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The Afghan Brain Drain

Last night, President Obama announced that 34,000 troops will return from Afghanistan next year. And middle-class Afghans, sparked by concerns over the West’s eventual full retreat, are poised to flee their still unstable country. The NYT describes one such case—31-year-old Rasool Mohibzada:

Sitting in the large house he built on a $95,000 plot of land in airy western Kabul and playing with his 5-year-old daughter, [Mohibzada] is a member of a young Afghan generation whose eyes burn with modest aspiration for what would be by outside standards an ordinary life — access to electricity, schools for his son and daughter, rule of law, security.

“But I am quite afraid about the future at the moment,” he said. “If I got the chance, I would go now.”

Mohibzada, as the NYT illustrates, represents the norm for his generation. Many members of the Afghan middle class and elite escaped to neighboring Pakistan during the Taliban years and returned to take advantage of the freedom and other opportunities that the U.S. invasion provided. They have worked in government ministries, development organizations, and started businesses themselves.

But if the U.S. and other Western countries depart prematurely, they fear these opportunities will disappear, and for good reason. Progress has been made, but Afghanistan still struggles with a corruption riddled government, an increasingly meddling Iran, and the continuous presence of the Taliban—which is preparing to stand up as the U.S. stands down.

Back in the early 2000s, you heard a lot of Americans, including dozens of leading Democrats, talk about the huge mistake the U.S. made in walking away from Afghanistan prematurely following the collapse of the Soviet Union. We wouldn’t make that mistake next time, we all vowed as we watched the smoke rise up from lower Manhattan and pondered the consequences of Taliban rule. And we spent a lot of time and money convincing Pakistan and other countries in the region that this time we really meant it: America had learned the “lessons of history.” This time we would stay the course.

And there were many more lessons to be learned. Then-Senator Barack Obama, running for president, hammered the Bush administration incessantly for neglecting Afghanistan and not putting everything it had into this “war of necessity,” this vital contest. The national security consequences of failure in Afghanistan were so great, and the moral issues posed by the war so important, that we needed a president who would roll up his sleeves and do what it took to win. The new policy appears to be more a “decent interval” approach. We will do what it takes to avoid too painful a humiliation, unless that involves rolling up our sleeves.

Fortunately the media has no interest in stories that make this President look bad, or that contrast promise with performance, so we are going to be able to drift out of Afghanistan without a lot of painful reflections. But the Afghan middle class is probably doing the right thing by packing its bags. And the next time America needs to persuade people to trust it, it’s going to have a slightly harder time convincing them that it means what it says.

Oh well. As that great American Henry Ford put it so brilliantly, history is bunk. No lessons to be learned there. It’s time to move on.

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