Afghanistan Withdrawal: Symptoms and Etiology

Afghanistan withdrawl Taliban

I have not made a post here about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan not because I don’t have opinions about it, but because I don’t really have a hot take on it. The war was misguided from very early on, strategically inept, and the withdrawal was a complete boondoggle. I think one would be hard pressed to find many differing opinions on that third point, though possibly for different reasons.

Back on September 11, 2001, I was an insufferable sixteen-year-old high school junior. Although at the time I believed in Christianity, the symptoms of my burgeoning nihilism were evident. My catch phrase, if my life were a TV show, would have been “who cares?” Obviously, other people care, but what I meant by it was that I didn’t care. I cared about very little – school, other people, politics, world affairs. My life was Diablo 2, PlayStation, and TV. That was why, when 9/11 happened, I quickly became bored of the coverage. Why do they have to preempt my reruns of Seinfeld and the Simpsons that aired between 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm (my family didn’t have cable TV at the time, so it was all I had) for news just showing the same video of the planes hitting and the buildings collapsing over and over again? “Who cares?” I would think to myself.

Pictured: second WTC tower being hit by plane on 9/11
Not pictured: me not caring

As such, I cared very little when the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF 2001) was passed. I had little idea who the Taliban or Al-Qaeda were, or even that they weren’t just interchangeable words for the same thing. I had some hazy idea that our invasion was successful in some vague way, though I had no idea at the time that the mission creep had already set in and that the ludicrous goal of installing a U.S. friendly democracy was now the objective. Nor did I at the time understand how misguided a task this was – though to be fair to that insufferable younger me, none of the people in the Bush Jr. administration knew how stupid an idea this was, either, and their ignorance was much more consequential than mine.

My political awakening didn’t happen for another year or so. The ramp up to the Iraq War played a big role in this, as did my becoming old enough to vote. I was against the Iraq War, but at the time the Afghanistan War didn’t figure that much into my political awakening. I think in 2002, 2003, and 2004, the Afghanistan War was still seen as justified. It was, for me and many of those who were against going into Iraq, still seen as ‘the good war.’ It was justifiable retaliation for 9/11, which still loomed large in people’s minds (it was even used as a justification for going into Iraq, though even then the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda proposed by the Bush Jr. administration was tenuous at best).

This lack of attention and resulting ignorance of the Afghanistan War would characterize my attitude toward it for most of its 20-year duration. As strongly as I opposed the Iraq War, which was a major impetus for much of my political evolution, I paid little heed to the Afghanistan War. My ignorance of the war was only slowly washed away – it was probably only ten or so years ago that I even learned that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were not interchangeable names for the same terrorist organizations – and I was always aware that it was going on, that it was not going well, and that it was the military industrial complex that was, in a large part, responsible for our continuing presence there.

My attention was pulled back to the Middle East during the Arab Spring, and especially to places like Syria and Libya. Once again, I was against U.S. involvement in these conflicts. It was during this time that my political leanings swung from anti-war liberal to anti-war libertarian. Still, I think like many people, over the last decade or so, I just sort of thought little about Afghanistan beyond the occasional “oh yeah, we’re still there, aren’t we?” Then in 2014 ISIS became the big news in foreign policy, I think (at least for me) attention was even more distracted away from Afghanistan.

Malnourished child as a result of the U.S. backed Saudi/U.A.E. blockade of Yemen

My attention to the Middle East was once again captured around 2014 and 2015 by the civil war in Yemen, which quickly became a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale. Interestingly, my attention to this conflict was fueled in large part by how little it was covered in the mainstream news media and how ignorant the population was about it (and still are). That a crisis of the magnitude occurring in Yemen could go unnoticed by so many people was breathtaking. I thought for sure that when Donald Trump took office and was only a more vocal advocate of our support for the Saudi and UAE’s continued crimes against humanity in that the conflict, that perhaps the liberal media would finally pay attention to Yemen. They did not.

In the past three years or so, my political and philosophical pessimism has gotten the better of me. I pay much less attention to politics and world affairs than I used to. My attention to Yemen, Libya, and Syria has slipped quite drastically. My attention to Afghanistan never really took off and so never truly waned. I was only vaguely aware that Trump had ordered a withdrawal and that Biden was going to honor that order.

Evacuation of Kubal 2021 (left) and Saigon 1975 (right)

My attention arose again, however, when our evacuation of Kabul, and its parallels to the Fall of Saigon in 1975, hit the news this past August. In the last couple months I’ve read a fair number of assessments and autopsies of our Afghanistan misadventure. All of them, as I said at the beginning of this post, agreed that our withdrawal was a mess (at best) or a disaster (at worst). Many think that getting out of Afghanistan was long overdue, though they believe the withdrawal was badly mishandled. Others think that we ought to have remained (and that since we didn’t, we ought to go back), and even they sill still agree that our withdrawal was ineptly carried out.

As I said, I don’t really have a hot take on this. I am in agreement that getting out of Afghanistan was long overdue, but also that our withdrawal was badly mishandled. I have a difficult time imagining that our withdrawal could have gone smoothly, but it certainly could have been handled better than it was. That the Taliban would retake the country was well known and predictable. Indeed, the fact that we could not defeat the Taliban once-and-for-all was the impetus to leave: there was never going to be victory for the U.S. because the Taliban, while unable to win, was not going to lose. Such is the strategic objective of guerilla warfare – when you cannot win the war, you use guerilla tactics to not lose the war and thereby outlast the invaders who have less commitment to stay the course. This was a lesson that the U.S. ought to have learned given past experiences in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba, Lebanon, Somalia, the U.S.S.R. misadventure into Afghanistan, and our Iraq misadventure. But we didn’t. Likely we will learn nothing from the 2001-2021 Afghanistan War, either – the Afghanistan War “is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Afghanistan is just the latest in the decline in fall of the United States Empire. The twentieth century is sometimes called the American Century. I’ve talked before about the U.S. in the century following World War 1. All empires believe themselves to be the end of history, but no empire is permanent. This is true the U.S., and although our failures in Afghanistan (or really just about every military foray the U.S. has undertaken following World War 2) may not be the cause of our empire’s collapse, these failures are indicative of the reality of said collapse. Our only consolation is that the slide down from the imperial zenith is easier and filled with more decadent pleasures than the hard work of building an empire.