Perhaps this is what a peaceful transition looks like in Afghanistan
Fear. Panic. Collapse. Chaos. Before these headline words become the first draft of the history of the end of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, we should consider an alternative: This is what a peaceful transition looks like in Afghanistan.
The Taliban returned to power with stunning swiftness, but it was the swiftness, not the Taliban’s return to power, that was stunning. Many experts thought it would take as long as 12 to 18 months for the Taliban to regain control of the county. Those months would have been filled with urban warfare and, in all likelihood, American-assisted air attacks. More destruction of infrastructure, more civilian deaths and more waste of young lives. The difference between a swift and a slow transition is the difference between life and death for many Afghanis.
The people bearing the brunt of the fighting understood this. They cared less about images in the American press than about saving themselves and their families. They had no interest in a year of terror that would, nevertheless, reach an inevitable outcome. They chose to move expeditiously along a path of less destruction. Inconvenient as that may be for America’s self-image, who can argue with their decision?
Many commentators are drawing parallels with the debacle at the end of the Vietnam War. Fair enough, but we need to draw those Vietnam parallels out to the present day. Vietnam is a now popular tourist destination. It is a favored trade partner and even something of a strategic ally as we contemplate our evolving relationship to China. Looking at Vietnam today, we wonder what that war was all about. For what did so many Americans and Vietnamese die? Could there be a better outcome in Afghanistan than a repeat of our post-withdrawal experience with Vietnam?
How might the U.S. help to make that outcome a possibility? We should begin with a focus on those Afghan friends and assistants whom we left behind. We have a continuing moral obligation to try to protect them.
That, however, is a problem for American diplomats, not for the military. Instead of politicians making vague threats about Taliban “legitimacy,” some hard, diplomatic bargaining is called for. Afghanistan is a country in terrible straits, beginning with the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States has much to offer an Afghan regime facing desperate times. What if those Air Force transport planes arriving to pick up those who want to leave were full of Pfizer vaccines?
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan. Those lessons, however, have less to do with the end of the war than with the 20 years before. The end offers only another lesson in the reality of power: America could not create security in a country in which the government had no real power, and a government for which no one is willing to sacrifice is one without power. Decolonization everywhere has shown us that military violence is no substitute for political power.
The more potent lessons are about how we should judge those who guide American security and intelligence operations. Why was our national security leadership so unprepared for a sudden collapse? Because they were confident that they could control presidential decisionmaking. Presidents come and go, but the national security apparatus remains. Always, the military leadership was there, warning of disaster if more troops were not sent or maintained in Afghanistan. Presidents Obama and Trump had both been persuaded, against their instincts, to put off their plans for withdrawal.
Confident that no president would risk challenging them, these leaders did not prepare. President Biden, however, had seen all of this before; long ago, he took the measure of the military leadership. For that, Americans should be thankful. It is just possible that, someday, Afghanis will be as well.
Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities and director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School.