Peter Altschul, MS Copyright 2021
September 5, 2021
Secretly preparing to lose while pretending that we are winning.
That dissonance was the primary cause of the United States’ chaotic exit from Afghanistan after spending 20 years and at least $2 trillion while ending the lives of more than 171,000 people, including 2461 United States service members and propping up a corrupt, unpopular government.
While we failed in our quest to create a country in our own image, our presence contributed to Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate decreasing by 50 percent, life expectancy increasing by six years, and the university graduate rate increasing by nearly 650 percent (1). Women became more educated and empowered, which often leads to more prosperity.
Over time, a consensus developed among United States citizens that we needed to leave Afghanistan. In 2020, President Trump negotiated with the Taliban, cutting out the government we said we supported. Among other things, he agreed that U.S. and NATO troops would leave by May 2021, and insisted that the government we supported release more than 5,000 Taliban leaders. In return, the Taliban promised not to attack United States and NATO troops. President Biden consented to honor the agreement, though he extended the withdrawal date to August 31.
So the withdrawal started, plagued by that “secretly preparing to lose while pretending that we are winning” dissonance. President Biden and military leaders assured us that the troops they had prepared were willing and ready to continue the fight while secretly withdrawing contractors that repaired equipment that our Afghan allies had been using for years and quietly withdrawing from the Bagram Airfield in early July. Biden bureaucrats didn’t speed up the process to vet those Afghans who wanted to seek asylum because they had supported our troops that the Trump administration had stymied due to their dislike of immigrants because the Afghan government complained that such a speed-up would convey a “we’ve-lost” message.
Our politicians and military leaders were shocked, — SHOCKED — that the army we had trained so well surrendered so quickly to the Taliban, ignoring our rapid withdrawal of support. They were horrified — HORRIFIED — that the Afghans who worked with us were in danger of being abandoned to the whims of those head-chopping, women-imprisoning, cultural artifact-destroying Muslim extremists known as the Taliban.
The last phase of the withdrawal was predictably chaotic, as were the chirps of Monday morning quarterbackers. (Perhaps the evacuation would have gone more smoothly if we hadn’t withdrawn from Bagram Airfield as it had better facilities than the Kabul airport). By the time the troops left on August 31 after a horrific ISIS-K attack, approximately 122,000 people had been evacuated, leaving behind around 500 Americans and an unknown number of Afghans who wanted to leave.
A far-from-graceful exit, but losers can’t be choosers.
Yet the Taliban has asked the United States to maintain a diplomatic presence. They want us and our allies to get their billions in assets unfrozen. They want to be recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. They probably want help in confronting ISIS-K: who believes that the Taliban aren’t extreme enough. The Taliban could help us evacuate more people and maintain a toehold in Afghanistan, which contains huge amounts of rare earth elements that are critical components of technology-based economies.
The Taliban appears to have kept their end of the Trump agreement as they didn’t attack any of the troops as they withdrew.
But this is the violent, misogynistic-on-steroids group, who we fought against for 20 years while supporting their forerunners in the 1980s.
How and how much should we work with the Taliban? I don’t know, but we have a long history of working with government thugs.
And we lost, and losers can’t be choosers.
Perhaps we should think long and hard before trying to impose our way of doing things onto others. Perhaps we should publicize successes to encourage people to stay the course while we’re supporting them to change something for the better. Perhaps we shouldn’t celebrate physical and verbal violence.
And perhaps we should think about how each of us can do a better job secretly preparing to lose while pretending that we are winning. How, how much, and to whom should we let down our guard when we are losing badly?
I wish I knew.