After the fall, what comes next is anybody's guess—as it has been for 20 years.
Maybe the only prediction we can safely make today about the future of the Afghan people is that we can't safely make a prediction. But if we did have to make one, the safest would be this: what happens in the next 20 years will largely depend on the people of Afghanistan, just like the last 20 years and the 20 before that.
I am not blaming the Afghan people for the state of their country this August morning. They've been sold out, but it's much too facile a comment to say that America's actions over the past year have been solely responsible. Instead, the blame must lie on the heads of that country's leaders—of people in power who lived well while those entrusted with Afghanistan's safety—civil servants and soldiers—eked out a meager existence, underpaid and undersupplied, despite the $18 billion dollars of American aid. And while our own soldiers tried to mold a fighting force in this occupied country, those same corrupt, venal leaders accumulated wealth and riches for themselves.
Our exit itself may very have been undignified and embarrassing—less an exit than an escape—but before we dig out our sackcloths, let's note a few factors:
In America, everything is political. The same party hell-bent on not teaching the shameful history of racism in our schools is doing its best to make sure the Afghanistan pull-out remains an indelible mark in the history of a Democratic president. Such tactics are not unexpected.
For the greater part of the past 20 years, most Americans wanted to depart Afghanistan and its history of unwinnable wars. We never officially left until now, but most of us unofficially left years ago—most hung on until the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan. Ask average Americans if we've been living in wartime, and note the response. They might cite McConnell and Schiff, or McCarthy and Pelosi, but they would probably admit we haven't behaved like a country at war. No victory gardens, no rationing (unless you count toilet paper during the pandemic), and never a feeling of shared sacrifice and concern. Days on end without mention of Afghanistan or our troops and advisors. Instead, ingenious phones, 80-inch TV screens, and TikTok. In 20 years, we lost upwards of 2500 soldiers, and the Afghan security forces lost 20 times that many. Back here in the states, we mostly text-messaged.
Afghanistan comprises roughly the same area as New England, New York, and Pennsylvania combined. Its population is just under 40 million. The size of the Taliban fighting force is 75,000. They are outnumbered 500 to one. That fact is significant only because Afghanistan now belongs to the Taliban. They can no longer count on stealing from the Americans, or stealing from those assisted by the Americans. Inst aead, the Taliban now have stewardship of 40 million people, and like any other leader of a nation, they will not be able to go it alone unless they wish to remain nothing more than a battleground in perpetuity. Forty million people may demand better. The history of America is replete with our counteractions in response to human rights violations—Russia, Iran, China. As brutal as the Taliban have been as insurgents, they may have to adjust as leaders; and it may fall upon us to keep them honest.
I understand the extreme reactions to the events of the past weekend. It's agonizing to contemplate renewed restrictions on girls and women, the shuttering of schools and colleges, the curtailment of all forms of media. We saw it in Hong Kong not very long ago. But there are differences too. China is a massive nation with unlimited military and economic strength, and they were no more than invaders to the citizens of Hong Kong. Conversely, the Taliban can claim that they removed the invaders—us—and now they have a country to run. We'll know, soon enough, if they're up to it.
Either way, we're not finished with Afghanistan, and it's unlikely they're finished with us.