Given that there was never any real possibility of victory in Afghanistan, it’s hard to say exactly when the war was lost, other than to realize that it was lost long, long ago. They don’t call Afghanistan the graveyard of empires without reason.
The actual departure itself was always going to look bad. As foreign policy experts from left and right have noted, this is what defeat looks like. There’s shame and there’s heartbreak and there are the inevitable recriminations and the predictable finger pointing. And, mostly, there’s chaos.
But it didn’t have to look — and more important — it didn’t have to be this bad. What we’ve seen, what the Afghans have seen, what the world has seen, has been an operational disaster. When Jack Reed, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the operation showed “failures of intelligence, diplomacy and a lack of imagination,” he pretty much nailed it.
And if Joe Biden, in his speech, said the buck stopped with him, he didn’t seem to mean it. It’s easy enough to look back on Trump’s failures, but they don’t excuse Biden’s misjudgment on the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul. Biden’s well-earned empathy was at least a temporary victim of the war. Biden was steely-eyed about his decision to leave, a view he’s held since objecting to Barack Obama’s long-ago troop surge. That was 2009, and the operation was supposed to clear the way for pulling American troops.
In my view, Biden made the right decision to end a forever war — one that two presidents before Biden had tried and failed to end — but it was also on Biden to explain why the ending had gone so badly, what choices were made and how they were made. He’s right that, in its perverse way, the collapse of the Afghan forces and the looming chaos only confirmed Biden’s choice in leaving. But it definitely does not excuse America’s role in that chaos.
If the Afghan army was going to collapse immediately, despite the billions spent in arming and training them, despite nearly two decades of generals proclaiming progress on that front, American intelligence should have known it. And if Biden got that advice and ignored it, that’s on him.
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We came to Afghanistan after 9/11, of course. There was no real choice but to attack the country that had harbored Al Qaeda. But soon attention turned disastrously to Iraq and then came the wars that never seemed to end.
No one believes Afghans can’t fight. There’s a long history of Afghan wars to refute that notion. And, in fact, 69,000 Afghan soldiers and police have died in this civil war. But when it came down to it, Afghan soldiers wouldn’t fight for the often-corrupt, American-backed government once Americans decided to pull out. There’s a lesson we’re yet to learn in our attempts at so-called nation building.
For a great majority of Americans, as noted in poll and after poll, it was long past time to leave. But one poll following the Taliban’s takeover of the country also showed a great majority of Americans blame Biden for how the war is ending.
And as disturbing as photos of Afghans clinging to the bottom of the C-17 at the Kabul airport might be — a scene providing a sometimes too facile link to the fall of Saigon — they are not as disturbing as the possible fate of those many Afghan allies who may or may not make it out alive.
Biden offered a forceful argument for why staying another year, another five years, another 10 years, would not have helped. But in addressing the debacle at the airport, Biden did everything but explain the debacle.
Wouldn’t it be nice if presidents admitted their mistakes? If LBJ had publicly questioned the propagandistic war-dead count in Vietnam. If Nixon had apologized for his secret war. If Reagan had apologized for cakes and Bibles in Iran. If memory serves, Jimmy Carter did accept the blame for the abortive raid to free the hostages in the American embassy in Iran. He said the responsibility was “fully my own.” Of course, we know how Carter’s presidential career ended.
But for those who think the reduced force in Afghanistan was preserving the peace, that’s a narrow view unsupported by the facts on the ground. The Taliban have been gaining territory for years. And, if there was any reason to stay, it was that the return of the Taliban would be a disaster for the women and girls there who have made so much progress. That’s a compelling argument, of course, but is it a forever argument? I’m not sure if we’ll ever resolve that one.
As Fareed Zakaria points out in a Washington Post column, “In the summer of 2019, the Afghan Army and police force suffered their worst casualties in the two decades of fighting. It was also the worst period for Afghan civilian casualties in a decade. In 2018, when the United States had four times as many troops as this year, the fighting was so brutal that 282,000 Afghan civilians were displaced from their homes in the countryside. Frustration with the Afghan government and its U.S. patrons was rising. A U.S. government survey done that year showed that Afghan support for U.S. troops was at 55 percent, down from 90 percent a decade earlier.”
George Packer, writing in the Atlantic, basically agrees with that assessment, but decries the failure in ensuring the safety of our allies. Packer, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for years and whose “Assassin’s Gate” is a must-read on the war in Iraq, says, “The burden of shame falls on President Joe Biden.”
To his credit, Biden is trying at least to undo some of that shame, sending in troops to hold the airport and evacuate Americans and many of those who helped in the American effort. And to the credit of at least some Democrats, they are calling out Biden for his failure. In a news conference, Rep. Jason Crow, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, said, “I’m not going to mince my words on this. We didn’t need to be in this position. We didn’t need to be seeing the scenes that we’re seeing at Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing aboard C-17s.”
Crow said he had been trying to persuade the Biden administration since April to begin the evacuation of those Afghans who assisted America’s effort, and that the slow response was “a missed opportunity.”
But Crow also believes that the situation can be, in part, salvaged.
“We still have time to do the right thing,” Crow said. “But we have to do it today.”
Let’s hope that the troops Biden has sent back into Afghanistan will be able to make that happen. With the airport secure, the Pentagon is planning to remove as many as 5,000 to 9,000 people a day. It won’t be easy. Of course, nothing about Afghanistan has been easy, including the great cost, whether in blood or in treasure, whether in American troops lost and injured or in the many Afghans who have died. That’s a lesson we didn’t need 20 years to learn.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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