The humanitarian cost of retreat

The critics of America’s involvement in Afghanistan frequently identify the war’s costs. Quick to call the mission America’s longest war, they point out the 2,400 American service members killed in action, the 2 trillion dollars spent on the war, and the next 2 trillion dollars owed to U.S veterans. These are real sacrifices. It is impossible to attach a price to the deaths of American service members and their heroism throughout the war. But in the wake of President Biden’s declaration that “the war in Afghanistan is now over” and his retreat from the country, it is worth considering what costs are associated with America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

America’s hasty and disorganized retreat in the wake of the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan cost the United States credibility among its allies and made the country appear weak in the face of growing threats abroad. Why should America’s allies in NATO trust in the country’s commitment to mutual defense when the United States cannot defend its own interests? How could China believe in America’s commitment to protect Taiwan when the United States abandoned its allies overnight in Afghanistan? Aside from the far-reaching political consequences of America’s retreat, the most severe cost of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is the suffering that Taliban rule will inflict on the country’s people.

In America’s absence, the trend towards modernization in Afghanistan will stall or reverse. Between 2000 and 2018, the literacy rate among Afghan women and girls roughly doubled. Similarly, over the same period the country’s infant mortality rate was cut in half. While the Taliban has promised to continue protecting women’s rights, there is no way for America or its allies to enforce that commitment. Another group threatened by America’s sudden withdrawal are the hundreds of Afghan interpreters who worked with the U.S. military. During the past twenty years, over 300 Afghan interpreters and their families have been killed because of their association with America. There are currently still thousands of Afghan nationals stuck in the country who are at risk of suffering the same fate. Finally, Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorists under Taliban rule, endangering both Afghan citizens and foreign nations. This threat quickly became a reality when a branch of the Islamic State detonated 2 bombs at the Kabul Airport in late August, killing 13 U.S. service members and over 90 Afghans. This human suffering is the greatest cost of America’s retreat from Afghanistan.

These tragedies resulted from the absence of a coherent plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The military abandoned its bases without informing its Afghan allies, it did not develop a plan to evacuate civilians effectively, and it perversely had to rely on the Taliban to provide security around Kabul airport. President Biden deserves the blame for these mistakes. In a rush to withdraw the military before the symbolic date of September 11, he failed to develop any plan that might have averted this suffering. The president, however, is not the only one who has ignored the costs of America’s retreat. In their attempt to score political points, Republicans have ignored the real suffering in Afghanistan. By calling for Biden’s resignation or impeachment instead of offering ways to mitigate the damage of America’s withdrawal, politicians only make these costs worse. In the wake of these mistakes, what do we owe to the refugees evacuated by the U.S and to the citizens still living in Afghanistan?

When dealing with tragedies such as the situation in Afghanistan, it is critical to remember the virtues of compassion and mercy. Compassion means to recognize the suffering of others and to take action to alleviate that suffering, while mercy means to feel the suffering of another as if it were one’s own. In effect, mercy is the compassionate treatment of those who are suffering. These virtues should apply directly to U.S. treatment of Afghanistan. Afghan citizens are already suffering at the hands of the Taliban and the United States must act with mercy and compassion to alleviate that suffering as best as it can. Furthermore, those under Taliban rule did not bring that suffering upon themselves; they were left in that situation by America’s abrupt retreat. Now America must help those people. In practice, this requires granting asylum to refugees who were evacuated with the military, helping those who are still in danger to leave the country, and providing as much economic and humanitarian aid as possible to those who will remain in Afghanistan. Only through these steps can the United States begin to redress the costs inflicted upon Afghanistan by America’s untimely exit.

Thomas Richter is a junior at Notre Dame from Columbus, Ohio, double majoring in political science and philosophy. He is spending the fall semester 2021 studying in Washington D.C. He can be reached at 

Photo credit: Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visits Afghanistan in May 2013. (Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense, CC BY 2.0)