When the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, a huge hole was left in the skyline of New York — and perhaps also in America’s psyche. If Americans first filled that hole with grief, that was quickly transformed into rage, violence and destruction. The United States sought vengeance across the world, in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries in what would become known as the War on Terror or the “forever wars.”
Branko Marcetic recently wrote about this lost opportunity in Jacobin, observing that 9/11 and its aftermath “could have been a chance for Americans to realize what kind of impact the foreign policies pursued in their name have had on millions of ordinary people around the world, and to change course before more blood was spilled.” That’s not how things turned out, of course.
America’s leaders would eventually be forced to acknowledge that it is difficult, if not impossible, to defeat an idea. Ultimately Osama bin Laden would be killed by American troops, and al-Qaida and other international jihadist organizations would be decimated. But after 20 years of the forever wars, there is no catharsis or closure. On Aug. 31, the U.S. formally “withdrew” from Afghanistan. The harsher truth is that the U.S. was defeated — or at least outlasted — by the Taliban, which is now back in power.
The human cost of America’s war in Afghanistan includes not just the 2,400 American troops who were killed, along with 3,800 military contractors. More than 20,000 U.S. service members were injured. Shockingly, at least 30,000 active-duty service members and veterans have committed suicide because of PTSD and other combat-related causes.
That’s all before we count the 67,000 members of the Afghan military and police who died battling the Taliban, or the 47,000 Afghan civilians killed in the conflict. Both are low-end estimates. Perhaps a million people across the broader Middle East have died as a direct result of the War on Terror and events it unleashed.
The Afghanistan war cost the United States at least $2 trillion, and some estimates suggest that the real cost of two decades of war may be more than 10 times that amount.
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As the world now knows, the hasty U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan has left many people behind, notably thousands of former Afghan soldiers and civilians who worked with American forces. For novelist, journalist and Marine Corps combat veteran Elliot Ackerman, this was a moral betrayal that epitomizes everything that went wrong for the U.S. in Afghanistan. Although the American people across the political spectrum clearly supported withdrawal, Ackerman argues it was not necessarily the right choice, and suggests that the endgame could have been very different.
Ackerman’s novels include his most recent, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War” (co-authored with retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis), the National Book Award finalist “Dark at the Crossing” and “Waiting for Eden.” His nonfiction writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time magazine, Esquire and elsewhere. He served five tours of duty as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and Iraq and received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.
In this conversation, Ackerman reflects on the meaning of the Afghanistan conflict and the War on Terror in America’s narrative about itself. He discusses the human cost of the war, including how it felt to see Afghans he served with basically abandoned by the U.S. to face violent retribution by the Taliban. He argues that Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a grave strategic error that he believes will empower international terrorists and global rivals such as Russia and China.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Watching the events in Afghanistan, I have been thinking about two things. One is, who wants to be the last person to die in a war? The other is Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires. Help me work through that resonance.
The narratives and stories that we tell ourselves about war are really important. When I was in high school, we read the Iliad. On the cover was a photograph of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. That always stuck with me because for Americans, World War II is our origin story and how we think about war. It is a war with a beginning, middle and end. We’re the good guys and we win. How we as a people think about war is derivative of that model.
We are at this moment in Afghanistan, where, yes, we’ve been in this 20-year war, but Afghanistan does not fit neatly into that narrative. In the American psyche there is this narrative that the war only ends when all of the troops come home. That’s not accurate. In fact, the only time the war ends when all the troops come home is when we lose the war. The wars that we’ve won, like the Second World War, or even fought to a standstill, like the Korean War, we’ve left troops in those countries to secure the peace.
There are different measures of war and victory that we should have been considering relative to Afghanistan. For example, 18 months ago, the Taliban only held four districts, all of which were rural. They held virtually none of the town centers. The last U.S. service member to die prior to the withdrawal was in February of 2020. I believe that the way we framed this war in many respects has led to us losing the war. If we had looked at Afghanistan with a long-term view — as with the U.S. military involvement in Colombia, where we have had troops for 30 years fighting both the narco war and the war against the FARC — we could have seen a better outcome.
