To Honor the Fallen, Americans Must Learn the Right Lesson from Afghanistan
By Michael Poce
It’s been through misty eyes that I’ve observed the events of the past few days unfold in Afghanistan. While it’s been years since I’ve been sanguine in my outlook toward how US (and our allies) involvement in Afghanistan would end, it is nevertheless surprisingly difficult to watch a total collapse happen in real time. The past few days have thrust questions back to the forefront of my awareness that, while never looming far off, had eased their grip over the years. Was Cody Board’s sacrifice “worth it?” What could I have done differently that might have saved his life? Did we make a difference? And do Americans even care?
It hasn’t taken long for me to reach the same conclusions that I have time and again, that brooding over questions such as these leads nowhere and will drive you mad if you let them. There is nothing we can do to change the past. But we must be deliberate in how we choose to move forward. In order to move on in the right direction, however, we must first learn the right lessons. Reading the analysis over the past several days has led me to question whether we as a country are in fact learning the right lessons from America’s Afghan experience. Specifically, that after twenty years of trying to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan that resembles our own, we have emerged as a nation that more closely resembles Afghanistan. Let me explain.
One of my vivid memories of September 11th and its aftermath was President Bush’s speech to a joint session of Congress in the days following the attacks. I remember being frustrated and annoyed as a sixteen-year-old watching it on TV as everyone in the room stood up to clap and interrupt with every remark the President made. I wanted to scream, “Let him get his speech out!” It was only in school the following day that teachers explained the historical anomaly that we had witnessed the previous night. They explained that every speech a President delivers to Congress is politically fraught, with each side playing a choreographed part of applauding those statements that support its position and remaining conspicuously silent when a comment scores political points for the other side. I didn’t realize then what an amazing episode of American history I was having the privilege to witness. Looking back with what we know of American politics today, I don’t know if anyone did…
What does this episode have to do with the recent events in Afghanistan? I had the good fortune of only ever having to deploy to Afghanistan once, over ten years ago. But during my twelve months in country, it was a daily occurrence to see a diverse, multiethnic mosaic of tribes, artificially assembled together in name to form a country, remain bitterly unable to overcome centuries of mistrust toward one another to achieve a common good. The ONLY thing that mattered in my corner of the country whenever a person assumed a position of power was the tribe he belonged to. The typical dialogue amongst an assembly of Afghan interlocutors regarding a person of power would go something like the following: “Is he Pashtun or Tajik? Uzbek or Hazara? Oh, he’s Pashtun? Well, which tribe? Achekzai or Barakzai? Oh, Achekzai? Well, which neighborhood in the district is he from?” In everyone’s minds there was an ever-devolving sense of tribalism whereby unless a person looks exactly like me, thinks like me, and comes from the same place I come from, then they are an enemy and not to be trusted. Each person had a blind devotion to their own tribe that stifled conversation and prevented any sort of collaboration. This is my frame of reference when I hear or read about tribalism.
Over the past several weeks, commentators have marveled at the speed at which the Taliban has wrested control of Afghanistan from the Afghan government. What is more distressing to me is the dizzying speed at which we as a country have flitted away the sense of mutual resolve, shared identity, and common purpose that were on full display in the days after September 11th. In many respects, we now mirror the dynamic I saw in Afghanistan. No longer do certain segments of America view their fellow citizens as just that, common participants in an experiment of self-governance who hold an equal sense of dignity and responsibility regardless of their station in life. Instead, if they don’t look like me, think like me, have the same level of education I do, belong to the same class I do, believe the same religion I do, or live in the same geography I do, then they are an enemy actively and maliciously trying to destroy this country from within. We’ve substituted “Pashtun or Tajik” and “Uzbek or Hazara” for “liberal or conservative” and “coastal elite or Trump supporter.” In this climate, anger and recriminations masquerade as citizenship. To be abundantly clear, this sense of tribalism pervades BOTH the left and the right, and each time I see it manifest I am transported back to the same intransigence and fear of the other I saw in Afghanistan.
There is no shortage of people to blame for the failure in Afghanistan: presidents, congress, military leaders, the American people. While all these people share part of the blame, to stop there is to rob the Afghan people of agency. To my mind, the lesson from Afghanistan is that a diverse, multiethnic society failed to coalesce around an idea of something bigger than what’s best for their own immediate tribal group. And so long as we tell ourselves that we in America are more advanced and sophisticated than the people of Afghanistan, we miss the fact that we are equally susceptible to the most base of human impulses: the categorization and demonization of “the other.” That is the lesson we need to take from Afghanistan.
If you find yourself, like me, still disturbed by whether the sacrifices of so many Americans and their families (and those of our allies) was “worth it,” I’ll offer a closing thought. Don’t limit your thinking to the immediate situation in Afghanistan. Those who gave their lives swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, that is to say, the idea of what America is. They did not swear an oath to win a war in Afghanistan or to defeat a specific enemy. This subtle difference ought to be a call to action for all of us. Are we earning their sacrifice by the way we live our lives and the type of citizen we are? Or are we instead mirroring the tribal behaviors of a country that just collapsed? If we as a country consider these questions, and the answers effect a positive change that preserves the idea of what America is, then yes, their sacrifices were absolutely worth it. But it’s on us to earn it.