There is no pretty way to lose a war, but the chaotic exit from Afghanistan over the past week has been particularly disturbing, especially for short-term political optics and long-term shameful treatment of those who risked their lives to help coalition forces and their ever-evolving mission. Bodies falling from planes departing Kabul Airport, as desperate Afghans tried to flee the country and its new Taliban control, were chilling reminders of the bodies falling through the air as the World Trade Center towers collapsed on 9/11/2001. I don’t know if we’re witnessing Saigon 2.0, Rwanda Redux, or soon-to-be Pol Pot:The Sequel.
Over a decade ago, the United States achieved its only legitimate goals in Afghanistan, destroying the base that Al Qaeda had created, from which the 9/11 terrorist attack was launched, and killing Osama bin Laden. Forget about the recurrent mission-creep palaver about nation building. From the beginning, the US never had a coherent strategy and clear exit plan. Bush jumped distractedly to Iraq, Obama fumbled his victory and Trump got rolled completely in the Doha peace talks. Four American Presidents – two Republican and two Democrat – have pursued the naïve illusion that we could establish a stable government, some sort of liberal Western democracy, in that ” graveyard of empires.”
To be sure, there were some positive developments, such as securing more rights for women and girls. But, after spending more than $2 trillion and costing some 2,448 American military lives – plus tens of thousands more among Afghan security and civilians, coalition forces, contractors, journalists, aid workers – it’s now unclear what of lasting significance will have been achieved. As for the $83 billion we spent training Afghan security forces, their disappearance this week only reinforces the case for our departure.
American officials are now publicly admitting what thoughtful critics, returning troops and aid workers have long understood. A country of synthetically cobbled-together, disparate, deeply traditional cultures, (each exhibiting tenacious tribal allegiances and proud of a level of corruption that would make a Tammany Hall ward boss blush) is an unlikely candidate for transformation into a 21st century exemplar of an enlightened, secular, national state, exhibiting selfless civil virtues we ourselves long ago abandoned in our drift towards an illiberal democracy.
Creating a constitutional government that unwisely centralized powers in an ethnically and geographically diverse country was a serious mistake. Touting the persistent fiction of free and fair elections only made matters worse. (Just over 1.8 million people voted in a country with a population of 39 million.) It permitted UN and other officials to validate wildly corrupt and fraudulent practices. It allowed U.S. and other military leaders to pretend the dishonest Afghan leaders were really indispensable legitimate partners for peace. Reminiscent of Vietnam was the series of “We’re making progress” lies American officials from both parties told us for years. Congressional leaders were complicit in nurturing misleading rosy scenarios.
Recent US polls confirm that nearly two-thirds of the American people want us out of Afghanistan. Polling in Afghanistan similarly showed rising hostility to U.S. and coalition presence there.
The Biden administration is wise to have brought this unwinnable war to conclusion, and the President deserves credit for accepting the flak for making the decision. But for an administration proud that “competence” is an important part of its brand, one that had months to implement a worst-case transition plan, its failure to put in place even a proper security perimeter at the airport is inexcusable.
The most shameful part of this epic screw-up is the failure to evacuate safely translators and others who served coalition forces at great personal risk and now face death at the hands of the Taliban. Most of those in need have had their Special Immigrant Visa applications snarled in red tape for months so only a trickle are getting through. And SIVs are still limited to those who have worked for the US for at least two years. Whatever happened to the P2 refugee program to help those who aided media organizations and non-profits? It seems to exist mostly on paper. Now, even people with valid visas can’t get through Taliban checkpoints. Both Congress and the Biden administration will deserve blame if and when bureaucratic snafus lead to higher body counts from reprisal killings.
President Biden, State Department and Pentagon officials insist that there have been months of contingency planning. So, one wonders if the chaos of departure was a failure of planning or of intelligence.
Thousands of American military and diplomatic personnel have served this country with distinction. We can’t reasonably expect them to spend more months, let alone decades of such sacrifices, fighting a war that the Afghans are not willing to do for themselves. This is not South Korea, where troops stationed there for seven decades still seem worth the investment.
President Biden looked strong in his presentation, a person confident in his decision to withdraw, mindful of the sacrifices Americans have already made. But how our government executed that commitment to withdrawal leaves too many questions unanswered. It will take a long time to dilute the images of the last days in Kabul, just as those of us watching the scene in 1975 in Saigon remember the horror to this day. These scenes are metaphors for repeated US failures to think through foreign policy undertakings, know why we go into other countries and how we’re going to get out.