Lesson of Afghanistan may not be what you think it is

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The reimposition of the Taliban’s inhumane theocracy on Afghanistan raises three questions that American policy must address. Could it have been, if not avoided, significantly ameliorated? Is there anything we can do to shield the Afghan people — especially women —from the brutal treatment that awaits them? Are there policy implications for issues beyond the situation in Afghanistan that demand attention?

I have seen no plausible description of anything President Biden could have done to prevent the result, other than to break the agreement Donald Trump had signed and commit to continuing an American troop presence indefinitely. That would almost certainly would have resulted in an increase in the Taliban’s military effort, requiring the American presence to be not just maintained but increased.

Neither does there appear to be a way for America to restrain the repression to which the Afghan people will once again be subjected. Blocking all food and medical assistance will hurt the innocent, while the leadership will find ways to cushion itself. It would also give the Taliban an excuse for their own failures to govern effectively.

But there are two important choices for us to make in the broader context.

First, while the sudden, unexpected collapse of the Afghan government left tens of thousands of people who had helped us in great peril, that was not the result of a contemporaneous failure, but rather the tragic result of a long-established pattern. (Those who blame our intelligence community for not anticipating the rapid collapse and subsequent disappearing act of the Ghani regime ignore the fact that among those reported to have been taken very much by surprise in this regard was the Taliban leadership.)

Not coincidentally, those left behind after having helped us have something in common with people facing eviction in the U.S. because of pandemic-induced economic difficulties — albeit the Afghans with much graver consequences: Both groups are victims of a pattern of engineering laws enacted to help people in distress as if the goal of preventing any ineligibles from benefiting was much more important than extending relief to the intended beneficiaries.

The consequence has been exclusion of some who should have been helped, and an impossibly long waiting period for many who could qualify. The rules resulted in the fact that tens of thousands — or more — Afghans were stranded, and less than 10 percent of eligible tenants got help when they needed it. I am hopeful that the attention focused on this dismal record will lead both to more flexible legislation and a less hostile administrative approach in the future.

The other area where a post-Afghanistan decision should be made is how to define America’s global role.

A bipartisan consensus of the foreign policy establishment is calling on the Biden administration to find a way to counter the perception that the Afghan withdrawal undermines confidence in America’s ability and/or willingness to provide leadership on behalf of global stability.

They take for granted that America’s post-World War II commitment to defending our allies, discouraging aggression, and supporting democracy must survive and ask how we can accomplish this.

They face two problems: first, that the majority of the American people no longer support this view; second, and more important, the fact that majority is correct.

As to the former, criticism of the manner in which the Afghan withdrawal played out coexisted with a consistent solid majority in favor of the basic decision It is, of course, one of a very few policies on which Trump and Biden agree, as do their political supporters, the substantive case is equally clear.

The need for America to extend protection to the entire non-communist world in the aftermath of WWII was strong; 76 years later, it no longer is.

There are particular nations that are still confronted with threats which should get our pledge of support — Taiwan, Ukraine, Israel and the Baltics. The sort of universal security blanket that America threw over much of the world for decades is no longer affordable. Fortunately, neither is it necessary in much of the world — like Europe — which has everything needed to protect itself against Russia (except the will, which it will quickly develop if we stop fruitlessly egging them to defend themselves and present the fait accompli of a definite withdrawal date five years or so out.)

In other places, our help is either unwanted against foreign threats or important to cure internal chaos.

To repeat for emphasis, the most powerful point: If Europeans decide they won’t let us spend $100 billion a year to defend them against threats they have more than sufficient resources to meet, America will benefit economically and politically.

Barney Frank represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 terms (1981-2013) and was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011.

Tags Afghanistan American military domestic agenda Donald Trump emergency rental assistance Eviction moratorium fall of kabul Foreign policy Joe Biden Overseas military bases Presidency of Joe Biden Taliban U.S. military bases in Europe Withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan

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