The Corner

National Security & Defense

The Afghan War: Consequences to Weigh

U.S. Army Third Infantry Division soldiers provide security during an Afghan-led operation near Kabul, September 16, 2018. (Sean Kimmons / U.S. Army)

I wanted to talk to Ryan Crocker about the Afghan War at our present pass. I have. Go here.

Two weeks ago, he had an op-ed piece in the Washington Post headed “We can’t leave Afghanistan without protecting our closest allies first.” It begins,

As the United States pursues a peace deal with the Taliban and plans to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, one important consideration is notably missing from the deliberations: What will happen to our Afghan partners who served the U.S. mission after we leave?

Back in 2015, I had a piece on the same issue, but focused on Iraq: “A Question of Honor: As the wolves circle, Iraqis who helped us are pleading for visas.” I had cause to revisit this piece recently after reading a painful, outrageous news report:

The Trump administration has virtually closed the door on Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the American military, issuing only two U.S. visas to former interpreters last year, according to government statistics obtained by NBC News.

The interpreters have faced threats, abductions and attacks for their association with American forces, and hundreds have been killed by militants since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In my 2015 piece, I wrote, “Soon, we will have desperate Afghans to think about, or ignore.”

Ryan Crocker “is one of the outstanding diplomats of our time,” as I say in today’s piece. “He was a constant in the Middle East for about 40 years. He served as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. George W. Bush hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.”

I’ve talked with him about many aspects of the Afghan War, including what looks like our impending withdrawal. He has a lot of experience, both in that country and in the region at large. What he has to say bears serious consideration, I think. He believes that withdrawal would be a horrible mistake for our security, for reasons that he lays out clearly.

Al-Qaeda gathered and plotted under the wing of the Taliban. And the Taliban, at that time, was the Afghan government. After 9/11, we gave the government a choice. We did not invade and topple them automatically. We said, “Give up al-Qaeda and we’ll leave you alone. Otherwise, we will attack you.” They chose the latter course. They chose defeat and exile over giving up al-Qaeda. That shows the degree of attachment, says Crocker, between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Now the Taliban is poised to become the government again. We ought to think hard and wisely about this. Why did we go into Afghanistan in the first place? Does that reason still pertain? When Crocker was ambassador in Kabul earlier in this decade, we had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Now that number is down to 14,000, with many fewer casualties. If our presence helps prevent another 9/11 — is it worth it?

War is hell. So are terror attacks and so forth. There are always consequences to weigh.

In addition to strict U.S. security, and the hard U.S. interest, Crocker is worried about “a betrayal of our values.” When he opened our embassy in Kabul in January 2002, as chargé d’affaires, there were about 900,000 Afghans in school. Not one of them was a girl. Not one. Today, there are 9 million students, and more than a third of them are girls. What will happen to girls and women if, or when, the Taliban return? It’s not hard to guess.

Laila Haidari made clear to me that, if the Taliban come back, people like her are finished — not just in their public roles, so to speak, but maybe finished period. Dead. I interviewed her earlier this year. She is one of the most remarkable people in Afghanistan, or anywhere. Born a refugee in Pakistan, and raised an Afghan exile in Iran, she opened a restaurant in Kabul — the first woman-owned restaurant in Afghanistan. She founded drug-rehabilitation programs, to help the country’s many addicted. (It started with her own brother.)

I wrote about her a couple of months ago, here. Ambassador Crocker and I discussed Laila Haidari, briefly, when talking about the progress and fate of women. I went back to my piece and decided to glance at the “comments” section.

The first commenter quoted a statement from Laila, with which I end my piece:

“Being an Afghan woman, your whole life is a struggle. You have to fight for your basic rights. The right to an education, the right to leave your home, the right to vote. Even the right to wear earrings. The right to do anything at all. Your whole life is a struggle. It’s not easy to be a woman, but if you can get through the hardships, you want to help other people, in any way you can.”

The commenter commented, “Sucks to be you. And don’t blame the USA for anything. Afghanistan was a hell hole when Alexander blew through there 2500 years ago. Fix you[r] own problems.”

It may suck to be Laila Haidari — although she is far freer and more independent than most other women in her country — but it sucked to be us, too, on 9/11, and we ought to be wary of letting our guard down.

Anyway, Crocker is well worth hearing out. Again, here.

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