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The Dartmouth
February 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Arabian: Departing the Graveyard of Empires

In Afghanistan, reconstruction can only begin with the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops — but that’s just the first step.

On April 14, President Joe Biden announced an unprecedented change in American foreign policy toward Afghanistan: instead of a conditional withdrawal of troops, the United States will commit to a concrete timeline for bringing its forces home. While prior administrations have stipulated that the United States would need to ensure the long-term stability of the Kabul government before withdrawing troops, the last two decades have proven that there can be no such military solution in Afghanistan. With a timetable in place  for when the U.S. will withdraw its troops, the Biden administration can finally build a sustainable peace without the need for intervention or its more sinister counterpart, occupation. The United States should supplement this decision with a renewed commitment to diplomacy and support the Afghan people in their nation-building efforts without direct military intervention.

In 2001, the United States and its partners publicly announced their limited purpose for launching an invasion of Afghanistan: to overthrow the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for orchestrating the September 11 attack. However, after the removal of the Taliban and the establishment of a new government in Kabul, then-President George W. Bush redefined the preconditions for withdrawal, broadening the enterprise to a long-term military occupation defined by ill-advised nation-building programs.

History has proven again and again that Afghanistan is a difficult land to occupy indefinitely. Since the 19th century, many an empire has tried and failed to conquer Afghanistan, earning the country areputation as the “Graveyard of Empires.” With the shift to a defined timeline for withdrawal, it seems even the United States has finally learned this lesson.

Before committing to a new strategy, the Biden administration should pause and reflect on the enormous costs of interventionism and adopt a better way of promoting Afghan and American prosperity. The administration must further acknowledge that the United States cannot simply carpet bomb peace and stability into the Middle East at large, and continuing to try would be a tremendous disservice to the citizens of Afghanistan and the United States. Intervention has already cost the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers and an estimated 43,000 Afghan civilians. In addition to the loss of life, the war in Afghanistan, it is estimated, cost over two trillion dollars. In the war’s aftermath, reconstruction efforts alone cost over 130 billion dollars, which — adjusted for inflation — is more than the United States spent in Western Europe after World War II.

Unlike the Marshall Plan, reconstruction spending in Afghanistan has not brought peace and stability to the region. Instead, it has bolstered a dysfunctional Kabul government that is bound to remain dependent on foreign support for years to come. Unfortunately, billions of taxpayer dollars have been leached by corrupt Afghan officials and expensive contractors. The rest was spent in all the wrong places — on American solutions, rather than Afghan solutions. American policymakers, for example, insisted that aid be spent on education, despite the fact that Afghanistan does not have the economy to support its graduates. As one military officer put it, “We were building schools next to empty schools, and it just didn’t make sense.” Such inflexible programs have been ineffective at — and, all too often, counterproductive to — rebuilding Afghanistan.

Nation-building efforts must be directed by the people of Afghanistan rather than foreign interests; the Afghans are sophisticated people who will never accept al-Qaeda or Taliban rule and who understand how to build their own society. Once U.S. and NATO forces have been pulled from Afghanistan, the United States must recommit itself to diplomacy in place of military force as its primary means of conducting foreign policy. However, accomplishing peace in the country will also require an increase in intra-Afghan dialogue — between the recognized Afghan government and the Taliban forces that remain in control of large swathes of the country — without American meddling with the internal affairs of the nation.

In response to Biden’s decision, congress Republicans — such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — have argued that the withdrawal of troops may enable future aggression by the Taliban. However, despite twenty years of war, the Taliban continues to retain control over a significant portion of the country and shows no sign of declining any time in the foreseeable future. Two decades of military intervention have simply not worked, so it is time to try something new. With negotiations continuing between Kabul and the Taliban, this is the perfect opportunity to devise a new strategy for the establishment of peace.

As globally-conscious students, we must all be opposed to an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban. We must also be opposed, however, to the military operations that have killed thousands of civilians and plunged Afghanistan into a devastating war. By withdrawing troops, the United States can finally allow the people of Afghanistan to rebuild their nation while still providing non-interventionist foreign support.