Afghanistan is a bewildering, agonizing, enchanting place. You get a feel for this in Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel The Kite Runner. I got a sense of it when I went there a decade ago.
We Americans tend to travel to such places in organized bubbles. My particular bubble was an exceptional one: I arrived in Kabul as president of a congressionally funded media group. The bubble included a little caravan of black SUVs with armored-plated doors, three bodyguards carrying assault rifles, a lead car and follow-on vehicle in chaotic Kabul traffic, and bullet-proof glass. True, my job at the time made me a target—but so was the simple fact that I was a foreigner. Foreigners were getting kidnapped for ransom.
The Afghanistan of bleakness, death, and destruction is often the only one we see in the media. I learned better from my Afghan colleagues at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) headquarters in Prague. They were women and men of creativity, energy, and elegance. I never ceased to be amazed by the large bags of mail they received each week from devoted listeners.
The “letters” were usually scrolls—ten, twenty, thirty feet long. One ran to seventy feet. These letters, once unfurled, were stunning. They contained drawings and paintings, poems and prayers, songs and tributes and commentary. They named and reflected regions, tribes, and dialects. People would walk for miles to a village scribe to share their stories, to memorialize their reactions to this or that program. I brought samples back to Washington to share with people like Librarian of Congress James Billington and his specialists, who were impressed enough to put hundreds of them on exhibit just outside the library’s main reading room near the Gutenberg Bible. The proximity was not inappropriate.
What I saw in Afghanistan deepened the impression that the letters made. I broke bread with a young imam who told me that the United States could never be a model for his country: Afghanistan was religious, tribal, traditional. He also told me he couldn’t stand the Taliban. They were vicious, he opined. Girls should go to school. I met with tribal leaders, all men with beards and long white tunics. I’m not sure what they thought about women’s rights. One told me, though, that he would occasionally adjust a prayer schedule so that people could tune in to important radio programs. One of them, as he would have known, was a popular Azadi program, a call-in show on women’s health issues hosted by a female Afghan gynecologist.
Azadi is the local brand of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). It’s radio, mostly; this is still a radio country, mostly. RFE/RL’s programming in Dari and Pashto was and has remained immensely popular. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai told me it was the first thing he listened to in the morning to get a feel for things in the country. Azadi has had a bureau in Kabul with journalists who report from across the country’s thirty-four provinces.
We can’t seem to find balance between irrationally exuberant democracy promotion and great-power realism and restraint. We went to Afghanistan to close terrorist training camps, and we did. We surely understood that we would bear some responsibility—in our own self-interest—for what would come after the intervention and the toppling of a government. Then, however, we did what we do: We got lost in competing priorities and unrealistic expectations. We also failed to see what else happened along the way.
In Afghanistan, terrorist training camps of the kind that made 9/11 possible remained closed. Life expectancy improved. Infant mortality declined. Women acquired opportunities that were previously unthinkable. For those focused on great-power competition, Russia stayed out, China was kept at bay, and Pakistan, China’s ally, was constrained.
These gains will now be wiped out because we can’t be satisfied with managing problems; we have to solve them. If we can’t win clearly and decisively, remaking a society in the process, we will retreat and abandon our allies. Why couldn’t we have left a residual force in Afghanistan to help provide a modicum of security there? Three-quarters of a century after the Korean War, after all, we maintain twenty-nine thousand troops in South Korea. We still have post-World War II troops in Europe. These are the overhead costs of peace and stability.
One can see the way in which such arguments are faltering today. The new realism is hollow, oblivious to power. Idealism is not fashionable.
A couple of years ago, I asked a former RFE/RL colleague about those Afghan letters. We still get them, he wrote me, from
children who dream of becoming scientists. From peasants who pray for rain—or better irrigation. Some are love poems from shepherds or soldiers on front lines. From teachers who want better buildings, or any buildings at all. Many women and girls thank us for being their window to the world. They write from remote mountain hamlets, teeming cities, and refugee camps in neighboring Iran and in parts of Afghanistan where there is no electricity and, thus, no television. Many letters close with a prayer for peace.
Nine million Afghan children started going to school in the last twenty years, some 40 percent of them girls. The aim was “to buy time,” said former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, a member of the RFE/RL board, “for this young generation of Afghans to come of age.”
But time is up. We are now scrambling to get our people—diplomats, select civilians—out of the country. After initial miscalculations, Biden has committed five thousand troops for this purpose. And the Afghans who have worked closely with the United States over the last two decades? RFE/RL president Jamie Fly is determined—and struggling—to get adequate support for the nearly one hundred of his people still there and trying to leave (Voice of America has dozens on the ground looking for safe passage out). They were always targets. Three summers ago, journalist Abadullah Hananzai and video producer Sabawoon Kakar died in a bombing on the main road behind the RFE/RL Kabul bureau. Maharram Durrani, a twenty-eight-year-old female university student training to become a journalist at the bureau, was also killed in the attack.
RFE/RL’s Abubakar Siddique has been reporting that thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, were streaming into Kabul in the last week. Women have been rushing to buy all-concealing burqas. One woman in a makeshift camp for women and children in the capital reports that in her hometown Taliban fighters have gone door-to-door, forcing young girls to marry them at gunpoint.
American adversaries are pushing back into the region. Russian diplomats met with Taliban representatives in Doha last week. Beijing is pressing for Islamabad’s cooperation—and the Taliban’s pledge—in repressing and rounding up Uighurs in their respective countries.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is, in a very real sense, ours. He is a Western-oriented anthropologist, a friend of the United States, who was determined to lessen the country’s corruption. He called for help, until he was forced to flee. The Taliban have taken Kabul.
We Americans see this as our struggle, which is now coming to an end. The Afghans’ struggle is certainly not finished. The two are not so easily separated.
Jeffrey Gedmin is a former president and current board member of RFE/RL. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
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