The fall of Kabul: America’s 20-year nation-building mission crumbles in the graveyard of empires


Reassurances From Taliban, but Fearful Afghans Look for the Exits - The New  York Times


By Tamim Choudhury     31 August 2021

An iconic scene stays with you long after you have seen it. The sight of a US Air Force C-17 taking off while desperate Afghans cling onto its sides, and hundreds are left stranded as the military aircraft flies off into the open skies is one such sight that will mark the halls of history. Several of those attempting to escape by clutching onto the superpower’s aircraft succumbed to their death, a testament to how they feel about staying in their homeland. It left me wondering how we got here in the first place.

The Afghan War started in 2001 when I was pursuing my undergraduate studies at Texas A&M University. Established in 1876 as a military institution of higher education, the university still has a voluntary Corps of Cadets, which commissions military officers. There was a sense on campus that many fellow students would be joining the war. Talks of nation-building, spreading freedom and democracy, and ushering in a new world order emanated from the neoconservatives in the White House. Some of us were hopeful; maybe the war on terror would be for the greater good?

The years passed, casualties mounted, American blood and treasure were spent, but we kept hearing from the Pentagon, the military brass, that more time was needed. It was 2007, and I was working full-time at Texas A&M’s public relations office. I interviewed a professor of international relations for a news story. He flatly remarked that America should cut its losses and leave Afghanistan. He and other like-minded scholars were looking at the evidence and came to the clear conclusion that this war has run its course, but the Pentagon kept charging.

In 2014, I decided to complete my master’s degree from the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. Career Ambassador Ryan Crocker was serving as a dean at the time. He was interim chargé d’affaires to the new Afghan government in 2002 and then was an ambassador in 2011, so naturally, we keenly listened to his lectures. We had an Afghan graduate student in our cohort, and I once asked Irfan if he wants a continued US armed presence in his homeland. He replied with a one-liner, “If America leaves, Taliban will slaughter us.” Today, he is one of the fortunate Afghans who escaped from Kabul to Islamabad, Pakistan.

Post-invasion, Afghanistan failed to usher in a fledgling democracy that even pretends to be inclusive, transparent, and accountable while upholding human rights. According to Brown University’s cost of war project since launching the armed operation, the US spent $2.26 trillion, and more than 240,000 individuals have died. The project details how the state-building model imposed upon the Afghans brought to power discredited warlords who ordinary Afghans hated, placed an imbalance of power on the presidency at the expense of a weak parliament, and marginalized specific groups, including any moderates in the Taliban movement. The warlord-dominated elite hollowed out the entire development plan.

A classic example of the Afghan government’s corruption comes from Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud, who in 2009 was stopped in Dubai with $52 million in cash, but eventually released. The Guardian noted that a diplomatic cable reported drug traffickers, government officials, and business owners are moving millions of dollars outside Afghanistan. Even the chairman of Kabul Bank amassed 39 properties in Dubai, and his corrupt loans nearly brought down the Afghan financial system.

In The New York Times, Ambassador Crocker explained that the Biden administration’s lack of strategic patience has led to this disaster in Afghanistan, which has damaged alliances and increased national security risk. Military historian Max Boot noted in The Washington Post that if the US maintained 2,500 troops in conjunction with air support, there would have been a tenuous equilibrium where each city would have remained in the government’s control. However, the White House counters that even when the US had 15,000 troops in 2017, the Taliban still gained ground.

Today, we deal with a victorious Taliban as they pose before the ornate presidential palace, often greeted as liberators. Sitting in the UAE, deposed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani denies that he escaped with crates of cash, vows to return, explaining how he fled to escape the same fate as former President Mohammad Najibullah, who was executed when the Taliban last seized power in 1996. This explanation is from the former World Bank technocrat who wrote the book “Fixing failed states.” You cannot write a better movie script.

A post-9/11 counterterrorism mission expanded to become a state-building one under both Republican and Democratic administrations and now has come to an abysmal ending. President Biden has pulled the plug on this American empire project despite the top brass yelling for more time. However haphazard the evacuation has gone, the alternative would have been a perpetual foreign occupation of Afghanistan, with America seemingly supporting an inept, corrupt government at the expense of its own blood and treasure.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and we cannot turn back the clock. There are merits in arguing for a permanent US presence or leaving Afghans to their own fate after staying there for twenty years. Some American forces were responsible for abuses and civilian deaths, as cited by Human Rights Watch.

If history serves as a reminder, Afghanistan will be a backstory for most Americans. The 800,000-armed service personnel in Afghanistan are .25% of the general population, who will be far more concerned with public health and the economy, their daily bread and butter. The illusion that heavily-armed American troops alongside intricately resourced diplomats could deliver a stable, democratic Afghanistan has been shattered.

A few days back, I received an email from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society. The greater Washington, DC-based Islamic organization collects funds for hundreds of Afghan evacuees who have landed in the area. They coordinate with officials in facilities hosting evacuees and will ask for Dari/Pashto-speaking volunteers alongside personal hygiene items from the Muslim community in the area. They have already visited an Afghan evacuee site in Virginia, and volunteers will be asked to fulfill the long-term needs of the refugees, as the US has pledged to accept 50,000 Afghans.

On my part, I will check up on my friend Irfan now and again to see how his new life unfolds in Pakistan or wherever he resettles. I will see how fellow Muslims in the US can assist Afghan refugees arriving here for a safer, better life. And I will tell anyone willing to listen, the story of a superpower whose leaders believed they could remake a new world order, only to see this collapse before their very eyes, and I sincerely hope that future policymakers make far, far wiser decisions.