Before I really get into the heart of this article about Afghanistan, I want to first give some apologies and some thank yous. I write most of the articles here at Cosas Totum, and last weekend I suffered an injury to my right middle finger that made it almost impossible to type. That’s why most of the pieces over the past week (with the exception of an awesome concert review from John) were “From the Archives” posts, which I generally try to limit to Sundays and emergencies. I suppose last week was something of an emergency, but whatever. In that same vein, I wanted to thank our loyal readers who trudged through a week’s worth of recycled material. Y’all are the best and it’s why I do this. Okay, now let’s talk foreign policy.
In case you live in an area with no Internet or TV, here’s the way too simplified version of what happened in Afghanistan just over a week ago: The United States withdrew military and other government-related personnel and support from Afghanistan, and within a handful of days the Taliban took over the whole country. I’m not joking. There have been a few incidents of rebellion, but for the most part the Taliban took over power swiftly and with very little resistance. Now Afghan refugees need a place to go, American military equipment is in the hands of the Taliban, and the situation in that part of the world has gone from tense to complete chaos. So, what can we learn?
The United States had a military presence in Afghanistan for almost 20 years. There were soldiers stationed there who likely were not born when the USA first took action against Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Think about that. Twenty years of US presence and everything crumbled in a matter of days. And here’s the kicker: Osama bin Laden probably wasn’t even there right after 9/11. The US went to Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. because the government believed Afghanistan was harboring terrorists. President George W. Bush famously said that countries harboring terrorists would themselves be considered terrorists and dealt with in a military fashion.
Once in Afghanistan, US forces fought of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and all sorts of other terrorists and terror supporters. Once the Taliban was removed from the Afghan government, the United States helped institute a new government that would, in theory, keep the citizens of Afghanistan safe from future terrorist actions and simultaneously give the US another ally in that part of the world. The problem was that the new government didn’t seem interested in helping itself or its citizens. The Afghan government was at times lethargic, lazy, and downright subversive. Afghan military forces, which received training and aid from the US, didn’t seem particularly interested in actually fighting off the Taliban and other guerilla forces that were still active in Afghanistan.
And now, after almost twenty years of the United States trying to intervene and Afghanistan officials acting like the government version of a petulant toddler, the United States has withdrawn, the Taliban has taken over, and millions of people in and around Afghanistan have had their lives turned completely upside down.
There are a lot of things we can learn from this. The first and largest is something that should have been learned long ago: The United States cannot successfully be the world police. US intervention did not work in Vietnam, it didn’t work in Latin America, it didn’t work in Iraq, Iran, or any other Middle Eastern country, and it didn’t work in Afghanistan. The United States spends an obscene amount of money on the military; the Department of Defense is seeking $715 billion in funding for fiscal 2022. And our soldiers are the most formidable, best trained, most badass fighting force on the planet. But they are soldiers, not civic leaders.
The United States isn’t equipped to be the world police. I’m not advocating for pure isolationism, but doesn’t it seem like it might be good to get our own stuff worked out before we go around the world telling others how to run their countries? I mean, the United States has over two million prison inmates (many of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent drug possession crimes), the life expectancy dropped recently, unemployment is high, China owns $1.1 trillion of the United States’ $28 trillion national debt, no one really knows what’s going on with Covid, the NSA routinely spies on US citizens without warrants, college debt is out of control, the price of insulin is eight times higher than other similar nations, police departments are understaffed, undertrained, and in general need of evaluation, public education is a mess thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, and most media outlets have become so politicized that it’s difficult to get any objective truth from anyone. And yet we’re going to go to Afghanistan, spend billions and billions of dollars over twenty years, and tell them to get their act together?
We need a military, we need to be prepared to fight wars to defend ourselves, but we do not need to be telling other countries how to operate. And I know that there are many countries where civil rights violations, human rights issues, and other government actions are draconian to the point of being a few hundred years behind the rest of the world. But so what? The best thing we can do for people in those countries is welcome them if they want to seek refuge here. But there’s no point in going over there and trying to change things from within because, historically, it hasn’t worked.
We don’t need to be isolationists, but we do need to take a more “live and let live” approach to foreign policy, because being interventionalists is expensive and the results, so far, have not been good. Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, etc. None of them have been true successes, really. Latin America might have been one but then, of course, it turned out the CIA was basically buying and selling cocaine and generally obstructing the work the military was trying to do.
Don’t Have to Live like a Refugee
Another takeaway is that we need to look very seriously into immigration reform. We need to be picky about who comes here to live. Every other developed country on Earth has strict immigration policies. The United States does, too, in theory, but enforcement, consistency, and the exceptions all render a lot of the guidelines difficult to put into action. People coming to America because they are fleeing harmful state actors should, at least temporarily, be accepted.
