If only we could actually say “good riddance” to America’s misbegotten adventures in Afghanistan as the year 2021 comes to a close. Alas, reality is a bit more complicated.
On August 30, the last American troops pulled out of Kabul following two weeks of fraught evacuations of diplomatic and civilian staff. One month and a week shy of 20 years, America finally concluded what started as an attempt to destroy al Qaeda and track down Osama bin Laden and ended as a failed attempt at nation-building.
The final days went poorly. A suicide bombing at the airport just days before the evacuation deadline killed 13 U.S. troops and at least 170 Afghan civilians. The U.S. military responded with an airstrike against what its intelligence analysts said was a terrorist preparing another strike on the airport. That intelligence was wrong. The drone strike killed an aid worker for a food charity and nine of his family members, including seven children.
The Department of Defense lists 2,401 servicemembers killed during the two-decade effort in Afghanistan. The Department of Labor lists another 1,822 deaths among civilian contractors working in the country during that time.
The financial costs are harder to calculate. The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimates that the federal government has obligated the United States to spend $8 trillion post-9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other troubled countries. Much of this spending has been paid for by borrowing. By the 2050s, the Watson Institute predicts, we may have an interest bill of $6.5 billion. We may have left Afghanistan, but Americans (including some not even born yet) will be paying the costs of the Afghan war for a very long time.
America’s military and political leaders argued that stabilizing Afghanistan’s government and infrastructure was a crucial part of fighting the war on terrorism. But such stabilization simply didn’t happen. Instead, according to years of reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the billions upon billions of dollars spent there went to poorly managed projects troubled with corruption. The money may have lined a number of people’s pockets—the U.S. paid $43 million for a single gas station—but none of that construction work actually stabilized Afghanistan and neither U.S. troops nor Afghan police were able to protect the U.S.-funded infrastructure.
As America finally began heading toward Afghanistan’s exits in August 2021, SIGAR produced a damning report describing how poorly U.S. resources were managed and deployed. The problem wasn’t that we weren’t spending enough money. The problem was that American leaders never actually agreed on what “success” would or should look like in Afghanistan. The result, according to SIGAR: “The absence of periodic reality checks created the risk of doing the wrong thing perfectly: A project that completed required tasks would be considered ‘successful,’ whether or not it had achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals.”
Nor has the U.S. been kind to those Afghans now looking to flee their devastated homeland. Thousands of Afghan interpreters, engineers, and others who assisted American forces or contractors now seek to immigrate to the U.S., but harsh immigration laws and piles of red tape tape make it exceedingly difficult for them to do so.
There’s currently a backlog of 18,000 primary applicants (with more than 50,000 family members) attempting to get Special Immigration Visas to come to America from Afghanistan. Another 28,000 are seeking special entry on humanitarian grounds. The Biden administration has said it plans to evacuate at least 50,000 Afghans, but as of November only 100 applications had been approved.
And is the war really over? The congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force that first sent our troops to Afghanistan still remains in force. And even up until the very end, military leaders urged President Joe Biden (as they urged President Donald Trump before him) to keep some forces there indefinitely. In order to draw down troops and exit, both Trump and Biden had to resist generals who wanted to defy what Americans have demanded for a very long time.
The troops may be gone but our drones remain in Afghanistan. Moreover, Biden intends to keep using them, even as his administration limits the use of drone strikes in other countries. In a speech on August 31 marking the removal of the troops, Biden said, “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground—or very few, if needed. We’ve shown that capacity just in the last week. We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our servicemembers and dozens of innocent Afghans.”
That claim of striking ISIS-K remotely should serve as a reminder of our many mistakes in Afghanistan. Days later it would become clear that the military had gotten its intelligence wrong. The U.S. didn’t kill ISIS terrorists. The U.S. killed 10 innocent Afghans.
We would be better off if we were able to say good riddance—once and for all—to two decades of bad foreign policy and failed interventionism in Afghanistan.