With Afghanistan, Biden Was in the ‘Nation-building Trap.’ And He Did Well.

You’ve done it. You have bombed, invaded, and occupied an oppressive State into a constitutional democracy, human rights and all. Now there is only one thing left to do: attempt to leave — and hope you are not snared in the nation-building trap.

Biden suffered much criticism over the chaotic events in Afghanistan in August 2021, such as the masses of fleeing Afghans crowding the airport in Kabul and clinging to U.S. military planes, the American citizens left behind, and more, all as the country fell to the Taliban. Yet Biden was in a dilemma, in the 16th century sense of the term: a choice between two terrible options. That’s the nation-building trap: if your nation-building project collapses after or as you leave, do you go back in and fight a bloody war a second time, or do you remain at home? You can 1) spend more blood, treasure, and years reestablishing the democracy and making sure the first war was not in vain, but risk being in the exact same situation down the road when you again attempt to leave. Or 2) refuse to sacrifice any more lives (including those of civilians) or resources, refrain from further war, and watch oppression return on the ruins of your project. This is a horrific choice to make, and no matter what you would choose there should be at least some sympathy for those who might choose the other.

Such a potentiality should make us question war and nation-building, a point to which we will return. But here it is important to recognize that the August chaos was inherent in the nation-building trap. Biden had that dilemma to face, and his decision came with unavoidable tangential consequences. For example, the choice, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, could be reframed as 1) send troops back in, go back to war, and prevent a huge crowd at the airport and a frantic evacuation, or 2) remain committed to withdraw, end the war, but accept that there would be chaos as civilians tried to get out of the country. Again, dismal options.

This may seem too binary, but the timeline of events appears to support it. With a withdraw deadline of August 31, the Taliban offensive began in early May. By early July, the U.S. had left its last military base, marking the withdraw as “effectively finished” (this is a detail often forgotten). Military forces only remained in places like the U.S. embassy in Kabul. In other words, from early May to early July, the Taliban made serious advances against the Afghan army, but the rapid fall of the nation occurred after the U.S. and NATO withdraw — with some Afghan soldiers fighting valiantly, others giving up without a shot. There are countless analyses regarding why the much larger, U.S.-trained and -armed force collapsed so quickly. U.S. military commanders point to our errors like: “U.S. military officials trained Afghan forces to be too dependent on advanced technology; they did not appreciate the extent of corruption among local leaders; and they didn’t anticipate how badly the Afghan government would be demoralized by the U.S. withdrawal.” In any event, one can look at either May-June (when U.S. forces were departing and Taliban forces were advancing) or July-August (when U.S. forces were gone and the Taliban swallowed the nation in days) as the key decision-making moment(s). Biden had to decide whether to reverse the withdraw, send troops back in to help the Afghan forces retake lost districts (and thus avoid the chaos of a rush to the airport and U.S. citizens left behind), or hold firm to the decision to end the war (and accept the inevitability of turmoil). Many will argue he should have chosen option one, and that’s an understandable position. Even if you had to fight for another 20 years, and all the death and maiming that comes with it, and face the same potential scenario when you try to withdraw in 2041, some would support it. But for those who desired an end to war, it makes little sense to criticize Biden for the airport nightmare, or the Taliban takeover or American citizens being left behind (more on that below). “I supported withdraw but not the way it was done” is almost incomprehensible. In the context of that moment, all those things were interconnected. In summer 2021, only extending and broadening the war could have prevented those events. It’s the nation-building trap — it threatens to keep you at war forever.

