Total War: Lessons from Afghanistan

There is a virus among us.

It has already claimed the lives of millions and, should it not be summarily eradicated off of the face of the Earth, it will not stop until it has infected every last one of us.

Some may conclude that our best option is to live with the disease endemically, to contain it down to relatively small populations and outbreaks—but this is a perspective based in naivety and in privilege, accepting that others may succumb to virulence, and deluding yourself that it could never be your fate.

I am writing not of the coronavirus, but of a sickness that has been with us far longer and far too long: totalitarianism.

I have written on its governmental siblings in the past, those systems that we have called authoritarian or fascist, but I have avoided this monster. Not actively, of course, but this fact does bring me to some shame. I lack terribly in foresight; whatever opinions I may share to the world I rarely base in prescience and instead, because of prideful agnosticism and the feared embarrassment to speak too confidently, I pontificate only as a reflex, sharing insights that should have been known long before they were ever expressed. And totalitarianism brings out of me a very specific reflex:


I fear for the free people of Afghanistan. After a nearly 20-year mission of foreign military conflict, aid and occupation, their country has rapidly fallen back into the hands of the totalitarian Taliban group, as the United States exits its armed forces from the Islamic Republic.

A US Chinook Helicopter flies over Kabul. American nationals are fleeing a country that for nearly 20-years was a mainstay of the nation’s foreign policy, leaving the future of the local people in dire straits. Photo: Rahmat Gul.

The Taliban are terrifying. Prior to their ousting in 2001, they ruled Afghanistan for five years with an iron fist that imposed a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of Muslim values. Among their offenses included the massacre of insubordinate populations, the ban against women from receiving a modern education, and the illegalization of a variety of innocuous activities deemed “immoral,” including dancing and movie-watching.

While unrelenting violence is not to be unexpected from extremist movements, it is these last two details that highlight the far greater evil that totalitarianism holds over even authoritarianism or fascism—though the former really is only their extreme and logical end.

For the totalitarian, it is not enough to control a people’s actions—you must control their minds. You cannot just limit the expression of thought, you must find thought in its home and execute it. To a totalitarian, not even that last, hidden sanctuary of self can be left to exist within the reach of their regime.

This is what now sits in the presidential palace of Kabul. This is what the free people of Afghanistan are up against—and they’ve been seeing it coming for years now, with no clear indication from the Taliban that things will be any different.

In an interview with CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, Afghani Ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani admits that she was well aware of her country’s own forces lack of preparedness to defend against Taliban resurgence upon US withdrawal—an observation based on years of familiarity.

Rahmani has referred to the recent Taliban takeover as a “failure of diplomacy,” no doubt calling to the mind former President Donald Trump’s ostensible “landmark” peace agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar in February of last year. At the time of its signing, I applauded this treaty as a high achievement for a presidency otherwise filled with failings—but I had foolishly only read the headlines. Seeing the word “peace,” I had signed off the moment as a righteous victory for pacifism, and could rest assured that all parties would share in the moral high ground.

But the Doha Agreement assured nothing for the security of the rest of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic not even being party to the deal. I had to remind myself of the ill-fated optimism of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who in 2018 acknowledged the humanity of the Taliban, and in effort for peace sought to recognize them as politically legitimate.

Ghani has now fled the country, and thousands of other Afghanis scramble to the Kabul Airport to escape with their lives.

Former Afghani President Ashraf Ghani speaking in London in 2014. Ghani once sought peace with the Taliban and recognized their humanity. It is unlikely that the Taliban ever considered the same. Photo: Dan Kitwood

Photos captured from the harrowing scene, as well as the general context overall, may call to mind the similar Fall of Saigon. In fact, this comparison gained so much traction in the media that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken outright rejected the notion on national television.

No, our lessons against the Afghanistan catastrophe are much older than Vietnam, and much graver. We should be ashamed to have forgotten them so easily.

Remember Nazi appeasement. Remember how, against all obvious concerns, the major players of the world left an evil to rise until it was far, far too late. And they let it happen. They let it happen because it was not happening to them first.

But when I look to Afghanistan, I see myself. I see all of us. They are us. They are a bulwark against freedom’s annihilation, that should we idly choose to let fall there is no telling what could happen next. This is not an opinion solely based in the increasing suspicion among US intelligence that American antagonists such as al-Qaeda may very well reorganize in the region far quicker than anticipated—it is based in broader, human appeal. There is no coexisting with the Taliban or others of their ilk. They will not stop until we do.

No one knows this better than Afghani politician Fawzia Koofi, who as recently as August 2020 was nearly assassinated by extremist actors. This attempt would actually be the second on her life, the first of which she muses upon in the opening pages of her book, The Favored Daughter.

“I know the Taliban,” she writes, “they will not be happy until I am dead.”

I shudder to think that this conflict can only be resolved through violence—not scoff, shudder. It is the hard truth that I have swallowed, chillingly creeping through my insides as I struggle to accept it. I have balked at “forever wars,” and have smugly thought of the successes of those now mythic leaders like JFK and my grandfather.

But even when weighing the moral shortcomings of Castro and Khrushchev, Grandpa Ted never had to consider a threat like this. These are hard times, made for harder people to make harder choices.

There is a certain poetry in all these happenings, that Afghanistan should fall in the time of the coronavirus. We speak more often now than ever of what sacrifices or temporary inconveniences we must spare to protect and save the lives of others. With the most expensive military budget in the world, maybe America must reevaluate its moral imperatives.

In the meantime, spare whatever you can to aid refugee assistance programs, like UNHCR, help usher Afghani refugees to safety.

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