I‘ve made the case that the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, now expected to be completed in August, a month earlier than planned, is a tragic mistake for humanitarian and strategic reasons. Reader Peter Herreid has written a thoughtful piece on the opposite side of the question and I want to share it with you below. Do you think there’s something else I’ve gotten wrong? Is the comment section inadequate to get your point across? I’m open to publishing other thoughtful pieces from readers who have a different take on any topic.
By Peter Herreid
After reading your misgivings at least a couple of times about the ground troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, I had been meaning to respond to it. In reaction to most of your posts, I think to myself “Right on!” or “Amen, brother!”, but this is one topic on which I disagree.
I believe that the “monumental humanitarian and strategic blunder” was in invading and occupying the country of Afghanistan in 2001. Far more civilians have died in the war in Afghanistan than were killed on 9/11. Like in Iraq, the occupation was marked by incompetence, an American torture program, and a blind eye to the human rights violations of our Afghan counterparts.
The US could have gone after the foreign fighters, such as Osama Bin Laden, in the Tora Bora mountains, without invading and occupying the bulk of the country. Instead it gave the Al Qaeda leadership its wish of starting the sort of broad invasion and long war that would serve as a rallying point for recruitment. Whereas there were probably only hundreds of Al Qaeda nutcases wishing to die in a Jihad against the infidel in 2001, within years of the American-led wars their ranks swelled to probably tens of thousands stretching across the Islamic world, including under the new ISIS branding.
Of course toppling the Taliban government was the easy thing to message and do in the short-term after 9/11. It made Bush look masculine, aggressive, and decisive. The U.S. public had a victim mentality that will support any stupid war, e.g., Iraq. Whether the Taliban really “fostered” Al Qaeda is debatable. The Taliban did leave them to plot schemes in caves, but a lot of the actual training and planning did not happen in Afghanistan. The key actors on 9/11 were radicalized and organized in Hamburg, Germany, while studying at a German university for free. The background to 9/11 is as much about the Muslim experience in the West as it is about some midieval regime in central Asia. In a sense, ultra-liberal Germany may have done more to foster Islamic terrorism than the Taliban.
Of course, decisions made 20 years ago are now water under the bridge. I cannot honestly say that I have enough information to determine whether it makes sense for the remaining ground troops to remain, but my gut feeling is that the U.S. should admit that Taliban rule is a strong possibility and that nation-building is a fool’s errand. Nation-building seems analogous to person-building – ever try to change someone else’s personality, let alone your own?
One argument for removal of a meager U.S. force is that it will take away a nationalist propaganda argument from the Taliban, especially if this means U.S. forces will no longer be (accidentally) killing innocent civilians. However, such “collateral damage” will likely continue. While Biden announced the removal of ground troops, it sounds like the airstrikes in Afghanistan will continue and may be even in support of the Taliban against ISIS, as the Taliban has been fighting ISIS in Afghanistan.
To me, it does not seem right to continue to rotate troops into such a moral mess (or continue bombing Afghanistan), when there are more straightforward and simple ways to reduce suffering in this world, if that is the goal. For example, Biden stopped US material support of Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen.
If you are right that American troops in Afghanistan will deter some atrocities in the future, rhetorically, I would pose the question of why not also argue for sending more troops (for more deterrence)? Why not also a benevolent invasion and occupation of Afghanistan’s neighbors ruled by authoritarian regimes guilty of human rights abuses, like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan?
This is the 149th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!
Update on July 19, 2021 from Peter Herreid:
In the opinion piece posted on July 15, 2021, I made the claim that “American forces have killed far more civilians in Afghanistan than died on 9/11.” While this could be true, data on civilian deaths attributed to any one coalition ally in particular is not readily available, because of the nature of joint operations among the U.S.-led forces. The statement “Far more civilians have died in the war in Afghanistan than were killed on 9/11” is more easily corroborated by sources such as a Brown University report, which claims 47,245 Afghan civilians have died in the war since 2001. The majority of these civilians may have been killed by the Taliban and other anti-government forces, but sources like the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch, and Professor Marc W. Herold of the University of New Hampshire hold U.S.-led forces responsible for a substantial portion of these civilian deaths.