The idea that Biden deserves a pass on the American citizens unable to be evacuated in time may draw special ire. Yes, one may think, maybe ending the war in summer 2021 brought an inevitable Taliban takeover (one can’t force the Afghan army to fight, and maybe we shouldn’t fight a war “Afghan forces are not willing to fight themselves,” as Biden put it) and a rush to flee the nation, but surely the U.S. could have done more to get U.S. citizens (and military allies such as translators) out of Afghanistan long before the withdraw began. This deserves some questioning as well — and as painful as it is to admit, the situation involved risky personal decisions, gambles that did not pay off. Truly, it was no secret that U.S. forces would be leaving Afghanistan in summer 2021. This was announced in late February 2020, when Trump signed a deal with the Taliban that would end hostilities and mark a withdraw date. U.S. citizens (most dual citizens) and allies had over a year to leave Afghanistan, and the State Department contacted U.S. citizens 19 times to alert them of the potential risks and offer to get them out, according to the president and the secretary of state. Thousands who chose to stay changed their minds as the Taliban advance continued. One needn’t be an absolutist here. It is possible some Americans fell through the cracks, or that military allies were given short shrift. And certainly, countless Afghan citizens had not the means or finances to leave the nation. Not everyone who wished to emigrate over that year could do so. Yet given that the withdraw date was known and U.S. citizens were given the opportunity to get out, some blame must necessarily be placed on those who wanted to stay despite the potential for danger — until, that is, the potential became actual.

Biden deserves harsh criticism, instead, for making stupid promises, for instance that there would be no chaotic withdraw. The world is too unpredictable for that. Further, for a drone strike that blew up children before the last plane departed. And for apparently lying about his generals’ push to keep 2,500 troops in the country.

That is a good segue for a few final thoughts. The first revolves around the question: “Regardless of the ethics of launching a nation-building war, is keeping 2,500 troops in the country, hypothetically forever, the moral thing to do to prevent a collapse into authoritarianism or theocracy?” Even if one opposed and condemned the invasion as immoral, once that bell has been rung it cannot be undone, and we’re thus forced to consider the ethics of how to act in a new, ugly situation. Isn’t 2,500 troops a “small price to pay” to preserve a nascent democracy and ensure a bloody war was not for nothing? That is a tempting position, and again one can have sympathy for it even if disagreeing, favoring full retreat. The counterargument is that choosing to leave a small force may preserve the nation-building project but it also incites terrorism against the U.S. We know that 9/11 was seen by Al-Qaeda as revenge for U.S. wars and military presences in Muslim lands, and the War on Terror has only caused more religious radicalization and deadly terrorist revenge, in an endless cycle of violence that should be obvious to anyone over age three. So here we see another dilemma: leave, risk a Taliban takeover, but (begin to) extricate yourself from the cycle of violence…or stay, protect the democracy, but invite more violence against Americans. This of course strays dangerously close to asking who is more valuable, human beings in Country X or Country Y, that old, disgusting patriotism or nationalism. But this writer detests war and nation-building and imperialism and the casualties at our own hands (our War on Terror is directly responsible for the deaths of nearly 1 million people), and supports breaking the cycle immediately. That entails total withdraw and living with the risk of the nation-building endeavor falling apart.

None of this is to say that nation-building cannot be successful in theory or always fails in practice. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which like that of Afghanistan I condemn bitterly, ended a dictatorship; eighteen years later a democracy nearly broken by corruption, security problems, and the lack of enforcement of personal rights stands in its place, a flawed but modest step in the right direction. However, we cannot deny that attempting to invade and occupy a nation into a democracy carries a high risk of failure. For all the blood spilled — ours and our victims’ — the effort can easily end in disaster. (Beyond a flawed democracy and massive Iraqi civilian body count, our invasion plunged the nation into civil war and birthed ISIS.) War and new institutions and laws hardly address root causes of national problems that can tear a new country apart, such as religious extremism, longstanding ethnic conflict, and so on. It may in fact make such things worse. This fact should make us question the wisdom of nation-building. As discussed, you can “stay until the nation is ready,” which may mean generations. Then when you leave, the new nation may still collapse, as with Afghanistan, not being as ready as you thought. Thus a senseless waste of lives and treasure. Further, why do we never take things to their logical conclusion? Why tackle one or two brutal regimes and not all the others? If we honestly wanted to use war to try to bring liberty and democracy to others, the U.S. would have to bomb and occupy nearly half the world. Actually “spreading freedom around the globe” and “staying till the job’s done” means wars of decades or centuries, occupations of almost entire continents, countless millions dead. Why do ordinary Americans support a small-scale project, but are horrified at the thought of a large-scale one? That is a little hint that what you are doing needs to be rethought.

Biden — surprisingly, admirably steadfast in his decision despite potential personal political consequences — uttered shocking words to the United States populace: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” Let’s hope that is true.

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