The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Afghanistan, a legacy of U.S. failure endures

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A year ago, the Taliban captured Kabul, capping the dramatic fall of Afghanistan’s fragile U.S.-backed government. America’s longest war ended in ignominy and tragedy. The Islamist militants that had been chased from power in 2001 were back in command and the legacy of two decades of U.S.-led state-building and counterinsurgency that had drained more than $1 trillion from U.S. taxpayers and cost the lives of more than 3,500 U.S. and allied soldiers — and tens of thousands more Afghan troops and civilians — hung excruciatingly in the balance.

Hours after the world watched the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans desperately tried to flee the victorious Taliban advance, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government ombudsman, issued a report on 20 years of U.S. efforts in the country. It was grim reading: “If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak,” the report noted.

Billions of dollars in American and foreign aid may have been siphoned into boondoggles for corrupt Afghan officials and opportunistic U.S. military contractors. While the threat of extremist al-Qaeda militants operating on Afghan land was largely rooted out, ordinary Afghan civilians saw their country’s security situation grow more precarious amid constant terrorist bombings and attacks. A branch of the Islamic State found fertile soil in Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. And years of American efforts to shore up a fledgling Afghan government and train its new army did little to prevent its sudden and total collapse.

As a result, a generation’s worth of fitful progress in advancing women’s education was derailed, with the Taliban reneging on earlier assurances that they would allow all schoolgirls to return to classes. Surging poverty has led to impoverished families selling their daughters as child brides. Tens of thousands of Afghans who assisted U.S. and international forces remain stuck in the country, vulnerable to a regime that sees them as having collaborated with foreign occupiers.

A year of peace in one of Afghanistan’s deadliest provinces

In Washington, there’s plenty of lamentation over what went wrong. Some former military officials believe the United States was out of its depth culturally and could never graft its political system onto Afghanistan’s tribal landscape. Others pin more direct blame on former president Donald Trump, who signed a peace deal with the Taliban that critics argue doomed the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, and President Biden, who executed the full withdrawal even as Afghan provinces fell like dominoes to the Taliban.

“Our foundational mistake was our lack of commitment,” wrote David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for the Atlantic. “In essence, we never adopted a sufficient, consistent, overarching approach that we stuck with from administration to administration, or even within individual administrations.”

That’s a difficult view to accept given the extent and length of the U.S.’s commitment to Afghanistan. As my colleagues reported in 2019, many U.S. officials tasked with carrying out counterinsurgency and reconstruction in Afghanistan privately knew the mission was failing, but in public spun a different message.

“For a long time, Washington’s elites saw Afghanistan as the ‘good war,’ morally justified and sanctioned by the United Nations,” wrote Fareed Zakaria for The Washington Post’s opinion page. “People were invested in believing that it was working, and many blinded themselves to evidence that it wasn’t.”

Now that the Washington establishment has been robbed of its delusions, Afghanistan has faded from view. Biden has repeatedly insisted the legacy campaigns of the post-9/11 era in Afghanistan and Iraq were obscuring the more important challenges facing U.S. strategists, who are now fully occupied by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the looming challenge posed by China.

“I have been struck that much of Washington has appeared keen to essentially put Afghanistan in the rearview mirror and try to move on,” Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asia at the Wilson Center, told Reuters.

After the fall: What Afghanistan looks like since the Taliban takeover

Many Afghans, meanwhile, are only looking ahead with despair. The evaporation of international aid to the country, compounded by U.S. sanctions that froze some $7 billion of Afghan foreign reserves, sent Afghanistan’s economy into a tailspin. The country’s banking system is paralyzed and food prices have soared. The majority of the Afghan population is in need of humanitarian assistance. More than half the population is going hungry and more than a million children are severely malnourished. The United Nations estimated that as much as 97 percent of the country may fall below the poverty line by the second half of the year.

“Regardless of the Taliban’s status or credibility with outside governments, international economic restrictions are still driving the country’s catastrophe and hurting the Afghan people,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in an Aug. 4 statement.

In rural areas of the country devastated by years of war, the Taliban takeover seemed to offer a future of peace. But, as my colleague Susannah George recently reported from Helmand province, long a hotbed of insurgency, the country’s economic woes have darkened the mood. She encountered a mechanic in the town of Marja who had to rebuild his shop three times and now has seen a considerable drop in business.

“Every time I started from scratch,” he told her, “and each time I had less money, so the shop has gotten smaller and smaller.”

Unsurprisingly, that gloom is also felt in Kabul. My colleague Pamela Constable spoke to Sayed Hussain, the owner of a bridal gown business that has lost most of its customer base.

“I am worried and upset all the time. Everyone in this country is upset,” Hussain said. “We have no idea what will happen next, or what our future will look like. When I see the hundreds of messages on Facebook, so many people trying to leave the country, it makes me think I should take my family and go.”