The betrayal of Afghanistan was solidified years ago when U.S. leaders made promises they should have, or must have, known they could never keep. The inevitable consequences of creating a hollow government, bloated public sector, and an aid-dependent war economy hung over Afghanistan like a suspended prison sentence.
The recent memory of our botched evacuation is naturally the most salient example of our failure in Afghanistan. Journalist George Packer’s important profile last week in the Atlantic of the final months of the U.S. evacuation in Afghanistan revealed how the value of an Afghan life came down to their proximity to the right American, individual ruthlessness, and blind luck. But the overwhelming scale of human trauma at Kabul’s airport as laid out in The Atlantic might inadvertently lead readers to believe this was an aberration. It wasn’t. Over two decades, the fate of individuals and entire villages hinged on their shifting positions relative to the Taliban’s insurgency and the U.S.-led counterinsurgency.
It is difficult for veterans, diplomats, journalists, aid workers, and many others who dedicated portions of their lives to transform Afghanistan to grapple with a Taliban takeover. It may even be more difficult for Washington as an institution to accept. The complacency leading up to the horrific attacks of 9/11 became Washington’s original sin, and the “War on Terror” was its salvation with the invasion of Afghanistan as its opening salvo. The 9/11 attacks and Afghanistan remained a central part of the legal framework and popular understanding of an increasingly entropic war on terrorism. Perhaps this is why the sheer scale of our failure in Afghanistan is so difficult for some to accept.
The initial invasion freed Afghanistan from the Taliban’s repressive grip and temporarily scattered the terrorists who had found refuge there. But it also produced unsavory partnerships, mass graves, and a rebirth of warlordism and serves as a testament to man’s ingenuity in the pursuit of torture and cruelty — particularly at Guantanamo Bay.
The War on Terror stumbled along in a wayward stupor into Baghdad and, by the time President Obama took office, the Taliban’s insurgency was gaining too much momentum to be ignored. The surge that followed created a web of forward operating bases and combat outposts that protected provincial capitals and Kabul. For some Afghans, this was an era of exponential growth, optimism, and hope for the future. But this progress was underpinned by a violent counterinsurgency that didn’t just create orphans and widows, but also the illusion of coalition control over large swaths of Afghanistan when, in reality, the Taliban often operated freely just several hundred meters away.
It is easy to delude ourselves into believing that violence was the currency of our opponents alone when in reality it was the common denominator. The Taliban were removed by force. The Afghan government was kept in power by force. And the Taliban returned to power by force. Does the world have anything else to offer Afghanistan?
Afghanistan’s winners and losers rotated but the violence grew with each year. Today Washington’s slow strangulation of Afghanistan’s economy is shrugged off as the inevitable consequence of the Taliban’s decision to negotiate in bad faith, take the country back by force, and elevate their most objectionable figures. We deny responsibility for the crisis the Taliban have plunged Afghanistan into or for our own responses to it. Sound familiar? But the disaster unfolding before our eyes is not predestined. It is human-made.
Another common thread of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan is a discourse that elevated talking points over uncomfortable truths until the latter became so glaringly obvious that to ignore them would be unhinged. It was no secret that Ashraf Ghani was an incompetent leader who surrounded himself with corrupt, sycophantic yes-men and ignored any advice that ran counter to his political aims. Not until the Afghan government collapsed like a house of cards did it become entirely acceptable to be so blunt about the extent of the rot. A voluminous public record of shoddy targeting and U.S. strikes gone awry existed well before last August. But it took a strike on 10 innocent people, including an aid worker and seven children, to finally receive appropriate attention. These are but two examples of a narrative that said one thing publicly and another in hushed tones.
Why then does the evacuation captivate us in particular? For one, that mission is not over. Afghan partners continue to be rescued through the tireless work of volunteers. It absolutely must continue and is intrinsically more valuable than any reflection rooted in cynicism.
But the evacuation is one chapter in a story that should humble us as a country. America sought to transform Afghanistan but in the end it could not even manage its own Special Immigrant Visa program. Burdened by unimaginative bureaucracy, lack of leadership, and the darkest side of domestic politics, America left tens of thousands of Afghan partners to languish. Even minimal creativity and desire could have saved so many of those who supported the United States over two decades. Dozens of major decision points and thousands of smaller ones throughout the U.S. war in Afghanistan could have been decided differently. To remove that agency from ourselves as a nation would be disingenuous. But to dwell on it is also to miss the big picture.
As Packer wrote so eloquently, “something of value–always fragile and dependent on foreigners–had been accomplished.” This was the fait accompli of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan which built something that could not be sustained without us. Afghanistan was never a priority — and it never could be — because we are not Afghans.
Adam Weinstein is Deputy Director of the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, whose current research focuses on security and rule of law in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.
UK coalition forces, Turkish coalition forces, and U.S. Marines assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla via Sipa USA)
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.
