America Decided to Leave Afghanistan—Now Leave Them in Peace

America Decided to Leave Afghanistan—Now Leave Them in Peace

How many mistakes are forgivable, when they take the lives of people who never asked for us to come and reshape their country and their culture in first place?

So now we’re out, perhaps not defeated exactly but hardly in triumph, an outcome horribly punctuated by the disorderly mess of our departure. We’re out, and we’re angry, and our various hangers-on are angry too, having lost their sinecures. And our policies have gone from fantasy to vindictiveness. Accompanied by new distortions of reality.

We can’t abandon the Afghans who helped us.

Small correction: they weren’t helping us; we were helping them. Getting rid of Al Qaeda after 9/11 was our goal, yes. But that was accomplished expeditiously, and everything that came after was intended for the benefit of the Afghans. Working with U.S. agencies, the U.S. military, and international NGOs not only meant advancing the goal of a modern and prosperous Afghanistan, it also meant salaries that were many multiples of what anyone else was earning. People didn’t work for us or with us out of the kindness of their hearts.

And the rush to be evacuated? Didn’t that show extreme desperation? In some cases, probably. But name one country in the Third World where, if a free flight to the United States and financial support and housing upon arrival were on offer, mobs of people would not race to the airport. For the first few days, we took anyone, just to clear the runways. After that, you needed a story, but since there was no fact-checking, this was no obstacle.

This was a terrible thing to do to the Afghans who remained behind, robbing them of the entire slice of their society that was supposed to lead them upward—the engineers, the doctors, the administrators, the people who spoke other languages, the people who knew how to manage things and run programs and businesses and media outlets.

I fear we will also discover that it was a terrible thing to do to ourselves. In the mass hysteria of the evacuation, there was no vetting, documents were not required, and retrospective calculations reveal that less than twenty percent of the people we brought were actually entitled to an evacuation. Volunteers helping in the refugee camps tell of grandmothers in their nineties who arrived all by themselves, knowing no one and speaking no English. There are small children who can’t be reunited with anyone because they are too young to know their names. We have taxi drivers who brought evacuees to the airport and seeing the mayhem, decided to ditch their vehicles and join the crowd. These will merely be a burden to social services, but in such chaotic circumstances, it would be a miracle if no ISIS terrorists, no drug dealers, and no other criminals had inserted themselves into the mix. And already, just a few weeks in and one would think, still thrilled by the sudden change in their fortunes, refugees are engaging in crimes against each other, against members of the public, and against the soldiers taking care of them. This will not be an easy integration.

We have to freeze any and all of Afghanistan’s financial assets because the Taliban will use them for terrorist purposes.

Afghanistan has $9 billion in financial assets kept in banks in the United States and Europe. The World Bank manages a $13 billion trust fund that dispenses around $800 million to the country every year for public sector works, salaries, and public programs. The U.S. Department of Treasury has ordered all those assets to be frozen. We’ve essentially turned off the lights and the faucets.

We have no reason to trust the Taliban. And we don’t have to. What we need to do is focus on the 40 million Afghans who didn’t make it to Ft. Bliss. They’re not in a good way, and if the past twenty years were supposedly designed to make their lives better, then I don’t know what the hell we think we’re doing right now. We’ve gone from the marshmallows of fantasy to behaving like those Eastern tyrants who plowed salt into the soil of people who defied them to make sure nothing would ever grow there, and they would starve. The people of Afghanistan, and frankly even the Taliban, as the de facto government, have urgent and legitimate needs, and they have the money to pay for them. It’s even important to feed and provision the soldiers, because hungry armed young men are not what you want roaming about in a crisis. We want the Taliban to fight ISIS, which they won’t be able to do if their government fails. Can anyone possibly want ISIS to advance? Anyone remember Mosul? Those are the people who crucified Christians, enslaved Yezidis, and committed genocide.

Here’s what November 2021 looks like in Afghanistan. Thousands of displaced persons are returning to their home districts with a need to repair their houses and lay in firewood and food for the winter. But an exceptionally long drought has led to a poor harvest; the government will need to deliver supplies. Public sector workers, including sanitation workers and teachers, need their salaries to support what often is an extended family with many dependent members. With the fighting now ended aside from sporadic ISIS attacks, things may improve come spring, but only if farmers can plant, which they can only do if they can buy seeds and material and pay their laborers. The UN classifies over 70 percent of Afghans as poor; they will need help to survive the winter. All of that takes money. And they have money. And it can be released in portions, not all at once, for purposes agreed upon in advance and monitored by an independent agency. Because we aren’t the kind of country that wants to starve 40 million people because we’re miffed that we didn’t win this war.

Since we don’t want the population to starve, we need to raise donor funds from the United States and other governments, and pay international organizations, contractors and NGOs to deliver the necessary goods and services while making sure that not a penny goes to the Taliban.

This is a truly terrible idea. The project to modernize Afghanistan was ruined by exactly the above: fleets of foreigners setting up shop and creating a meta-universe of aid that was disproportionately expensive, intrusive, and did nothing to give Afghans the skills to one day take care of their own needs. Afghanistan was a totally subsidized country, with two-thirds of its government operations paid by other countries, mostly the United States, and nearly all of its social services provided and run by outsiders. It was a huge, self-perpetuating machinery. The U.S. Agency for International Development considered it a big success if overhead was below 70 percent of the total budget, which says it all.

Some of the organizations today vying to be given the donor millions and the assignment of delivering humanitarian aid put themselves forward as especially qualified because they have “decades of multi-programmatic presence in Afghanistan.” This is the opposite of a strong resume. Rather, it is sadly revealing of an industry that thrives on disasters and dependency and has no motivation to make itself obsolete by empowering its subjects. Aid is supposed to be an emergency intervention for a short-term catastrophic event. There is less violence in Afghanistan now than there has been in twenty years. People are returning to their home districts and their land. The country has a chance to develop from the ground up, in small, indigenous, and sustainable ways. We will be destroying this fragile, precious opportunity if we roll in again with expensive foreign experts whose careers are based on making themselves indispensable. The Afghans have survived on their land for thousands of years and can certainly do so again if we would only let them.

We can’t abandon Afghanistan.

For the love of God, yes we must not abandon them, but leave them in peace. We have done enough to these people. Even as we departed, we launched one last faulty drone strike that killed three completely uninvolved non-combatant adults and seven children. The U.S. inspector general investigated the “incident” and termed it an “honest mistake.”

The Costs of War Project estimates a total of 71,000 civilian casualties from direct military action during our little interlude. How many mistakes are forgivable, when they take the lives of people who never asked for us to come and reshape their country and their culture in first place? Were we the best custodians of Afghanistan’s destiny? During the past twenty years, did we know what we were doing? Was our tutelage a success?

We need to let the Afghans make a go of it. We had no right to do most of what we did to that country, and we don’t have the right to withhold their money. We can outline for them the basic rules of membership in the international community: the accords and international laws that must be followed and the prevailing norms for human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights. They have already promised to accept and respect these, and so far, there have been no egregious violations. Before you mention forced marriages, clan disputes, and the reported sale of children, please go back through the files of Human Rights Watch and you will find that the first two are constant across the past decades, unfortunate corollaries of backward Afghan traditions that changed not one iota during the reign of governments we backed.