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Losing Faith: America’s Standing in the World After 20 Years in Afghanistan

The world changed on Aug. 6. The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, triggering a hasty withdrawal and changing the world’s perception of the U.S. while causing Americans to question the state of the national soul.

Screen grab from television news story about Crisis in Afghanistan
Americans watched the sudden fall of Kabul on television, bringing back memories of an earlier hasty withdrawal in 1975 in Saigon. (ABC News)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.

I’m a mere citizen, in no way connected with the levers of American foreign policy, but I can explain how this looks to an incessant reader of history. As a citizen, I feel deep pain for the fiasco of Afghanistan. And shame. "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it," says Malcolm of another soldier in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but for the United States of America, nothing reveals our national weakness like the way we leave our recent wars. After 20 years and 2,443 American lives lost — plus at least a dozen more U.S. service members in a suicide bombing just this last Thursday outside the Kabul airport — and an estimated 47,600 Afghan civilians killed, we appear to have accomplished nothing.

It is hard to overestimate the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of young men and women who disrupted their families to give a portion of their lives to serving America in arms, some of whom did double and triple tours for us, not to mention many tens of thousands of wounded veterans, some with PTSD that maybe they don’t yet acknowledge, others missing limbs and parts of their brain function.

Saigon 1975

U.S. Embassy, 30 April 1975, Saigon, Vietnam
U.S. Embassy, 30 April 1975, Saigon, Vietnam
And here we are back in Saigon 1975, with people clinging to airplane wings and tires, pandemonium at the airports, the first reprisals already brutally underway, approximately 20,000 American nationals trying desperately to get out while they can, and approximately 18,000 Afghan cooperators, collaborators, and friends who desperately need asylum.

Imagine just for a moment the endless suffering of the people of Afghanistan, arguably the most frequently invaded nation in the world. The British only ended their 90-year occupation of Afghanistan in 1919, and just 60 years later the former USSR invaded for a decade. Our generals sometimes cynically declare that there was nothing to bomb in Afghanistan, all they’d be doing is rearranging the rubble. If that cruel and arguably racist statement were true, responsibility would probably cling more to the invaders than the admittedly unsettled people of Afghanistan.

How can it have come to this, especially with the last days of Vietnam still fresh in our national memory? It was, after all, our first television war. Two minutes on YouTube will get you back on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

The Other Day That Lives in Infamy

My own citizen’s narrative goes as follows. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Less than a month later, on Oct. 7, 2001, President George W. Bush sends U.S. troops to Afghanistan, which was one of the principal training grounds and shelters for anti-American Islamic terrorists. We overthrow the Taliban, or seem to, with relative ease, and attempt to hunt down bin Laden in his remote mountain redoubt at Tora Bora. He survives the onslaught and slips away, perhaps wounded, into Pakistan. Thanks to the intense lobbying of the Bush administration’s neocons — Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, principally — we take our eye off the ball and invade Iraq, a relatively stable country that contributed not one of the 19 9/11 hijackers. We manage to wreak havoc on Iraq and eventually capture Saddam Hussein himself, but we “discover,” once occupation gets underway, that Iraq was harboring no weapons of mass destruction and didn’t really have any in the works. After profoundly destabilizing Iraq and making daily life for the 39 million Iraqis a nightmare, we withdraw in December 2011, weary with the casualties and the futility, after spending something like four trillion dollars, with more than 4,500 American service men and women dead and tens of thousands grievously wounded.

Four Presidents: Afghanistan Persists

The four US presidents who served during the US presence in Afghanistan
The four US presidents - Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden - who served during the 20 years of US presence in Afghanistan.
One president follows the next, and in each case, we the people are piously assured of two things: that we must stay in Afghanistan until the mission is accomplished, which includes standing up a stable government and a national army capable of maintaining order and holding off the Taliban; and that it would be a terrible geopolitical mistake to withdraw before the work is done. Still, it was inevitable that at some point we would have to leave. Finally, America’s longest war ends not with a bang but a whimper, with an ignominious and precipitate withdrawal, without having achieved our ends or even secured safe passage for our own U.S. citizens in Afghanistan or the several tens of thousands of Afghan collaborators. The pro-American but deeply corrupt Afghan government collapses so quickly and easily that even the severest skeptics of U.S. policy are shocked.

