America Broke Things in Afghanistan and It Will Leave Others to Clean It Up
Close to 20 years since the United States invaded, the sounds coming from Afghanistan are the sounds of American defeat. It feels crass to once again center "The Americans" in all this, since it is Afghans who will bear the brunt of this failure. As the Taliban seizes city after city and province after province—the group that was running the country when we initially invaded now controls 11 of 34 provincial capitals, including the nation's third-largest city of Herat—most of what remains of the American presence will be whisked away. A few thousand American troops are moving into position to ensure the American embassy in Kabul, the capital, can be safely evacuated. The State Department says some core diplomatic presence will remain, but the embassy could be relocated to the airport.
And then the Afghans will reap the whirlwind. The fragile civil society there is at risk. The nation's women and girls, and their hopes for a decent education and a chance at self-determination in their lives, are at horrible risk. The many people who chose to help the Americans in our mission, such as it was, may be at the gravest risk of all. The interpreters will be rebranded as collaborators. One former translator was beheaded at a Taliban checkpoint in May. The Biden administration hatched Operation Allies Refuge in an attempt to get these folks out of Afghanistan before the country's collapse, but it is entangled in bureaucracy and, by the New Yorker's account, has ultimately come up short. We have betrayed far too many of the people who helped us, and you have to wonder who is watching and who will remember. This conflict has proven how little we learned from Vietnam in so many ways, and images that evoke those of dangling figures desperately clinging to departing American helicopters in Saigon, as the world's most powerful nation once again flees the scene, could merely become the latest grotesque rerun.
Zoohra, 60, holds the photo of her daughter who she said was killed by the Taliban one month ago.
The Biden administration has been criticized for failing to protect those who helped us, and rightfully so. But for leaving? It is painful, horrible even, to contemplate how much has been sacrificed here only for it to come to this, to have the sensation that it could have been in vain. How many American men and women did not make it back, or came home unable to play with their kids in the backyard or sleep through the night? But it is not Biden's decision to leave that brought us to this. It was a thousand decisions that came before, crashing up against what we might someday come to understand to be immutable laws around the limits of force, the always temporary frontiers of empire. What would the situation look like, really, if we stayed another five or ten years? There is no way to remedy the mistakes we've made or the damage we've done. But we can leave, and we must. We were always just going to leave. We have gone to great lengths to avoid the sensation that we have lost, but it has been clear for a very long time that we cannot win.
What is winning, anyway? Mike Jason, a former colonel in the United States Army who helped train Afghan security forces—as well as those in Iraq—had a meditation Thursday in The Atlantic on the ways we could have done that job better. But by the end of the piece, he's focused on the larger issue that there was no one mission, really, no endgame, no coherent strategy. We stormed into their house, wild-eyed, seeking retribution for a crime beyond the heinous. We broke a bunch of shit and put some of it back together, but we never fixed the whole house back up, and now that we're leaving, the same damn people will somehow still own the place. "We didn’t fight a 20-year war in Afghanistan," Jason writes, "we fought 20 incoherent wars, one year at a time."
We should take some time to reflect on all that. We should think on it before we drop another bomb. We have the privilege of doing so because, again, we won't be there when the worst of the retribution for the retribution we sought comes calling. "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote once. "They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." Afghanistan was no human-rights paradise in 2001, but what can we call our contribution now? A terrible thing was done to us by 19 people and, by extension, a single organization, some of whose leadership was hiding out in Afghanistan. In response, we went absolutely berserk—and in the process, while we might be loathe to admit it, gave them exactly what they wanted.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.