Alan Zendell, July 9. 2021
Triage is an unpleasant but necessary concept. Sometimes, we can’t save everyone no matter how deserving or worthy they are. It happens on battlefields, during epidemics, and in routine hospital settings, as when there are more patients who need transplants than available organs. While we rarely refer to them that way, we instinctively make triage decisions every day. It could be canceling a vacation because replacing a broken-down car is more important, or sadly for many, having to choose between food and health care.
The unilateral decision to end the forever war in Afghanistan is precisely that kind of decision. Setting aside all the diplomatic and intelligence mishaps that have kept us mired there for twenty years, the decision to leave is rooted in present-day realities. We sent troops to Afghanistan as part of our misguided invasion of Iraq in reaction to nine-eleven. President George W. Bush authorized the mission to root out Al Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden.
The decision was allegedly based on national security concerns, but if we’re being honest, the national mood after terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners in a devilish plan to take down the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and either the White House or the Capitol demanded revenge. Our national psyche still hadn’t recovered from the humiliation of Vietnam and our political leaders succumbed to the need to show both Americans and the world that we weren’t going to pushed around by primitive warlords on a quest for Jihad.
Worse, the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan evolved into nation-building, which experts correctly predicted would be a disaster. It was partially successful in Iraq, which was more secular and industrially developed, but a complete failure in Afghanistan, which outside of the capital is a nation dominated by petty chieftans and religious zealots.
Should we have known better? In 1979, Russia invaded Afghanistan and attempted to occupy and remake it in its own image. Even with massive resources and relatively easy supply lines, they were stuck there for ten years, and the debacle bankrupted and ultimately caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yes, we should have known better.
Our twenty years in Afghanistan has cost more than 2,400 deaths and nearly 30,000 injuries among American military personnel. 40,000 Afghans were killed on our watch and the country is in the midst of a civil war that is far beyond our ability to influence. Afghanistan was broken when we got there, and we are leaving it in chaos. History will look back on our twenty years there as the worst series of political, diplomatic and military blunders in our history.
Our government claims we’re leaving because we accomplished our mission of killing Osama bin Laden, which was more of a symbolic victory than a substantive one. It cost American taxpayers more than a trillion dollars, the same amount President Biden wants to spend to rebuild our infrastructure. We can’t sugar coat this mess, and we can’t afford to lose any more lives or waste any more resources desperately needed to recover from COVID. Leaving Afghanistan is an obvious triage decision, plain and simple.
Republicans will continue to snipe at Biden, claiming he is conceding Afghanistan to the Taliban and the terrorists they harbor. But the Trump-dominated party can’t say that too loudly, because Biden’s decision to end the war simply fulfills the provisions of a deal then President Trump made with the Taliban in an attempt to shore up his re-election prospects.
President Biden, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during most of the Cold War, understands how Afghanistan wrecked the Soviet Union as well as anyone. He could have rolled over and extended the deadline to withdraw, but he refused to sacrifice any more American lives and throw good money after bad. And reacting to the diplomatic chaos his predecessor caused, he needed to assert that a commitment made by the American government means something, even one made by a self-serving president.
As President Biden attempts to heal our nation from COVID and end the reign of right-wing domestic terror unleashed by Trump, he understands that all of our resources must be focused here at home. As he fights for legislation to help Americans recover against Republicans who are suddenly budget conscious after passing a tax bill that spent a trillion dollars to further enrich the already wealthy, he is ending the financial drain of a tragic and meaningless war, that has averaged $50 billion per year. That should help keep a lot of bridges and buildings from collapsing.
We cannot save Afghanistan. We must save Baltimore.