For the Record

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


I thought I was done writing on Afghanistan. I’d written about how irresponsible it would be for the US to withdraw from it anytime soon, and how it shouldn’t let an irrational fear of “endless wars” make it abandon it to the Taliban. After US Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden decided to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan this year, the die was cast; what else was there to say?


And yet, journalism, as they say, is the first rough draft of history. Years from now, it’s likely people will make all sorts of false claims about the War in Afghanistan – in fact, some have started doing so already. Perhaps it’s worth setting a few things down, for the record.


For the record, Biden did not, as he implied, have his hands tied by his predecessor. Although Trump was the one who struck that ignominious peace deal with the Taliban, Biden could just have nullified it, just as he has nullified so many of Trump’s other policies since taking office – especially since the Taliban had clearly violated the agreement.


For the record, though Trump and many of the former officials in his administration are trying to pin the blame for the disastrous American withdrawal, the Taliban takeover of the country, and the resulting humanitarian catastrophe solely on Biden, much of this is also their fault, since it was they who signed that terrible deal in the first place, under which terms the US was actually supposed to have withdrawn four months earlier. Though it is hard to imagine that even Trump would have mismanaged the withdrawal as badly as Biden has.


For the record, though the US had some 12,000 troops in Afghanistan in late 2019 (just before it signed the peace deal with the Taliban), there were also about 8,500 troops from other NATO countries there, who need not have withdrawn when the US did. This is their failure too.


For the record, the War in Afghanistan was not “hugely unpopular” amongst the American people, most of whom were largely apathetic to it or ambivalent about it. Remember the huge protests in recent years demanding an end to the war? Neither do I.


For the record, the US commitment to Afghanistan was relatively small. In 2019, the US spent $38 billion in Afghanistan, out of a total military budget of $719 billion, which, at 3.2% of its GDP, is not terribly high. Last year, the US only had about 12,000 out of its 1.3 million active-duty troops there (which the Trump administration then cut down to just 2,500). The most important role US forces played was giving intelligence and air support to Afghan troops, who did the vast majority of the fighting. In 2020, only 4 US soldiers were killed in action in Afghanistan; in 2019, that number was 17; in 2018 it was 13; in 2017, 11; in 2016, 9; in 2015, 10. These are minimal losses, and even with this limited commitment, the US had, in the words of former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, prevented the Taliban from making any “appreciable gains, or gains that they can hold for more than a day or two,” as well as kept it from reimposing its draconian Islamist rule over most of the country and turning it into a hotbed of extremism and militancy.


For the record, it’s hard to even say that the Taliban defeated the US. In spite of Afghanistan’s reputation as “the graveyard of empires,” the US was actually doing quite well before it forfeited. Despite its limited commitment, the US, and the government friendly to it, controlled all the most desirable parts of Afghanistan, including all the major cities, whilst the Taliban had to resort to scrabbling around in the desert and in caves and launching terrorist attacks from the shadows – that’s as close to winning as you could expect under the circumstances. Also, in a sense, every single day in Afghanistan that girls could go to school and women could become actresses, or bankers, or members of parliament represented a victory. It was just a victory that many Americans didn’t appreciate.

It’s hard to even say that the Taliban defeated the US. The US was actually doing quite well before it forfeited.

For the record, whilst some call Afghanistan “America’s longest war” and bemoan the fact that it’s been there for 20 years without the country becoming a successful democracy yet, they forget that after the Korean War ended in a stalemate in 1953, even by the 70s, South Korea still looked like a mess and was run by a hugely corrupt and hugely repressive government (which was, nonetheless, still vastly better than the Kim regime, much like the Afghan government, for all its obvious failings, was still vastly better than the Taliban). It was only in the 80s – some 30 years later – when South Korea really started to turn around. Thankfully, America was less shortsighted back then and stayed the course, which is why US troops remain there to this day, and South Korea is now one of the richest and freest countries in the world.


