Afghanistan: Twenty Years Is Enough

U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to Second Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, First Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2017. (Corporal Matthew DeVirgilio/US Army)

America cannot babysit a society into a form of government we find admirable.

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America cannot babysit a society into a form of government we find admirable.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he mission in Afghanistan when the United States invaded 20 years ago was to destroy al-Qaeda’s operations, get Osama bin Laden, and punish the Taliban for hosting terrorists who attacked us.

We accomplished these missions years ago.

In the time since killing Osama bin Laden, the people of the United States have elected two successive presidents who vowed to wind down the war in Afghanistan.

That is actually the best reason to leave. The War on Terror was, at one point, temporarily transmuted into a mission of global democratic revolution. But America’s democratic people have expressed themselves over and over again. According to a May Quinnipiac poll, 62 percent approved of President Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops.

So Joe Biden is right to follow through on commitments made by Trump to leave Afghanistan

This does mean leaving Bagram Airfield. It also means leaving undone the missions the United States never should have taken on. President George W. Bush, at times, made it sound as if the United States could not be secure until Afghanistan was a modern democracy. This is not something that can be accomplished with force of arms. It would require a total social transformation. Tribal societies are reflected in and reproduced by the practice of cousin marriage. Nearly half of the marriages in Afghanistan fit the Western definition of consanguinity.

Kabul is different — Afghanistan’s major city has, at times, been capable of modernization. King Amanullah I achieved this much nearly a century ago. The Soviets produced a society in Kabul that saw Afghan women becoming computer programmers.

But Kabul is incapable of defending itself from the society that lives in the Afghan mountains. Political Islam is adaptable to a tribal society, and the Afghan version of it finds patrons in the region that we do not have the will to permanently disrupt.

Afghanistan is not on the way to financing and providing for its own domestic state, the way that Germany and South Korea did. Those two states now have democratic elections that produce legitimate governments that can justly ask us to stay or leave.

After billions of dollars and years of training from NATO and the United States in particular, the Afghan National Army does not look like it is up to the task of defending the city from the Taliban. The Afghan state, riddled with corruption, is almost a sideshow. The capacity of that state to act is mostly provided by American-paid contractors. Holding up a government that has no real-world legitimacy in the region, or among the people it is supposed to govern, is practically the opposite of the high-flown ideals of Bush’s second inaugural. More important, it’s a project that does not interest the American people.

We do have an ongoing interest in Afghanistan: to see that it does not again become a safe haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorists. We have learned how to manage threats like these with drone air power in other theaters; we can do the same here. If the Taliban do succeed in overthrowing the current national government and establish their Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, the United States will still have diplomatic carrots to toss them to gain compliance and encourage better behavior. The stick comes in reminders of their 20-year exile from power and in the tens of thousands of casualties they suffered.

There is pain in the end. But it’s also the bright and clear recognition of the core reality: Afghan society is incapable of supporting a regime that the West finds admirable or attractive, let alone democratic. The United States’ permanent interest is in punishing those who attack us, not in babysitting a society, or a city-statelet, that is largely and lamentably surrounded by a people trapped in a stage of development that Germania escaped nine centuries ago.

We have much, much more important things to do.