Review

How America Sealed Afghanistan’s Fate—Again

Two recent books chronicle how the United States turned its back on Afghanistan and pitched the country into chaos.

An illustration of the fall of Kabul and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
An illustration of the fall of Kabul and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Alex Nabaum illustration for Foreign Policy
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.

The betrayal of Afghanistan by the United States was inked on Feb. 29, 2020, when an emissary of then-U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bilateral deal with the unreconstructed terrorist-led crime gang known as the Taliban, which U.S. forces had spent the last two decades fighting. The agreement sealed the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces who had been supporting Afghanistan’s democratic experiment for those same two decades, in exchange for empty Taliban promises about breaking ties with terrorists. The deal essentially handed the Taliban the victory they’d so long sought.

But the betrayal wasn’t completed until Aug. 30, 2021, when the last U.S. military transport plane left Kabul crammed with scores of desperate people who feared for their lives in a Taliban-ruled state. The final liftoff came after two weeks of pandemonium that followed the hurried flight of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his circle. 

There would be no “Saigon moment” in Afghanistan, U.S. President Joe Biden said of the departure from Kabul of American soldiers, diplomats, and Afghans who had worked with them, after he decided to abide by Trump’s Taliban deal. But the terror, chaos, and violence of those last days were as bad as anything that led up to the last choppers on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975, as the United States cut and ran from South Vietnam. Young men clung to the undercarriages of planes as they taxied for takeoff from Kabul’s international airport; some died as they plummeted to the tarmac. The horrific scenes, the capstone to America’s Afghan misadventure, were painfully reminiscent of the nameless silhouettes seen leaping from New York’s blazing Twin Towers after al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, the event that precipitated the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.

An illustration of the fall of Kabul and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
An illustration of the fall of Kabul and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Alex Nabaum illustration for Foreign Policy

The betrayal of Afghanistan by the United States was inked on Feb. 29, 2020, when an emissary of then-U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bilateral deal with the unreconstructed terrorist-led crime gang known as the Taliban, which U.S. forces had spent the last two decades fighting. The agreement sealed the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces who had been supporting Afghanistan’s democratic experiment for those same two decades, in exchange for empty Taliban promises about breaking ties with terrorists. The deal essentially handed the Taliban the victory they’d so long sought.

But the betrayal wasn’t completed until Aug. 30, 2021, when the last U.S. military transport plane left Kabul crammed with scores of desperate people who feared for their lives in a Taliban-ruled state. The final liftoff came after two weeks of pandemonium that followed the hurried flight of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his circle. 

There would be no “Saigon moment” in Afghanistan, U.S. President Joe Biden said of the departure from Kabul of American soldiers, diplomats, and Afghans who had worked with them, after he decided to abide by Trump’s Taliban deal. But the terror, chaos, and violence of those last days were as bad as anything that led up to the last choppers on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975, as the United States cut and ran from South Vietnam. Young men clung to the undercarriages of planes as they taxied for takeoff from Kabul’s international airport; some died as they plummeted to the tarmac. The horrific scenes, the capstone to America’s Afghan misadventure, were painfully reminiscent of the nameless silhouettes seen leaping from New York’s blazing Twin Towers after al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, the event that precipitated the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.

A U.S. soldier points his gun toward an Afghan.
A U.S. soldier points his gun toward an Afghan.

A U.S. soldier points his gun toward an Afghan at the Kabul airport on Aug. 16, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

With America’s departure from Afghanistan, its so-called war on terror had come full circle. The homeland was safe, and the troops were back home. America’s forever war, its longest, was over. Afghanistan’s isn’t. Those left behind are emotionally and physically scarred and were left to their fate as vengeful, victorious extremists began their pogroms against perceived enemies, reprisals that continue today with impunity. Many millions of people are hungry, jobless, and penniless, some so desperate to feed themselves and their families that they have sold children and body parts for money to buy food. Many of those who need to escape from Afghanistan are in hiding; many more are waiting for the knock on the door that could spell interrogation, torture, or death. In Afghanistan, no one can hear you scream.

Even those who made it out are suffering: Hundreds of thousands of Afghans who were evacuated remain depressed and discombobulated by the disappearance of the lives they knew and wonder if they’ll ever be able to go home again. Many are refugees for the second or third time, a testament to the vicious cycle that is country’s recent history. 

Inside and out of Afghanistan, they ask why their country has been allowed to turn dark, their friends and families hunted down for their ethnicity, their religion, or their past affiliations with the government or its security forces. They ask why women are virtually locked indoors, girls all but barred from education, if not raped, killed, and forgotten. There are no answers to the question: Why?

