For the sake of ending a 20-year war, the demise of Afghanistan’s democracy and the tragedy of lives lost is the gravest of all failings on the part of the US. By negotiating troop withdrawals with the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist group that harbored al-Qaeda during the 9/11 attacks, America failed in preserving the value of peace. Instead, it is increasing the chances of war in the region. The implications for Israel might be stunning.
The advance announcements of deadline dates for troop withdrawals allowed the Taliban to plan and strengthen their capabilities. Removing military forces from Afghanistan became the top priority, leaving little protection in the country to safely bring home those remaining American citizens. US leaders did not provide advance notice to NATO coalition partners of its final evacuation plans. As a result, ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), the Islamic State’s arm in Afghanistan, killed 13 US service members and over 90 Afghan citizens in a suicide attack at Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul. In its haste to leave the country, America failed to uphold a key value—protecting one’s own.
America lost control of the timely withdrawal of vulnerable Afghan citizens who had supported its efforts over the years. US government officials provided the Taliban with identifying biometric data and the published names of people who were approved to leave the country. Functionally, America handed these Afghans a death sentence. ISIS-K and the Taliban can vie for which terrorist group can execute these citizens in the future. By abandoning the Afghan people, America failed to uphold an indispensable value—preserving life.
In allowing the Taliban regime to attain power, the US essentially approved the destruction of democratic rule. Did America think that this authoritarian group had reformed its prior extremist ideals? The Taliban’s current sources of income come from sales of illegal drugs and payments from insurgent groups in other countries, such as Pakistan. The rise of corruption and the disappearance of democracy has vanquished our most basic values—justice and freedom.
The Taliban will undoubtedly decimate the education and work of women who by their talents strengthen their families and support the nation economically. Women will become re-oppressed. The Taliban stated publicly that they will evaluate and protect their status. But they demand that women be bound by Sharia, which when strictly adhered to subjugates women. Our key values of human rights and education for all will be lost.
The US leaves behind state-of-the-art military equipment and aircraft, a treasure trove for the inevitable rise of ISIS-K and the re-emergence of al-Qaeda. Irrespective of international monetary norms, to raise additional funds, unused equipment will be sold to other radical groups in the region and beyond, including Hamas and Iran’s radical proxy Hezbollah. Senior Hamas and Taliban officials have already met. Afghanistan will now become a Khyber pass on steroids. Where the goal had been to remove violent fundamentalist regimes from Afghanistan, terrorism will rise up once again and spread its tentacles into the Middle East. Now that the US is out and the Taliban are in, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the east, Iran, is already establishing a sphere of influence.
The demise of Afghanistan’s democracy exposes two underlying weaknesses in America’s strategic approach. First, there is a tendency to view democracy through the lens of western eyes, imposing this model as the best for other nations. Second, a failure to strengthen economic growth and infrastructure for its people undermines the survival of democratic forms of government.
Since 2004, Afghanistan has participated in traditional exercises of democracy. They held elections for President, created a representative bicameral National Assembly, and elevated a civil—not Sharia—Supreme Court. The Afghan National Army, 300,000 strong, lost the will to fight the Taliban without American air support and intelligence. Democracy fell within days of the Taliban takeover and Ashraf Ghani, president since 2014, quickly fled the country. We violated our promise, thereby shattering the values that makes our word inviolable.
Historians know that economic prosperity must be established before democracy can flourish. After World War II, the allied nations assisted Germany and Japan in building long term economic infrastructures which in turn underpinned democratic governments. In 2000, the democracy of the Soviet Union shifted to a more authoritarian form of leadership under Vladimir Putin because the country’s economic infrastructure had failed to support the people’s needs.
Applying the value of economic liberty to Afghanistan, we see that no long-term, self-sustaining plan had ever been established. Economic chaos is virtually assured because Washington has frozen Afghan assets totaling $9.5 billion. At the same time, the IMF and the World Bank have also blocked the Taliban from obtaining funds. The country is also dealing with the COVID pandemic. Banks have run out of cash and inflation is on the rise because of food, goods, and medical supply shortages. As an agricultural society with a large government sector, the nation is both impoverished and dependent on foreign aid. All this assures unwanted economic outcomes. The Taliban will increase criminal activity including the drug trade, sell weapons to the highest bidder, and partner with China, Iran and Russia.
Ironically, the country is sitting on $1 trillion worth of minerals. These include lithium, iron, copper, gold, precious gems, and natural gas. Lithium is one of the most valuable metals in the world today, used in rechargeable batteries for electric cars and alternative energy sources. Any goal established by countries to reduce climate change through reducing carbon emissions cannot be met as there is not enough lithium available to be mined throughout the world—until now. Abandoning our values in Afghanistan has seriously undermined our hope of developing a new source of precious raw materials and creating a post-carbon world in the process.
The US has known about Afghanistan’s trove of natural resources since 2010. But a poor economic platform has created a non-functional national infrastructure, making. these minerals are currently inaccessible. Could the US not have facilitated development in this area, bringing Afghanistan closer to economic self-sufficiency? Economic opportunity combats religious extremism. Could America not have partnered with other nations to help build this country’s infrastructure and wealth, to benefit the Afghan people? This might have strengthened the institution of democracy for the future. But we did not.
Now, the Chinese are poised to fund construction and infrastructure projects, and Beijing will gain access to Afghanistan’s minerals and resources. This is a well-honed Chinese tactic. It does the same with other nations, such as Iran which is desperate to sell its oil. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese Communist Party will seek to build a connecting highway between Peshawar in Pakistan and Kabul that will integrate western China with Central Asia. Such broad infrastructure development projects in impoverished nations are funded through the Chinese-controlled Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. No one in Washington thought ahead.
In Afghanistan, we have created a void that will allow fundamentalism, violence, and poverty to grow further in the Islamic world and eventually the greater Middle East. Emerging wealth will go to the militant Taliban, as well as the Chinese, while the freedom-loving people of that nation are left out and forgotten. America’s foreign policy is politically swayed by the expedience of public opinion—not our values. If we measure the end of this war by the values of preservation of life, justice through democracy, and peace from economic trade, America has failed on all counts.
Afghanistan has been lost, mainly because we abandoned our values. The American-Israel relationship is built on shared values—but if the US can so easily abandon theirs, it does not portend well for Israel.
(Cultural ethicist Faye Lincoln is author of Values That Shape the World: Ancient Precepts, Modern Concepts (Dialog Press, 2021). She analyzes the value-based implications of US and Middle Eastern policy initiatives based on history, religion, and economics)