The fall of Afghanistan has been ugly and surprisingly quick, but hardly surprising. For years, I’ve assumed what we are seeing now would come to pass at some point. Americans are tired of being in a country that seems to have no resolution to its civil war.
I guess we could have stayed there for a few more decades with no resolution or stability, but I think the U.S. appetite for that type of occupation is gone. I read somewhere that U.S. casualties in the country were down to an average of 17 per year for the past six years. Maybe that’s sustainable, but that’s a steep price for the families of the people killed.
I’ve also seen people saying that we’ve stayed in South Korea much longer. That’s a really lousy comparison. We had very few casualties in South Korea after the truce and the country moved quickly toward democracy. It also became a regional economic powerhouse in short order. And finally, the crazy dynasty running North Korea is unpredictable enough to try to destabilize the whole region. The Afghans never established a credible government or sustainable military.
I suspect the Taliban will do what they did before. They will spend most of their effort suppressing their own people with their medieval brand of fundamentalist Islam. They allowed Al Qaeda to operate within their borders, probably for large sums of cash, but they weren’t trying to export their ideology. I don’t think the Taliban will try the Al Qaeda thing again because, even if they are back in power, it cost more than it benefitted them. If they are harassing anybody, it will be countries on their border like China where Muslims are being sent to concentration camps.
While the next week will be heart wrenching with awful reports of brutality, the American public will largely forget about Afghanistan over the next year or so. That may seem callous but that’s the political reality. Most the country wanted out of that situation and most people doubted we were making much progress. The scenes we’re seeing are terrible, but I suspect that most Americans will simply look away.
The lesson of Afghanistan should be one that we seem to refuse to learn: Nation-building is usually a fool’s errand. We can’t force a country with no history of democratic rule and extremely high illiteracy to become a functioning democracy, especially when it’s on the other side of the globe. We could have invaded Afghanistan, chased Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, and then gotten out.
Instead, we toppled the government and tried to fix a place that we didn’t understand and that didn’t see itself as needing to be fixed. The government we set up didn’t fall that quickly unless a whole lot of the population thought the Taliban was either better or the lesser of evils. Maybe another fifty years of occupation would have changed the outcome, but the American people do not have an appetite for that.
Despite what we’re seeing in the news and on social media, I don’t believe Biden will pay a heavy political price for the debacle. Most people will look away. If the economy is still growing, wages are increasing, and COVID is in check this time next year, he will get relatively high marks. If inflation is running rampant, jobs are scarce, COVID is still a problem, or we get embroiled in some other conflict, then what’s happening in Afghanistan will just be another mark against him.