There are no good ways to lose a war, but the way America has lost Afghanistan should fill every one of us with shame.
This is not because withdrawal was a mistake. For months, some national security experts have insisted that, even with military victory impossible, it was worth maintaining the status quo indefinitely in order to forestall the sort of nightmare we’re now witnessing. After all, there were only about 2,500 U.S. troops in the country before Joe Biden began pulling out, and not a single American combat death in 2021.
Writing in The Washington Post in April, Meghan O’Sullivan, who served as George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tried to make the case for remaining in Afghanistan. They argued that keeping “the relatively modest number of troops we have in Afghanistan now, for the long haul,” would be less costly than an Afghan government collapse or a civil war. Watching the current fiasco, it’s tempting to agree with them.
But the status quo was never really sustainable. Last year, Donald Trump’s administration signed an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops by May 2021. As part of the deal, the Taliban pledged to stop attacking U.S. forces, a promise they largely kept. It was in that context that the U.S. drew its force down to 2,500. Had Biden abrogated the agreement, fighting between America and the Taliban would have resumed. His choice was to leave or to escalate.
But knowing the U.S. was going to leave, the administration has no excuse for its failure to evacuate our allies and prepare for a refugee exodus. Afghans awaiting papers under the Special Immigrant Visa program, which applies to those who worked for the U.S. government or military, could have been taken out of the country for processing. It was only two weeks ago that the administration started the P-2 visa program for Afghans who worked for American contractors, nongovernmental organizations and media outlets.
Now, as the administration scrambles to deal with the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, it needs to help Afghans who are trying to rescue themselves, both immediately and in the long term.
“I don’t think we’re completely out of time,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project. “What we need to do is secure the airport so that both military and commercial flights can get out. We need those commercial flights to amplify the efforts of the U.S. military in getting people out. And then we need to find a way to get people to the airport.”
There is no time for bureaucracy. The U.S. is now planning to take Afghans who are awaiting visas to third countries or U.S. military bases, but according to Varghese, it’s not clear what criteria will be used for vetting them. It should be as liberal as possible. We should not be consigning people to execution for lack of paperwork.
Arash Azizzada is an Afghan American community organizer and a co-founder of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, an ad hoc group formed after Biden announced the American withdrawal from Afghanistan that is advocating for Afghan refugees. He points out that the U.S. has spent 20 years encouraging young people and women’s rights activists “to take the lead, to break barriers, to take part in civil society in Afghanistan.” Everyone who participated in American initiatives is now in danger.
Many of them have been stranded. “I have a former colleague who was trapped in the Kabul airport, and he’s just messaged me saying that the Taliban have come in the airport and have been shooting and beating people,” said Heather Barr, who is associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch and has long experience in Afghanistan. “He managed to flee to a friend’s house, but he lost all his belongings.”
“This is one of many messes that the U.S. has made on the way out, but this one they could fix,” she said. “They need to ensure safe passage not just for the people at the airport, not just for interpreters who worked for the U.S. military, but for anyone who wants to leave.”
The U.S. also needs to ensure that they have a place to go. Azizzada called for the U.S. to demand that neighboring countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan open their borders to Afghan refugees. And, of course, we should bring as many as possible here. Canada, which is about one-ninth the size of the United States, has announced its intention to take more than 20,000 fleeing Afghans. There is no way to justify America accepting fewer on a per capita basis; 180,000 should be the absolute floor.
This is likely to be unpopular; polls showed a majority of Americans opposed the comparatively tiny Syrian refugee resettlement program. But there is no moral argument against vastly expanded refugee admissions.
America’s 20-year sojourn in Afghanistan is ending in horror. The question now is whether our humbled country will do the bare minimum to mitigate it.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.