Biden may not regret leaving Afghanistan, but I do

August 18, 2021 10:33 am

Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on August 10, 2021, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of the country since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Photo by Paula Bronstein | Getty Images

On Sunday, after a 20 years of war against the U.S.-backed regime in Afghanistan, the Taliban retook control.

To many, it’s an almost unimaginable turn of events. Others insist they saw it coming, though almost no one believed it would happen this quickly. Military and intelligence experts had predicted a Taliban takeover in the wake of the U.S. military’s withdrawal could take six to 18 months. It took just a few weeks.

It’s important that we not short-shift the dark reality that is once again about to beset the nearly 40 million people who call this long suffering country home.

Simply stated, the Taliban, by all accounts, are barbarians, a fanatical sect that practices a medieval brand of Islam that is roundly rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.9 billion Muslims. We can judge them by the company they keep. Among the Taliban’s closest allies has been Al-Qaeda, the global terrorist network once led by Osama Bin Laden that was responsible for the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.

That attack, of course, is how we came to be in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush ordered our forces to invade the country, crush Al-Qaeda and hunt down Bin Laden, deciding along the way that he needed to take out the Taliban, as well. 

Mission accomplished? Not quite. While Al-Qaeda is now a shell of its former self and Bin Laden was ultimately assassinated, the Taliban bided its time, in part by finding safe haven in neighboring Pakistan, where it was born in the 1990s with the goal of bringing a strict morality-based social order to Afghanistan. 

Until the U.S. invasion, they did just that. And that’s why, despite claims by its leaders this week that the Taliban of 2021 is a kindler, gentler version, the people of Afghanistan can’t help but fear the worst.

“While in power in Afghanistan in the 1990s,” according to a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch, Taliban rule was “characterized by systematic violations against women and girls; cruel corporal punishments, including executions; and extreme suppression of freedom of religion, expression, and education.”

Although we made many mistakes over the years, by contrast, after the U.S. invasion, “In cities under Afghan government control, millions of Afghan girls have gone to school and Afghan women have participated in public life, including holding political office, in greater numbers than ever before in Afghanistan’s history,” the Human Rights Watch report found.

Few will ever forget how the Taliban once dragged men and women into a Kabul soccer stadium to be shot or have their “limbs amputated for crimes ranging from robbery to adultery and murder.” Or how Taliban soldiers used rocket launchers to obliterate 2,000-year-old Buddha statues because they regarded them as false idols.

In recent years, as the Taliban clawed its way back to power in many of the country’s rural regions, news coverage was tightly restricted; televisions, smartphones and even listening to music were widely banned; and “vice and virtue” police monitored strict “Taliban-prescribed social codes regarding dress and public deportment, beard length, men’s attendance at Friday prayers” with a range of punishments imposed against those who broke the rules, including public beatings or imprisonment.

Now that they’re back in power, will the Taliban return to their repressive practices? Many in Afghanistan and around the world are afraid they will.

Educators, journalists, government officials, entrepreneurs and basically anyone who has helped try to build a democracy there over the past 20 years say they’ll be imprisoned or executed if they’re captured by the Taliban. 

Thousands of Afghans have gone into hiding or are fleeing the country. U.S. Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), who served a tour of duty in Afghanistan, told MSNBC, “I’m hearing stories of Afghans saying they’re making suicide pacts…they’re going to do what’s necessary to make sure their children, their daughters, aren’t enslaved by the Taliban. 

Who’s to blame for this human catastrophe?

The greatest blame, of course, goes to the Taliban. It’s takeover of Afghanistan was hardly the result of a popular uprising. While support for the U.S. presence waned over the years, few in Afghanistan were clamouring for a return of the Taliban.

I also blame Afghan government and military leaders for not standing to fight. It was, after all, their country to defend.

Americans, meanwhile, were weary of our “longest war.” Too much money had been spent, too many American lives had been lost. 

We wanted out. I wanted out. 

And, yet, because I believed in what the U.S. was trying to achieve there writ-large — the development of some semblance of a self-sustaining democracy — the last thing I and so many others wanted was for it all to end with the chaotic return of the Taliban and U.S. forces scrambling to evacuate Americans and thousands of Afghans who supported our efforts there.

It’s a devastatingly ignoble end to what began as a noble venture. 

For that, the blame lies with President Joe Biden and his military and intelligence advisors for failing to bring an end to our involvement there with the dignity our troops and the Afghan people deserved. As one Afghan woman put it, it isn’t that we’re leaving that angered her, it’s the way we’re doing it.

In a sober address to the American people this week, Biden said he had no regrets about his decision to pull our troops out of Afghanistan.

I do. 

I regret that we couldn’t save the Afghan people, especially the millions of women and girls, from the cruel prospect of a second round of Taliban rule.

I regret that more than 2,4oo American soldiers, nearly 4,000 U.S. contractors, 66,000 Afghan troops and police, 47,000 Afghan civilians, and 52,000 Taliban and other opposition fighters are all dead now — and that, for all practical purposes, we’re right back where we started.

I regret that, despite whatever good intentions we may have had, much of the world will regard the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as an abject failure. 

Most of all, I regret that, someday, somewhere, we’ll probably do it all over again.

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James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of a major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught creative and non-fiction writing, ethnic studies, theater, literature and Latino politics at ASU. The founder and producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co., James is the author of more than 30 plays, including the upcoming “The Two Souls of Cesar Chavez.”