By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Ever have so many confusing thoughts about an issue that you feel like you are being pulled in two different directions? That’s the way I feel about the war in Afghanistan: not just the end of the war, which is what most people are concentrating on, but the war from its beginning. To help myself understand how I came to this pass, I decided to outline my different reactions.
1) I did not support our incursion into Afghanistan (which, by the way, was done under the administration of former President George W. Bush – a fact being ignored at the moment by both Republicans and Democrats). The U.S. once again started a war without a firm knowledge of the cultural and political reality of the country; we also lacked a firm plan of what we were attempting to accomplish. I admit to being influenced by the Vietnam War: the French left that country because they knew it was an impossible war, but the U.S. blundered into the fight, taking part in a civil war in a country ruled by dictators on both sides.
2) However, I didn’t support immediately leaving Afghanistan when President Barack Obama took office. You cannot go into a country and destroy its social and economic infrastructure without finding a way to replace it before your troops leave. The world learned that lesson after World War I, which is why economic and other help was given to Germany and Japan after World War II. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten that lesson in contemporary times.
3) But I feel it’s important for the U.S. to keep its word when an agreement is made with other countries. That’s why I was distressed when President Donald Trump backed out of several treaties and left some of our allies in danger. If we don’t follow through on our promises and agreements, even if a new administration takes over, any treaties or agreements we make will be considered meaningless by the rest of the world. So, when President Trump arranged with the Taliban (not Afghanistan’s government) for U.S. troops to leave the country, President Joe Biden had no choice but to keep to that promise.
4) What I am left with is a sense of loss and an ache for those who were allies of the U.S. who are now forced to leave their country for safety. I also ache for those who remain who dreamed of a different kind of life. What surprises me, though, is why we didn’t start planning for the possibility of a government meltdown the minute the agreement was made with the Taliban. Even if we expect nothing to go wrong, we should always have a worst case scenario ready just in case.
Why did the Afghanistan army basically desert its post? Why did the Taliban so easily reclaim the country? What happened to all the trillions of dollars that were spent to support our armed forces and the new Afghan government? These questions will be argued about for decades, but one thing is clear: American experts misjudged what was happening, possibly because they didn’t clearly understand a culture different from our own. No matter how much we might want to do so, we cannot remake another country in our image.
I’m not looking to blame anyone because the system itself and our ideas were flawed. The loss of American and Afghan lives is to be mourned. Were those lives wasted? I can only pray that they were not. But my hope is that, in the future, we stop and think before we send men and women to die far from home – for their sakes and for those living in those faraway lands.