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Lies About Afghanistan
Joe Biden's critics in the national security establishment are pretending that the status quo is easily sustainable. That's absurd
The rapid collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban is a sobering moment that brings to an ignominious end America’s longest war. The fact that the Afghan government fell like a house of cards is further proof of how misconceived and badly executed the war has been over the course of two decades and four administrations. It also vindicates Joe Biden’s decision, made in the face of intense opposition from the national security establishment, to end the American mission.
There are legitimate criticisms that can be made about the Biden’s administration’s handling of the war’s end, particularly about protection and refuge offered to Afghans who had risked their lives by allying themselves with the United States. I share these criticism and am happy to join the choir calling for large scale resettlement of refugees, not just in the United States but in allied countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and France. To do anything less is reprehensible.
Where I would defend Biden is on the core decision. I do so in part because the criticisms made of Biden by the national security establishment are based on a denial of how badly the war had been going and the suffering endured not just by the United States military but also, on a much larger scale, by the Afghan people.
Ryan C. Crocker, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan under Barack Obama and has worked for administrations of both parties, is a typical critic. Writing in the New York Times, he laments that Biden has not shown the “strategic patience” of the kind that has kept American troops in South Korea for more than 70 years.
Crocker refers to “the American disaster in Afghanistan that Mr. Biden’s impatience brought about.”
When I left Afghanistan as ambassador in 2012, we had about 85,000 troops in the country. The Taliban controlled none of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. When President Barack Obama left office there were fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops. And when Mr. Trump departed there were fewer than 5,000. The Taliban still did not hold any major urban area. Now, they hold the entire country. What changed so swiftly and completely? We did. Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.
The analogy with South Korea is ridiculous. American troops are in South Korea to guard against an invasion from North Korea, rather than fighting an ongoing internal insurgency that consumes thousands of lives every year.
Is it true that Afghanistan enjoys “an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure”? It’s accurate that American casualties in Afghanistan have been low over the last year. But that’s due in large part to the agreement that the Trump administration signed with the Taliban. Breaking that agreement would resume fighting on a scale that has already led to more than 2,400 American deaths.
But just to focus on American casualties is itself an act of contempt to the major victims of the war: the Afghan people themselves, both civilians and soldiers. Over the last 20 years, roughly a quarter of a million Afghans have died.
Nor has there been any abatement of deaths. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented that “Civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 reached record levels, including a particularly sharp increase in killings and injuries since May when international military forces began their withdrawal and the fighting intensified following the Taliban’s offensive. In a new report issued today, the United Nations warns that without a significant de-escalation in violence Afghanistan is on course for 2021 to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since UNAMA records began.”
A useful chart created by The Economist based on data from UNAMA other sources makes clear that far enjoying “an affordable status quo” Afghanistan was wracked by endemic violence.
If there is a case for continuing the war in Afghanistan, it has to be made honestly, acknowledging the violence of the status quo. The fact that Biden’s critics shy away from being candid about this on-going violence makes it easy to reject their championing of that status quo.
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