The war in Afghanistan has shaped an entire generation in the West

Afghan citizens, who have been evacuated from Kabul, arrive at Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota Air Base in Rota, southern Spain, August 31, 2021. REUTERS/Jon Nazca
Editor's note:

Service in Afghanistan has shaped an entire generation of policymakers in the West, writes Constanze Stelzenmüller, but the fate of the Afghan people will weigh heavy on their collective conscience for years to come. This post originally appeared in the Financial Times.

There have been many unseemly Western military retreats in recent history: Algeria (1962), Vietnam (1975), Iraq (2011), Sudan (May 2021), and now Afghanistan. Why does this one feel so different? So raw, so immediate, and so personal?

British Conservative MP and former army officer Tom Tugendhat told the House of Commons of desperate phone calls and texts he had received from Kabul: “Like many veterans, this last week has been one that has seen me struggle through anger, grief, and rage.” His powerful speech swiftly went viral. Social media sites were (and still are) awash with anguished comments from American and European veterans, military and civilian, of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of Western forces ended with the departure of the last U.S. plane late on Monday. As allied troops evacuated more than 100,000 Afghans, armies of diplomats, humanitarian aid, and development agency staff worked feverishly in Kabul and far away in national capitals to support the evacuation effort.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the degree to which civil society got involved. In the U.S., a coalition of veterans’ organizations has rushed to help. Similar private networks have sprung into action in other countries.

Were there hitches and public hysteria, institutions, and people working at cross-purposes? All of that. The evacuation also laid bare the abject failure of the multilateralism that Europeans so pride themselves on — of the U.N., the G-7, the EU, and NATO — after U.S. President Joe Biden’s essentially unilateral decision to withdraw.

But much more importantly, tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked for Western militaries, embassies, or development organizations were left behind. Their lives are now in mortal danger. Efforts to help them continue. On Sunday, a hundred nations announced a deal with the Taliban to continue the evacuation. The urgency and solidarity driving relief efforts now is authentic, practical, and astonishingly broad.

Why? Guilt, certainly. Without further evacuations and other support, the likely consequences for vulnerable Afghans will weigh heavily on our collective conscience.

Yet that is not all. As Tugendhat said in parliament, echoing Neville Chamberlain’s infamous dismissal of concerns about the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, “Afghanistan is not a far away country about which we know little.”

The U.S.-led intervention in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attack on America by al-Qaida, which had been given sanctuary by the Taliban, was the first, and so far only, time that NATO’s mutual defense clause (Article 5) had been invoked. The next two decades saw a terrible loss of life, with more than 160,000 Afghan dead and nearly 8,000 Western deaths. The cost for the U.S. alone of the war in Afghanistan is estimated to be in the region of $2 trillion. Western and Afghan decisionmakers alike made grave policy mistakes, and a full reckoning awaits.

Still, the effort was not all in vain. Al-Qaida were driven out. The lives of many were immeasurably improved — above all, those of women. There is now an Afghan civil society that is educated and connected with the world as never before. And it has our cell phone numbers.

It is not just Afghanistan that has changed; it has changed us in the West, too. The U.S. defense department estimates that 832,000 American soldiers have served in Afghanistan. German experts I asked put the number at 150,000 for their country. At its peak, NATO’s stabilization mission comprised 130,000 troops from 50 countries. Add to that untold numbers of diplomats, aid workers, and journalists. More than any other conflict since the end of the Cold War, this mission has shaped the working lives and political identities of an entire generation in the West.

As German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a soul-searching speech last week: “Afghanistan is also about our identity as a nation, a nation that wants to stand up for and do what is right.”

The outcome of the final, but as yet unfinished, act of the West’s intervention in Afghanistan will determine its legitimacy. And what happens now will affect trust between politicians, civil societies, and the armed forces for years to come.

Our priority now must be to save Afghans. But we are also saving ourselves.