America: A Land Without Mirrors
As a country, we never seem to learn.
The last 72 hours in Afghanistan have been many things: heartbreaking, enraging, confusing, and above all, deeply painful.
I’m not about to pretend I know what the Biden Administration should or should not be doing, if the President’s decisions on Afghanistan are the best path forward, or anything else related to the withdrawal.
Because I don’t know. I didn’t deploy there. I’m not a foreign policy expert, let alone an expert on the Middle East. I have no familial or cultural connections to Afghanistan.
(And by the way, just because someone served in the U.S. military during this time period, even if they did deploy to Afghanistan, that alone doesn’t make them an insightful or credible voice. I wish more folks would understand this.)
In short, it’s really not my place to offer an opinion on any of that. I subscribe to the apparently controversial view that when discussing a grave and complex matter for which I have no substantial knowledge, it’s good practice to avoid acting as though I do.
If you don't have the expertise or qualified experience, maybe don't pontificate on this tragic moment in Afghanistan. It's entirely acceptable to say "honestly, I don't know enough about this" and leave it there.
That is not me supporting or opposing the actions of the Biden Administration or the withdrawal, specifically, because again: I don’t know enough to form an opinion with a high degree of confidence.
And I feel bad about this. I should know more. As an American citizen, as a voter, as someone who cares about this country, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be more knowledgable about Afghanistan. But I have to admit when I don’t know, and that’s very much the case here.
There are many folks, unlike me, who do have substantial knowledge on Afghanistan. If you’re one of them and would like to offer insight to the world, please do, but if you have to ask yourself if I mean you when I say “no expertise or experience”, then I think you can answer that for yourself.
Remember that sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all. Join me on Team Shut the Hell Up and Listen. We have fun when we’re learning, I promise.
That said, here are some of the things I’ve been reading from folks with substantial knowledge on all this, and I’d encourage you to check them out:
The historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote a brief history of the Taliban and how our country’s involvement arrived at this moment.
Bushra Ebadi wrote a fantastic thread with suggestions on how we can help innocents in Afghanistan.
Journalist and military veteran Laura Jedeed wrote a nuanced thread about her tours in Afghanistan more than ten years ago and why this week seemed inevitable even then.
Even if you disagree with his thesis, David Rothkopf’s thread is also insightful.
I’m not asking you to agree with any of these people, nor am I claiming they have the definitive takes on the political and diplomatic actions this week. I’m only saying that reading their commentary filled in a lot of blanks for me, and you might find them helpful, too.
If you think I’ve missed a fantastic commentary that is the complete opposite of the above, I encourage you to comment below with it or send to me directly via email. I am completely open to it because once again: I am not substantially knowledgable on all this.
Here’s where I will speak with a lot of confidence: Americans, on the whole, seem to be steadfastly ignorant and stubborn to employ critical thinking on the Middle East.
It’s been nearly 20 years since our country invaded Afghanistan—at the time, with a great deal of good will from the rest of the world, mind you—and it feels to me that our biggest collective problem back then is the same as it is now: we are painfully and destructively and willfully uninformed.
Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated American life for two decades, and yet, I would be genuinely shocked if more than, say, 5% of Americans could give an accurate, basic summary on the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Sorry, let me zoom out on this: I would be shocked if more than 5% of Americans could correctly identify Afghanistan on an unlabeled world map on the first try.
There’s so much blame to go around for the horrific tenure of the War on Terror, and surely, the bulk of that falls squarely on the shoulders of our political leadership. No doubt about that.
But if I may, I can’t help but feel that our political leaders wouldn’t have gotten away with so much bullshit in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years if the average American put even just a little more effort into understanding the facts at hand and applying critical thinking.
As a country, we—and if you feel this doesn’t include you, fine—generally tend to expect our political leadership to do all the work for us on tough issues, particularly on foreign policy.
Just keep us safe, we seem to say. Do whatever needs to be done, but keep us safe.
The same lack of critical thinking that enabled the Bush Administration to kick off the worst American foreign policy catastrophe in recent history (maybe ever?) seems to be just as evident in the voices of Americans I’ve seen talking about Afghanistan over the past several days.
Glaring inaccuracies, incomplete or misleading information, lots of “this is how I feel as an uninformed American and this bit of information I read or heard secondhand confirms my opinion, so this is how it must be in reality”.
And not primarily for or against the Biden Administration. Across the political spectrum, really shitty, uninformed takes on Afghanistan have flooded social media.
As a country, we haven’t learned how to take care of ourselves. We have an election and clap the dirt off our hands and say “Well, back to not caring enough to educate ourselves.”
We’ve been doing it for 20 years (well, honestly, long before that).
I know it sucks to read this. It’s so easy to put all the blame on politicians instead of examining our role as citizens in how we got here.
We’ve very entitled as Americans. We’re complacent. Almost 80 years ago, we won World War II and we’ve seen all the movies and despite the vast majority of us not even being alive during that time, that’s somehow enough to declare ourselves exceptional and above the responsibilities of an informed and engaged citizenry in world events.
We always want the easy solution, and it sure as hell better be handed to us with white gloves and a smile. We don’t want to think critically, especially on foreign policy.
Afghanistan, Iraq, COVID, climate change, school shootings, etc. — the endurance of our most destructive challenges always seem to be the result of our broken education system coming back to bite us in the ass again and again and again.
And yet, somehow, we continue to have the audacity to simultaneously act like both shocked citizens in response to world events and then suddenly experts on the same.
If we’re truly tired of this—and I’d like to believe we are—we need to take the responsibility of informing ourselves.
I hope we get there and, god willing, quickly.
Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is Charlotte’s Web Thoughts, my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.
You can also follow my work on Twitter.