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What went wrong in Afghanistan? Perspectives on the 'forever war' from those who saw it up close

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Taliban rule: Burqas, other scenes from the past return to Afghanistan

When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1994, most women were forced to quit their jobs and many lost access to education and health care.

Staff video, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Two decades of combat, trillions of dollars spent, tens of thousands of lives lost. It’s no wonder the debate over Afghanistan isn’t over, even if the war essentially is.  

Indeed, the Taliban’s swift takeover has unleashed a flood of new questions, chief among them: Was it all for naught? Were U.S. efforts a failure? What’s next for Afghanistan? And how will an Afghanistan run by a fundamentalist Islamic militant group affect U.S. national security?

Five people, representing both sides of the aisle and both sides of the world, share their perspectives in their own words on the Afghanistan war:

An Afghan woman in parliament: ‘Women are burning their diplomas’

Naheed Farid, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament representing Herat and chair of the human rights, civil society, and women’s affairs committee. Farid also serves on the advisory board of the Afghanistan-U.S. Democratic Peace and Prosperity Council, focused on maintaining the U.S.-Afghan alliance.

“I do not see the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as a failure. Without U.S. involvement there would be no Naheed Farid, and there would be no generation of young Afghan girls who are educated and have opportunities in their lives. Before the U.S. came to Afghanistan, we lived in darkness under Taliban rule. They are one of the most barbaric regimes in modern history. The U.S. helped the Afghan people go from living in a failed state to living in a country where women and girls have advanced so much, where we have free speech, media, education, a democratic system, an elected parliament, and so much more.     

But we have been living in a very dangerous security situation since the Trump administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. The Taliban have assassinated so many female activists, journalists and government officials in the past two years. I have lost many friends and colleagues. The Taliban have also killed schoolchildren in several attacks across the country and even in Kabul. Like all parents, I fear for my children’s safety.

The situation is dire. While I managed to escape my home province of Herat shortly after the Taliban claimed it, those who are still there fear for their lives. Women are burning their diplomas and those who have supported the U.S. are in hiding, terrified they will be executed by Taliban soldiers. 

President (Biden) cannot recognize the Taliban. He must rally the international community against them. There are political and civil society leaders who believe in freedom and democracy in Afghanistan and are now living in exile. There are so many being targeted by the Taliban and if they are left in the country, the president has sentenced them to death.”

Torek Farhadi: ‘The Taliban walk in … without a shot being fired’

Torek Farhadi served as an adviser to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and later advised the Afghan government on economic policy on behalf of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. 

“The U.S. is a democracy where the administration changes every four years – and with it, war strategy. The result is a mishmash. Nobody knows what the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan for the past 10 years. It hasn’t been fighting the Taliban since 2013.

During the first half of its presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. wanted to introduce Western-style democracy there. Afghanistan was not ready for that. Afghan leaders faked elections. Lots of money flowed and some power brokers became very rich, while most civilians were forgotten until the day they had to vote. Then powerbrokers bought their votes and then forgot about them again. People felt more and more disenfranchised – to such a degree that now the Taliban walk into some provinces without a shot being fired. Afghans aren’t rising up against the Taliban because the U.S.-backed Afghan government has not improved their lives. Access to electricity is limited. Illiteracy is still high, especially for women. America funded schools that never materialized and paid soldiers who turned out to be ghosts.

The U.S. tolerated corruption in Afghanistan. The American public was too remote from this to really know what is going on. The Taliban made a comeback amidst this corruption. Consequences for the U.S. are good – it finally cut its loss. But for Afghanistan, the war and the withdrawal will be devastating.”

GOP Rep. Waltz: Fighting an ideology takes decades

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., was a special forces officer who served in Afghanistan. He also worked as an adviser to former Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates and as a counterterrorism adviser to then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

“I really bristle, and I know a lot of other veterans do, too, when I hear people say the war is a failure. I certainly think we could have done a lot of things better across multiple administrations. But the fact that we haven’t suffered another 9/11 – and that al-Qaida has been pressured and decimated – is a success. From a counterterrorism standpoint, Americans are safe.

