I want to understand the draw down of the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. I want to be assured people who assisted U.S. personnel during the conflict get proper protection. I want to feel like the 2,448 deaths among U.S. soldiers and more than a trillion dollars were not wasted. As Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote, “You can’t always get what you want.”
There are no brilliant takes. The situation in Southeast Asia is too complex for that. What I present instead are my reactions to what I am seeing and hearing from my perch in Iowa.
My friend Ed left a voicemail to call him on Sunday. When I did the next day we talked for 15 minutes and agreed we had to support President Biden’s decision to end the war. After Ed, me, and eight others organized the Iowa Chapter of Veterans for Peace we protested our endless war in Afghanistan many times–in rallies, in letters to the newspapers, and by bringing speakers to Iowa to discuss this war and other U.S. military engagements around the world. Either one wants the war to end or one doesn’t. Either choice can get ugly.
I listened to President Biden’s speech Monday afternoon. It was a good speech that addressed the issues from the perspective of someone who knows U.S. foreign policy better than any president since George H.W. Bush. A couple of things stood out.
- “Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.”
- “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”
- “I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
- “I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past — the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of U.S. forces.”
- “Our current military mission will be short in time, limited in scope, and focused in its objectives: Get our people and our allies to safety as quickly as possible.”
Biden’s speech is unlikely to convince the naysayers. There is no hope for them anyway.
Before the speech I received an email from U.S. Senator Joni Ernst. She “fervently disagreed” with the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Among things she said was this: “Women and girls who were just starting to enjoy their freedoms are again faced with oppression and subjugation by a ruthless Taliban regime.” What of that?
The concern is the Taliban will re-establish a caliphate which will repress Afghan citizens, forcing women into traditional roles. It is a legitimate concern. However, if Ernst valued the “freedoms” of women, she would support a woman’s right to choose right here in Iowa. Instead, in early 2020, she joined an amicus brief with 206 other members of congress calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its decision in Roe vs. Wade. The hypocrisy of conservatives like Ernst is thick.
The way President Trump negotiated the draw down of U.S. Troops and equipment created an opportunity for the Taliban to resume control of the country. By releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including key leaders, President Trump set the stage for the group to organize to retake the country. The negotiated ceasefire created an environment for the Taliban to approach members of the Afghan army to gain their support. In the end, the Taliban demonstrated competence by using what they were given by the Trump administration. While the international media drew a picture of chaos in Afghanistan, describing a “backlash” to U.S. execution of the withdrawal plan, the Taliban knew exactly what they were doing and effectively, mostly peacefully, ousted the U.S. backed government.
Where does this leave my desire to understand Afghanistan? Unsatisfied. I recall that throughout history others have had the same problem, going back to the Persian empire of Darius the Great. Seven months into his first term, President Joe Biden recognized the challenge of Afghanistan. With our mission there long accomplished, he did what three previous presidents would not. He initiated withdrawal of U.S. forces and, for now, closed the embassy. It was the right thing to do.