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A New Chapter in the Afghanistan War

With the American military’s time in Afghanistan seemingly coming to a close, Texas A&M University professor Elizabeth Cobbs takes us through the history of this war and how it can guide the country into the future.

By Amber Francis ‘22

President Joe Biden walks through Arlington National Cemetery. The grass is green, the precision with which the tomb stones are placed is unmistakable.

In his first hundred days in office President Joe Biden shocked many people by announcing his intention to withdraw all troops from the Middle East by Sept. 11.

In his first hundred days in office President Joe Biden shocked many people by announcing his intention to withdraw all troops from the Middle East by Sept. 11. It was not the first time a United States President had made such an announcement, but having one come so soon into Biden’s term has things looking promising, according to Texas A&M University historian and the Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History Professor Elizabeth Cobbs.

“President Trump, President Obama, and President Bush have all discussed the withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Afghanistan,” Cobbs stated. “I think withdrawal has been on the agenda for some time, for several administrations. It’s clear now, especially with COVID, the ability of the United States to afford this kind of job is decreasing rapidly. So I think it’s responsible to figure out what you can accomplish as a country and not overexert yourself.”

Cobbs views the withdrawal of an American military presence from Afghanistan as a sensible move on Biden’s part for several reasons, chief among which is the difficulty and near impossibility of trying to solve a foreign country’s internal conflicts through military might. This practice has led to many comparisons between the Afghanistan War and the Vietnam War. 

Both wars were a part of a larger ideological struggle, albeit vastly different ones. The concern around Vietnam was based on the fear that if a communist government was established in South Vietnam, it would lead to the further spread of communism across Asia. With Afghanistan the concern was that if the brutality enacted by the Taliban were not stopped within the country’s borders, it would spread across the Middle East. Though said struggles were dissimilar in nature, they’ve yielded similar results.

“They’re also similar in the sense that in both cases the U.S. was trying to achieve the resolution of internal conflict by way of military force,” Cobbs explained. “And it’s a difficult task to do when the people within that country have no desire to make peace. Experience has shown that you cannot fight other people’s civil wars for them, the world is too big a place. They have to resolve their problems themselves.”

Though people argue that the U.S. has been involved in a variety of military alliances to protect world security, it must be said that those alliances were originally designed to protect the sovereignty of foreign countries, not solve their domestic conflicts. Simply put, there is no structure of international law designed for one foreign country to intervene on behalf of another’s internal human rights violations.

Photo of Elizabeth Cobbs smiling at the camera.

“It’s Important for Americans to understand that we can do a lot, but we can’t do everything,” Cobbs said.

Despite this, many people view America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as the U.S. giving up on a duty. In reality, Cobbs said the situation is a realistic assessment of what tools are best for the job and what can be accomplished with the tools this country has. The tool of military intervention in Afghanistan has not and is not yielding a permanent solution to the problems. 

“Most Americans tend to think that it’s our job because we took on a responsibility that we must fulfill to defend world security and that requires us to stay put in any conflict we intervene in,” Cobbs remarked “And that mindset is setting ourselves up for a lot of grief. This kind of civil war is extremely difficult to resolve and can almost never be done.”

Cobbs said this doesn’t mean the U.S. should stop trying to offer assistance in international affairs, but rather military action may not always be the best or most effective route to take. Oftentimes the best thing to do is provide stability and interact with these countries in positive ways. 

“There are many ways to be supportive of change in other countries that are not military,” Cobbs maintained. “You can offer food relief, or you can allow immigration for refugees to get out of those countries. You’re not giving up on problems or on people, but rather not trying to solve problems through primarily military means.”

When looking to the future, Cobbs shared her hope that these experiences will pave the way for an open conversation amongst Americans of all political parties about the best way to structure our relationship with the rest of the world. She said it’s a conversation that has been delayed far too long. Cobbs is certain that a look inward will help both ourselves and others if the people of this country collectively devote time to solving that puzzle.

“It’s Important for Americans to understand that we can do a lot, but we can’t do everything,” Cobbs said. “Figuring out the best way to use our resources and the best way to harness our ideals is one of the most worthwhile things we can do. Doing so will improve the respect other countries have for us and give us our own self-respect back.”