For the record, contrary to what Biden has claimed, the Afghan military did fight to defend their country. The Afghan military has been doing the bulk of the fighting (and the dying) for many years, and the fact that Afghan military and police casualties number some 66,000, compared to 2,448 US military casualties, speaks for itself. The Afghan government and its military collapsed so quickly because of their weakness and incompetence, but also because the US has spent the past few administrations destroying their morale and emboldening the Taliban: Barack Obama by setting a time-based US exit strategy from Afghanistan instead of a conditions-based one; Trump by completely undercutting the Afghan government by excluding it from peace negotiations with the Taliban and agreeing to abandon it whilst also forcing it to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners; Biden by actually abandoning it with shocking callousness. The Afghan army’s will to fight was tied to the modest US presence in the country. As David Petraeus, former US CIA director and former commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, noted, “We set them up for failure.”


For the record, there is no good reason to think that the Taliban that takes power now will be any better than the Taliban the US deposed in 2001. And yet, when, not if, the Taliban imposes its barbaric Islamofascist rule on everyone and harbors terrorist groups (including Al Qaeda) again, many people will pretend to be surprised. But this is the same Taliban that banned music, that prohibited girls from going to school and flogged women for leaving the house without a male guardian or for showing their ankles in public, and deposing it and keeping it from power was one of the best things the US ever did. The notion that the Taliban will be more liberal now because it wants to look good on social media, that it will tone down its repression because it’s afraid of being banned from Twitter, is utterly ridiculous. The notion that America can use diplomacy and economic sanctions to compel it not to harbor terrorist groups is delusional when not even threatening to invade Afghanistan and depose it made it give Al Qaeda up in 2001. If anything, the Taliban will be even worse now, emboldened by its victory over the most powerful country in the world, and confident that neither America nor anyone else is likely to invade again anytime soon. Already, the Taliban has responded to protests against it by firing into crowds and beating protestors and journalists, and there are reports that it is executing captured soldiers and forcing women to become “wives” to its fighters.

There is no good reason to think that the Taliban that takes power now will be any better than the Taliban the US deposed in 2001.

For the record, America is much less safe now than it was a month ago. In addition to allowing Afghanistan to become a haven for Islamist terrorism once again, its pathetic withdrawal will discourage its friends and encourage its enemies. With its peace deal with the Taliban, the US hoped to retreat with the illusion of dignity. The Taliban wouldn’t even give it that, attacking and overrunning the country even before the US could get out. Instead of standing its ground, the US has fled before the Taliban onslaught lest it be forced to fight it, abandoning its equipment and the Afghans who helped it in its haste to get out, burning its own flags so they couldn’t be used for Taliban propaganda, begging the Taliban not to attack its embassy, even trying to bribe it with promises of foreign aid if it refrained from doing so. The indelible images of this precipitous withdrawal will be the video of Afghans clinging to the US transport plane as it took off from Kabul and falling from it to their deaths, a sickening mirror-image of those people who jumped from the twin towers as they burned on 9/11. The impression it gives is of an America with no staying power, that, for all its military might, is afraid of fighting anyone, that abandons its allies when it suits its interests, that is faithless and cowardly and soft. Why should anyone fear it when it doesn’t even have the stomach to fight some ragtag insurgents at minimal cost? Why should anyone want to ally with it when it leaves its allies to hang when it grows tired of fighting? Sensing weakness, its enemies will be more eager to test its resolve, and friends will think twice before coming to its aid. Chief among these enemies will be China and North Korea, making a mockery of the rationale of withdrawing from the Middle East to “pivot” to Asia. Ironically, had the US stayed and fought in Afghanistan – a war it was fighting extremely cheaply – its resolve would likely have deterred enemies from testing it and spared it many future battles. Because it failed to do this, it will either have to surrender on many more fronts, or fight many more battles to regain its credibility, and it will find itself increasingly alone when it does. And, since democracy and freedom in much of the world relies greatly on the deterrent power that stems from the military might of the US and its allies – and the willingness to use it – this failure also endangers many other people. “You were given the choice between war and dishonor,” Winston Churchill told Neville Chamberlain after the latter signed the infamous Munich Agreement that abandoned Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. “You chose dishonor and you will have war.” That’s something to remember as Biden tries to portray this disaster as somehow being the responsible thing to do. Today, Afghans are paying the price of America’s stupid and feckless withdrawal. To some extent, Americans, and many other people around the world, will soon be paying for it too.