The United States-backed government of Afghanistan collapsed today, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country and Taliban fighters entering the country’s capital city of Kabul after encountering scant resistance from Afghan forces.
The swift reascendance of the Taliban and the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (that’s the official name of the entity that governed those parts of Afghanistan that were under either its control, or U.S./NATO/international control for nearly two decades) has been called stunning, shocking, and unexpected, but in fact, even the swiftness of the Taliban’s victory was entirely predictable.
Administration officials, U.S. military leaders, and foreign policy “experts” who had previously estimated that Ghani’s government could hold out for a few more months ought to have known better. It has been evident to plenty of people who don’t have the benefit of access to intelligence briefings or a degree from one of the United States’ prestigious military colleges that the Taliban was on a roll and that their entry into Kabul could happen extremely quickly. The Taliban had momentum and good organization, while government forces were in disarray.
Prior to today’s recapture of Kabul by the Taliban, news about the goings-on in Afghanistan had rarely gotten above-the-fold billing in national media outlets. That has now changed, of course. COVID-19 related news has been temporarily displaced, with publications like the New York Times running headlines in all caps and CNN offering a frequently updated liveblog of developments.
But for those of us who were keeping an eye on events in Afghanistan and reading frontline journalists’ reporting, the writing was on the wall.
Provincial capitals have been falling to the Taliban for weeks. Ghani seemed to have no coherent response and no strategy for preventing further territorial losses. A rudderless government people don’t trust and aren’t willing to fight for just isn’t going to hold out for long against an opponent like the Taliban.
The notion that this could have been prevented if we’d only stayed in Afghanistan longer — which is what a bunch of Biden critics are currently implying — is utterly preposterous. We have been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades and spent enormous sums of money engaged in repeated nation-building exercises, all in the service of trying to secure a better future for Afghanistan.
There is no reason to believe that after all this time and money spent that another year or two — or even twenty — would result in a better outcome for the United States, for NATO, or for the world’s democracies.
As John Nichols tweeted today: “I have some very disappointing news for the ‘foreign policy experts’: wars never end well.”
You’ll notice above that I said “we have been in Afghanistan” as opposed to “we were”. I didn’t use the past tense because we are still there! Yes… still!
As I type this, U.S. forces are now running Hamid Karzai International Airport, and President Biden has ordered additional troops to the facility to keep it out of the Taliban’s hands… for now. Those U.S. embassy staff who have not already left the country are in a building at the airport, where they and people hoping to leave Afghanistan can enjoy the protection of U.S. troops.
Securing Hamid Karzai International Airport to protect people trying to get out of the country and prevent American diplomats from being captured or mistreated is at least a mission that’s actually appropriate for us to direct our military to take on, as opposed to continuing to try to create conditions that would enable a favorable outcome for what is fundamentally a political and sectarian conflict.
It was evident all the way back in 2001 and 2002 that the Taliban was a resilient foe that wasn’t going to be eradicated with airstrikes and troop convoys. But instead of withdrawing our forces then, we stayed. And stayed. And stayed.
Even after George W. Bush left office, we stayed.
Even after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden, we stayed.
Even after Donald Trump was put into the White House by the Electoral College, having run in part on a platform of ending foreign entanglements, we stayed.
As the clock ran out on his term, however, Trump decided to make a move. The stage for today’s events was set in motion the moment that American officials — at Donald Trump’s behest! — settled on a timetable for concluding our open-ended “mission” in Afghanistan, which, as I alluded to above, had been suffering from scope creep and a lack of a meaningful strategy or objective for years.
The Washington Post’s Susannah George explained yesterday how the simple act of settling on a timeframe for withdrawal (something interventionists didn’t want to do) caused a series of metaphorical dominoes to logically begin to fall:
The Taliban capitalized on the uncertainty caused by the February 2020 agreement reached in Doha, Qatar, between the militant group and the United States calling for a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some Afghan forces realized they would soon no longer be able to count on American air power and other crucial battlefield support and grew receptive to the Taliban’s approaches.
“Some just wanted the money,” an Afghan special forces officer said of those who first agreed to meet with the Taliban.
But others saw the U.S. commitment to a full withdrawal as an “assurance” that the militants would return to power in Afghanistan and wanted to secure their place on the winning side, he said. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he, like others in this report, was not authorized to disclose information to the press.
The Doha agreement, designed to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, instead left many Afghan forces demoralized, bringing into stark relief the corrupt impulses of many Afghan officials and their tenuous loyalty to the country’s central government.
Some police officers complained that they had not been paid in six months or more.
“They saw that document as the end,” the officer said, referring to the majority of Afghans aligned with the government. “The day the deal was signed we saw the change. Everyone was just looking out for himself. It was like [the United States] left us to fail.”
