- Horror stories from 20 years of war in Afghanistan make clear that the US presence in the country only leads to death and destruction.
- Those calling for American forces to stay there are implicitly stating that the strategic interests of the US are more important than the victims of their policy.
- Ending this kind of dismissal of the humanity of American foreign policy victims is the first step in ending US wars.
- Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England and a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion article. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
As American forces withdrew from Afghanistan earlier this week and the Taliban completed its takeover of the country, I spoke to military veterans of the conflict about what they saw during their time there.
The former soldiers told me devastating stories. According to them, their presence in Afghanistan contributed to the country's violence, rather than lessened it.
One veteran, who asked to only be referred to by his first name, Tyler, told me about a car explosion he was asked to investigate during his tour in 2012. As he and his unit approached, they saw a woman carrying a black and red object. As she screamed, it became clear that the object in her arms was a dead child.
"The black was the charring on [the child's] body, and the red was the blood and where her skin had peeled off," Tyler said. "She pushed her into my chest and I grabbed the body and set it down on the ground so that the medics could aid her. Her torso was ripped open, I could see her ribs and collar bone, as well as what looked like multiple organs. She likely died instantly - I hope she did, anyways."
Today, there are a number of people in the US political arena who are using the occasion of the Taliban's takeover as an excuse for a continuation of war and occupation in Afghanistan. These calls are often framed in insincere appeals to the human rights and lives of the Afghan people, but there's an underlying, disturbing reasoning at play. Pro-war voices are asking us to continue this violence because they just don't believe that Afghan lives matter as much as lives in the West.
"Decisions aren't made with the sanctity of Afghan life in mind," Halema Wali, co-founder of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, told me. "It's unfortunate."
The push to stay
The situation in Afghanistan is wrenching. Thousands of people are trying to flee the country, flooding Kabul's airport. While the evacuation is ongoing, it will end eventually, and then the country will be left to what comes next.
Now, as Biden's withdrawal process comes under criticism, a number of voices are calling on the president to recommit US soldiers to an open-ended conflict that has no clearly defined version of victory and will only cause more pain and suffering for the Afghan people.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens implied the US should stay in the country for decades, approvingly citing the continued American presence in South Korea after 71 years as a model. At the Washington Post, war cheerleader Max Boot echoed that call.
"That's only true if it was inevitable that the US military would pull out," Boot wrote. "But US forces are still present in far larger numbers in countries such as Germany, Japan and South Korea after more than 70 years."
The Atlantic's Tom Nichols, an early supporter of the war, complained that Biden's decision to leave the country was made because Americans didn't have the stomach to continue the war indefinitely in an article titled, "Afghanistan Is Your Fault." John Bolton told NPR that "a continuing presence there would have been an insurance policy." And so on.
"If there's any one thread throughout this whole venture, in my opinion, it is our limitless contempt for the Afghan people, who are some of the poorest and most victimized people on this entire planet," veteran Nate Bethea told me.
The cost of war
Seldom mentioned in these complaints over the withdrawal is the real human cost of staying in Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghan civilians bore the brunt of America's war in the country, caught between a foreign occupying force and a homegrown militant resistance, neither of which were ever accountable to the population they terrorized in the crossfire of their battles.
Attempts by the foreign troops to make things better were half-hearted at best. Bethea told me that coalition forces would give the families of victims between $1,000 and $2,000 for the death of a loved one.
"People thought, 'Okay, this is fine, we paid them out' - but you killed their fucking family," Bethea said. "How could they not hate you forever?"
The war began with a callous disregard for Afghan lives as American forces attempted to exact a blood cost for the 9/11 attacks. Between October, 2001 and February, 2002, coalition forces dropped around 14,000 tons of bombs on Afghanistan, killing - conservatively - around 3,500 civilians, according to research by University of New Hampshire Professor Marc Herold.
"In contrast to the victims of September 11," Herold wrote, "the dead Afghan civilians remain largely uncounted, faceless, de facto unworthy bodies."
By the end of the war, casualties were in the tens of thousands, with deaths throughout the war of innocent civilians estimated to be around 50,000. And that number may be an undercount, relying on the methodology of the US government which notoriously, under Obama, used a broad brush to assign "militant" to any male of fighting age caught in the blast radius of drone bombs.
Do Afghan lives matter?
It's hard to argue with Biden's assertion this week that global human rights are best served by American military action - whether or not you believe he's being genuine that it's a universal point of US foreign policy.
"I've been clear, human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery," the president said. "But the way to do it is not through endless military deployments."
Despite the brutal cost of the war and occupation, advocates will often use their plight as an excuse to continue the conflict. Afghans are owed our continued war-making in the country, we are told, as part of a nebulous debt we must pay for invading their country and promising to bring change.
Those who are making the humanity of the Afghan people the centerpiece for their desire for an open-ended commitment to occupying the country are engaging in a fundamental dishonesty with the public, and perhaps themselves, about what more of this endless war will do.
The only logical explanation for the continued push for war is that Americans see Afghans people as less than human, the lives of their children as less important, and that the destruction and death from US wars are thus excusable. Until the country grapples with that attitude, the people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer even as their lives are used as bargaining chips to ensure endless occupation and conflict.
"It's either save the Afghan people or kill us - we can never just exist," Afghans For a Better Tomorrow's Wali said.