And I don’t mean people who live in poor countries or countries where the state owned utility companies shut water off as retribution for a Facebook post. I mean people who live in countries that are facing genocide or state-sponsored terror attacks. Fleeing the Sinaloa cartel is not the same as fleeing the Taliban. Someone fleeing the Taliban needs to find a country to go to where they will be free to live without fear of government violence. Someone living in cartel country can legally leave and go any number of places, and they probably should do so. But if they do that, they are not refugees. They are immigrants or they are tourists. And that’s fine. We need tourists and immigrants, but unless a person is fleeing an elevated bad situation like the Taliban being in charge of the government, people who wish to come to this country permanently should have to go through the regular immigration channels. A person fleeing the rudeness of France or the cartels of Mexico or the lack of resources of an underdeveloped country should be required to go through normal immigration channels.
Speaking of which, we need a better system. That’s the biggest problem facing immigration: the systems in place are broken, inefficient, and generally bad. We don’t need walls and armed border guards every five feet. We need policies that will allow for organized immigration. No developed country can survive without accepting immigrants. But there has to be a way to do it better.
The Facts of Life
In the future, we also need to be sure that our intelligence is correct before acting on it. When the United States first went to Afghanistan, no one really knew what had happened on September 11. Sure, we had some information, but it was years before we had a fuller picture. And I get it. We wanted to act swiftly to ensure no further attacked oud occur. But what good is that goal if we didn’t really know much about what was happening?
Imagine you’re at a bar filled with tough looking people. Bikers, cowboys, criminals, etc. And let’s further say that while you are looking down at your phone someone comes up and sucker punches you right in the head. Are you just going to come up swinging, hitting whoever is near you, and sort everything out later? If the answer is yes, then you need to be prepared to get your ass kicked or spend then night in jail. If the answer is no, that shows you have the proper temperament for that situation because it means you are waiting to act until you have the facts.
Now, instead of being at a bar, imagine you’re the United States and nineteen men from four different countries that have complicated relationships with the US hijacked some planes and flew them into buildings full of people. Yes, the attackers were al-Qaeda. But fifteen of them were from Saudi Arabia, a country the United States did not invade. Two were from the United Arab Emirates, a country the United States did not invade. One was from Lebanon, a country the United States did not invade. And the last one was from Egypt, a country the United States did not invade. Of course the leader of al-Qaeda was Osama bin Laden (also from Saudi Arabia, which if you remember from earlier is a country the United States did not invade), and no one knew where he was. In fact, it took almost ten years to get rock solid, actionable intelligence on his whereabouts, and it turned out he was in Pakistan, an ally of the United States that has such a great relationship with the US that the American government decided not to tell Pakistan we were going in to get Osama in case someone within the Pakistani government decided to warn him.
I know that the CIA, NSA, DIA, and all other alphabet intelligence agencies work hard to get accurate information. I know that, and I believe in what they’re doing, except for the NSA’s unwarranted spying on US citizens and the coke-dealing CIA. But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the United States came up swinging, and very few of the punches landed in any way that matters. The United States is not looked upon too favorably by many Middle Eastern countries, and by carpet bombing, drone striking, and outright invading some of those countries on shaky intelligence, it’s easy to see why. I’m not trying to say that some of those places shouldn’t have been bombed or that the United States shouldn’t have taken action to find the people responsible for 9/11. All I’m saying is that this situation in Afghanistan is just another reminder that it’s important to have accurate intelligence before taking military action anywhere.
The final takeaway that I’ll mention today is that the United States has some domestic problems it needs to get sorted out. I don’t believe in single-payer healthcare, but if we were to redirect some of the $715 billion the Department of Defense is asking for, we could probably help subsidize healthcare even more. Or maybe we could put it toward public education reform so we can quit teaching to standardized tests and try to actually education kids. Or maybe we could do something about the price of college or insulin or prisons. Or maybe we could put it into infrastructure. Or maybe we could expand the Small Business Administration to allow more people to realize the dream of owning their own business. Or maybe we could put it into clean water, or Internet access, or the environment. Or maybe we could just take less in taxes from everyone.
The point is that there are a myriad of problems that need fixing in this country, and spending $715 billion on the military won’t fix any of them. We can’t afford to be the world police. For one thing, we’re not very good at it. For another, it’s expensive. And for yet another, it doesn’t make sense for an American soldier to go get killed in an effort to show Afghanistan how government works. We have an opportunity to learn from this. We have an opportunity to tell the world we are getting out of the world policing game because it’s a fool’s errand. Perhaps most importantly, we have an opportunity to shrink the US military in a way that is beneficial to the population as a whole because there would be more money for things that actually help Americans. And if the worst part of that is that I’ll probably never be able to travel to Afghanistan or Pakistan or wherever else, I can live with that.