I do not think that is a high enough standard for my country, a country I love and want to believe represents all that is best and more generous in the world. I want my country to be the world’s most enlightened nation.

Meanwhile, the usual political circus in the United States is wasting our time trying to decide whom to blame: Donald Trump, who campaigned with the purpose of getting out of America’s “endless wars,” and who made the decision in February 2020 to withdraw the rest of America’s troops from Afghanistan; or Joe Biden, who made no effort to counter Trump’s decision and who has presided over the chaos and ignominy of the last few weeks. The most intense domestic debate at the moment is how we should have gotten U.S. citizens and the 20,000 Afghan interpreters, liaisons and allies out of the country before the reprisals began.

Facing Reality

This juvenile debate misses the point entirely. The American people have long since lost their patience with our continuing presence in Afghanistan. Most Americans never think about that faraway country or even about America’s presence there. We have long since moved on. By the end, only military thinkers and families with kin in harm’s way halfway around the world gave any attention to the conflict. The blame belongs not to George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Donald Trump or Joe Biden, but to America.

I remember reading an interview with the distinguished British historian Niall Ferguson not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His message was simple. One: If you really want to accomplish your goals in Afghanistan or the Middle East, you have to be prepared to spend decades there, not months or years. In fact, you may need to stay for a century or more. Two: This means you have to develop a new foreign policy of essentially permanent occupation or at least fortified presence in the country you invade, which means that you are going to have to do what the Romans and the British have done — train thousands of proconsular agents who will spend the bulk of their careers in those troubled parts of the world. You need to develop a permanent occupation bureaucracy. Three: You Yanks don’t have it in you. Why? Because you are impatient. You have a tragically short attention span. You think you can jump in and jump out of these troubled spots of the planet, shake things up, set things right, prop up a pro-American regime, declare victory, and come home in triumph. But that’s not how it works. Your unwillingness to really commit to remaking the world in America’s image, or at least according to the principles of the Enlightenment, means that you are bound to fail in Afghanistan or wherever else you wish to combat terrorism or intervene in illiberal regimes.

Ferguson was right. We don’t have it in us. We want to helicopter in and move the chess pieces around and then rush back home to enjoy the unlimited pleasures of American life.

“Our flight deck will only take one helicopter at a time …” An excerpt from the PBS series, American Experience, on the Last Days in Vietnam.

I remember Saigon 1975. I was just old enough to vote. Prime time footage of desperate Vietnamese men and women clinging to the struts of helicopters on the roof of the American embassy. Helicopters being pushed over the side of American aircraft carriers. Boat people drowning in the South China Sea, death squads combing the country for collaborators. The combination of the collapse of Saigon and the My Lai Massacre, to which of course it was related, made me truly ashamed of my country in the international arena for the first time. It was past time to get out, but we did not accomplish our mission, and 58,000 Americans were dead.

And here we are again.

The Coming Humanitarian Carnage

The victorious Taliban have already shut down the Afghani media, prohibited men from shaving their beards or women to leave home without a male escort. The Taliban have kidnapped young women out of their homes, some as young as 12 years old, and trafficked them off to their favorite soldiers. A quarter of a million Afghans have fled the country since the end of May. The coming humanitarian disaster will be one of the worst of our times.

It is not all our fault. We had to leave sometime and we worked hard to establish a stable national government. Every time we try to set up a stable but pro-American regime somewhere, in Saigon, in Kabul, in Baghdad, train their security forces, provide tens of billions of dollars of military materiel and some air support, the regime collapses with astonishing speed — in direct refutation of every vow we have made to the American people that their sons and daughters will not have died in vain. The last American troops are not even out of Afghanistan, and President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country with buckets of cash. Everyone who cooperated with America is trying to get out or get lost or get right with the victorious Taliban. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Falstaff, these governments are frequently not only corrupt in themselves, but the cause that corruption is in other men.

