What America Owes Afghanistan

After 20 years of war, we're in a hurry to leave. But there is still time to do it right, logistically and morally.

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By Michael Walzer

As everyone says, getting out is harder than getting in. America is obviously in the process of getting out of Afghanistan, and we seem to be in a hurry, negotiating only for a way that doesn’t look like utter defeat. I don’t have access to our military intelligence, but it must add up to bad news. So sooner is better, since we don’t want to watch helicopters lifting our diplomats off the roof of the Kabul embassy at the very last minute. But there are things we have to do before we leave. Logistical planning is necessary for exits like this one; so is moral planning.

The first thing we have to do is to talk with the people we are leaving behind, and not only the people in the current government. They must be very worried and are probably urging us to keep some soldiers in the country, particularly Air Force personnel, since the Afghan army cannot fight effectively without air cover.

We owe something to Afghan officials, though I can’t say how much: Their political divisions and economic corruption are two reasons for our necessary exit. Our own failings are a bigger reason: Had we stayed out of Iraq and committed ourselves to the rebuilding of Afghanistan, which we had helped to devastate, today’s end-story might be very different.

We should focus less on official Afghanistan than on all the Afghan men and women who fear Taliban rule. For their sake, we have to negotiate some limits on what is almost certainly coming: the re-imposition of religious discipline. Those limits—perhaps some guaranteed freedoms for the larger cities—are the key concessions we should demand in exchange for the withdrawal of American and NATO troops. And we have to leave open the possibility of delaying the newly scheduled “unconditional” withdrawal on Sept. 11, 2021, if doing so strengthens our hand in the negotiations. Maybe the demand is unrealistic given the balance of forces on the ground. Still, we have to try.

We also need to talk to all the men and women—including democrats, trade unionists and feminists—who came out of hiding after our invasion. I am sure they didn’t believe that we were there for their sake, but they hoped to be protected by our presence and by the new government that we helped to set up. They have worked politically, on the ground, for causes that we, at least in principle, support. They may not want us to leave at all or, more likely, they will have things to ask us to do before we leave. Some of them, those who expect to be radically at risk, will want to come out with us.

Here is our most important obligation: When we leave, we must bring with us to the U.S. all the men and women, and their families, who are vulnerable to persecution, imprisonment, or death because of our invasion—directly, because they collaborated with us, but also indirectly, because they agitated for democracy, organized unions, or established schools for girls under our cover. It doesn’t matter whether or not we intended to provide this cover, though I think many Americans who went to Afghanistan wanted to do exactly that. This is an absolute moral obligation. Probably a large number of the men and women at risk will want to stay where they are and continue their political struggle; we should make sure they have the resources we can provide. But any people who want to leave, whatever their numbers, should be taken along with our troops and diplomats. We should be preparing to welcome them when they arrive and help them settle in the U.S.

Exits like this one have a long history,1 much of it dishonorable. But there is one example that should inspire us: the British exit from their American colonies in 1783. They had to take tens of thousands of their own troops back to England, in ships that could carry only a few hundred at a time. But they also managed to take out large numbers of loyalists—American Tories who would have been in trouble in the new republic and to whom they had promised protection. Most of the loyalists gathered in New York City (smaller numbers were evacuated from southern ports) and waited, some of them for months, before they were all taken out—most of them, some 30,000, to Nova Scotia, the richer ones to England. Roughly 3,000 Black slaves left with their owners but, as the historian Stanley Weintraub writes, “aged, sick, and otherwise helpless slaves” were “cynically abandoned to freedom as worthless for labor.” I don’t know what freedom meant in New York in 1783. I guess you would have to say that the British acted honorably only up to a point.

The French did much worse when they finally exited Algeria in 1962, leaving behind thousands of Harkis—Muslim Algerians who had fought for France in specially organized “self-defense” units or collaborated in other ways. They, too, had been promised protection, and some 25,000 managed to get to France in the chaotic exodus that followed the French recognition of Algerian independence (more came in the following years). In France, the historian Todd Shepard writes, the Harkis were confined for years in camps. But tens of thousands were left to their fate: tortured and murdered by the Algerian nationalists.

The American record in Vietnam is not much better. In the months before the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975, Americans on the ground, without official support, helped thousands of Vietnamese at risk escape on planes to the U.S. But America’s political and military leaders lied to themselves about our imminent defeat and didn’t plan for an orderly withdrawal. In the end, we barely got our own people out. Huge numbers of Vietnamese men and women who had worked or fought with us were left behind. Many were killed by the victorious communists; many more were sent to “re-education” camps; thousands fled on their own, by sea, dangerously, and some of these “boat people” ultimately found their way to the United States. But we failed the greater number by far of the people we claimed to be fighting for.

We have time in Afghanistan to plan the logistics and the morality of our exit. Working it all out, getting it right this time, may also help us think more clearly, next time, about what getting in involves—about the obligations that come with wars, both just and unjust.

Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and a former co-editor of Dissent.

See also: A Debt of Honor, by George Packer, The Atlantic, March 26, 2021.


The historical examples in this article are taken from Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq, edited by Michael Walzer and Nicolaus Mills, 2009.