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A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position in a trench at a front line on the border with Russia, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Sumy region, Ukraine January 20, 2024. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
For a conflict discussed in starkly moralistic terms, the ways the Ukraine war is talked about by its most enthusiastic Western supporters can be remarkably cynical about the human carnage involved.
“Aiding Ukraine, giving the money to Ukraine is the cheapest possible way for the U.S. to enhance its security,” Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of the Economist, recently told the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “The fighting is being done by the Ukrainians, they’re the people who are being killed.”
This view is not unique to Beddoes. It’s been widely expressed by those most in favor of an open-ended, prolonged war and most against the kind of peace negotiations that would shorten it.
“Four months into this thing, I like the structural path we're on here. As long as we help Ukraine with the weapons they need and the economic support, they will fight to the last person,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) early into the war, accidentally voicing what the war’s critics have often said about the war — that the U.S. will fight it “to the last Ukrainian.” Later, Graham called it the “best money we’ve ever spent.”
“It is a relatively modest amount that we are contributing without being asked to risk life and limb,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Associated Press last year. “The Ukrainians are willing to fight the fight for us if the West will give them the provisions. It’s a pretty good deal.”
“I call that a bargain,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has said about the war funding, pointing to the damage Ukrainian forces had inflicted on the Russian military.
“No Americans are getting killed in Ukraine. We’re rebuilding our industrial base. The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that,” U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remarked.
Americans “should be satisfied that we’re getting our money’s worth on our Ukraine investment,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), because “for less than 3 percent of our nation’s military budget, we’ve enabled Ukraine to degrade Russia’s military strength by half,” and “all without a single American service woman or man injured or lost.”
But politicians aren’t the only armchair warriors who look at the enormous death and destruction suffered by Ukraine by prolonging the war as akin to a brilliant business decision. Hawkish think tanks have made similar arguments.
“When viewed from a bang-per-buck perspective, U.S. and Western support for Ukraine is an incredibly cost-effective investment,” Timothy Garten Ashe wrote for the weapons maker-funded Center for European Policy Analysis. “Support for Ukraine remains a bargain for American national security,” wrote Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia Peter Rough. “For about 5 percent of total U.S. defense spending over the past 20 months, Ukraine has badly degraded Russia, one of the United States’ top adversaries, without shedding a single drop of American blood.”
And major U.S. newspapers have likewise published similar perspectives. “We have a determined partner in Ukraine that is willing to bear the consequences of war so that we do not have to do so ourselves in the future,” former top George W. Bush officials Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates celebrated in the pages of the Washington Post.
“For all the aid we’ve given Ukraine, we are the true beneficiaries in the relationship, and they the true benefactors,” wrote Bret Stephens at the New York Times, pointing to the fact that NATO is paying in only money, while “Ukrainians are counting their costs in lives and limbs lost.”
What’s distasteful about this is not just the flippant way it treats the unimaginable scale of loss of life, permanentdisability and emerging long-term crises being experienced by Ukrainians — as mere abacus beads to be moved around in a cost-benefit analysis centered on the United States and its NATO allies. It’s also the fact that, far from being “willing,” “determined” and ready to “fight to the last person,” many Ukrainians have demonstrated that they do not want to risk their lives in this war — a share of the population that is getting larger and more vocal the longer the war has gone on.
Since the start of the war, when many fleeing Ukrainian men were stopped at the border and ordered to return to potentially fight, thousands of Ukrainians have defied the government’s ban on men aged between 18 and 60 leaving the country — to the point of spending large sums of money and even risking their lives to get out.
Many hunkered down in their homes to dodge enlistment officers, while tens of thousands signed a petition opposing increasingly aggressive conscription practices. Early last year, Ukraine’s parliament upped the punishment for desertion, which soldiers have this year admitted is still a growing problem.
By November 2023, the BBC determined that a total of nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men had fled the country to avoid being drafted, while the State Border Service revealed a month later that more than 16,500 had been stopped from leaving. At one point, the country’s law enforcement uncovered a massive scheme across nearly a dozen regions that gave out falsified medical certificates declaring someone unfit for military service in return for as much as $10,000.
These plans have engendered massive opposition, with protests by soldiers’ families that have taken place around the country since last year calling for a cap on the length of military service continuing and intensifying; earlier this month. One hundred women blocked a road and mistakenly attacked another woman due to rumors of draft officials coming to take the village’s men away.
“I don’t see the 500,000 more people ready to die,” admitted a former Ukrainian government minister and current army captain last November.
It increasingly appears that many of those who are most enthusiastic to keep the war going and avoid a negotiated end aren’t, as we keep being told, the Ukrainians who are most likely to be killed or wounded in the fighting. Instead they are politicians and commentators far, far away from the front line in other countries who view its attendant death and destruction as akin to a board game — or, in their words, as a “good deal,” a “bargain,” and a satisfying “investment” for their own countries.
In other words, it looks increasingly like all too many other U.S.-led wars.