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The Best Way to Help Afghans Is to Let Them Come to the US

The idea that the United States should have stayed in Afghanistan to stop it from falling to the Taliban is dangerously misguided. But there is one thing the US can and should do: admit every single Afghan refugee.

Afghan people queue up to board a US military aircraft to leave Afghanistan at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021, after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (Shakib Rahmani / AFP via Getty Images)

The “forever war” in Afghanistan is finally coming to an end, two decades after the US invasion.

Inevitably, the retreat has prompted howls of outrage from war hawks in both parties and in the mainstream media who apparently thought the United States could have stopped the Taliban from retaking the country if it stayed just a little while longer. One particularly agitated reporter demanded that national security adviser Jake Sullivan explain to him how he could justify not continuing to have “some presence” on the border of Tajikistan. Ben Shapiro, always a reliable source of terrible opinions, called the pullout of US forces a “surrender.”

Again, it’s unclear how long the United States would have needed to remain in Afghanistan for Shapiro not to regard the pullout as a “surrender.” Another year? Another twenty years? The idea that there was anything Biden could have done to stop the Taliban from overthrowing America’s client regime as soon as US troops were gone is badly misguided.

The hawks are right about one thing. The American government does have a moral obligation to do something for all the Afghans terrified of living under Taliban rule. But the “something” isn’t continuing a monstrous and unwinnable war. It’s allowing millions of Afghan refugees to resettle in the United States.

What the United States Can and Can’t Do

When the war in Afghanistan first started, we were told that the point was to capture Osama bin Laden. When that didn’t happen, we were told the war was about spreading democracy and liberating the women of Afghanistan.

In reality, the main effects of the war have been enriching defense contractors and piling up a sickening number of corpses. The twenty-year war included American soldiers knocking down the doors of Afghan homes and terrorizing the men, women, and children inside. It included Afghans settling feuds with their neighbors by denouncing them to occupation authorities as “terrorists.” It included CIA death squads killing children. It included the deaths of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans. It included wedding party after wedding party being bombed by occupying forces too jumpy and oblivious to local customs to tell the difference between a gun being fired as part of a wedding celebration and a gun being fired as part of a Taliban attack. Trillions of dollars that could have been spent on domestic social programs were poured into the war effort.

And in the end, the United States couldn’t even produce a Washington-friendly regime capable of surviving a week without American “boots on the ground.” Put aside, for a moment, the morality of what the United States has done to Afghanistan over the last twenty years. What’s brutally clear is that the American state simply lacks the capacity to remake other people’s societies by force. Overwhelming another standing army with American firepower is one thing. It’s quite another to create a stable government that will be both (a) friendly to US interests and (b) popular and stable enough to survive on its own.

The Taliban are despicable, extreme right-wing authoritarians who brutally oppress women, murder gay people, and persecute religious minorities. The antiwar left shouldn’t minimize this reality. But we also shouldn’t give an inch to the dangerous delusion that something better would have resulted from another year (or another decade) of imperial brutality. Instead, we should emphasize that there is exactly one thing the United States can do to help the Taliban’s victims: we can abandon the miserly cap on the number of refugees welcomed into this country and allow fleeing Afghans to resettle in the United States, without restrictions.

The suffering of the Afghan people has been fueled by US policy for the last forty years. Decades before George W. Bush decided to ignore the Taliban’s multiple offers to negotiate handing Osama bin Laden over to a neutral country to stand trial — opting instead to cluster bomb, invade, and occupy an already thoroughly brutalized nation — the United States was arming and funding the proto-Taliban mujahideen in order to drive the Soviet Union out of the country. After the United States invaded in 2001, it rebuffed multiple attempts by the Taliban to surrender in exchange for being reintegrated at a lower level of the Afghan power structure — an arrangement that might have actually resulted in a stable state. The brutality of the twenty-year war in turn led some Afghans who’d initially welcomed the fall of the Taliban to reconsider and switch sides. Meanwhile, those Afghans who did continue to work with the United States are justifiably terrified that they’ll be identified and killed by the Taliban.

The United States has accepted fewer than five hundred Afghan refugees since the beginning of this year. That’s pathetic. After everything the United States has done to the people of Afghanistan, keeping out any Afghan refugee who wants to come in is unforgivable.

American troops continuing to fight and die in Afghanistan won’t help the Taliban’s victims. But admitting millions of refugees will. Let them all in.