Kissinger, Nixon and Vietnam

Henry Kissinger was a national security advisor to US president Richard Nixon

When Richard Nixon became President in January 1969, he asked Henry Kissinger if we could win the war in Vietnam. Kissinger said no, it was impossible to defeat the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, and we could not count on our allies in Vietnam to carry their share. When Nixon asked what America should do therefore, Kissinger betrayed his trust by offering petty domestic political advice rather than an answer designed to limit human suffering. Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman’s diary picks up the thread. “He [Kissinger] thinks that any pullout next year [1970] would be a serious mistake because the adverse reaction to it could set in well before the ’72 elections. He favors instead a continued winding down and then a pullout right at the fall of ’72 so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election.” In other words, Kissinger reckoned there would be a double bump: Not only would Nixon get credit for “ending the war” just before the November 1972 election, but the inevitable fall of the South Vietnamese government would come too late to hurt Nixon’s re-election chances. Between Jan. 20, 1969, and the end of the war, 20,492 Americans died in Vietnam. The eventual peace settlement was no better than what was on the table as early as 1968, but the costs to our treasury, to our dream of racial justice and a Great Society, to our social fabric, to hundreds of thousands of families, remain incalculable.

Nobody wants to be the last soldier to die in an American war. No president wants to lose a war — that prospect drove both LBJ and Richard Nixon to persevere, knowing that the only question was how to find the least damaging narrative for eventual defeat. Or maybe pass it on to the next guy.

How many Americans have died needlessly in Iraq and Afghanistan? And in vain?

The Taliban says that it has changed, that it will govern the country with greater tolerance and less violence. It declares that it has learned a lot since 9/11, that it wants to give women a larger role in Afghan life, that it is willing to work with America, and that there will be no significant reprisals. It’s too soon to know, of course, but the early reports are not reassuring, to say the least.

It is not clear that we should have left Afghanistan just now. For the last couple of years, with only a couple of thousand U.S. troops in the country, and little loss of American life, we managed to maintain a tenuous stalemate between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Given the low casualty rate and the modest size of our garrison, this was a pretty good investment of American might and money, because the alternative — letting the country revert to Sharia law imposed at the end of a whip or a gun — not only seems cynical but represents a genuine threat to American interests and American security.

An American-Style Democracy Is Not a Universal Ideal

From the perspective of just a few weeks into the final withdrawal of America from Afghanistan, it is hard not to conclude that the result of our departure — the collapse of a friendly government and utter chaos throughout the countryside — would have been the same if it had occurred in 2004, 2010, 2014 or 2020. In other words, the moment the United States pulled out there would be a resurgence of the Taliban. I may, as a mere citizen, be wrong. Perhaps we have managed to bring a brief period of relative stability to a war-torn and war-weary people. Perhaps Afghan women will be able to insist upon a continuation of some gender reforms. We may have prevented a repeat of 9/11 or some other desperate attack on the United States. Perhaps some members of the Taliban leadership have seen the benefit of a more open society and a greater commitment to the rule of law.

A Howl of Sorrow for the Loss, the Waste

A military transport plane launches off while Afghans who cannot get into the airport to evacuate, watch and wonder while stranded outside, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
(Marcus Yam/Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
As a citizen of the United States, I am not so much interested in assessing blame for what has transpired as in registering a howl of sorrow that it has come to this. Our allies in the world may be understanding, for they know how unlikely it is for any superior power to work its will in a faraway place. But we have been diminished in the world arena — we have diminished ourselves — and in the end this will matter much more than the antics of the former president on the world stage. This is an episode in our national history that we will want to forget when we tell the rest of the world how responsible and high-minded we Americans are.

It is Saigon 1975 all over again. We seem to never learn.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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