With the final U.S. troops preparing to leave Afghanistan, Just Security is publishing a series of essays that considers the legacy of America’s longest war as well as what the future holds for Afghanistan. Each author — coming from an exceptionally wide range of viewpoints — approaches the topic differently, seeking different questions and discussing their own answers.

There is no neutral standpoint to write about Afghanistan and U.S. withdrawal. Not even in passages meant to serve as a simple introduction to a collection of essays on the subject.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan has spanned four different U.S. presidential administrations. Although each of them promised success, none of them wanted to own what was transpiring there. George W. Bush launched the military intervention after Sept. 11, 2001, but quickly became far more interested and then bogged down in Iraq. Barack Obama ran for president promising a new focus on Afghanistan, the “good war,” but despite surging thousands of U.S. troops into the country, he was never really sold on their nation-building mission and tried to disentangle the United States and bring American troops back home. Once president, Donald Trump combined his isolationist zeal with his belief that military commanders should be empowered to use whatever force they thought necessary to carry out their mission with little regard for the impact on civilians. This led to an incoherent strategy, where aerial bombings were intensified at the same time the administration’s eye was on the exits. Finally, Joe Biden came into office inheriting a deeply flawed “peace” deal with the Taliban, and a U.S. withdrawal already underway. 

As U.S. troops now finally leave, there are dire predictions that Afghan security forces will continue to surrender as the Taliban rapidly takes over more districts, and possibly even topples the government in Kabul. Despite promises the Taliban made to the Trump administration, few experts believe the group has separated itself from al-Qaeda. And, over the last year, it has carried out a series of targeted attacks against the country’s civil society, which flourished over the last 20 years. 

In the face of failure, there is an impulse to move on and not ask “what led to this?” But to avoid a reckoning with our follies is to risk their repetition, or worse. Just Security is launching this series with the hope of offering possible explanations while providing some deeper understanding of what may come next. But, this is not just about the United States’ wrong decisions, inconsistent leadership, or poorly thought-out policies. It’s not just about the United States — full stop. This series also features Afghan leaders — in human rights, education, and business — discussing their chief concerns during this pivotal and dangerous moment. 

We start with a powerful essay from Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, about the accountability of international military forces to the Afghan public. Doug London, a veteran of the CIA, looks at how U.S. intelligence will continue to operate in the country without U.S. troops providing enormous logistical and security support on the ground. Human Rights Watch’s Patti Gossman offers an accounting of how harm to civilians fueled the conflict and undermined U.S. efforts. David Snepp, a former U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Kabul, provides a very candid and personal assessment of why the United States could never clearly articulate its strategic end goals. Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder and president of the School of Leadership Afghanistan, the only boarding school for girls in the country, reflects on the power of education in Afghan girls’ lives and how that feeds the country’s resiliency. Jason Dempsey, who deployed twice to Afghanistan while serving in the U.S. Army and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, reviews two new books that look at how U.S. military interventions turn into quagmires. These are just some of the essays we will publish over the next several days. We hope you’ll return and read them all. 

Published Articles in the series:

Ending the Forever War, But Leaving a Legacy of Impunity in Afghanistan by Shaharzad Akbar

What We Can Expect in Afghanistan from US Intelligence Once US Troops Are Gone by Douglas London

Girls’ Education Has Taken Root in Afghanistan by Shabana Basij-Rasikh

How US-Funded Abuses Led to Failure in Afghanistan by Patricia Gossman

Failing in Words and Deeds: Reflections on Afghanistan from an American Spokesman by David D. Snepp

With No Choice but to Continue, Women’s Entrepreneurship Presses Ahead in Afghanistan by Manizha Wafeq

Education Is a Permanent Commitment by Ian Bickford

Image: A US Army serviceman sits at the tailgate of a helicopter after leaving the Resolute Support headquarters in the Afghan capital Kabul on April 24, 2017. Photo: JONATHAN ERNST/AFP via Getty Images