The Universal Notebook: When it comes to Afghanistan, we’re full of it

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A good buddy and I have been having an email argument about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. To be more specific, we disagree about President Biden’s handling of it.

He believes Biden has betrayed our allies in Afghanistan by withdrawing too fast and that, as a result, he will lose the 2024 election. I believe the Taliban were going to brutalize the Afghan people no matter when and how America exited, that most Americans stopped caring about Afghanistan years ago, and that Biden probably won’t run in 2024 anyway.

What upsets me most about our disagreement is the fact that my old friend characterizes whatever I say as “just your opinion,” while whatever he says is supposedly an indisputable fact.

It’s not. 

The inability to make a meaningful distinction between fact and opinion is a symptom of what is wrong with this country. Whatever I believe is the truth. Whatever you believe is just your opinion based on your political bias.

Facts: The American military has been in Afghanistan for 20 years. The Americans are now leaving. The Taliban is taking over. Some U.S. allies in Afghanistan will suffer if they stay. The U.S. is evacuating allies as fast as it can.

Opinions: We shouldn’t have been in Afghanistan in the first place. Donald Trump set the table for the current disaster by drawing down U.S. troops to a mere 2,500 and telling the Taliban we would be out by May 1. Republicans in Congress would be applauding the U.S. withdrawal if Trump were still president. Biden betrayed our allies by not evacuating all Afghans who cooperated with us before withdrawing.

My buddy and I have been hurling dueling articles from The Atlantic at one another to support our positions. He lobbed in George Packer’s “Biden’s Betrayal Will Live in Infamy.” I countered with Daniel Silverberg’s “Biden Is Right.”

My reading of the tragic situation is similar to Silverberg’s, that the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan a long time before Biden took office. The Afghan political leadership and the Afghan military are the ones who really betrayed their country. Biden is doing the right thing by getting out. His timing on withdrawal might be off, but he is trying to make amends, putting thousands more U.S. boots on the ground while Americans and allies are evacuated.

Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires – the Mughals in the 18th century, the British in the 19th century, the Soviets in the 20th, and now the U.S. in the 21st. The idea that Afghanistan was ever going to be a peaceful democracy is crazy. It’s a brutal, tribal society that defeats more powerful invaders simply by outlasting them. 

That said, when it comes to Afghanistan, we are all full of it. No one in southern Maine really knows what they are talking about. In fact, all the pundits and politicians, eggheads and talking heads, columnists and commentators, Internet trolls, and so-called experts in the world are just doing what my buddy and I are doing: debating a hopeless situation based on our own interests, needs, and desires.

We just sling personal opinions back and forth at one another and call that news. As long as you know it’s just your opinion, I think you’re OK. But as soon as you mistake your opinion for God’s honest truth, we’re all in serious trouble. That’s Trump’s most insidious legacy: the destruction of the truth.

But that’s just my opinion.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.