The End of the War in Afghanistan*
In light of the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, it appears that the War in Afghanistan is finally coming to an end. The war has gone on for almost my entire life. The war resulted in nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians, thousands of U.S. soldiers and personnel, and almost 70,000 national police and military deaths. Even beyond the loss of deaths, the war cost over two trillion dollars, thousands of casualties, displaced individuals and families, and it has created an incalculable amount of trauma that will last for decades to come. So while the U.S. forces may be leaving, the impact of the war on Afghan civilians and the uncertain future they face cannot be ignored.
In recent years, it is clear that there are more questions than answers surrounding the War in Afghanistan. The release of the Afghanistan Papers in late 2019 showed the American public the lack of a consensus among U.S. officials regarding our strategy and objectives in Afghanistan. Questions about where the U.S. failed, what does and the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan look like, and whether or not Afghans are better off today than ten or twenty years ago need answers. Finally, how did and how does our national security interests impact the human security of the Afghan people?
At an event at CSIS last month, guests Gina Bennett and Carter Malkasian spoke about the past, present, and future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and addressed some of these questions. Bennett discussed how on the one hand, understandably, we responded emotionally immediately after 9/11. The United States technically got its “revenge” as almost all of those involved in the 9/11 attacks are dead, including Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, Bennett points out that such an emotional response by the world’s superpower resulted in military action that would be appropriate if it were against another state. In other words, our definition of victory and defeat differs from that of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, and therefore in hindsight, our response could have been more targeted and better managed.
Malkasian expanded on Bennett’s comments by saying that the U.S. really had no coherent strategy and that in recent years, the U.S. kept forces in the region so that no threats could develop. U.S. forces continued to be a presence in Afghanistan and helped strengthen the Afghan government and its security forces. However, he concluded that it is unlikely that Afghan security forces can hold back the Taliban. In the past few weeks and months, with the absence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban have begun rapidly regaining territory, capturing provinces and cities one by one, inching their way towards Kabul. There are real concerns about whether the Taliban will regain control of the government, and what that will mean for the civilian population.
Justifications for a troop presence in Afghanistan went beyond just finding Osama bin Laden and stopping Al-Qaeda and terrorist threats on the United States. Some saw the U.S. presence as a way to protect civilians, democratize the country, and strengthen the government, economy, and security forces. Those who oppose the withdrawal cite the potential backsliding that may occur without a U.S. presence on the ground. One of the main concerns is the impact that this would likely have on women’s rights. While Afghanistan’s human development index score places it in the low human development category, it has increased in the last twenty years. Without the U.S. providing security in the country and there being a potential for civil war, it is hard to imagine Afghanistan’s HDI score improving in the near future.
The human security of Afghans and the United State’s national security may in many respects seem far apart. However, in Human Security: Theory and Action, authors David Andersen-Rodgers and Kerry F. Crawford say, “without an explicit focus on human security, however, the human security benefits of state security provision are by-products or externalities, not the direct objectives, of national security providers.” The authors are primarily talking about the human security of those within one country, where the government’s national security creates human security benefits for its own people. However, it is interesting to think about how a state’s own national security decisions can impact the human security of a different group of people. Look at European countries that attempted to block refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The national security measures that aim to protect their borders impact refugees and immigrants in a profound way. The national security of one country can not only affect the human security of its own citizens but potentially the human security of other groups of people.
The United States is not sending a promising message to the Afghan people by leaving so suddenly. While it may be easy for the United States to withdraw from the war, Afghan civilians cannot do the same. The Obama, Trump, and now Biden administrations all pulled forces out of Afghanistan in the hopes to limit U.S. casualties. The American public certainly does not want American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, especially if there are no significant terrorist threats. Yet, the war goes on even when the U.S. military decides to leave. In what ways can the United States focus on its national security and diplomacy while simultaneously continuing to provide human security benefits to the Afghan people?
I believe the United States must protect Afghans from the Taliban and other threats. The Biden Administration appears to agree, at least in part, with their aim to create a new Afghan refugee program in the face of the Taliban gaining territory. The U.S. government promised Afghan civilians the chance to come to the United States in exchange for their assistance. It appears the Biden Administration has recognized these promises and the detrimental long-term impact that inaction would have on the United State’s reputation.
There would be national security repercussions if the Biden Administration fails to assist Afghans in a timely manner. In Michael Hayden’s book, The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies, the former CIA director argues that former President Trump’s Executive Order 13769, commonly known as the Muslim Travel Ban, makes little sense from a national security and diplomatic perspective. Hayden asks how are we supposed to maintain and develop the trust of interpreters, informants, and other civilians if we are not able to keep our promise of granting them and their families entrance into the United States?
It seems appropriate and politically favorable to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan and bring this painful and costly war to an end. But for Afghan civilians, the war is not over, and another painful and costly chapter appears to be on the horizon.