Opinion: Washington is still ignoring Afghans’ suffering

By James Downie

Digital opinions editor
The Washington Post
14 February 2022
People receive food rations distributed by the Afghan Charity Foundation in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Feb. 6. (Stringer/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

On Sunday, the White House deployed national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby to the Sunday talk shows for interviews on the urgent Russian threat to Ukraine. But as one war looms, those shows still had a few questions regarding the end of another: last summer’s disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. CNN’s Jake Tapper even ended “State of the Union” with a commentary on a U.S. Army review of the exit, first reported by The Post.

More of that is needed. America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan deserves all the attention and study it can get. The Army report provides pages and pages of evidence that policymakers badly misread conditions on the ground. But U.S. politicians and media frequently treat Afghanistan these days like a TV series that had its finale in 2021. Even the stories most focused on Afghans, such as George Packer’s must-read feature for the Atlantic, usually end their tales when American boots leave the ground.

But Afghans’ suffering is very much ongoing, and American decisions continue to make it worse.

“Afghanistan has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” the New Yorker’s Jane Ferguson reported last month. “Half of the country’s population needs humanitarian assistance to survive, double the number from 2020. More than twenty million people are on the brink of famine.” The U.N. World Food Program estimates that 95 percent of Afghan families lack enough to eat. The U.N. Development Program projects that by the summer, the poverty rate could be as high as 97 percent.

Of course, much of the blame must fall on the Taliban: As its members commit widespread human rights violations, the government denies the scale of the famine. But that famine is a direct consequence of the United States’ failure to create a self-sustaining economy there over two decades. More recently, the Biden administration’s decision to freeze billions in Afghan government assets as the United States withdrew exacerbated the resulting economic crash. Since then, humanitarian groups have begged the White House to release the money as aid. Last week, Biden finally ordered the release of the $7 billion held in U.S. banks — except he also ordered half held for Sept. 11 victims’ legal claims against the Taliban.

That decision is indefensible both logically and morally. First, that money doesn’t belong to the Taliban — indeed, that was the Biden administration’s argument for freezing it in the first place. To now say that it should go to Sept. 11 victims, deserving as they are, is a complete flip-flop. Second, with half the money going to Afghanistan in aid anyway, there’s no possible argument that this arrangement is about keeping money out of the Taliban’s hands. Finally, and most important, however many lives $3.5 billion in aid will save, $7 billion would save that many more.

But neither Sullivan nor Kirby fielded a question on the Sunday talk shows about the seized funds.

This American-centric framing isn’t just an abstract failing. A wider view may have led to better decisions from policymakers. One goal of the United States was to help rebuild a stable government for the Afghan people. By that standard, the situation on the ground was almost never acceptable. But politicians and media outlets perpetuated the incompatible view that Afghanistan was only in crisis when America’s soldiers and image were in imminent danger. That helped the war drag on long past any chance of stopping the Taliban, supporting a functioning Afghan state or any other measure of success. The everyday signs of failure were kept out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. A different approach, one that treated Afghan suffering like American suffering, would have almost certainly brought a quicker end to the quagmire.

Sadly, if a new way of thinking is ever to come out of the Afghanistan disaster, it seems unlikely to come from this White House. “Did you learn the lessons of Afghanistan?” CBS’s Margaret Brennan asked Sullivan on “Face the Nation.” “Are you applying them now?” Rather than answer the question, Sullivan disputed The Post’s story. On “Fox News Sunday,” Kirby was more respectful toward the Army report but still played down its findings. And no wonder, when the president flat-out rejected the report’s conclusions.

“Did you learn the lessons of Afghanistan?” is a question many American institutions — politicians, military, media — should continue to ask themselves for the foreseeable future. And no lesson can be learned if the true cost is downplayed. If the United States is to avoid the next great quagmire, if some yet-unknown country’s people is to avoid the terrible fate that has befallen millions of innocent Afghans, the Biden administration — and the rest of these institutions — will need a better answer.

James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine
Opinion: Washington is still ignoring Afghans’ suffering