On Afghanistan, An Anguishing Choice about Withdrawing Troops
Five factors will influence the U.S. role and the prospects for peace after two decades of war.
By Robin Wright
There’s a prophetic scene at the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the film that chronicles a flamboyant Texas congressman (played by Tom Hanks) and a rogue C.I.A. agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) mobilizing what was then the largest U.S. covert intelligence operation in history. Operation Cyclone facilitated the training, arming, and empowering of the Afghan mujahideen—holy warriors—to fight the Soviet Union in the nineteen-eighties. America’s proxies prevailed, in the sense that the Soviets realized that their decade-long presence had become too costly—financially, politically, and militarily—and that they couldn’t achieve their goals. “What, are we going to sit there forever?” the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reportedly told the Politburo in 1986. “Or should we be ending this war? Otherwise, we’ll disgrace ourselves in every respect.” In 1989, after losing more than fourteen thousand troops and spending at least fifty billion dollars, the Soviets withdrew. They just wanted out of an unpopular war. Afghanistan soon collapsed into a civil war that pitted rival warlords against one another, until the Taliban seized power, in 1996, imposed strict Islamic law, and welcomed other jihadis such as Al Qaeda. After Al Qaeda’s attacks in 2001, U.S. forces helped their Afghan allies to topple the Taliban. A new U.S.-backed government was ensconced in Kabul.