“Afghanistan,” wrote Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands in 2019, “is best seen not as a morality play but as a classic foreign policy dilemma in which all the options are bad ones.” The tragic scenes unfolding in the country this week must be understood in this context. Some pundits are proclaiming that the U.S. withdrawal was an evil act and that continued U.S. participation in the conflict was clearly the morally superior choice. They hold that the ongoing U.S. presence was cheap—their view of tens of U.S. casualties and tens of billions of U.S. dollars per year. Their position ignores the high moral costs of remaining in the war, our duties to our own nation, and the profound moral failures of our partner government. Afghanistan was a land of nasty tradeoffs that any moral declamations must reckon with. These are tradeoffs that we will no longer be making.
The price of fighting
Above all we must remember that war is a morally costly activity. Even the most careful and well-intentioned major military operation will kill many civilians, displace many more, and devastate civilian property. This was especially true in Afghanistan. Like many insurgent forces, the Taliban do not wear uniforms and can operate in civilian areas. As the conflict grew more unpopular, the U.S. assistance mission had turned to airstrikes to keep the Taliban at bay while keeping U.S. casualties down. This had driven up civilian casualties. With the Taliban growing in strength and the regular Afghan military hesitant to fight without air support, these casualties would likely have remained high.
Fighting in the conflict had been heavily concentrated in rural areas; Kabul had been safer for the common Afghan. And our view of Afghanistan is heavily shaped by Kabul—it is more accessible to journalists, especially Western journalists, and is home to many English-speaking professionals. This is the part of the country that had benefited the most from the establishment of the 2001-2021 Afghan government. As Brookings’ Vanda Felbab-Brown, writing with former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan John R. Allen, pointed out, drawing on survey work she had done in Afghanistan,
Urban women may prefer for fighting to go on, particularly as urban areas are much less affected by the warfare than are rural areas, and their male relatives, particularly of elite families, rarely bear the battlefield fighting risks. For them, the continuation and augmentation of war has been far less costly than for many rural women.
It is unsurprising that the media’s parachute regiment thus found a country eager to continue the war, eager to have American forces remain and American airstrikes continue—and a country that would change profoundly under new rulers.
The picture in rural areas was more complicated, Felbab-Brown and Allen wrote:
For many rural women, particularly in Pashtun areas but also among other rural minority ethnic groups, actual life has not changed much from the Taliban era, formal legal empowerment notwithstanding. They are still fully dependent on men in their families for permission to access health care, attend school, and work. […] Afghan women in rural areas—where an estimated 76 percent of the country’s women live—experience the devastation of bloody and intensifying fighting between the Taliban and government forces and local militias. Loss of husbands, brothers, and fathers to the fighting generates not only psychological trauma for them, but also fundamentally jeopardizes their economic survival and ability to go about everyday life.
What does that add up to? They write: “peace is an absolute priority for some rural women, even a peace deal very much on the Taliban terms.” Felbab-Brown’s survey is not the only data point here. 2018 saw a public peace movement in Afghanistan, one that pressured Taliban and government alike, with demonstrators marching barefoot hundreds of miles through dangerous terrain to show support for a peace process. Voices like the rural women or the peace marchers do not fit in a clean narrative of good and evil, of a battle between miniskirted modernity and bearded barbarism. The war was costing Afghanistan tens of thousands of lives and regular mass displacement, and many Afghans had come to favor peace at any price.
The price for America
The war’s cost for the United States was high, too, even if it wasn’t like that of Vietnam or World War II. U.S. casualties would surely have followed had we broken the Doha Agreement that had kept the Taliban off our backs for more than a year. Too many in Washington see our side of the war as an abstraction and speak of U.S. involvement in conflicts in euphemisms like “kinetic action,” “presence,” or “light footprint.” Consider, then, this recent Associated Press profile of a chaplain who had spent the War on Terror caring for the families of U.S. war dead and for the mortuary technicians who prepared bodies for funerals:
Some families seem to sink into a catatonia that he knows means he should give them space. Others come clutching photos of the lost or otherwise tip [him] off that his conversation might help. […] Sometimes, he’ll find a child hasn’t been told why they’re there. Others pose wrenching questions, like a boy who asked the minister who would play catch with him now that his father was gone. […] The work can bring some of the steeliest to crumble. He’s seen drivers who transported families of the dead bawling and embalmers who reached their breaking point and found a new profession. A handful of times over the years, a mortuary staffer has died by suicide or suffered through an attempt.
The war had also produced a swarm of veterans bearing physical, mental, and moral injuries. Some came back as different people. Some hid their problems in alcohol or drugs. Some died by their own hand. And even the many who came back well lost time with family—something that surely has been one factor in the many divorces in the military community.
There was also a military cost to the war. Time spent preparing for deployment, deploying, and redeploying is time unavailable for training more relevant to current U.S. security needs. Our air forces have spent the last two decades flying racetracks over places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, waiting to be called for a strike; they spent the decade before that enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq. All that time, effort, and money went into present-tense consumption of military power, not future-tense development of military power. We spent the first decades of the “Pacific Century” using land power, not building sea power. We operated in uncontested airspace with persistent surveillance and reliable communications, an environment nothing like what we’ll confront in a major power war. Our military was eating its seed corn; China’s was putting every last kernel in the ground. That fact has a moral reality, too. Every day it looks more and more likely that U.S.-China relations will define the middle of the century. Our military is less prepared to play its part in that. In conflict, that could end up costing us more dead in a few hours than we’ve lost in Afghanistan in a few decades. It could make that conflict more likely.
And, of course, the war’s financial cost was nothing to sneeze at. We were slated to spend $14 billion this year, and, as RAND’s Michael Mazarr pointed out, this number could have climbed if we’d stayed and the Taliban had continued to advance. That means we would be spending around what the federal government spends every year on children’s health insurance. It’s about half of what we spend on health research and training. It’s roughly what the Navy spends on shipbuilding or the amount the Navy and Air Force each separately spend on buying aircraft. It’s about the value of United Airlines. And it’s certainly a big amount for a country to be sending abroad when more than two million of its own citizens don’t have running water or indoor plumbing.
A bad government
Working with the Afghan government had a moral price, too. We had to overlook a lot of corruption—much of which was fueled by the money we pumped into Afghanistan. Uprooting that corruption would have been akin to uprooting the Afghan system. We had to overlook massive poppy production—and when we fought it, we pushed money toward the Taliban. We had to overlook pedophilic kidnappings by Afghan military leaders. We had to overlook nasty partners like General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who once suffocated hundreds of prisoners of war and who has twice caused political crises by kidnapping and torturing high-profile rivals. U.S.-backed strike teams and militias were no strangers to serious abuses too.
The Afghan military and Afghanistan’s political leaders bear the most moral responsibility, after the Taliban, for the situation in the country now. After decades of fighting, these men gave up and cut deals with the Taliban. Those who wanted to stand their ground found themselves isolated and abandoned by their comrades in arms. Pundits may speak of Biden abandoning the women of Afghanistan. This is navel-gazing. The women of Afghanistan were abandoned by their husbands, sons, and fathers. The Afghan military’s surrender was an act of cowardice and injustice against their own country and their fellow citizens. We would be outraged if our military did this to us. To be sure, the United States could have better prepared for Kabul’s fall, and there have been ignominious moments in the withdrawal—see the aerial evacuation of dogs, for example. But the ugly scenes at Kabul’s airport would not have happened had the Afghan military held its ground.