Peeling the narrative Onion: How I am thinking about the end of American operations in Afghanistan and the return of taliban rule
I am still gathering my thoughts regarding the events in Afghanistan. I probably will have more to say soon, as I hear and read more from the experts I trust, and analyze the geopolitical activities as well as one can do, far from the territory.
In the meantime, here is a -still-emerging- heuristic of how I am thinking about the dramatic change in the balance of power in this nation. In a nutshell, I think too many agendas and too many issues are being superimposed on each other in ways that are not helpful. This is a list of those I have identified:
- The first question is if the US should have continued operations in Afghanistan or not. It was understood by many, but not all, that if US troops leave the region, Taliban forces would benefit from that.
- Following this first point, it was not clear to many how fast would those Taliban gains be made. For that, we do have an answer now: really fast. Why it happened this fast, on the other hand, is still open to debate and analysis.
- It is unclear whether the Taliban’s reconquest of the country negatively affects US national security interests. For some, an adversarial Afghani regime is not a national security concern; after all, many other nations do not support the US and they pose no existential threat. For the anti-war lobby, a US presence in the area actually exacerbated animosity instead of the opposite. For them, the ultimate National Security cost is negligible or a net benefit. Of course, for those still supporting operations, this is a catastrophic ending for a bloody multi-trillion effort.
- Independently of the question: should the US stay for many more years or not in the region? the way the withdrawal was conducted is also a subject of debate. After all, this is the third consecutive president trying to pull America out of the conflict. Biden finally decided to bite the proverbial bullet there were Obama and trump promised but failed to deliver, because they knew there was no way of doing it in an elegant fashion. Saigon metaphors and “plunging into chaos” narratives were inevitable. Biden decided to move where trump and Obama didn’t, and this is the result he accepted and they feared. Take the scaffold out and the structure it sustains may collapse.
- There was never domestic Afghani state capacity. Like a body that only sustains life thanks to the external input of medical machinery, once “we pulled the plug” the reality became patent immediately. Discussing if this is a failure of the last 6 months or of the last 20 years has been a favorite lens of the current punditocracy.
- Following naturally from the previous point, what happened demonstrated how the goal of a functioning self-sustaining democracy was still as far away as at the beginning of the occupation and maybe unachievable given terrain conditions. I see now a very revisionist effort by neocons and clintonites alike, but also some backpedaling by anti-war progressives and nativist trumpians who are having buyer’s remorse seeing the consequences of “ending the war.”
- Discussing the poor quality of many of the programs we implemented for nation-building has just started, but it is probably the most important item on the agenda (also the least investigated right now as it will force accountability conversations among those deciding about those programs).
- A big question often mixed with “should America leave?” is if this was the right way to mobilize a withdrawal. This is a dishonest interrogation as it is not the same to discuss if this end of operations was tactically well implemented (clearly it was not) or if it is still the right thing to do. Unethical pundits are combining these two things.
- It is also a different issue (and an imperative) to think about how to help the tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people who supported the American presence. Interpreters but also staff, restaurant owners, and their families are now at risk because they engaged in business transactions with Americans or other diplomats. Part of the conversation is what to do now with this burden to protect those who went all-in with the US and lost the gamble.
- The party system in the United States does not know what to do with this event. There is an interesting domestic debate emerging given the anti-war stance that trumpism brought to the GOP and the “humanitarian interventionism” of the “just war” sector of the progressive movement. Therefore, party coalitions are struggling to process what is happening and polarized militants seem to have lost their weathervane. Suddenly trumpians are asking for American troops to remain in the country (trump himself initiated the withdrawal) and democrats now think that the human rights of people in the country mean the US should continue to intervene.
- For many years Americans have supported in opinion polls the end of the endless wars; did they understand what that meant? Now that they see what many in the NatSec establishment thought would happen, will the support for this fait-accompli continue? This is the bigger question politically, as parties are trying to decide how to treat this event electorally.
- Losing does not sit well with the American zeitgeist. A satellite government that for decades was a black hole for American treasure, and billions and billions of dollars spent by three democratic and republican administrations to create a stable democracy in the Central Asian nation evaporated like a mirage. It is a loss no matter the spin. Deciding who owns the loss is the most pressing issue for spin doctors and partisan operatives alike. This blame game happens as at least one of the two major political parties has been undergoing a transformation from the neoconservative interventionist party it once was when the occupation started to the ethnonational populist party it now is.
- What will happen to the Afghani people? Will they celebrate as some claim? I doubt that girls and women feel very excited about this development. Will they accept the rule of the Taliban without a fight, the way their military and government did? Will the international community care about the return of taliban rule in Afghanistan? It will not be the first authoritarian and abusive regime in the region. Not by a long stretch; we seem to have learned to live with that reality.
Many answers to these questions can be somewhat contradictory. These topics, and some more, are all being discussed in the potpourri of nonsense that frequently emerges during the discussion of rapidly evolving world events. We need cold heads to understand what happened and, more importantly, to understand what comes next.
The status quo was not sustainable, but this present was not preordained. We will live for many years with the consequences of the choices we will make in the next few weeks. I hope statecraft and not petty cable news punditry dictates American actions, statespeople, not petty partisans work together and, for the well being of those who will suffer the most, the international community acts to minimize as much as possible the suffering that -this is the only certainty I have-, sadly will now come.