The 20-year involvement of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan resulted in the death of the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on our soil and prevented Afghanistan from being an incubator for terrorism.
But at what a cost?
Afghanistan, steeped in centuries-old tribal ties and religious extremism, and with leadership more inclined toward self-enrichment than practicing meritocracy, responded only fitfully to U.S. hopes. Americans fought well, as did Afghan forces at times.
Twenty-three hundred Americans lost their lives, and thousands more were wounded physically and mentally. For Afghans, there was vibrant, if temporary, capitalism in street markets, freer media, education for girls and professional opportunities for women. The arts and athletics were unbound and thrived.
But the country’s leadership failed.
Afghanistan is in a complicated neighborhood, as the U.S. discovered. Not surprisingly, Osama bin Laden was found and killed in adjacent Pakistan. That country was playing both sides, giving the Taliban access to its rugged border terrain, knowing that extremists were more likely to remain years from now than the U.S. government.
Four U.S. presidents of both parties and numerous U.S. military leaders largely saw victory within reach with just a little more effort. It is very difficult to admit that victory is not possible, that a war must end.
In the last weeks, two calamitous failures by the U.S. were made clear.
One was not grasping the possibility that the Afghan leadership was so weak and corrupt that its fighting soldiers might recognize their best future was in tossing away their weapons, shedding their uniforms and taking a few dollars from the Taliban and thus the end might come more quickly than expected.
With no defensive plan in place, U.S. intelligence was blindsided. President Donald Trump had told the Taliban – without any participation by the Afghan leadership - that the U.S. would be gone in May 2021; President Joe Biden extended that date to the end of August. Afghan soldiers knew what those dates meant: What the U.S. military provided – intelligence, logistics, equipment maintenance and critical air support – would be coming to an end and that senior Afghan leadership did not have the will or the ability to adjust.
The second failure was to fail to screen and approve, with any urgency, the exit documents for the tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked alongside the U.S. military, state department and nongovernmental personnel. That clearances and approvals in great quantity would be needed was clear months ago and government wheels moved much too slowly. The crush at the gates of the Kabul airport and many left behind were the results.
A popular American belief shapes too much of its international intrusions: That if only the autocratic leaders and their cronies and the ideologies that have no popular support can be eliminated, then democracy, or something close to it, will rise to the surface.
That is a flawed expectation.
Democracy does make a country and its neighbors safer, as meaningful participation by all people gives everyone a stake in maintaining peace.
Whether the Taliban will practice a more liberal rule than in the past is uncertain and probably unlikely. The best we can hope for Afghanistan now is that its citizenry will remember the freedoms and opportunities that existed during the 20 years of U.S. presence and by different means continue some of them without inflaming the Taliban.
Afghanistan is a different country than it was when the Taliban last ruled, so there could be hope.