The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Afghanistan shows us that we can’t invent other nations in our image

A baby is handed to U.S. forces over the perimeter wall of the international airport in Kabul on Aug. 19. (Omar Haidari via Reuters) (Social Media/Via Reuters)

A man falling from an airborne military cargo plane, a baby being handed over a barbed wire fence to U.S. troopers, crowds clambering for footing on an exit ramp at the Kabul airport: These are the images of our country’s doing.

Such snapshots capture desperation, hope, fear, courage, agony and, too often, death. As President Biden said on Friday, no one can look at those images and “not feel that pain on a human level.” We are variously touched, saddened, disgusted and angry, even as we feel our own helplessness amid distant chaos. We are not immune to others’ suffering but feeling another’s pain with words is surely cold comfort to terrified people.

Sometimes, a single image is so breathtaking that it leads to a sea change in public opinion. The little girl running naked from a napalm attack in Vietnam became an iconic image of the war. The expression on a Viet Cong fighter’s face just as his executioner pulled the trigger on the gun held to his head helped to turn the tide of the war at home.

Today, the equally memorable image of helicopters airlifting Americans from a rooftop in Vietnam in 1975 has been resurrected as a way of comparing events in Kabul to Saigon — not only the means of exit but as an overlay for shared failure.

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The two engagements are similar in some ways, but they are not the same. The United States at least had a legitimate mission in Afghanistan after 9/11: to defeat the Taliban and, if possible, eliminate Osama bin Laden. We temporarily achieved the first; bin Laden was killed years later in Pakistan. Did we fail?

It appears so now but, 20 years ago, it seemed to be in our national interest to subdue the Taliban and try to stabilize Afghanistan. There was an argument for helping to create a government and a military capable of stabilizing that nation, and in working to make education available to girls and women, the success of whom theoretically would lead to a more stable country.

We might have guessed we’d fail in the end because Afghanistan historically is where other nations go to fail. We might have figured that bombing and killing members of the Taliban would fail to endear them to us or to our democratic principles. We might have predicted that a government and military stood up by outsiders would collapse in the face of fiercer, internal foes.

Similarly, we tried to save South Vietnam from communist takeover by the North, fearing that neighboring countries also would soon fall to communism in a sweep known at the time as “the domino effect.” Which some did, despite the ultimate sacrifices of more than 58,000 Americans. Too many mistakes were made to itemize here, but the greatest by far was our government’s decision to escalate when it knew the war was essentially lost. This wasn’t just poor judgment or incompetence, as seems to be the case in Afghanistan; it was a willful, calculated decision to lie to the American people and let their sons and fathers die for nothing.

It isn’t easy to move on from that kind of betrayal.

For this reason, I’ve heard from several Vietnam vets during the past few days. Russ Clark was a company commander in Vietnam, who later became a Methodist minister and, for decades, has counseled fellow veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A long-suffering reader of my column and a correspondent of 22 years, he wrote recently to share the anger and anguish he’s hearing from members of his company.

“The anger I’m hearing is searching for a target,” Clark wrote in his email. “That’s what anger often does, even if the rage is misdirected. Most blamed Joe Biden for the rapid, undisciplined withdrawal that has left chaos in its ugly wake. Most are stunned that our military intelligence totally underestimated the strength of the Taliban, and the weakness of the Afghan defense forces.”

Clark’s compatriots also wonder why we stayed for 20 years, spent between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, and sacrificed 2,400 American lives only to cut and run without a plan to help our allies, leaving behind enough military hardware to keep the Taliban well-equipped for the foreseeable future.

As for their rage, veterans have plenty of choices: George W. Bush started the Afghan adventure, Barack Obama continued it, Donald Trump signed an agreement to end it, then kicked the can to Biden, who blew the exit.

A gripping photo of American arrogance, incompetence and betrayal is hard to capture in a single frame. But a stowaway’s fatal fall from an aircraft and a parent sacrificing her baby to a stranger now join those from the Vietnam era in a catalogue of reminders that we can’t and shouldn’t try to invent other countries in our own image.

Let’s hope we’ve learned our lesson this time.