I served undercover for the CIA during the early years of the US war in Afghanistan. My job was complex and complicated, but I made a connection with the Afghans I worked with. It was people who risked their lives to fight the organized, systematic repression by the Taliban.
They did it to promote the American idea of democracy and the belief that the US government would make them succeed.
Although the peace that followed was always shaky, I watched small victories with pride. Since the beginning of the war, the infant mortality rate has fallen by 50% and millions more Afghan girls have attended school. Afghan women have served in local and national governments for the past 15 years, and the gardens have returned to Kabul after years of drought.
I am the daughter of Cuban refugees and I know the generational trauma of families like mine who had to flee their countries. As I watched the Taliban recapture Afghanistan and destroy 20 years of progress, I felt acute sorrow for the people caught in the midst of an international game of chess.
I am a lifelong democrat. After my service, I joined the Truman National Security Project, a left-wing think tank made up of former civil servants and veterans who seek to have a say in international political decisions based on our down-to-earth knowledge of conflict. My colleague and President of the Truman Project Jenny Ben-Yehuda said of the bitter end of America’s longest war: “I wanted a withdrawal from Afghanistan, not a job.”
Tactically, the US can currently do very little to stabilize the country again. Without the US embassy or the resources in the country, starting a new company would be such a costly undertaking that it would contradict almost every practical or political calculation. There are other options, but they pale in comparison to the stability the Afghans had before last weekend.
Morally, the heartbreaking scenes we’ve all seen speak for themselves. The deal signed by the Trump administration in February 2020 put a catastrophic end to this war. This administration was so convinced that its efforts for then President Donald Trump would pay off politically when he was re-elected in 2020 that it even planned a brief meeting with the Taliban at Camp David in 2019 – then canceled.
Ultimately, the “peace” agreement between the US government and the Taliban was signed, but without a signatory by the now overrun Afghan government. Biden and his government may own the last few days, but the disastrous retreat was started by the last government, which neither understood foreign policy nor cared for the lives of those who would get caught up in the middle.
According to the United Nations, 80% of the refugees forced to flee since May are women and children. I’ve seen firsthand the brutality our allies face on the ground. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will fall back 20 years, undermining the victims of so many, including Afghans, Americans and our NATO allies.
And if the humanitarian crisis alone is not enough to motivate action, then we should think about the security and economic costs of leaving Afghanistan.
First, we risk again sending the message to our allies that we will leave them behind. In October 2019, the Trump administration unceremoniously abandoned the Kurds in Syria. Now we have left the Afghans in the lurch. This plays into the hands of China and Russia, encouraged by the way the US left Afghanistan.
Fear of US military intervention helped deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, but our Afghan exit challenges that long-held belief. Russia will also be encouraged by what it will describe as the weakened US standing in the world, where our available peace has come at the cost of $ 2 trillion and thousands of deaths. China and Russia will rush to fill any void that remains as we leave, as will Iran.
The cost of a protracted war, Biden argued, wasn’t worth it. However, we cannot quantify the further cost of a Taliban government – in human lives, in dollars spent on defense, in years, in possible terrorist attacks against the United States. It will end up costing us more than an orderly payout could ever have.
The Biden administration should work immediately to ensure that all of our local allies can safely leave Afghanistan. This should include accelerated visa processing for all eligible Afghans and also urge Afghanistan’s neighbors to open their borders to refugees.
The administration should also work with the United Nations and the international community to ensure that we put in place the appropriate mechanisms and infrastructures to provide necessary humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.
If we don’t try to reverse this catastrophe, it could be a catastrophe for America’s global image. It would surely haunt the Biden administration. We can still show the world that we are ready and able to do what is right.
AJ Fuentes Twombly is a former CIA officer. She also teaches at the NYU Stern School of Business and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC Chapel Hill. She is a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council and a member of the National Board of Cultural Vistas and the National Board of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.