Students are concerned about US withdrawal from Afghanistan

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After two decades in Afghanistan, the US has finally pulled out of the longest war in American history. On Monday, Aug. 30, the last plane with Americans and Afghans left the international airport in Kabul — only one day before the official extraction deadline (Aug. 31) set by President Joe Biden. 

When asked why he believes the US went to war in Afghanistan, Nate Christensen, a junior in graphic design said, “I think initially it was to get the people who caused 9/11 … I’ve heard speculation that it was about the oil. After that it became a point of pride for us to try and make things better.”

On Sept. 9, 2001, the leader of the anti-Taliban coalition was assassinated, which is believed to be linked to the attack two days later on Sept. 11, which started the war. This was addressed by President George W. Bush when he vowed to “win the war against terrorism,” and later “zero[ed] in on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan,” according to the timeline from the Council on Foreign Relations. 

On April 14 of this year, President Biden announced a plan to withdraw from Afghanistan before the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attack. “Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland,” stated Biden in another speech delivered on Aug. 16. “I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”

Along with many other students, Christensen has concerns about the way the US withdrew from Afghanistan. He said, “I think we needed to leave because we can’t stay there forever, but I think the withdrawal was handled poorly.”

“[It] brought more attention to the war. I think overall it’s interesting we’ve been in Afghanistan for so long, and to pull out so quickly seemed sudden,” said Anna Wilkinson, a junior in environmental science. “It’s very sad. Just to think of all those people who are still there, who are trapped there.”

As stated by, “The United States’ presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has relied on the life-saving assistance of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who put themselves in danger to serve alongside U.S. troops, diplomats, and contractors. These individuals provided indispensable linguistic, cultural, and geographic knowledge to the United States at great personal risk to themselves and their loved ones.”

Celebrating the withdrawal, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, tweeted: “The last American occupier withdrew … and our country gained its full independence, praise and gratitude be to God,” on Aug. 30 after the last plane departed. 

“I’ve been hearing about it for a long time … so I know it’s a big deal,” said a freshman majoring in psychology. Although he admitted that he didn’t know very much about the war, he’s noticed that “people seem pretty sick and tired of it.” 

“From what I know about the withdrawal, as the US is withdrawing, the Taliban is expanding,” said Thomas Rawle, a non-traditional student in biology education. “[It] has upset a lot of people because a lot of equipment, like bases, weapons and uniforms, have been taken by the Taliban … It’s weird that that happened.” He added, “If the Taliban does take over it will be interesting, and unfortunate for some.”

The Taliban is a militant group that ran the country from 1996 to 2001 under a regime that adhered strictly to Shariah law, according to the Associated Press. Shariah law is the fundamental religious law of Islam and is often associated with extreme punishments and the oppression of women, although there are several interpretations. Many are now fleeing the country out of fear that this regime will be reinstated, or from fear of persecution for aiding the US over the past two decades. 

“America seemed to be united for a little bit … after 9/11. Because [approval for] the war was granted by Congress so quickly, it showed bipartisanship and unidirectional thinking.” Although as time went on, Rawle supposes confusing footage and theories “caused suspicion in people. And then there’s the whole thing on oil. People are suspicious of colonialistic methods of extracting the oil and controlling the oil.” 

The Department of Defense estimates the cost of the war to be approximately $995 billion. However, Browns University’s Cost of War project places that number at $2.1 trillion, without incorporating future costs, such as veteran care over the coming years. 

The Cost of War report also lists the American death toll at 7,052 US service members, adding the 30,177 suicides among US service members and veterans involved in post-9/11 wars. As for the Afghan death toll, they write, “About 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. More than 71,000 of those killed have been civilians.”

Looking forward, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun … It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy. The military mission is over.” A transcript of his speech, given on Aug. 30, can be found here

“You can’t as one party end a war. It takes two parties to end a war. The Taliban and radical, violent jihadists in the world, they haven’t stopped fighting. They’re going to continue to fight us. The war is not over, we’re just no longer in it,” Senator Mitt Romney told the Deseret News. He also condemned the decision to leave Americans and “Afghan friends” behind, calling it a “moral stain.”

In an attempt to look at the “bigger picture,” Rawle posed the question: “Is it America’s responsibility to be there in the first place, or to continue as long as we have?” He related President George Washington’s concept of “American isolationism” from his farewell address, noting that the public opinion seems to fluctuate over the course of American history between playing the role of “world police,” as opposed to being “the city on a hill.” World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan are particular wars he mentioned that exemplify this sentiment.

Rawle believes, “It’s more complicated than the oil issue or than America trying to control the world.” Furthering this point, Christensen said, “We’re fighting an ideology. We’re not fighting a government or even an organization: we’re fighting an idea … The government we tried to establish was based on western ideals, and we didn’t take into account the type of government that would work for [Afghans] based on their values and their ideology.”

Understanding the differences between values common in western cultures and middle-eastern cultures is integral to understanding the ongoing conflicts. Rawle noted two of the main groups at odds with the US in the post-9/11 wars, saying, “There’s the Taliban and ISIS, but I don’t think they’re friendly to each other … They don’t accept no for an answer.” He went on to say that, although it’s hard to do, it’s important to put yourself in their shoes. “From a religious standpoint … you can kind of see their context if you follow the scriptural texts.”

The Taliban gained control over Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Aug. 15 and according to Reuters, “Taliban forces are in full control of Afghanistan.”

Afghan refugees fleeing the current situation may look for safety in Utah as early as this month, according to Deseret News. On Aug. 16, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted, “We’re dismayed by the chaos descending on Afghanistan. Utah stands ready to welcome refugees from this war-torn country, especially those who valiantly helped our troops over the past 20 years. We must stand by America’s allies.”

On Aug. 17, Gov. Cox sent a letter to Biden expressing concern for Afghan refugees and offering Utah’s assistance with the unfolding crisis. He reminds the president that, “Our state was settled by refugees fleeing religious persecution 170 years ago,” and said that descendants of those refugees have an understanding of the difficulties of “forced migration” and “an appreciation for the wonderful contributions refugees in our communities.” The full letter can be accessed here.