This month has seen the Taliban sweep the nation of Afghanistan. It has seen 13 American soldier deaths in Kabul as we have desperately tried to get Westerners and Afghan civilians out of that city. Estimates are that 500,000 Afghans will try to leave the country and emigrate to other lands. What are your thoughts about these things? There are so many dimensions here, from geopolitics to human rights. What we should have done, and what will come of what we did (and didn’t) do. Tell us your thoughts . . .

Full Citation for this Article: Editorial Board, SquareTwo Journal (2021) "Readers’ Puzzle for Summer 2021," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 2 (Summer 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome.


Editorial Board Comments

I. R. Jerome Anderson

I spent about 3.5 weeks in Afghanistan in the summer of 2006. The company for which I worked had a contract with USAID to implement an Alternative Livelihoods Program in northern provinces of Afghanistan. I was sent to Faizabad, in Badakhshan Province, to assess land tenure issues and assist with finding locations for various infrastructure projects. Most of my work involved finding a site for a transportation terminal. The chief of party was not on site while I was there; he was on medical leave. When I returned to Kabul in preparation to leave Afghanistan, I met with the chief of party, who had just returned to Afghanistan from his leave. When I told him I had worked on the terminal project, he scoffed. He informed me that had he been in country, he would not have approved my trip. He thought work on the transport terminal was a waste of time and money. Such was my introduction to development work in Afghanistan.

In 2009, President Obama initiated the “Civilian Surge” in Afghanistan. At the time I was working on a project in Bénin that was to end in December. Needing another assignment, I applied to USAID and was eventually hired as a land development advisor. After the required training, I was deployed to Kabul in March 2010. I worked in the Office of Economic Growth in the USAID office on the US Embassy compound. My work primarily involved preparing and awarding a Request for Proposals for a multi-year land tenure project. In the course of that work, I was involved with the Afghan Land Administration office, Arazi; the Ministry of Agriculture; and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. Because the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had assigned military personnel to work on land issues as well, much of my time was spent coordinating with military personnel. I was in Afghanistan for 13 months, until the middle of April 2011. At that time I resigned my position with USAID to accept an offer from the firm for which I had worked in Bénin.

For me personally, work in Afghanistan was extremely stressful. It was not stressful because I was in physical danger; I was not. It was not stressful because the work was difficult; it was not. It was stressful because of the hypocrisy, waste, and arrogance on the part of the US Government (USG) I saw on a constant basis. I will cite just two examples.

The dining facility (DEFAC, in military lingo) at which we ate used disposable tableware. Outside the DEFAC was a row of garbage cans, clearly marked for various kinds of waste. The implication was, of course, that recyclable materials would be recycled. I dutifully put my waste in the appropriate receptacles. I noticed, however, that the cans were emptied by an old Afghan man. He obviously spoke no English, and, I assume, could not read English. He would dutifully empty each garbage can into one large bag for disposal. This obviously prevented any recycling of recyclable material. Frustrated by this, I finally went to the DEFAC manager and told him what I observed. The DEFAC manager acknowledged my concern, but said “It’s all for show anyway.” I walked away from that encounter disgusted. It made me think the recycling containers were symbolic of our work in Afghanistan – all for show.

Corruption in Afghanistan was endemic, and the US Government funded a number of efforts to combat corruption. However, US officials in Afghanistan were of two minds regarding corruption. Some, such as the advisors tasked with dealing with corruption, thought it must be eliminated. But others felt we needed to work with the Afghans who were in power, and if they were corrupt, so be it. Thus the USG did not speak with one voice on the issue. It reminded me of the familiar family situation in which a child who can’t persuade one parent goes to the other parent for approval, playing one off against the other. The Afghans could do the same with us.

A recent article in The Economist discusses the impact of corruption on US failures in both Viet Nam and Afghanistan. The article mentions a task force headed by former National Security Advisor General H. R. McMaster. Its task was to deal with procurement fraud. I was in Afghanistan when the task force was created, and was invited to a briefing on the task force’s work in the secure conference room in ISAF headquarters. An earnest young captain was assigned to give the briefing. As he presented his PowerPoint slides to the assembled military and civilian advisors, I thought, “This is a religious experience. We are to convert corrupt Afghan officials into choir boys.” It was ludicrous. The Afghan officials would simply wait until we lost interest in the program or until those in charge of it rotated out of the country, and then they would revert to business as usual. The whole effort, it seemed to me, was a joke. Like the recycling containers outside the DEFAC, it was just for show. No permanent, meaningful change would come of it.

I had an Afghan assistant. He had worked for USAID some years prior to my arrival, and he was indispensable to my work. He served as translator, interpreter, administrative assistant, and overall fixer. We were standing outside the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development one afternoon after our meetings there. It was quitting time, and the Afghan employees streamed out of the building. I turned to my assistance and asked, “What will happen to these people when the Taliban take over?” My assistant replied matter-of-factly, with no emotion in his voice, “They will all be killed.”

