The news of the fall of Afghanistan and the chaos as people flee to the airport is heartbreaking. The Afghan government we tried so hard to prop up melted away.
I wish I could say I was shocked.
Over ten years ago, a member of my extended family was killed in Afghanistan. He was very young, so it was a shock to everyone. But through the grief, I asked myself if I believed we would ultimately win the war.
I ultimately came to the conclusion we wouldn’t.
After Bin Laden was killed, we no longer had a clear goal. Our eyes turned away from Afghanistan with the war on Iraq. Because so much of the war used contractors, the military didn’t have to instate a draft. The bulk of the country remained unaffected by the war. Afghanistan was the war Americans turned away from.
Multiple presidents of both parties presided over the war. I will leave it up to people who know more than I do and are willing to spend time and energy researching to say what blame lies where. But Biden did not do the same thing as all those previous presidents, and kick the can down the road. I may not agree with how this withdrawal is being done, but I agree with the decision.
I am in general cynical of nation building. True patriotism is the belief in being a part of an identity greater than yourself, that is worth making sacrifices for. The modern nation state requires people to trust in a government beyond their local officials, to unite with people outside of family, and care for fellow citizens they do not personally know. Those are things that can not be bought, or trained.
You can have conversations with people, or about people. I question how much ordinary Afghans were a part of the conversation of our involvement in their country. What did the Afghan people really want from us? What did we end up bringing to them?
Successful social movements have a grassroots element. People have to convince their fellow neighbors to make change. Revolutions that lasted may have been started by people who were educated in another country (like Mao Zedong) but ultimately the groundwork needs to be done by the people or they won’t last.
After so long, there had been so much death, suffering, and money spent people need to feel like we have something to show for it. I came to the conclusion 10 years ago there was no winning, and the longer we stayed the more was lost. The families of those who died want to believe that the death of their loved one was for something. The soldiers who served want to believe it. But belief is not enough to change to cold reality. Doing the same thing, just adding more bodies and dollars to it, doesn’t suddenly make it worthwhile. It just makes it harder to admit this isn’t working.
As Americans, we believe we can do anything, but we don’t ask what is the price? Everything has a price, and I don’t think the American people understood what the true cost of nation building in Afghanistan would be. I don’t think we really understood what we were doing there, or what the real cost was. As long as the war was kept hidden, everyone went along with their daily lives and forgot it was going on.
The true cost of war is not just ammunition or bombs. It is also providing needed health care, both physical and mental, to everyone on our side. It is the loss what could have been and who could have been. If we are not ready to acknowledge those costs and pay for them, we are not ready for war.
It is hard to admit we failed, but we have. While I do think there were plenty of things that should have been done differently, I wonder if waiting a few months would have really changed the ultimate outcome. As a nation, we do have a duty to those who helped us and now face reprisal, a duty which we have not been living up to even before the fall to the Taliban. None of us know what the future holds, and I only hope those that need a way out find one.