Opinion | Did America Betray Afghanistan?

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President Biden’s rationale for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan has long been simple: No progress was going to be made that hadn’t been made already, and after losing 20 years, $2 trillion and 2,448 American lives, the United States had sacrificed enough. “How many more lives — American lives — is it worth?” he asked yesterday. “How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?”

What America’s longest war cost Afghanistan has never figured quite as prominently in the calculus. But the U.S. military’s haphazard withdrawal this week has made it plain to see: In a matter of days, the Taliban recaptured a country no less vulnerable to its rule but corrupt, deeply impoverished, riddled with American-made weapons and robbed of over 47,000 civilian lives. Tens of thousands of Afghans are desperate to leave and had hoped they would be able to.

In Afghanistan:
The US spent $2.2 trillion in 20yrs.
Western Aid increased $1.3 billion in 2002 to $7.9 billion in 2018.
34% of Afghans were living in poverty in 2007, increased to 59% in 2017.
8000 hectares of poppy cultivation in 2001, 224,000 hectares in 2020.
Who can explain?

What — if anything — does the United States and the rest of the world still owe the Afghan people? Here’s what people are saying.

What about U.S. allies?

More than 18,000 Afghans face potential reprisal by the Taliban for having worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, fixers and embassy clerks for the United States during the war. The Biden administration announced last month a plan to evacuate these affiliates — with family members included, their number exceeds 70,000 — via the Special Immigrant Visa program. “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind,” Biden told reporters.

But the rate of evacuation has lagged far behind the Taliban’s advance. Only about 2,000 Afghans who have sought visas have been evacuated. “If evacuation flights continue at their current pace, it would take until March 2023 to evacuate all the eligible Afghans out of the country,” said Jennifer Quigley, senior director for government affairs at Human Rights First.

“It’s very frustrating to put a lot of work in and provide policy recommendations saying, ‘Hey, there’s a problem coming,’ and then it arrives and people scramble to try to fix it after the fact,” James Miervaldis, the chair of No One Left Behind, a group that works on behalf of U.S. allies in Afghanistan, told Vox. “This is just a complete process failure from top to bottom.”

The United States has been in a similar position before: When it withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the military evacuated 130,000 Vietnamese people alongside U.S. personnel. It was likewise a hectic operation that left hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people, including U.S. affiliates, for dead. But with President Gerald Ford’s insistence, the resettlement bureaucracy picked up its pace.

“We didn’t know the deep background of each Vietnamese we saved in 1975: The benefit of the doubt was given to those fleeing the country,” Kirk Wallace Johnson writes for The New Yorker. “By contrast, the Afghans seeking our help have already submitted to retinal scans and polygraphs — many have U.S. government-issued badges.”

Can the evacuations be expedited? The Times editorial board thinks so. “The U.S. military is, if nothing else, a logistical superpower, and it should move heaven and earth and anything in between to rescue those people who have risked everything for a better future,” the board writes. “Red tape shouldn’t stand between allies and salvation.”

What about everyone else?

Afghans who were employed by the United States won’t be the only people seeking to leave the country: Around 330,000 Afghans have already been displaced this year, with more than half of them fleeing their homes since the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal. Many are seeking safety in neighboring Tajikistan, which said it was prepared to host around 100,000 refugees, as well as in Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.

Among those most at risk are Afghans who were associated with but not employed by the U.S. war effort — those who, for instance, served as reporters and translators for U.S. news outlets — and women, whom the Taliban banned from taking most jobs or receiving education when it controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

“Afghan girls and young women are once again where I have been — in despair over the thought that they might never be allowed to see a classroom or hold a book again,” Malala Yousafzai writes in The Times. “Already, we are hearing reports of female students being turned away from their universities, workers from their offices.”

The United States has an obligation to welcome these people, too, the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argues. Arash Azizzada, an Afghan American community organizer and a co-founder of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, pointed out to her that the United States “has spent 20 years encouraging young people and women’s rights activists ‘to take the lead, to break barriers, to take part in civil society in Afghanistan,’” and they are now in danger because of it. Noting that Canada, which is about one-ninth the size of the United States, has pledged to in take more than 20,000 Afghan refugees, Goldberg says “180,000 should be the absolute floor” for the United States.

The idea of mass refugee admissions has found supporters across the political spectrum; former President Donald Trump said in a statement that “civilians and others who have been good to our country” should be allowed to “seek refuge.”

Some on the right, however, have cast Afghan refugees as a demographic threat. “If history is any guide, and it’s always a guide, we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in the coming months, probably in your neighborhood,” Tucker Carlson said Monday night on his show on Fox News. “So first we invade, and then we are invaded.”

The Biden administration seems to be taking the opposition seriously. It announced two weeks ago that it would expand refugee eligibility for Afghans “who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation,” but they must first receive a referral from a current or former employer and get themselves and their families into a third country without any U.S. assistance. “It’s like they want the credit from liberals for ending the Trump cruelty to immigrants and refugees but they also don’t want the political backlash that comes from actual refugees arriving in America in any sort of large numbers,” one administration official told Politico.

Some believe that the U.S. government owes not just resettlement rights but also reparations to Afghan civilians. “Throughout history, the losers of wars have had to pay reparations, though typically to the regimes and not people,” the journalist Spencer Ackerman writes. “But it is people whom the U.S. owes, not regimes.”

It would be a worthwhile project, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies says, but complicated to carry out: “There is no viable government that is not completely invested in corruption of every sort, and there’s not ever been the chance for Afghan civil society, particularly on a national level, to develop to the point where it could absorb the kind of large-scale financial contributions that are required from the U.S.” for its damage to the country.

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What about the rest of the world?

In The Times, two former U.N. envoys to Afghanistan, Kai Eide and Tadamichi Yamamoto, argue that the United Nations has an obligation to prevent the country from falling into civil war. To do so, “the secretary general must immediately convene the Security Council and seek a clear mandate to empower the U.N., both in the country and at the negotiating table,” they write. “That would mean the United States, Russia, China and other members of the council coming together to authorize a special representative to act as a mediator.”

But as Rajan Menon, an international relations professor at the City College of New York, points out, this would require President Biden to assume a less antagonistic posture than the one he’s taken toward those countries, especially China. “Can the Biden administration look beyond the current acrimony and work cooperatively with them in Afghanistan?” Menon asks. “It should certainly try, because there’s actually some common ground. Neither the United States nor China, Iran and Russia want an Afghanistan that plunges into mayhem, and none can avert that outcome single-handedly.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“Biden’s Betrayal of Afghans Will Live in Infamy” [The Atlantic]

“Biden Was Right” [The Atlantic]

“How Might the Taliban Govern” [The New York Times]

“Surrender or withdrawal? The Kabul contradiction nobody will talk about” [Bad News]

“Ending the Forever War, but Leaving a Legacy of Impunity in Afghanistan” [Just Security]

“Biden pulled troops out of Afghanistan. He didn’t end the ‘forever war.’” [The Washington Post]


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