George’s story nicely documents the extent to which Ghani’s government was being propped up by our presence. It wasn’t going to succeed on its own.
President Biden inherited Trump’s departure plan (if it could even be called a plan… it certainly was not a thoughtful exit strategy) and had to decide whether to make the withdrawal happen or remain in Afghanistan, as many interventionist-hungry foreign policy “experts” demanded we do, seemingly in perpetuity.
Biden chose to implement the withdrawal.
He is being roundly criticized now for having overseen a messy departure from Afghanistan by both armchair critics as well as Republican members of Congress and reporters like The New York Times’ David Sanger, who wrote:
Mr. Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a long-brewing, humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan.
After seven months in which his administration seemed to exude much-needed competence — getting more than seventy percent of the country’s adults vaccinated, engineering surging job growth and making progress toward a bipartisan infrastructure bill — everything about America’s last days in Afghanistan shattered the imagery.
Even many of Mr. Biden’s allies who believe he made the right decision to finally exit a war that the United States could not win and that was no longer in its national interest concede he made a series of major mistakes in executing the withdrawal.
The only question is how politically damaging those will prove to be, or whether Americans who cheered at 2020 campaign rallies when both President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Biden promised to get out of Afghanistan will shrug their shoulders and say that it had to end, even if it ended badly.
I disagree with pretty much all of the above, and I think Sanger is using a bad lens with which to view these events. Given his knowledge and expertise as a national security correspondent, it would have been nice to get a discussion focused more on the implications for the Afghan people as opposed to whether the Taliban’s reascendance could be “politically damaging” for President Biden.
While we can’t know the future, I see no evidence that today’s events are going to meaningfully alter the trajectory of American politics. And Sanger doesn’t offer any. In fact, in almost the same breath, he offers an argument to the contrary.
So far, there is no sign that the fall of Kabul is riling up the American electorate.
“What I am feeling and thinking about the situation in Afghanistan, I can never fit on Twitter,” U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego, an Iraqi conflict veteran, wrote. “But one thing that is definitely sticking out is that I haven’t gotten one constituent call about it and my district has a large Veteran population.”
As for how Biden will be judged with respect to implementing the withdrawal thus far: All presidents make mistakes because all presidents are human.
Abraham Lincoln made a huge number of mistakes during the insurrection of the 1860s, in which several states tried to unlawfully secede from the Union in order to keep millions of Black people enslaved. However, Lincoln is remembered principally not for his mistakes, but for what he got right, and did well.
Lincoln is considered by all reputable historians to be one of the greatest — if not the greatest — president in American history. But, as we know, he made a lot of mistakes, including with respect to who he picked to run the Army of the Potomac (that was the main Union Army) during much of the insurrection.
In hindsight, it’s easier to see what we got wrong. That we know.
But we don’t know how President Biden will be remembered twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now, especially not when his presidency is still so young, and it is presumptuous to suggest that Biden will be remembered in any way by future generations for having “presided over a long-brewing, humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan.”
While it is admittedly common for analysts and observers to guess how some event may go down in history as it’s happening — it is a temptation that can be hard to resist — it’s useful to include a caveat or disclaimer that the guess could be entirely wrong. Such humility is unfortunately missing from Sanger’s piece.
And characterizing our intervention as an experiment!?
That’s a bewilderingly bad choice of word. If our presence in Afghanistan was ever an “experiment,” it ceased to be one a long time ago.
The truth is, there were no good options for concluding the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, and continuing it would have been indefensible, as President Biden himself noted in his lengthy statement yesterday.
When there are no good options, picking the least bad option is widely considered the most sensible thing to do, and I think that is what the President did.
We can all wish that our withdrawal had been smoother, better executed, and not so inconsiderate of the Afghans who risked so much to help us. But again, there’s no such thing as a war that ends well, and all wars are messy.
President Biden and his team can’t change the past, but they can change the future. Mistakes can be followed by recoveries. The most important thing we can do now is try to deliver for the people that we promised to help. Right now, we’re still letting our Afghan allies down. That’s inexcusable. The “whole of government response” that President Biden talked about yesterday sounds promising, but it needs to be followed up with action so it doesn’t become empty rhetoric.
We have discovered that it’s not within our power to transform Afghanistan into a democratic republic based on the same lofty principles that have guided the United States’ evolution towards a more perfect union. (We tried, even though wise people said twenty years ago it was an unachievable goal.)
But we can certainly provide those Afghans who chose to help us and understandably don’t want to live in a society ruled by the Taliban with a new home here in the United States. Yes, even during a pandemic!
If we are really a great nation, we ought to have the will and means to make this happen. So let’s get it on and salvage what we can from this bad situation.