Like many Americans, I did not know much about Afghanistan before the events of September 11, 2001. For one year I had a colleague at school who was from Afghanistan. He had fled the country well before the attack on the World Trade Center. He came to America for a college education and never left, but homesickness for his native Afghanistan leaked out of him on occasion. I knew that Russia had been involved in a war in Afghanistan, and that they had finally left in defeat. I knew about the Taliban’s strict religious laws and how Sharia law was especially harsh for women. By the end of 2003, along with many others I had read Khaled Hosseini’s book, The Kite Runner, which offered insights into Afghan life before and after the Taliban. In 2004, Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad published her book, The Bookseller of Kabul. Åsne lived with the bookseller and his family for three months under Taliban rule. The bookseller had to hide his books; his wives had to hide themselves.
Why were we in Afghanistan? From the cheap seats, we were there because Iraq was a mistake. It was Afghanistan that was implicated in the attacks of 9/11. We were there because ISIS set out to form an Emirate using violence, kidnappings, fear, intimidation, and they didn’t stay local about it. They seemed intent on intimidating the world. On the news we saw one outrage after another. We were there because Osama bin Laden was hidden away somewhere in Afghanistan, or across the border in Pakistan. We were there because we couldn’t afford to attack Saudi Arabia for any number of political reasons.
For a while our American soldiers were able to push the Taliban back from cities like Kabul and Kandahar. We were able to create a space for an Afghan government that was not the domain of extremists. Women went back to work and school, businesses were freer, as adherence to strict religious laws disappeared, or at least retreated. America hoped to help Afghanistan train an Army to fight off the Taliban, still active in areas of the country.
So, having 20 years of war end with only a couple of months’ warning (at least that’s how it seems) made it look like we were leaving in defeat with our tails between our legs. I was around during the Vietnam War. I recall the rush to leave Saigon, which felt even faster than in Kabul. In The Sympathizer by Viet Trang Nguyen, who heard about the last day in Saigon from refugees of his parent’s generation, the author describes a scene at the airport in Saigon that sounds almost identical to what is happening in Kabul. Each day of the evacuation seems like that final day in Vietnam.
I am shocked that this all happened so fast. I feel embarrassment and shame that our promises to Afghan citizens who helped us may not be kept and that they may, even now, be at the mercy of the ruthless Taliban. Time will tell us how deep our shame will be. It is very telling that we had to stick to Trump’s deal with the Taliban, perhaps because they had become too rich and powerful to bargain with. (Where did they get their funding. That is one of the more interesting questions I have heard people ask.)
The fate of the Afghan women may be the cause for our greatest grief. Will they really be accepted, or will they be banished once more to their husbands’ whims and their domestic routines, brain dead once again so they can’t sin or disobey. Or perhaps there will be repercussions against ‘collaborators’ who may be beaten, imprisoned, or killed, and our guilt will outweigh our grief.
What were our choices: 1) stay and fight the Taliban, shoulder-to-shoulder with trained Afghan soldiers who might run away, 2) send more and more troops to save a few key cities while the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan, 3) push the Taliban back once again at great cost of American lives, 4) establish a permanent base in Afghanistan (it wouldn’t be at all like a base in Germany, or South Korea, or Japan), 5) get those who helped us out earlier (which still could have caused a panic and been just as chaotic). I have heard all these suggestions. However, we are trying to break our addiction to ‘nation building’ and ‘regime change’ activities that have come under negative scrutiny for good humanitarian reasons. These strategies also often fail.
Islamic nations, especially religious states present a dilemma for the rest of the world’s nations. The fervor, the passionate embrace of religious extremes mirrors Christianity as it existed in the age of monarchs in Europe. So many Americans and others have moved towards atheism or humanism, or a more casual level of religious observance that we recoil from Islamic extremists who want to kill for Allah, apply religious laws in the strictest sense of the Sharia Laws, refuse to tolerate any religion but Islam. We have many reasons beyond our “loss of face” to keep a close eye on how the Taliban rulers handle governing in Afghanistan.
I wrote this in the first person because I wanted to try to set down my own schema on these matters, and because I write opinions rather than straight news. Some may agree with my perceptions, some may not. I will continue to try to educate myself on these complex events. I hope I got some of this right (isn’t that what Rachel Maddow always asks).
As for who gets the blame, I agree with those who say there is enough blame to go around. We are headed towards a crucial midterm election in 2020. Regardless of whether President Biden was precipitous, or unwise, I know that I do not want a Republican Congress. Republicans began the war in Afghanistan, Republicans engineered the end of the war by treating with insurgents. They deserve the lion’s share of the blame, and they deserve to lose plenty of seats in the 2022 midterms, and the Presidency in 2024. If Republicans don’t lose, I fear for our own democracy.