It’s no exaggeration to say that America’s involvement in Afghanistan was the work of a lifetime. For many of those my age and younger who work in national security, it’s been literally our entire careers. To see that work crumble to dust and turn to ash so quickly is bitter, to say the least. Our generation gave the years of our youth to the cause of Afghanistan. Too many also gave up marriages, families, limbs, their mental wellbeing, and, of course — their very lives.
So I understand the argument that withdrawal was better than the alternative — the alternative being the continuing throwing away of American and Afghan lives in an unwinnable war. But I also understand that at some point you become responsible for more than just the military situation.
It is true that what had started as the “good war” had since become the “forever war,” & it was an enormous vacuum draining away money, resources, and lives. But it is also true that we chose to make ourselves the indispensable actor for a struggling country of 40 million people.
It’s true both that we had to leave, and that we should have stayed. It’s true that leaving was right, and that at the same time incredibly wrong. An impossible conundrum full of moral injury, which is why, I guess, the emotional struggle is so difficult right now.
I understand that at some point, you want to expect people to “stand up” and “take responsibility” and all those other deflections we hear being tossed around right now. But it’s also true that those were unreasonable expectations in 2002, and just as unreasonable in 2021.
We, that is, the public we, knew all of this — it was plainly talked about if we only cared to listen. Yet we made ourselves deaf, ignoring the flimsiness of the Afghan government we ourselves had built, pretending that it would stand on its own if we stopped holding it up.
I remember in Iraq we talked about the “Powell Doctrine,” i.e. the “Pottery Barn Rule” — you break it, you buy it. It’s not quite the same for Afghanistan, it was broken long before we arrived. But we did create a flimsy facsimile of a government, one founded on theft and fraud.
And we lied about it. We lied to the Afghans about their institutions and our investment in their future. What’s worse, we lied to…