President Obama's announced drawdown from Afghanistan, which will leave 9,800 troops during 2015's first months but will remove all but the embassy contingent by the end of 2016, has generated a lot of knowing commentary among American liberals who had opposed the war. But many of them are missing something pretty crucial in their narrative of the war, and a US-based Afghan journalist took to Twitter on Tuesday to set them straight.
Afghan war critics, reacting to Obama's withdrawal plans, have had the good taste not to say "I told you so," but there is a clear sense that they see their warnings as vindicated, and they have a point. After 13 years of fighting, 15 years by the time we leave, the US has not built a self-sustaining Afghan government and has not defeated the Taliban, which will surely resurge once US forces leave. It is not a war that many Americans feel good about, much less support, and Obama's announcement seemed like a quiet acknowledge that neither his nor George W. Bush's administrations had been able to salvage anything resembling an American victory.
But there is more to the war than the metrics of Americans' success or failure. The war in Afghanistan is, it can be easy for Americans to forget, principally Afghanistan's war. It is about the fate of 30 million Afghans. For all the many ugly moments of the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the failed assaults and mistakenly bombed civilians and anti-US riots and the hints of "we had to destroy the village in order to save it," Afghans' views of the US force are much more complicated than Americans. And, despite the merits of many American liberals' criticisms of the war, they often miss something pretty important: an awful lot of Afghans wanted the US military to stay.
That's something I've heard from just about every Afghan I've ever spoken to, including quite a few who had otherwise tough things to say about US foreign policy. The reasons why, and why it matters that so many Americans get this fact wrong, was ably explained on Twitter on Tuesday by US-based journalist Josh Shahryar, who often writes on Afghanistan and South Asia. Here is Shahryar's thoughtful, realtalk-heavy critique of the American liberal perspective on the Afghanistan War.
Shahryar, who is Afghan himself but lives in the US, is expressing a frustration I've heard from others in Afghanistan: that the American narrative of the war wrongly conflates it with Iraq, where many people did vehemently oppose the US military occupation, arguing that the war is bad because Afghans oppose it. In fact, as Shahryar points out, Afghans overwhelmingly voted in the recent election for presidential candidates who support keeping the US military presence, which was a huge issue in the race.
To be fair, Shahryar's point that many Afghans support a continued US military is not necessarily mutually exclusive with American liberals' arguments that the war has failed in its mission of building up the Afghan government and defeating the Taliban. The liberal criticisms that the US would be unable to defeat the Taliban, and would sink many billions of dollars and American lives if it committed to that endeavor, clearly turned out to have some merit.
But Shahryar is rankled, with good reason, by Americans who've argued that the US effort would fail because Afghans didn't want them there and were more sympathetic to the Taliban. The Taliban does have a degree of popular support or it wouldn't exist, but that support is pretty clearly a minority that is attempting to impose its rule on a country that doesn't want it. The US-led military force, for all its many mistakes and faults, has been helping to hold that minority back. Now that the US is leaving, the Taliban will face less opposition in imposing its will on Afghanistan. That doesn't make President Obama's planned withdrawal a bad idea — it's not like the US could have 50,000 American troops guaranteeing Afghan security in perpetuity — but it's a degree of very real and important complexity that often gets missed.