Afghanistan's collapse shows the failure to create a country worth dying for

Afghanistan's collapse shows the failure to create a country worth dying for
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When U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, I was a producer for an NPR show based in Boston and frequently called reporters and officials in Afghanistan on their satellite phones to get them on our program. Their vivid accounts of the action on the ground compelled me to get to Afghanistan to see it for myself.

It was January 2009 before I made it there, for two visits, each lasting several weeks. Then, in summer 2012, NPR sent me to cover Afghanistan until the end of 2014. By August 2017, I was working for the Department of Defense (DOD) Office of Inspector General, with a primary responsibility of writing and editing the quarterly Lead Inspector General report on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan. 

Over the years, I lost more friends and acquaintances in Afghanistan than I care to count. My time in the country forever changed me, in ways good and bad. Now, my thoughts and emotions churn as I watch the fall of the country from a distance. 

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I am not surprised by what is happening. From my first moments in Afghanistan, I felt that America’s presence there was doomed. The effort to socially, politically and militarily re-engineer a largely illiterate, undeveloped and deeply tribal nation was an act of pure hubris. Well-intentioned as it might have been, what the United States and its partners were promising to the Afghan people was beyond what could be delivered.  

I liken the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to building a house by constructing an elaborate second floor and propping it up on rickety stilts stuck into mud. There was no solid foundation, no structural support, the wiring was haphazard, the plumbing didn’t work. And that second floor didn’t look like any other houses in Afghanistan; it looked like an American McMansion, decidedly out of place. 

The United States and international community simply did not take into account the physical and human capital in the country when rushing to build schools, clinics, government ministries and a military. When 130,000 international troops and thousands of contractors and workers from nongovernmental organizations were there, they could keep that second floor propped up. However, the international community could never maintain that posture and it would take at least several generations before Afghanistan could build a foundation that could support the house. Of course, there was always the question whether the Afghans wanted to build such a foundation — some certainly did, but many had no desire to make radical changes to the fabric of the country.

Ultimately, that second floor was always going to fall. The question was, how hard and how fast. In the end, the United States and its partners simply dropped the house rather than let it down gently. That said, the Afghans themselves did little to help the situation.

Afghanistan had a mosaic of roughly 300,000 security forces with varying levels of training and hardware. Add to that militia groups that operated outside of the security forces but answered to anti-Taliban power brokers. The fact that so many security forces gave up, walked away and allowed the Taliban to take over their turf and weaponry is a sign of the failures of the Afghan elite, perhaps more so than the failures of their international patrons. 

For 20 years, the international community pumped money, expertise, military support and training and humanitarian aid into Afghanistan. A fraction translated into institutionalized improvement. Rather than banding together and using the international largesse to build a better nation, the elected and unelected leaders apparently enriched themselves and built their fiefdoms.  

So, the speed of the government’s collapse is a testament to the failure of the Afghan elite to create an Afghanistan worth dying for. 

Yes, the United States deserves some blame for setting unrealistic goals and expectations, and continuing to throw good money after bad — and then when it was clear that it no longer could hold up that second floor of the house, for dropping it rather than letting it down gently. 

Although I’m sad for the Afghan people who are suffering as the Taliban marches back to power, more than anything else I’m angry that:

There is a morbid symmetry to what has taken place. The Taliban has retaken the country as quickly as it was driven out in 2001 — 20 years of lives and dollars gone in an instant. Afghanistan has come full circle. We are all worse off for it. The Afghan and American people will continue to pay for it. 

Sean D. Carberry is a foreign policy and national security writer. From August 2017 to March 2021, he served at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General as managing editor of the Lead Inspector General reports to Congress on overseas contingency operations. Previously, he was a foreign correspondent for NPR based in Kabul and has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Follow him on Twitter @sdcarberry17.