After nearly two decades of war, more than 6,000 U.S. lives lost, more than 100,000 Afghans killed and more than $2 trillion spent American taxpayers, President Joseph R. Biden is within his rights to withdraw from the abyss of endless war in Afghanistan.
While it has become fashionable to fault the way that the president abruptly withdrew U.S. support and the chaos that followed, few insist that the U.S. should have stayed indefinitely.
Indeed, Afghanistan has been in turmoil since the late 1960s, when student-radicals demanded the end of traditional mores, and 1973, when the king was overthrown. This was quickly followed by communist uprisings; civil war; a communist dictatorship that was so unpopular that it set off a new civil war; the Christmas invasion by Soviet forces in 1979; a decade of war between the USSR and Pakistani, Saudi and U.S.-backed Mujahideen fighters; the retreat of Soviet forces in 1989; and an unstable coalition government (the so-called “northern alliance”) that constantly fought local warlords, followed by the emergence of Taliban in 1994 and another half-decade of war.
China, in 1999, made overtures to the Taliban to stem the tide of Afghan heroin flooding Xinjiang, a western Chinese province where many Muslim Uyghurs live. Heroin sales helped fund Islamist and nationalist opposition against Chinese rulers among Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups. And many Uyghur militants had trained and fought alongside Afghan Mujahideen from 1986 onwards. This presented a real threat to China: trained fighters, well-armed and funded by an endless supply of drug money. Now that the Taliban are back in power, China enjoys new protection from a Uyghur uprising and a new source of trade for raw materials.
Add to that, beginning in 1979, Saudi Arabia began encouraging Islamic radicals to journey to Afghanistan. Better there, then causing trouble at home. (The oil kingdom had suffered a 1979 takeover of the grand mosque at Mecca by radicals, which took weeks of fighting to clear.)
This means that China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries must take their share of the responsibility. They created chaos directly or indirectly in Afghanistan. It is up to them to pay the price.
The U.S. overthrew the Taliban in 2001 for two reasons: to punish them for harboring al Qaeda and to deny the terror group a safe, secure place to plan the next attacks on New York or Washington. The U.S. had accomplished this mission quickly. But then, its missionary impulse took hold and voices within the Bush administration began to speak of Afghanistan as a great laboratory for democratic development. This was a mistake. Not only did the U.S. have no strategy but found itself trapped by its idealism. Now America’s enemies can travel the finest U.S.-made highways, drink from elaborate U.S.-funded water systems and use the extensive phone network built by the U.S.
Meanwhile, China more than tripled the size of its national economy since 1980 and is now ranked as the second largest economy in the world. Its technology now rivals America’s. It has built a network of influence across the developing world — building airports in Zambia, mining for gold in Sudan, moving oil from Venezuela and so on. Its global influence is gale force.
Of course, the U.S. is not China, much less Russia. Its strength is in its freedom, resilience and its humanist values. This is why the Biden administration must become more involved with European partners and allies in the Arabian Gulf to organize humanitarian aid for Afghans — all Afghans without exception. USAID has a very important role to play in planning refugee transit points, as well as plans for temporary housing, food, sanitation and medical support.
After the shock of North Vietnamese tanks bursting through U.S. embassy gates in Saigon and the frenzied rooftop climb into crowded helicopters in 1975, some Americans and many foreigners thought that America’s day was done and its best days were behind it. Then, came the Vietnamese refugee crisis (the “boat people”) and one of America’s finest hours.
The Biden administration now has the same opportunity to showcase the greatness of America’s values. Either reopen the U.S. Air Base at Bagram and its two runways or make best use of the Kabul commercial airport’s single runway. Think of the 1948 Berlin Airlift; but this time delivering people, not food. Assure an orderly airlift from Kabul to friendly Gulf nations prepared to take in their fellow Muslims, where they can stay temporarily while the U.S. and allied nations process their visa applications. Send helicopters to remote places to retrieve NATO nationals and allied Afghans. Be the beacon of freedom, the one aspect of America that always amazes and delights the world.
As for those Vietnamese, think of all of the companies and inventions that they developed once they had found their footing in the U.S. An economist once joked that the economic contributions of the “boat people” to the U.S. economy were greater than the entire GDP of a forcibly united Vietnam. So it may be with the waves of liberated Afghans that America welcomes in the coming years.
History can repeat itself. All America must do is the things it does best: focused idealism and planning, collaboration with all who share its humane values and continued determination to protect human freedom.
Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is on the board of Trustees of International Crisis Group, on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council and an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.