A pair of recent books, from radically different perspectives, seek to grapple with the question, if not quite finding the answer. Betrayal is a theme that runs through both. The authors are under no illusion that this disaster in Afghanistan is of America’s doing. As soon as the United States began its troop drawdown to zero, upon the signing of Trump’s deal with the Taliban, NATO partners began their own rush to the exits; the U.S.-trained Afghan army wasn’t far behind in collapsing. 

Two book covers
Two book covers

The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan, Elliot Ackerman, Penguin, 288 pp., $27, August 2022
The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power, Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad, New Press, 224 pp., $24.99, August 2022

The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan is a memoir by Elliot Ackerman, a former U.S. Marine and CIA operative, who grapples with the weight of his own involvement in a now-lost cause as he attempts to lend a hand in the evacuation process immediately after the Taliban’s takeover. It’s a tome tinged with guilt, the guilt felt by many with a connection to Afghanistan who watched the human horror unfold far away, and the guilt they still feel as the pleas keep coming: “Help me, I’m desperate, I have no money, my children are hungry. I worked for the United States, for Britain, for Germany. I’m gay, I’m a journalist, I’m a woman. Please help.” Help is not on the way.

Less personally engaged, but no less angry, is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of U.S. Power. The book is a conversation between linguist, activist, and political gadfly Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad, who runs a left-leaning think tank. They discuss the origins and excesses of U.S. foreign policy since America’s post-World War II rise as global hegemon. Chomsky stays true to form with his critiques of the legacy of imperialism, whether British, Portuguese, French, or American, that has culminated this century alone in the disruption and destruction of societies in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan—and beyond. After a lifetime of telling us so, the book is Chomsky’s latest “I told you so.” Few listened.

Ackerman is thoughtful and regretful, a man who cares deeply for the people he believes he and his buddies in the Marines and the CIA fought for. His conscience was clouded by America’s wars for years, as he makes clear in the recounting of targeted killing campaigns—which Chomsky and Prashad call “the worst terrorist campaign in the world by far.” Ackerman believes those programs violated the U.S. prohibition on government-directed assassinations. 

“[L]awyers working for multiple presidential administrations had drawn up semantic arguments carefully delineating the difference between a targeted killing and an assassination,” he writes. “But when the picture of the person you were trying to kill sat on your desk, when you watched the predator [drone] strikes light up the night sky … and then when you took that same picture and moved it into a file for archiving, it sure felt like an assassination.” To the hearts and minds of the local populations living under that deadly rain, it surely must have, too, as they turned increasingly sour on the presence of foreign soldiers.

The heart of Ackerman’s narrative is the Afghan endgame, long after he’d left the country. The fall of Kabul caught him on vacation in Italy, and the contrast between sunshiny days, rooftop restaurants, and his children playing at gladiators contrasted cruelly with the distress of those trying to navigate the chaos of Kabul for a desperate flight to freedom. Some, Ackerman could help; many, he could not.

Ackerman scours his WhatsApp and Signal threads in a vivid retelling of the failures and successes that provided the all-too-human dimension of the evacuation efforts. The tension and drama unfold like a movie script: a pacey, urgent, heart-in-throat, will-they-make-it-this-time narrative as he communicates with fellow Americans and veterans who are trying to get Afghans through the horrible gauntlet surrounding the airport entrances and onto planes that will fly them to safety. At one point, we are in the lobby of a fine Kabul hotel, standing among terrified Afghan friends and colleagues as the decision is made to board a fleet of buses to chance a run to the airport, before they turn back, hoping to try again tomorrow. 

Across Europe, the United States, Australia, and all over the world, well-meaning people mobilized their contacts to collate and vet thousands and thousands of names that could otherwise become epitaphs to the Taliban takeover. They lobbied governments, politicians, activists, nongovernmental organizations, wealthy people with private jets, interest groups, human rights defenders, anyone at all who could potentially help get people out of hell before the Taliban found them. Operations like those that Ackerman was involved in were life-saving airlifts for anyone lucky enough to get on the right list, the right bus, arrive at the right gate, wave to the right soldier, know the right people with the right contacts to get them on a crowded plane headed somewhere, anywhere else.

Afghan refugees walk through an airport.
Afghan refugees walk through an airport.