Note the phrasing of the question – when, not if. I knew then, in the spring of 2011, the Taliban would eventually retake the country. It was just a matter of time, and time was on their side. The Taliban lived simply. They dressed in what were essentially pajamas, wore flip-flops, and carried AK-47s. We, on the other hand, had to have creature comforts. The air base in Kandahar was like a US shopping mall, with fast-food outlets and stores where “necessary” creature comforts, as well as Afghan souvenirs, could be purchased. At our meals in the DEFAC, we had fresh fruit every day, and ice cream for both lunch and dinner. Civilian advisors could have their personal effects shipped to Kabul; one State Department employee I knew had her lawn furniture shipped to Kabul so she could sit on her balcony in her apartment on the Embassy compound. And we are fighting a war? This is a battle zone? Really? All the Taliban had to do was wait, and they knew it. Their predecessors outlasted the British and the Russians. All they had to do was outlast us. They did.

Our hasty withdrawal shows the callousness with which we treat those who served us, at risk to their own lives, for the 20 years were in Afghanistan. As far as I can determine through internet sources, the Pakistani doctor who helped the military find Osama bin Laden is still in a Pakistani jail, serving a long prison term. Why weren’t arrangements made to fly him and his family out of Pakistan the night of the raid? Not doing so was morally wrong. He put his life at risk to help us, and we left him to rot in a Pakistani jail. Similarly, how many of our faithful Afghan supporters have been left to fend for themselves at the hands of the Taliban?

A 3 September 2021 report on National Public Radio tells the story of one Afghan military officer who had trained in the US. He and his family tried to leave Afghanistan prior to the 31 August departure date. When he presented his US-issued identity documents, the Taliban turned him away from the gate to the airport. He and his family are now in hiding. The question this incident, and thousands of other such incidents, raises is why the US and its allies didn’t get all at-risk Afghans out of Afghanistan before turning the country over to the Taliban. What the US did to the Pakistani doctor was simply repeated on a massive scale in Afghanistan. Such failures by the US government make one ashamed to be an American. Hopefully we will learn from our failures.


II. Ashley Alley

Watching the fall of Kabul in real-time felt unreal. There are times in our lives where it becomes clear we are watching a major moment in history with real-world consequences that will be felt well beyond the short time frame the actual event takes up on a timeline. This was one of those moments for me. I had similar, yet simpler, feelings watching 9/11 unfold as an elementary school child. SImpler because while I felt the weight of the events, could sense how the entire world shifted, I didn't understand the dynamics of why this was so major. Now, as an adult, I know I still do not know or understand all of the details but I do know a lot more than I did as a child. And with that knowledge comes an increased sense of accountability and wishing that my country was better at taking responsibility for our actions overseas. The response of American leadership felt whiney and devoid of acknowledging how they themselves contributed to the pain and suffering of others. Instead, things quickly devolved into a blame game.

"The past administration..."
"Those on the other side of the aisle..."
"Past leaders..."

I found I had to turn off the news because I was so furious with the lack of accountability. I have many thoughts and feelings on the subject, but one of the most poignant is disappointment in how the majority of American leaders appear to be people who refuse to be accountable and square up to challenges without resorting to casting shade on their predecessors or playing the victim of circumstances.


III. B. Kent Harrison

Valerie Hudson quotes, in her latest book, The First Political Order, her earlier book, The Hillary Doctrine, the Steinem rule--that upon the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, we supported the wrong side. That was 41 years ago! We have a history of doing that, as documented more than 50 years ago in the book The Ugly American. The recent frantic exodus is just the end of another tragic and embarrassing episode in our international relations.

That said, I am not sure that we could have done anything. After ten years there, the Soviets pulled out. Afghanistan is mountainous, an ideal place for guerilla warfare. It is far away and it is extremely difficult to try to enforce there any of our Western ideals. It was almost foreordained that we would eventually have to pull out ourselves.

It seems the only way to make any headway--and I think this chance is now gone--is for small group contacts, as illustrated some years ago in the book Three Cups of Tea, which produced some real--although temporary as I recall--progress in educating girls.


IV. Valerie Hudson

The specter of Kabul will haunt American foreign policy for years to come. The U.S. has been shown to be not only incompetent, but indifferent about post-deterrence planning. U.S. deterrence is built primarily on bluff, and we’ve shown it’s a good bet to call that bluff because the U.S. steadfastly refuses to plan for deterrence failure under the strange notion that post-deterrence planning undermines deterrence.

Consider how that conclusion will certainly influence calculations over other areas of geopolitical conflict, such as the Taiwan Strait. Taipei must realize that it cannot count on the Americans to undertake any competent post-deterrence planning. And Beijing now knows the same.

The haunting of American foreign policy will not only play havoc with deterrence calculations; it also brings into question the entire conceit that the liberal world order was important to Americans. Some so-called realists may applaud this unveiling of how truly narrow the U.S. view of its national interests really are. But vision has always been an important pillar of leadership, and the U.S. depiction of what could be was a strong support to its claim of global leadership.

The ignominy of this moment will never be forgotten by our enemies, by our friends, by those who were persuaded by our vision. This is the turning point where academic debates over whether America is in decline are put to rest because the horrors on the ground have revealed the extent of our incompetence and our venality for the whole world to see. We took no thought for what would constitute jus ex bello. We will surely pay a steep price for that sin of omission.