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There is one “forever war” worth the fight for American’s — our own battle for a liberal Democracy

4 min read

Whatever one’s view of President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, all have been horrified by the mayhem at Kabul’s airport, and fear for the fates of Afghans who worked with the United States. One noteworthy aspect of that reaction, though, has been the sudden 20 point drop in public support for abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Part of that reaction can be attributed to what was once called the “CNN effect,” in which televised scenes of suffering lead to popular demands to do something about it. Beyond those riveting images, Americans long inattentive to events in Afghanistan are now hearing the voices of frightened Afghan women, and learning (or relearning) how the Taliban had behaved when they last ruled the country.

For much of that broadened audience, a question arose that Biden had already answered in the negative: Had it been worth the expense of deploying several thousand troops (including nine U.S. fatalities in 2020) to prevent terrorists from reacquiring the safe haven that had led to 9/11, while protecting millions of Afghans from the medieval brutality of Taliban rule?

Public inattentiveness until recently had a cause. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which shifted attention and resources away from Afghanistan, no U.S. president had explained and defended America’s ongoing mission in that country, either its direct contribution to U.S. national security or its role in promoting American values.

Among other achievements (including dramatic advances in health care), the number of children in school rose with the U.S. presence from one to eight million, including millions of girls. Many of those girls, presidents from Obama to Biden might have stressed, had gone on to careers — as teachers, journalists, or in politics — that made them targets for punishment or worse should the Taliban return.

Instead, President Barack Obama announced in May 2014 that the United States planned to withdraw, and since Trump and Biden agreed on that intention, Americans never heard from their presidents about why the U.S. (along with troops from 35 other countries) were still there.

Particularly striking about that silence from above was that it was joined by leaders of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, who claim the defense of human rights as a core concern. One may recall the 2020 presidential primary debates, where Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and the other progressive candidates (Kamala Harris excepted) joined in calls to end the “forever war.”

Some added manifestly unrealistic caveats, as in Beto O’Rourke’s call for an approach that “ends our military operations” while “prioritizing participation by Afghan women in the peace process.” Did he not recognize what every educated Afghan woman knows: that whatever a Taliban official might say at the negotiating table, U.S. withdrawal would make their subjugation certain?

This is hardly the first disjuncture between the human rights rhetoric of left-leaning Democrats and the foreign policies they advocate. Widespread American opposition to using force emerged understandably from the tragedy of Vietnam, making it hard for many to consider even well-founded counter-arguments.

As in past controversial military interventions, there may be compelling reasons to terminate American engagement. But in this case, progressives should have been more open to confronting the far-reaching human rights consequences of withdrawal: an end to freedom, the subjugation of women, and a flood of refugees with hopeless futures.

Those Democratic Party doves are well aware that yearnings for liberty, now crushed in Afghanistan, are also at risk at home. The United States, they should realize, is not a sealed box, insulated from the global anti-liberal assault.

Vladimir Putin knows (as Bin Laden knew) that the war against liberal values is global. A tacit alliance of autocrats works to erode individual rights everywhere within reach, which, in the cyberage, means everywhere. Returning Afghanistan to the Taliban will feed the global contagion of doubt that Americans will stand fast for their professed values anywhere.

Does “anywhere” include the United States itself, where former President Donald Trump’s own version of the Taliban, recovered from their rout on January 6, again smells victory in their brazen assault on our democracy?

In that home front of the “forever war,” supporters of white supremacy or of rule-by-the-rich have long regarded free and fair elections as a mortal threat. Will pacifist inclinations in foreign policy be matched by passivity over the campaign to delegitimize the last election and overturn election results to come? One can only hope that withdrawal from Afghanistan is a sign, not of wider despair over the future of freedom, but of a need to redirect energy to that cause at home.

In that case, it should be remembered that initial victories, from the U.S. rout of the Taliban in 2002 to the defeat of the American insurrectionists on January 6, can be poor indicators of long-term outcomes, in which faith in one’s cause and a determination to fight are far more important than the numbers on each side.

The transnational forever war to defend democracy and human rights, which began in 1776, has been lost in Afghanistan. For ourselves and for the world, it cannot be lost at home.

David Goldfischer is an associate professor in the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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