In the Western world, we suffer from a largely two-dimensional view of Afghanistan. We see it as a largely unknown place that is unsettled, uncivilized, and a theater for conflict against daunting foes—be it an idea like terrorism or a long-standing adversary like the Soviet Union. Across much of the media landscape, Afghanistan is a tragedy…but a tragedy that is highly politicized in terms of finding fault with the respective administrations of Joe Biden or Donald Trump. These two-dimensional characterizations of Afghanistan do an unforgivable disservice to the Afghans, to our service members and civil servants who worked and suffered to improve the situation there, and to ourselves. After all, if we can’t understand what happened then what is to keep us from making the same mistakes elsewhere? And make no mistake, the United States remains embroiled in interventions around the world which may be lower intensity and get less coverage, but which nevertheless share certain key attributes.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Afghanistan and what went wrong where, why, and how. But by seeking broader understanding, listening to voices that don’t always have the platform they deserve, we can do better. We have to. This bookazine is an attempt by Diplomatic Courier and our valued partners—No One Left Behind, Truman National Security Project, and the William & Mary Whole of Government Center of Excellence—to help amplify those voices.
We attempt to make sense of what happened in three acts. In the first section, “Afghan Voices,” we invite four Afghans to tell their stories in their own words. Each person we interviewed came from a very different situation and so each format is slightly different. For some, the decision to speak to us involved a great deal of personal bravery. Each of them was motivated by a desire to make their voices heard and to prompt the wider world to try—to try harder—to deepen our understanding of what’s happened and what’s happening.
In the second section, “Perspectives from the ‘Field,’” we hear from folks who have been intimately and operationally involved in Afghanistan. Four veterans from the Truman network discuss their experiences as service members in Afghanistan and how those experiences have shaped their perspectives. Three current and former board members with No One Left Behind—a charity helping evacuate Afghans who served alongside U.S. service members—talk about their experiences in this critical endeavor, and their attempts to understand the lessons from their challenges and successes.
In the final section, “Learning from Tragedy to Do Better,” we feature analyses from a variety of experts—American and Afghan—about how we arrived at today and what it means for tomorrow. We hear from two Afghan civil society leaders—Mariam Safi and Mustafa Aryan—who were intimately involved in both attempts to build up Afghanistan’s civil society and in the peace talks. Regular Diplomatic Courier contributors Ethan Brown and Joshua Huminski provide historical perspectives and further reading through a book review roundup, respectively. Finally, we hear from three former and current government officials—Alexia D’Arco, Ambassador Ronald Neumann, and John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction—who talk about lessons learned through their work and thoughts about what moving forward should look like.
Afghanistan is personal for me. The events of 9/11 and the intervention that followed had an outsized impact on who I am today morally and professionally. The same can be said (except only much, much more so!) for all of our contributors in this bookazine. Their personal and professional experiences, their perspectives, their learnings can help add depth to our understanding of this country and this crisis. Diplomatic Courier and our partners hope you find meaning and greater understanding in the pages to come. We certainly did.