BY FORMER AMBASSADOR DAVID ROBINSON
The United States Air Force announced on Monday exonerated and returned to flight status the crew of a C-17 military plane after body parts had been found in its wheel well.
The remains were likely Afghani, the awful result of the plane’s emergency departure from Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, while it was being overrun by civilians hoping to flee the Taliban. Scores of people surrounding and clinging to the plane as it took off became the graphic and pitiful emblem of America’s failure after nearly 20 years of “security assistance” and “democracy building” in Afghanistan, an effort most participants had known but refused to admit was futile. Comparisons with the last American helicopter leaving the U.S. Embassy in Saigon 46 years earlier were precisely on-target.
In making the announcement, the Air Force said the crew had exercised “sound judgment.” The same cannot be said for the long line of policymakers from both political parties that ultimately led to the tragedy. The war was badly conceived from the start by, among others, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and was prolonged and misdirected throughout, as documented by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko. Only two outcomes were ever possible and neither looked like success. Either the United States would have to remain in Afghanistan permanently or it would have to do what President Biden eventually did — simply leave at a certain date regardless of the optics and human cost. There was no right choice.
Congressional hand wringing about America’s damaged reputation and waning influence began as soon as the besieged C-17 took off from Kabul in full view of the world’s media. Afghanistan was the graveyard of empires and it had just claimed another one. The shame was more painful because America’s failure was self-inflicted. Afghanistan’s importance on the world stage was a U.S. creation: It was an easy target for direct action, an opportunity to showcase American resolve after a serious wounding and to set in motion a more comprehensive transformation in the region. Driving Al Qaeda from its safe-haven made sense — but morphing the invasion into a long-term democracy-building exercise did not.
The effort to modernize Afghanistan that ended with the debacle at the airport was neither noble nor necessary. While most development indicators ticked upward during the U.S. presence, including women’s rights, media freedom, health care and education, the hearts and minds battle was never decisively won.
Throughout the U.S. presence, Afghanistan remained a desolate agrarian backwater dominated by warlords and corruption. Driving out the Taliban as well as flooding the economy with assistance money and war dollars may have improved urban life and catered to both well-meaning elites and kleptocratic opportunists, but it did little to improve life for the majority subsistence-level population. As always, they floated in ambiguity, leaving the front door open for the West and the backdoor ajar for the Taliban. The speed of the Taliban’s final advance last August was shocking but not surprising.
The question now is how to move forward. The United States did not create the Taliban or the conditions for its return to power. Failure to lift Afghanistan out of its own dark ages does not translate into an ongoing commitment to keep trying, and there is no pressing geopolitical urgency to reforming Taliban misrule. Afghanistan’s reputation as the nemesis of great powers is overblown. It just historically has not been worth the cost of continued attention.
In fact, Afghanistan has little strategic significance for the United States and offers scant leverage for U.S. regional priorities. Geography alone is not sufficient reason to exaggerate its importance and there is nothing to be gained by trying to expiate national guilt for abandoning, once again, friends and partners who misjudged America’s commitment to them. It is time to move on.
Attention now needs to focus on emergency humanitarian relief rather than long-term political reform. Taliban incompetence and oppression are producing the predictable results, deprivation and flight, and neither sanctions nor development assistance is likely to fundamentally change their methods or trajectory. Instead, international efforts need to focus narrowly on immediate humanitarian relief delivered through international organizations and aid agencies and not through bilateral donations with political strings attached. In other words, it is time for national politicians to muzzle themselves and let international professionals do their work, an optimistic scenario, at best.
In the meantime, concerns about America’s supposedly tarnished reputation are beside the point and reflect fragile egoism more than rational analysis. Most consequential observers expected little else. Still, there are lessons to be learned from the United States’ prolonged engagement in Afghanistan. The most important is this: When the writing is on the wall, read it.
Politicians and policymakers failed to heed the warning signs in Vietnam and showed the same disregard for similar messages a half-century later. They preferred good news to bad, validation to correction, and they were eager to convince themselves that just a little more time and a few more lives would turn temporary gains into permanent transformation. Wishful thinking is not a strategic plus.
Ambassador David Robinson is a retired emissary to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Guyana.