Events this week in Afghanistan create many uncertainties: Will terrorists again attack Americans from an Afghan base? Will narcotics exports increase? Will humanitarian conditions deteriorate? One thing is certain, though: In the months and years ahead, we will hear countless heart-rending stories of Afghans whom the United States inspired to give everything to transform their country into a modern, tolerant, vibrant state — until the United States withdrew and they lost everything.
In the coming days, Washington experts will debate military tasks that weren’t accomplished or are left to be done; they will explore intelligence failures and engage in self-criticism about the inadequacy of civilian agencies. These debates will matter for Washington, but they won’t matter much for the world. The stories that will resonate overseas are the stories of Afghans who once cast their lot with the United States and now find themselves cast aside. Their stories will give pause to U.S. allies, and they will provoke future friends to hedge their bets. From Tehran to Hong Kong, from Caracas to Moscow, people who seek to remake their societies will read the stories carefully and internalize them, and their behavior will change.
We have seen the beginnings of these stories: translators, employees and women’s rights activists who weren’t able to get to Kabul before the government collapsed; subcontractors left unable to prove that they did not work for Western agencies. They know that the Taliban are unlikely to be as scrupulous a judge of their documentation, and they tremble.
In the coming weeks and months, we will hear many more such stories. Thousands of Westerners worked in Afghanistan for years, and they came to rely on the kindness and expertise of local Afghans. Westerners working in capacity-building programs — on everything from boosting agricultural production to encouraging girls’ literacy — all had star students who were left behind. Many who fought terrorists or drug smugglers in the country’s most remote corners saw brave Afghans save their lives. The thousands of Americans who rotated through Afghanistan worked with tens of thousands of decent, hard-working Afghans who saw the possibility of a society that wasn’t shot through with corruption, where tribal and sectarian identification didn’t determine one’s lot in life, and where individual agency was valued, and in an age in which global communication is essentially free and instant, they stayed in touch. Those Afghans are now in danger, and many will die. Their stories will haunt their Western patrons, who will retell them.
U.S. adversaries will exult in these stories, and they will quietly amplify them. Countries such as China and Russia, not to mention Iran, have long seen Americans as reckless meddlers in the internal affairs of others. They see the U.S.-led nation-building project in Afghanistan as another dangerous effort to inject American norms into foreign societies. They will seek to portray this week’s events as another demonstration of American perfidy. Doing so serves their goals perfectly, discouraging dissidents from believing they have any durable protection.
And these stories will travel in part because they will be good stories. They will have compelling heroes with textured backstories, and they will follow the arc of a classic tragedy: High hopes are dashed by bad fortune. We know the formula well, and the consistent villain will be the United States.
So where will it matter? It will matter everywhere that the United States is trying to inspire people to take risks.
Iraq is one such place, which lives in an uneasy balance between Iranian meddling, jihadi resistance, and apparently imminent American disinterest. There was a time when Iraq was the epicenter of U.S. global efforts to shape the world in its image. Veterans of the battle will recall the anonymous blog entitled “Iraq: The Model,” which foresaw the war-torn country inspiring beleaguered populations to follow Iraq’s path. Iraq didn’t inspire many beyond its borders, but many inside have lined up behind the state. The country’s counterterrorism forces fought heroically to retake Mosul in 2016-17, and the Prime Minister declared on a recent trip to Washington that he is driving sectarianism out of the armed forces.
It is hard to imagine that Iraqis aren’t consumed with their potential parallels to Afghanistan this week, with some seeking to replicate the U.S. exit and others seeking to prevent it. Those whose security and livelihoods rely on sustaining an enduring U.S. presence must be losing sleep.
In authoritarian regimes around the world, where U.S. embassies nurture ties with civil society activists, those activists will be more circumspect. On the peripheries of Russia and China, where those governments seem to extend their influence into surrounding states, governments will think more carefully about U.S. assurances of support.
Some of these shifts are appropriate. U.S. support is not an entitlement, and it is intended to catalyze positive change rather than create dependencies. For U.S. policymakers, Afghanistan’s 20-year arc is a reminder that a reliance on U.S. aid can inhibit the very change that the United States is trying to encourage.
Millions of people around the world care little about what the United States is trying to encourage. They care about themselves, their families and their futures. When they hear the stories of Afghans who were inspired to risk everything and then were trapped, they will pause. They will feel a connection to those Afghans — and they will act a little less boldly.
Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank focusing on defense, national security and international relations issues.