Amazing Amazement: The Afghanistan Thing
A little while ago, the news reported on President Ashraf Ghani’s departure from Afghanistan. A presidential departure from a country at war represents, if ever there was one, a marker for It’s Over.
Lots of noise about the speed with which the Taliban captured the country. And amazement. Well, call me not surprised. Even a little.
The United States has propped up the Afghani government for 20 years. Reportedly, we have spent $83B on equipment and training associated with the Afghan army. Frankly, I suspect no one has anything close to a precise accounting of the amount our nation spent on the war itself. (The BBC gets up to just shy of $1T.)
For what? Well, on our watch the country was certainly better off than it was under Taliban 1.0. If The Beeb has it right that’s $50B per year. Or, about $1300 a year for each Afghani, and about $150 a year for me, and you, and you, and … . Actually, if I didn’t think about the many problems we face at home, and about Haitians, and about others who struggle and … well, you get the point.
Unfortunately, and we knew this going in and have known it right along, our $50B a year was nothing more than a Band-Aid. Underneath what was better than it had been was a more polished version of the same rot which has infested Afghanistan’s leaders for decades. Corruption and weak leadership have been endemic in the country for damn near forever, despite the fact that its presidents since 2001 – Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani – look sharp in suits and speak English well.
Reporting attributes to the military a high level of corruption. Unpaid troops. A lack of leadership. (For those of us of a certain age, Vietnam in 1975 offers a spot-on match.) Why then, should the fall of the country surprise anyone? Can anyone suggest, seriously, that if we’d only had another six months’ – or even six years – worth of training, the outcome would have been different.
Now, the blame arrives. Biden lost Afghanistan (although I did hear Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) lay plenty of blame at Former Guy’s feet.) The blame game brings to mind an effort in the Arizona legislature, about 15 years ago, to punish high school teachers if their students didn’t meet some benchmark. I recall a discussion with someone, otherwise, intelligent, who thought that was a good idea. “Right,” I said, “let’s blame the last teachers for everything that happened wrong for 15 years.”
President Biden evaluated a terrible set of facts. We went to Afghanistan in 2001 to: (a) punish the Taliban for harboring Al Qaeda, and (b) get Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. We succeeded promptly, although we failed to appreciate Al Qaeda’s portability feature. Not leaving would have provided more security for the country, but the “we stay” game offered no end date, and it fails to recognize the impact the United States has an occupying force – at any level – in faraway places.
From what I have read, we might have timed the departure better. Apparently, weather in the region establishes fighting and non-fighting seasons. A fall departure might have bought the country several months of relative calm, but Former Guy aka the Greatest Dealmaker Ever had already committed to a May 1 departure date.
No doubt, tragedy abounds in this sad part of the world. That it came so quickly should have surprised no one, but recognizing its expected onset lessens the tragedy not at all. Still, when a war started before some of its participants were born, we ought to be thinking hard about getting to done. Good on President Biden in a truly rotten, no-win situation.