That’s not to say that al-Qaida can’t rebuild. They can and they will. We have to stay on offense. We’re fighting an ideology, and it takes decades, whether it’s fascism or communism or Islamic extremism. The most recent estimates say the U.S. should keep 6,000 to 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely to keep the Taliban and al-Qaida in check.

To watch the Taliban’s advances now and see all of the U.S. military’s successes come unglued is incredibly painful and difficult, particularly when I tried to push the policy in a different direction. If we have a conversation a year from now, and we’ve lost American soldiers going back in, that’s when it will really be a punch in the gut.”

Veteran commander: We’re safer, but is Afghanistan?

Scott Murray is a retired Air Force colonel and former intelligence officer who spent more than two years in Afghanistan at the height of the U.S. involvement there.

“I understand why we’re leaving.  It would take an amazing leader and a dramatic change in strategy – one that didn’t put the U.S. military in the lead – to reverse course in Afghanistan and recommit to the country’s stability.

A friend of mine in the Afghan government used to joke with me about Americans making Afghans weaker by bringing them bottled water and human rights. From his point of view, the U.S. military’s approach, for all its expense and sophistication, impacted the ability of Afghans to fight the Taliban on their own by introducing Western comforts and Western rules.

The U.S. withdrawal is bittersweet for me. There’s such an emotional swing while you’re there, and now what? Afghanistan really becomes an ungoverned space again, and we are back where we started. Was the sacrifice worth the effort? I just don’t know how you say yes to that after the destruction of al-Qaida, of course.

Our nation and our allies are much safer than they would have been had we done nothing in October of 2001. We had to act. No question. But is Afghanistan better off today? I don’t think so. I hope I’m wrong.”

Sen. Murphy: Biden made right call

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., serves as chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism.

“The images coming out of Afghanistan are heartbreaking, but the rapid takeover by the Taliban is not a reason to reverse course and indefinitely put more troops back into the country. On the contrary, it’s confirmation that President Biden made the tough but right decision to end this forever war.

I went to Afghanistan four times, and during each visit, I met with an impressive American general who had just recently arrived in the country. Each walked me through a presentation detailing how the previous general hadn’t made significant progress in training Afghan forces and how he would finally get it right. This cycle – of failure, correction, and continued failure – played out year after year.

The failure was not the fault of the generals or our soldiers. They were simply given a task that had a fatal design flaw. To decide to fight or die for a country, you must believe in the idea of your nation. The idea of America – democracy, liberty, economic mobility –has motivated millions to fight for our collective security. But in Afghanistan, loyalty is to family, ethnic group, tribe, and God – not country. We thought we could build a modern participatory democracy and American-style military out of whole cloth. We were wrong.

Another one or five or 10 years of U.S. troop presence would not change this reality. But Trump (who bragged this summer that he forced Biden’s hand on a withdrawal) and the Washington establishment are now arguing that we should have stayed. They want to ask American taxpayers to continue to spend trillions of dollars to protect a corrupt government and prop up Afghan forces.

And let’s not forget: it was the Trump administration that made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw. If President Biden had reneged on this agreement, Taliban attacks on our troops would have restarted, which would have forced the U.S. to send thousands of more service members into a conflict with no end in sight. Understandably, most of my constituents oppose this kind of endless occupation.

What my constituents do want is to prevent another attack on American soil. That’s why we went to Afghanistan in the first place – and why so many U.S. service members were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. But right now, with al-Qaida in Afghanistan almost completely destroyed, that isn’t necessary.

I’m not saying we should totally disengage. We have an obligation to help as many of our Afghan partners as possible seek safety and resettlement. And we must maintain counterterrorism capabilities to guard against any future threats from al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

President Biden did the right thing by ending the longest war in our nation’s history, and the events of the last week simply confirm the soundness of his decision.”

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