Ultimately, a different narrative was applied to Afghanistan, and I think that’s why we’ve backed ourselves into this corner.
How should we have defined victory in Afghanistan? How long is too long to continue a war? 30 years, 40 years? How do we decide that?
That depends on how you view America’s role in the world. Consider the Korean peninsula. The United States has nearly 30,000 troops stationed in the Korean peninsula. They have been there since the 1950s. Should we pull those troops out? I would say no.
Obviously as the United States, we behave differently. Most countries don’t have that kind of significant overseas military presence. The counter is: Why do we behave this way? This is American imperialism; we should retreat to within our borders. That’s certainly one worldview. I would argue that America has and should continue to serve as the one indispensable nation. We have managed to secure a relatively stable world order since the end of the Second World War. That outcome is in our interests and in the interests of the world, if the costs aren’t too great.
Would I make the claim that the United States should stay in Afghanistan if the cost of doing so was 150,000 U.S. troops in a country where upwards of 40 or 50 Americans are being killed a month? No. I would say that is not a good expenditure of our blood and our treasure. However, in 2019 that is absolutely not where American efforts in Afghanistan were. We had already paid that cost. At that point, before Trump started negotiating with the Taliban, we were again at about 12,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops.
By and large, the Afghans were the ones fighting the Taliban. We were taking minimal casualties. Given the outcome, it was a worthwhile investment. In my opinion, what is tough to deal with is how the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been handled: The disorganized nature of it, the haphazard deadlines and our willingness to allow the Taliban to set the terms has diminished American credibility in the world. There will be long-term impact from this.
What troubled you most about the withdrawal from Afghanistan and how it was conducted?
The administration has conceded that they have not been able to get out even half of our Afghan partners, translators, activists and people who worked for the U.S. government. What’s not captured by numbers is, who were these people? Days after Kabul’s fall there was a mad rush on Kabul airport.
How could this have gone differently? First of all, there’s this argument that, well, it was inevitable. It is Afghanistan, so of course the withdrawal is going to be a debacle. If you look at the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s, that was done in an orderly fashion, with the last Soviet troops going across the Friendship Bridge back into the Soviet Union with a photo-op. It’s not a fait accompli that this had to necessarily be a debacle.
There were obviously many people saying, “Well, we don’t want to see another Saigon.” I think if you’re a planner you should look at Afghanistan and say, “Jesus, we’d be so lucky to have another evacuation like in Vietnam.” Vietnam had hundreds of miles of coastline.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country. So you’re going to have to get everybody out by air. Why would you start shutting down your major military air bases, that you can control? From the reporting I have seen, the reason those bases were shut down was because Biden was staunch about drawing down troop levels in accordance with a certain timetable.
This left a single point of egress, Kabul International Airport. I personally participated in some of these evacuation efforts and can tell you how difficult it was. It was basically the equivalent of going to see the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden and trying to work your way from the back of the crowd up to the stage — and then to get the band to call you on stage. That’s how difficult it was to get through these gates. So that in and of itself was a failure.
We have all seen those images. I would like to play a voicemail for you from an Afghan who worked for the U.S. Embassy. His brother worked very closely with the Afghan government. He was assassinated two weeks ago. I’m working, along with some other people, to get him out of the country right now. His situation is desperate, and it mirrors those of countless others.
Please, sir, please. I want you to help me, my family, my kids in this hotel. This is not a safe place. I’m going to shut down my cell phone and put it somewhere. If the situation is good at that time I’m going to be turn on my cell phone. I’m just completely lost and I have no idea what to do.
My phone is filled with messages like this from our Afghan partners. This individual is hiding in a hotel, waiting for a flight that may or may not come. The Taliban are right now going room to room searching for people like him.
In your recent writing and comments you have been very direct about questions of accountability with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. How much of this failure, as you describe it, is on Joe Biden’s shoulders? How much is on Trump for making a deal with the Taliban, or on the previous presidents who began and continued this war?
