What do you do when you have a major decision to make and all your options are bad? You endeavor to pick the least bad one and hope that you’re right. When it comes to making decisions about Afghanistan, any course of action is bound to have serious consequences regarding our foreign policy, and even our domestic security.
Before I go further, let me state unequivocally that I don’t have all the answers when it comes to Afghanistan. Perhaps I don’t have any. I also recognize that I am sitting in the comfort of my office, pontificating, with absolutely nothing at stake. With that established, I will offer some thoughts regarding President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from that nation — and the manner in which he did so.
First, I don’t know whether leaving is the right decision — for us or for the people of Afghanistan. On the one hand, our military clearly is a stabilizing force (no pun intended). There is perhaps no better evidence of that than the heartbreaking humanitarian catastrophe that immediately ensued after our irresponsibly executed withdrawal. Further, the swift collapse of Afghanistan’s civilian and military leadership guarantees that the country will return to the medieval-type rule of the Taliban.
On the other hand, most Americans have lost the appetite to continue what could, in a literal sense, become an endless war. We have spent billions of dollars fighting combatants and engaging in what we euphemistically refer to as “nation-building.” Understandably, there is a strong impulse to cut our losses.
The ultimate question, of course, is whether our blood and treasure were worth the effort. The answer truly depends on who one asks. There should be no argument against the fact that the U.S. has met the original two goals that we set for invading Afghanistan: “disrupting” (i.e., killing) the people who committed the 9/11 attacks and preventing another such attack on American soil.
Regarding the former, we have killed thousands of fighters and leaders, of whom Osama Bin Laden was the most important (at least symbolically). Regarding the latter, fewer than 200 Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks in America during the last 20 years. (New York City alone has foiled 50 such plots.) However, our hasty exit likely will lead to Afghanistan again becoming a safe haven for terrorist organizations.
If our leaving results in another horrific attack on America, will those who agree with the withdrawal change their minds? If it doesn’t, will those who opposed the withdrawal change theirs? In either case, those concerns place U.S. interests at the center of the debate. However, we have a moral obligation to consider the interests of the 39 million people who call Afghanistan home. At a minimum, we must do everything within our power to resettle the Afghans who risked their lives to help our military and civilian workers. Anything less would be a complete moral failure on our part.
Importantly, the situation in Afghanistan is a microcosm of the internal crisis that Islam faces. Just as the West is struggling to determine whether liberal democracy will endure, the Islamic world is in a battle between modernity and those who are willing to die (or kill) to resist it. The simple truth is that Islamists kill more followers of Islam than they do any other group of people. Only Muslims can solve that problem.
When it comes to Afghanistan, I see three potential ways to address the challenge going forward. One is for Muslim countries to create a multi-national force to challenge the Taliban. That simply is not going to happen. Another possibility is a popular uprising of millions of patriotic Afghans against the Taliban. Given that Afghanistan is not so much a unified country as it is a confederacy of tribes and warlords, I strongly doubt that will happen. Third, the rest of the world could completely isolate the Taliban. While this option could have the best chance of occurring, Pakistan, Russia, and China are already doing business with them. (The Chinese even received an official delegation of the Taliban.)
Even as the Taliban sustained incredible losses on the battlefield, they were fond of telling their adversaries: “You have the watches, but we have the time.” In short, the greatest military cannot defeat the deepest ideology. Will America have to return to this fight? Time will tell.
(Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.)