally changed their brutal ways is folly, opening the current reality to the searing question of US loyalty to those who helped us in our twenty-year war. It also raises the question of our responsibility to those, especially women and girls, who were inspired to dream of a free and independent life. What is the plan to assist those who wish to leave the country? How do we support those who cannot or will not leave? Why has it taken so long to begin the processing of refugees when we have known for months that the end of our involvement in Afghanistan was near? What sacrifices are we willing to make so that they may live without fear?
We fled from Afghanistan, leaving unkept so many promises made, so many dreams unrealized. Those who are forced to remain because of our chaotic departure face an uncertain future where the price of following those dreams can be sadistic torture or even death. Bureaucratic obstacles put before those who seek to flee the country should all immediately be put aside. There is time to work that out later; right now, the situation is urgent, desperate. The US organized the Berlin airlift and the processing of 130,000 Vietnamese refugees. We should be able to slice red tape and secure the release of those who helped us fight this war. Supporting women and girls who remain behind will require a more lasting commitment backed by significant public and private dollars. We need to begin this support now.
Looking to the Future
As of yet, there is no silver lining to this very dark cloud. The Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is flawed on so many levels. I shudder to think of the domestic political battles that are to come when our collective horror at the heart-stopping images from Kabul Airport recede and Americans draw back into their own tribal wars, focusing on short-term blame and short-sighted assumptions. It is imperative that we learn the painful lessons so evident in the failure of this moment and, going forward, build our international relationships around the core principle of humility, acknowledging that we do not have all the answers to the world’s complex challenges.