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Disarray in Afghanistan really was predictable

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was still in progress when the whole house of cards came tumbling down, the Taliban return indicating that support for ersatz democratic reforms existed only as long as U.S. troops and money were in place. With President Joe Biden’s decision that 20 years was a long-enough occupation, the stage was set for the rapid relapse we saw this week.

Beyond how quickly the propped-up government collapsed – president Ashraf Ghani fled early on – none of this should have come as a surprise. History has shown that imposed governments don’t last long after an occupying force leaves, and Afghanistan’s own history is littered with the aftermath of occupation.

Once the finger-pointing is done, the next step will be determining the international response to the return of a repressive Taliban regime, one that has condoned terrorism. Does the global community firewall Afghanistan, cutting off diplomatic and trade relations, treating the country as it does other pariah states in the vein of North Korea, Burma and Syria? As a rogue state such as Iran?

What is an appropriate retaliation for Afghanistan’s return to Taliban control? What aid should be given to those Afghanis who oppose the dictatorial organization? Beyond closing the borders, is what happens there strictly an internal matter, one to be decided by some future civil war?

For now, the emphasis for the former occupying forces, Canada included, will be on providing assistance and refuge to those Afghanis who aided Western forces. Those people are likely to be targeted for retribution by the Taliban.

That rapid fall of the U.S.-backed government and the military funded and trained by the Americans sped up the timeline for aid to those who assisted the foreign military powers. It also calls into question the usefulness of the entire mission, which began as a U.S. show of strength following the bombings of September 11, 2001, which were organized from Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden. In that, it was joined by many of its allies.

Canada lost 159 soldiers – along with two civilians, a diplomat and a journalist – and saw 1,800 wounded in tagging along with the U.S. for the 2001 invasion. The bill exceeded $18 billion, with a host of ongoing costs related to caring for veterans of the campaign. For that, there was little to show.

The Americans paid a much higher price.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump pledged to withdraw from Afghanistan, then later changed his mind, taking a harder line against Islamic extremists. Biden early on opted for a full withdrawal, and went ahead with that plan.

Insurgents were certainly well-positioned to wait out the Americans. Given the country’s long history of invasion, occupation and resistance, the odds were always pretty good this latest venture will be a waste of time, money and, more pressingly, lives.

Despite the 20-year war, Afghanistan is no closer to being a functioning country, let alone a democracy where the people have rights and freedoms, than it ever was. Even without external military occupation, there are internal forces intent on making it a living hell for all. 

Still, throughout the occupation, we continued to hear platitudes about democracy and freedom, despite the fact such changes aren’t on the agenda, and can never happen as a result of external pressure.

The reality of the situation was that sooner or later Afghanistan would have to be left to its own devices. At the end of the day – and sooner or later there had to be an end – we’d have nothing to show for it but gravesites and a tremendous tab.

Aside from the obvious wrong of occupying an independent country, there is a purely pragmatic argument to be made for leaving Afghanistan: the financial cost of billions of dollars with absolutely no return.

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