Written by guest contributor, Matt Weber, a frequent contractor to USAID through for-profit development agencies who has spent his career predominantly working in conflict and post-conflict countries like Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Afghanistan.
Please knock it off about Afghanistan. Say thanks to the women and men who served. Acknowledge the sadness of the situation and do not belittle yourself and your country in recriminations.
Twenty years ago, America struck a blow against Al-Qaeda and denied a safe base of operations to the Taliban. Then we stuck around and tried to help. During these past 20 years, we earnestly attempted to advance the nation insofar as we could figure out how to do so and now we have moved on. It is not an unwise decision so much as it is a sad decision. Please, America, be brave enough to acknowledge the sadness rather than projecting blame. Your infighting is disrespectful to all who have served from our nation, all who partnered with us in our assistance across the world, and all who suffer now on the ground.
I worked in Afghanistan for seven years. I privatized a poultry farm, promoted agricultural lending, and ran a large agricultural assistance program in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Zabul. Through the generosity of the American taxpayer and under the protection of the greatest military on earth, I helped teach people in Afghanistan new agricultural techniques. I played a part in advancing the infrastructure for veterinary care, agricultural credit, and sound agricultural policy. I worked shoulder to shoulder with people from 42 other countries to improve a place whose previous leadership promoted regressive social policies and harbored one of the greatest single enemies of the American people in the past century.
What we need to do now is to say how grateful we are to the women and men who stepped into harm’s way, left their lives and comforts behind them, their communities and their loved ones, and ventured to a strange land with the ambition of limiting bloodshed and doing some good for a country in need.
“Some” good is all I was able to do in my last 20 years. What about you? I had some career highs but my partner and I also broke up. War-zones are not good for relationships. One of my projects was cancelled when USAID, the US governmental agency that oversaw the bulk of our civilian engagement programs in Afghanistan, wanted to pursue a different strategy. Letting go 300 staff is a feeling of failure I would not wish on anyone. None of that diminishes the following truth in my life nor should it in yours: The sacrifices of the American people and the ambition of America to engage a far-off land and to improve that land as we could imagine improvement, is at the heart of what is admirable, and honorable, about America. If we must fail, let us fail in the attempt to aid and advance a people, rather than failing to live our values or to engage with the world boldly.
The anger you are feeling is the foreground of sadness. It is sad that a nation on the other side of the world where we spilled blood and worked alongside 42 contributing nations to build a better country was not ultimately a place we well understood how to help, where we could well agree on how to help, or where all of our efforts were fabulous successes. The reasons for this are not malevolent. Across our great country we often can’t comprehend people of different political affiliations and yet the optimism that is definitional to American culture allowed us to hope for a ready empathy with people whose traditions are not our own. America, the land of innovation, expected to achieve a consonant world view with Afghanistan, a land with one foot still planted firmly in a time separate from the trappings of modernity and modernity’s attendant beliefs in women’s rights, inclusion, diversity, and non-violence.
More than 20 million Afghans out of a population of 35 million were born in these last 20 years and exposed to values that we cherish and believe are essential to the modern world. We cannot go back and redo our participation in Afghanistan now, but we can be proud of what we have done.
We live in a world where threats loom and that is scary but we are a people capable of combating those threats, of protecting our values, and even of calling-it-a-day when our outcomes have been imperfect and it hurts to leave. Say thanks to those near you who have served and be proud of your country for its attempts as well as its outcomes.