Why the Afghanistan Mission Failed


As I’m sure most of you know by now, the American military involvement in Afghanistan is finally coming to an end after 20 years- two whole decades! And it hasn’t exactly ended the way anyone would have hoped. But the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t come as any real surprise to me (& I think to many others) that things have ended as they have- that it feels very much like we’re back to square one, so to speak, with the Taliban right back in control, just like they were when all this started.

Before I dig deeper into this subject, let me first preface this by saying I am in no way a foreign policy or military expert. Furthermore I am in no way claiming I have all- or even a tiny fraction- of the knowledge necessary to say what is or isn’t the right thing to do in these incredibly complicated situations. But what I do think I have a good understanding of is human nature. More than anything though, I’m just tossing around ideas & trying to make sense of an incredibly complex & horrifying situation. If you find anything I say here offensive- particularly if you served in Afghanistan yourself or if a loved one did, or worse yet if you lost a loved one in Afghanistan- please know that I am very sorry for any offense I may cause. I understand that having not been there myself & having not lost a loved one there, my mindset on this issue may be quite different than yours (though I have spoken to veterans who agree with me on this).

First off- why do I care so much about this? Well, most importantly I care about people. So to know that the Taliban are back in control in Afghanistan & what that means for human rights- especially women’s rights- is horrifying. Furthermore, 9/11 happened when I was 12 years old. It was in many ways the defining moment of my generation. I realize most of us did not lose a loved one that day- I certainly didn’t- but there is no denying that the events of that fateful day had lasting impacts on our culture & in many ways shaped the mindset of my generation. Between that & the many recessions & the increasing inflation my generation has experienced, it’s no wonder that we’re largely a cynical generation that is distrustful of authority (or maybe that’s just me projecting myself onto others). I remember when Osama Bin Ladin was killed when I was a senior in college & people burned couches on the street & all kinds of stuff in celebration. Being the studious person I was, I slept through all that of course (or at least stayed inside). Granted college students are always down for any excuse to party but it actually made sense because Bin Ladin was the mastermind behind the event that changed our culture in so many ways when we were still so young- but not so young as to be oblivious to it. So to see things in Afghanistan end this way is indeed a tragedy & a disappointment that I think many of us feel quite strongly right now.

Having said all that, I’ve often seen lots of parallels between Afghanistan & Vietnam, certainly in terms of the American military involvement in both places. And this week of course we are seeing another parallel- with helicopters & planes leaving Kabul much like they did in Saigon in the 70s. The main parallel I see is that both wars seemed truly unwinnable– if that’s a word. And I think the biggest reason for that is that we can’t fight other people’s battles for them. We can’t force democracy on people. It’s quite antithetical to the very idea of democracy, if you think about it! The end result is that you can’t accomplish something that neither side really cares about, so inevitably it’s a loss, really on all sides. At the end of the day as incredibly complex as all of this is, it boils down to the fact that you can’t change a community or a country or a culture from the outside. It has to start from within. Imagine if I (or folks like me)- a white woman from a very rural background- tried to infiltrate an inner city gang in NYC or southside Chicago or even somewhere more local like Durham. It would not work for a multitude of reasons! It’s like trying to erase racism from people’s hearts. No matter how talented, educated, & professional black people might be, they alone can’t stop some white (or maybe I should just say non black) people from being racist. Those changes have to start from within. Same as you can’t make someone quit smoking or drinking or using heroin, etc. People have to make that choice themselves. The point is you can’t change a country from the outside, & the reason for this is that you can’t change a PERSON from the outside. And what are countries except for a multitude of people?

Furthermore, while I clearly think our (American) culture- while far from perfect- is preferable to any culture ruled by the Taliban, is it really our place (or anyone’s) to police the world? My heart says no. While my heart breaks for the people of Afghanistan, I don’t think it’s our place to be the “savior” of the world. Certainly not our military. Militaries were not designed to set up entirely new systems of governments in other countries. They were designed to fight wars. And this was so much more than just a war. We were asking our servicemen & women to do something that in all likelihood was impossible. As much as it hurts to think that their sacrifices may have been in vain, I think the truth of the matter is- like a toxic relationship- it was always going to end this way. Whether we left five years ago or ten years ago or if we stayed another 20 years, the end result would be the same, for all the reasons I’ve just discussed.

There is so much more we could deliberate here. We could talk about how Afghanistan as a country was largely defined by outside powers carving up the land with no respect for tribal history or local traditions. We could also discuss the opium trade, which is massive in Afghanistan, & of course oil. We could discuss how religious extremism is incompatible with freedom & democracy. While all of these things are relevant I still think all of this boils down to our essential human nature. And that nature says that change must come from within. As much as it sucks to admit that sometimes, as much as it makes us feel powerless at times, it’s just the way it is.

Now does any of that make sense? Or am I just spinning my wheels on a lot of BS trying to make sense of a shitty situation?

P.S. I do 100% believe the actual evacuation of Afghanistan could & should have been handled better. But that’s a whole other post right there.