The April 9, 2010 cover of Time Magazine still shocks. Eighteen-year-old Aisha, her nose cut off, was an all-too-common example of why we were told then that the United States should not leave Afghanistan. After Aisha had run away from home to escape an abusive husband and in-laws, they caught her, sliced off her ears and nose and left her to bleed to death on an isolated mountainside. Eleven years later, the Taliban may be at least as strong in Afghanistan as it was then. Despite our military presence and the loss of more than 2300 American lives (52,000 wounded) and the deaths of 3500 of our allies and 100,000 civilians, we surely have not succeeded in bringing peace and stability to that country. Nor have we succeeded reversing the circumstances that deprive Afghan women of their rights to safety, education, the ability to go about freely and avoid being forced into marriages or prostitution. Their equal rights exist largely on paper.
Listening to President Biden yesterday announce full US military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I thought of the late Sally Goodrich, whose son Peter was killed on UAL Flight 175 that crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Vermont educator translated her consuming grief into building a school for girls in Afghanistan. She raised more than $300,000, made several dangerous trips there, and, in 2006, opened a K-8 school for 500 girls in a village in Logar. (Its enrollment would grow to 700.) The Peter Goodrich Memorial Foundation also funded wells, dental services, library collections, and tricycles for those who had lost limbs in landmine explosions. Other humanitarian efforts grew from there, but eventually the Taliban took over, and Sally Goodrich’s dream could not be fulfilled.
Nor could the dreams of those misguided policymakers whose good intentions and misreading of history led to a self-defeating mission creep. We destroyed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden (in Pakistan) and much of his core operation. But terrorism still exists in Afghanistan and has grown elsewhere, especially Somalia, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and Syria. And for too long we’ve underestimated our immediate threat, domestic terrorism.
I understood why we invaded in the first place: to stop plots to attack our homeland. But it’s baffling why we remain there. To do endless nation-building thinking we’d nip future terrorism in the bud? Was it simple hubris thinking we could replace a brutal fundamentalist theocracy with a sustainable Central Asian variant of a Western secular democracy? How did that serve our national interest, especially when we have so much work to do at home on strengthening the same democratic norms, reconciling partisan tribalism and implementing fair power-sharing arrangements that we‘ve been preaching to the Afghanis and Taliban.
Our primary goals were achieved. Time proved that mission creep was a failure. But achieving those secondary objectives to establish a sustainable democracy that protected human rights and respected Western norms of rule of law was, despite some minimal gains, simply impossible. There’s a reason that Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of Empires? “ Who were we to believe that we would succeed where others had failed?
Biden’s decision does not mean we won’t stay engaged in the area. It just means the phase of direct American military involvement is over. Back in 1980, we aided Bin Laden’s Mujahedin against the Russians. Our track record hasn’t improved. Still, US humanitarian aid alone and through international organizations should continue.
In the next five months, while ensuring the safe withdrawal of our troops, we must prioritize planning the extrication of certain Afghanis. Learning from the Vietnam and Iraq aftermaths, we must provide expeditious asylum for all Afghani interpreters, helicopter pilots and others whose support of our efforts there make them targets for extermination by the Taliban immediately upon our departure.
Our diplomatic efforts shouldn’t depend on having boots on the ground in perpetuity in a failed Afghanistan war. Looking ahead, we must focus on strengthening our position in the international arena, facing larger threats posed by China and Russia, and putting down domestic terrorists within our own borders. Salvaging democracy on our home front can’t be overlooked while taking our message of “exceptionalism” to the rest of the world.