I don’t put the last 18 years of Afghanistan policy on Biden’s shoulders. What I do put on his shoulders is this withdrawal and how it’s been handled. Do I put the lurch from a tight counter-terrorism mission in the days after Sept. 11 to a broader nation-building mission on Biden? No, of course not. Do I put the onus on Biden for Obama’s announcement in 2009 that we’re going to surge troops into Afghanistan, and in the very same speech announcing that we’re also going to withdraw them, which immediately undermined us? I was in Afghanistan when he gave that speech. I think it was a huge strategic mistake. Do I put on Biden Trump’s bad deal that he negotiated with the Taliban? No, I don’t put that on Biden. That’s not Biden’s fault.
Do I think it’s Biden’s fault that he didn’t try to renegotiate that deal and, in his messaging right now, that he makes it sound as though the president had no power to move away or distance himself from Trump’s deal? Yes. I put that on Biden. If he wanted to negotiate a new deal with the Taliban, he could do it. He’s the president of the United States, but he chose not to. At that point Biden owns the deal.
When we look back at the operational level and how the withdrawal was handled, I put that right on Biden’s shoulders. For someone who ran for office on the proposition that he was empathetic, and that he understood deeply the value of service, I believe that Joe Biden behaved counter to those two values. This is especially so with regards to empathy for all our Afghan partners that he’s leaving behind.
I also have seen very little empathy to our veterans. I don’t know if you can imagine how psychologically brutal this has been for veterans. It is not abstract, because so many of us now have every Afghan we ever served with calling us, pleading with us for help. Asking us to not forget them. It has forced me to basically go back into the war in Afghanistan and relive it.
I think if you were involved in these wars, it’s as tactile as these are old friends of mine, old contacts of mine, who are begging me for help. How do I help them? And I think for so many veterans, what’s so difficult is you can’t help them. There’s no way to help them, and you have to tell them you can’t help them. I’ve talked to many vets who’ve tried to help their Afghan friends and then have had the conversation with them: “I’m sorry, the airport’s closed. I can’t help you. I don’t know how to help you anymore.”
What is being done to help the Afghans who were allied with the American forces to escape Afghanistan and the Taliban?
The window for charter flights is very rapidly closing, if it’s not entirely closed already. Early on it was about raising money. Before, you could get an Airbus into Kabul airport for about half a million dollars. So people were doing GoFundMe and pitching very wealthy individuals to try to fly those planes in. I was involved in some of those efforts. There are also efforts to smuggle people through Taliban checkpoints to get them to the airport.
Now that the airports are pretty much shut, most of those efforts are switching to overland routes and smuggling people out that way. This is going to keep going on. Sadly, it’s becoming more difficult. The Taliban are arresting people and you’re seeing reprisal killings occur. We’re going to watch that happen in real time, as the people you’re trying to get out either go dark or you hear about them being killed.
Strategically, who are the winners and losers in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?
The big winners are nations like China and Russia who use intimidation to project power in their regions of influence, their global neighborhoods. They can use the withdrawal, and the fact of the United States turning its back on Afghanistan and its allies there, as proof that the United States will behave similarly if called upon to fulfill its obligations. The Chinese moving into Afghanistan also gives them the ability to extract mineral wealth there as well.
The other big winner here is the international jihadist movement. Al-Qaida and others just scored a massive victory. They just beat the world’s greatest imperial power in Afghanistan, echoing out previous victories like the victories against the Soviets and the victory against the British. That is going to be great fodder for recruitment. The withdrawal from Afghanistan has emboldened our adversaries.
What do you think would have happened if the United States had treated 9/11 as a law enforcement problem, instead of as a reason to go to war in Afghanistan?
The huge “what if” involves the invasion of Iraq and keeping our eye on the ball in Afghanistan. Moreover, what if the United States had been smart enough to not enter into a huge nation-building program in Afghanistan? Another variable: After 9/11 the Taliban offered their surrender to the United States and we didn’t take it.
To me, the alternate history post-9/11 involves this: What if the United States recognized that the Taliban might be people we could do business with, as long as we kept them in a minority and really kept our eyes on what was going on in Afghanistan? And doing that not so much by sending in more troops, but by making sure that we were catering our true presence there to the counter-terrorism threat. Perhaps then we would be in a different place now.