Afghan refugees walk through Dulles International Airport in Virginia after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Whereas for Ackerman, the story is personal, especially the awful endgame, for Chomsky and Prashad, it is intellectual. If Ackerman focuses more on the final act, Chomsky and Prashad’s quest for the source of betrayal focuses more on what they see as the original sin. The allied invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that began on Oct. 7, 2001, was illegal, Chomsky says, serving only as a warning to anyone who would challenge American supremacy. As if the 9/11 attacks had never happened, he says that “it was unprovoked, it was an illegitimate aggression, and it was a severe atrocity.” That cherry-picked history overlooks both the universal condemnation of al Qaeda’s attack and the immediate United Nations Security Council resolution that stressed “that those responsible for aiding, supporting or harboring the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these acts will be held accountable,” an unequivocal reference to the Taliban then controlling Afghanistan who had hosted Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as the attacks were planned and carried out. But Chomsky is right that those who paid the biggest price for the U.S. intervention were the people of Afghanistan, who themselves had nothing to do with 9/11 but have been paying for it for more than 20 years.

Washington repeatedly called on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden before and after 9/11, and it had been repeatedly rebuffed. But Chomsky and Prashad, like other scholars of the Afghan War, find fault with the George W. Bush administration’s refusal to negotiate with the Taliban to that end. Carter Malkasian, in The American War in Afghanistan: A History, wrote that the Bush team was under pressure to ensure the United States was safe from future terrorist attacks, but it missed two opportunities to “avoid a long war”—convincing the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, and including the Taliban in the post-2001 political landscape. These were the signal mistakes that led to the 20-year quagmire and thousands of deaths, Chomsky and Prashad argue in a section titled “The Godfather,” comparing the United States to a mob family. 

“[T]he Taliban understood the gravity of a U.S. attack after 9/11 and made it clear on several occasions that it would be prepared to hand over Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network to a third country,” Chomsky and Prashad write. “Their plea for a settlement was rejected” because, they add, “When the United States wants war, it gets a war.” 

And what a war it got. Gangsters, murderers, and drug dealers exploited the local ignorance of the foreign forces to eliminate their own enemies, while a spigot of cash poured into the coffers of the corrupt appointees who masqueraded as a government. Of the trillions of dollars spent by the United States alone, billions remain unaccounted for, their disappearance logged by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, set up by the U.S. Congress to follow the money.

Members of the U.S. military hold a missile.
Members of the U.S. military hold a missile.

U.S. service members load a missile onto a fighter jet in preparation for operations in Afghanistan on Oct. 9, 2001. Daniel E. Smith/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Chomsky and Prashad find fault in the endgame, too, blaming the vested interests of a military-industrial complex that serves to benefit the Western elite and multiply and secure its wealth. U.S. asset freezes on Afghan central bank funds that could today finance the Taliban are, for Chomsky and Prashad, just another theft. What possible benefit, Chomsky asks, could there be for the masters of the universe in “battering the country to dust” for 20 years and then robbing the Afghan people of their own money, condemning them by this “cruelest of current crimes” to “imminent starvation”?

For Chomsky and Prashad, the war in Afghanistan is just one more piece in the United States’ quest to put together its hegemonic jigsaw puzzle. For Ackerman, by contrast, the war helped achieve the “essential objectives of the global war on terror” by keeping the U.S. homeland safe. But he, too, ponders the cost of this success—not only in the thousands of lives lost or ruined, but also in the financial cost to the American people who have barely noticed the grim toll on their democracy of a long war fought by a volunteer military and paid for on credit. He notes that 2001 was the last federal budget passed by Congress that had a surplus. He fears, too, a creeping politicization of the military, warning that history from Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte shows that “when a republic couples a large standing military with dysfunctional domestic politics, democracy doesn’t last long.”

As we mark the first anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power and the final act of America’s betrayal, genuinely reasonable people watch slack-jawed while the Islamists squabble violently among themselves as they further brutalize a long-brutalized population. The neighboring states that cheered the departure of the United States now despair of transforming their problem child into a credible, responsible creature.

On Aug. 14, 2021, just hours before the Taliban entered Kabul and declared the war over, Biden told the people of the United States that the point of the war had already vanished 10 years earlier, with the death of bin Laden. Now, he said, it’s time for the Afghan people to take responsibility for themselves; the United States, he warned, would hold the Taliban accountable for its promises to stop cooperating with terrorists. And it has: At the end of July, a U.S. drone strike killed bin Laden’s successor, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living as a guest of the Taliban in a Kabul villa. From beginning to even after the end, the United States put homeland security first. Ackerman fought for it. Chomsky resents it. And the Afghans?

Almost exactly a year after Biden made that speech, this Aug. 13, brave young women marched through the streets of Kabul carrying banners that mourned a “black day” as they demanded their now-vanished rights to work, to learn, to be free. Taliban gunmen fired over their heads, beat them, and detained them. They, like a lot of American hopes and promises, are lost in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, where no one can hear them scream.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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