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Afghan Anniversary

Hamid Karzai International Airport, August 2021

The recriminations are already beginning to fly in print and on air. It was inevitable. With Congressional midterms on the horizon, anything is fair game and the ignominy of American retreat from Afghanistan last summer provides an easy target. The drone-strike on Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri in Kabul this week – the timing of which was either meant to preempt criticism of the Biden Administration’s fulfillment of Trump-Taliban agreements or completely coincidental – is providing ready fodder for both sides in the debate. As the first anniversary approaches of the fall of the U.S. backed post-9/11 political order, Afghanistan, for good or bad, is thus back in the headlines.

This day last year I returned from a brief visit to Kabul, my first in over a decade. On the surface, there was a sense of normalcy with all the bustle of a typical developing world city of 5 million (up from the half million when I first visited in early 2002). Roads were jammed with all modes of transport (wheeled and four-legged) and, regardless of whatever was transpiring outside city limits, traffic police in Kabul were diligently fulfilling their futile duty trying to bring order from chaos. And people were everywhere, as were the many signs of everyday life. Trusting, it seemed, in their leadership’s reassurances and those of its foreign backers, Afghans in the capital city continued on with their daily struggles.

A Taliban attack the eve of my departure on the Minister of Defense’s residence a few blocks from where I met with government ministers, members of parliament and officials from the president’s office didn’t seem to significantly impact the general mood. As automatic weapon fire followed what had been a suicide blast, we all lined up at the outdoor buffet. When done, my hosts joined a chorus of popular chanting and proclamations across the city in defiance of the Taliban and those who questioned their steadfastness. Their resolve, sadly, wasn’t shared by the country’s top leaders, despite assurances to the contrary just days prior.

Ten days later, those with whom I met on the trip awoke to find their elected president and his key advisors gone,  erstwhile “warlords” taken to the hills, and the Taliban back in power after the 20-year American interlude. Just like that, the dreams of a new generation of Afghans, for whom the previous rule of the Taliban, the civil war and Soviet occupation were stories told by elders, came to a swift and bitter end. There was no Battle of Kabul. No Stalingrad moment. No heroes. For the average Afghan, this may have been a godsend. Youth may despair that what had been built over the previous two decades was so easily surrendered; but the alternative, absent a continued U.S. troop presence, would likely have brought only further misery to a country that had already had its fair share.

And so, scenes of carnage and defeat last August at Hamid Karzai International Airport aside, the world has moved on. Afghanistan has fallen into the rearview and with it a generational investment (and sacrifice), human and material, quickly forgotten; but for the next few weeks, when largely for reasons that will have little to do with famine, banning young women from school or the return of stoning, Afghanistan will be back in the news. For Afghans, their country will be no better for it. For the rest of us, an understanding of how things may have turned out differently will be little improved.

About the Author
Owen Kirby is a non-resident fellow at the University of Central Florida's Office of Global Perspectives and International Initiatives (https://ucfglobalperspectives.org), and previously served in various capacities at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of State.
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