By: The Dominion Post Editorial Board
It’s a term familiar to Star Trek fans: a no-win scenario — a Starfleet test where cadets must choose between saving a disabled civilian vessel, putting themselves at risk and starting an intergalactic war, or leaving the civilians behind, most likely to die.
The situation in Afghanistan is a true modern horror. And it’s President Joe Biden’s own Kobayashi Maru.
James T. Kirk famously beat the test by reprogramming the simulation. But you can’t reprogram real life.
Janet D. Stemwedel, a professor of philosophy, wrote an essay for Forbes on ethical leadership, using the Kobayashi Maru as an example. In it, she said, “A crucial feature of good ethical decision-making in the real world is understanding the limits of your powers. You try to make choices that bring lots of good consequences and minimal bad ones, that fulfill your obligations to everyone to whom you have obligations (including yourself) — but you’re doing it in a complicated world where you must make your choices on the basis of imperfect information, and where other people are doing things that may impose constraints on your options. … This means that sometimes even the most creative and optimistic ethical decision-maker has to face a situation where none of the available choices or outcomes are very good.”
The choice Biden faced was not black or white; it was not as simple as stay or go.
The choice was honor a deal made by the U.S. government or set the precedent that negotiations made under one administration are immediately null every four or eight years. Trump started the deal to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, though he negotiated only with the Taliban. Up until the fall of Kabul, 70% of Americans supported ending America’s presence there, and Biden has been vocal about his disproval for this “forever war.” Ultimately, Biden has finished what Trump started, for better or worse, and kept America’s promise.
The choice was to continue fighting an unwinnable war or finally acknowledge that the cost was too high. This war was paid for on credit: the United States has debt-financed an estimated $2 trillion of direct Afghanistan and Iraq war costs as of 2020. The interest on that by 2050 will $6.5 trillion, and the estimated costs to care for veterans tops another $2 trillion, according to data from Linda Bilmes of Harvard University’s Kennedy School and from the Brown University Costs of War project.
The choice was to continue sacrificing American lives or to continue protecting Afghan people from potential human rights violations. According to data compiled by the Associated Press, in 20 years of war in Afghanistan, more than 2,400 American service members lost their lives; so have more than 3,800 U.S. contractors, as well as 444 aid workers and 72 journalists. More than 47,000 Afghan civilians died during the fighting. More than 20,000 American soldiers were injured. But in that same timeframe, infant mortality dropped 50% in Afghanistan, and today 37% of Afghan girls can read. Women’s rights made amazing strides, but all that progress might disappear overnight.
The choice was to keep propping up the Afghan government or step back and see if it could hold its own. The Biden administration didn’t seem to have much faith in the Afghan military’s ability to hold back the enemy; reports, including from the New York Times, say officials thought the Taliban could overrun the country in a matter of months, despite the U.S. investing $85 billion in training and equipment for Afghan forces. But no one expected the Afghan military to immediately implode, allowing the Taliban to waltz into the country’s major cities, including the capital. No one expected President Ashraf Ghani would flee at the first sign of trouble, leaving his nation without any leadership and with a power vacuum perfect for the Taliban to fill.
There was no good choice left for Biden to make.
This week’s guest editorial comes from the editorial staff of the Dominion Post. While we don’t agree completely with their take, we found it intriguing and thoughtful, and hoped you might as well. – Editor