Watching Afghanistan descend into a chaotic end of the U.S. presence breaks my heart.
As with all lost wars, we now turn to finger pointing and blaming. The problem with this is we lose sight of the bigger lessons to be learned – thinking this bad end was the result of tactical or operational missteps, rather than a misguided strategy.
I, like most Americans, felt that 20 years and $2 trillion is enough. But we also wished for a more orderly transition to a different state, even if less desirable than the one we had hope for. Thursday’s deadly attack at the Kabul airport only increases our dismay.
But we can’t always get what we want.
And in this case, it highlights the sad fact that the U.S. military presence merely propped up a weak and corrupt civilian infrastructure, a Potemkin government if you will, keeping it together in a tenuous way that we thought we could live with. And like a rickety Jenga structure, we hoped it would hold together when we pulled out just one last block.
But that block was big and foundational, and what was left was not what we thought it was. It crumbled in a matter of days in the face of a Taliban offensive.
So while the debate on whether there was a better way to pull the last block out will undoubtedly continue for a long time, I hope we will also focus on the strategic lessons we can learn from this attempt — and so many other sad attempts in American history — to create a new, democratic and friendly order in other countries.
Through my diplomatic career, I’ve been able to witness firsthand some of these well-intentioned but ultimately futile efforts at democracy and nation building. As a senior official with NATO, I traveled to Kabul in the early 2000s with the Secretary General to meet with Afghanistan’s first president, Hamid Karzai, as NATO was expanding its presence there to support the U.S.-led military coalition. That mission was focused on training and building the capacity of the Afghan military and expanding security throughout the country to allow for a national democratic government to take root.
In the mid-2000s, I spent two years in Iraq helping to build a new democratic society in the post-war aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime.
Now as a leader of an international nongovernmental organization, I see the challenges of countries trying to develop democracies that are more than show. And they often struggle, flipping back and forth from more democratic to more autocratic over time.
And recently, here in the U.S., even after 250 years, I have been reminded how vulnerable democracy can be, and how quickly it can be undermined if not constantly nurtured and strengthened.
From these experiences, I’ve come away with three strategic lessons. First, no amount of money, training, technical assistance or foreign aid will substitute for a country’s people building its own path to a truly democratic, inclusive and stable society.
Second, a foreign military presence will create a co-dependency that, if not measured, will create distortions and enable unhealthy relationships, not unlike addiction codependency in a family. Equally important, the outside military presence will inevitably invite other outside malign forces to work against that nascent democracy and will make the path to stability even more difficult.
Third, the path to democracy is a long, unique and seldom straight path. The U.S. can’t package its 250 years into a module and sell it to others. Each country will need to develop its own version.
The bottom line is that 20 years in Afghanistan seems to our American spirit to be a long time. In reality, it is a very short time to overturn centuries of old ways, build a functioning democratic country and create an inclusive society, where women and girls can be educated and treated equally.
Our gratitude should go out to all those who served, military and civilians, with governments, contractors, nonprofits, or the press, as the cause was noble. It looks depressing now, and it is an undeniable setback for the country and region. Given the lost lives and cost, this was a cause that the U.S. should have supported in a much different and less intrusive way.
Based on the history of Afghanistan, its road to a more inclusive society is certain to be a very long one. But in this moment of tragedy and despair, I see a small glimmer of light. While it doesn’t justify all the lost lives, there is now a whole generation of Afghans whose eyes have been opened. A whole generation of girls that got an education, and a whole country that had a taste of greater freedom. While with brutality the Taliban will be able to rule for a time, it will be much harder than it was before, given the hope of the next generation.
Daniel Speckhard, a former U.S. ambassador to Greece and Belarus, served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and is a former senior official at NATO. He is also the president and CEO of Corus International, a family of faith-based organizations, including Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health.