Given the partisan nature of everything, it's no surprise that debates about the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Afghanistan center on the Biden administration's handling—or most would say, mishandling—of the pull-out of U.S. troops and resulting conquest by the Taliban.
"The debacle of the U.S. defeat and chaotic retreat in Afghanistan is a political disaster for Joe Biden, whose failure to orchestrate an urgent and orderly exit will further rock a presidency plagued by crises and stain his legacy," wrote CNN analyst Stephen Collinson. The retreat had a troubling "fall of Saigon" air about it, as desperate Afghans clung to departing U.S. fighter jets.
Others blamed the former Trump administration. "This was a consequence of the Trump administration's announcement…of a fixed date for total withdrawal," argued Robert Tracinski in The Bulwark. "This signaled…that the United States had given up and that we would be leaving the Afghan government without support." That, too, makes some sense.
Nevertheless, late-game finger-pointing reminds me of lost hikers arguing about exit trails—when the problem was heading into the woods in a blizzard. Sure, specific U.S. policies have failed along the way. Writer Bari Weiss, for instance, casts a wide net—blaming Bill Clinton's refusal to target Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush's reliance on warlords, and Barack Obama's unwillingness to focus on winning.
The problem is America's fundamental policy—the hubristic idea that a government that can't even handle its domestic responsibilities has the wherewithal to rebuild an undeveloped nation. That's a bipartisan delusion, although I'm pleased Trump and Biden finally pulled the plug. Had our War on Poverty succeeded, perhaps one could make a stronger case for intervention. We should know better but rarely learn.
Libertarians long decried endless U.S. military interventions given our understanding of the way the government works—as opposed to its myopic promises. I recall the angry responses The Orange County Register editorial pages received when we opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as readers questioned our patriotism for pointing out the obvious. It's too bad it can take decades to be proven right.
The Iraq war made no sense given the dubious connections between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, but Afghanistan was a hotbed for terrorism. It was a tougher case, but there were alternatives to an outright invasion. But once our leaders start pounding the war drums, there was no reasoning with Americans who insisted that this time results would be different.
It is horrific to watch the Taliban, whose philosophy emanates from the Dark Ages, cement its grip on Afghanistan. The results will be tragic indeed. Expect widespread executions of those who cooperated with the Western regime, the relegation of women to the status of chattel, and the re-imposition of Islamic law. But let's not forget the horrific effects of the war and occupation.
"An accurate accounting of the war in Afghanistan must take into account the roughly 2,400 American service members, 3,800 American contractors, 66,000 Afghan security forces, 47,000 Afghan civilians, and others (including journalists and aid workers) who were killed," explained Eric Boehm in Reason. Then add to that the trillions of dollars in costs.
Reason also pointed to a report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. SIGAR lamented our shifting goals: "At various points, the U.S. government hoped to eliminate al-Qaeda, decimate the Taliban movement that hosted it, deny all terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan, build Afghan security forces…and help the civilian government become legitimate and capable enough to win the trust of Afghans."
Although it pointed to a few successes, the "Lessons Learned" report documented 140 pages of failures. The best lesson learned, however, is that the United States should not insert itself into these foreign conflicts, should not engage in nation-building, and should limit its interventions to defensive measures that actually protect our nation and its interests. That's what libertarians always have argued.
"Most Americans still want to see some sort of retribution against Osama bin Laden and his far-flung organization," wrote the Register's late editorial writer Alan Bock. "But more are wondering if they'll see it anytime soon. The dread word 'quagmire,'…has become part of the discourse." He wrote that in 2001—and it's hard to say he was wrong.
What should the United States government do now? It should complete the pull-out, keep close tabs on any terrorist networks that could threaten us, and accept as many Afghan refugees into the United States as possible. Many of them, especially interpreters, worked with the U.S. military. Welcoming them here is the least we can do—and can help prevent a bloodbath.
Former Gen. Colin Powell is known for citing the "Pottery Barn" rule of foreign affairs. "If you break it, you own it." How about the U.S. start following the libertarian rule—just stop playing with other people's pottery?
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.