Yesterday I wrote this: “In the coming days or weeks we’re likely to see a situation in which the government only controls Kabul. If you’re in the Afghan army how hard are you going to fight in that final battle? Why fight? The question answers itself.”
As we can see this morning, not days or weeks but hours. Overnight in the United States the army and government of Afghanistan melted away and remaining authorities are in the process of turning over power to a transitional Taliban government. It’s over.
People are lining up to say that this is all on Joe Biden, that he “lost” Afghanistan, that he mismanaged or failed to manage the US withdrawal, that this is “on him.” In the calculus of US military-political culture that’s likely right. But I see it quite differently. This seems to me like the ultimate vindication of his decision.
I’ll come back to some other points on the Times but in an analysis piece out this morning they quote retired General Douglas Lute who ran the Afghanistan desk under Bush and Obama: “Under Trump, we were one tweet away from complete, precipitous withdrawal. Under Biden, it was clear to everyone who knew him, who saw him pressing for a vastly reduced force more than a decade ago, that he was determined to end U.S. military involvement. But the Pentagon believed its own narrative that we would stay forever.”
What we have seen over the last couple weeks shows decisively and irrefutably that the entire politico-military project in Afghanistan was an illusion. Lots of criticism from this or that person, look at what’s happened to everything we built, look what’s been squandered. But what you built was the Afghan state and the military. What we’re seeing here shows you built nothing. We built nothing. The Taliban haven’t so much conquered the post-2002 Afghan state as nudged it over. Asked it to step aside and it complied. There was simply nothing there.
I’ve seen lots of US vets, diplomats and military hands on Twitter over the last few days. And I can see this comes as a gut punch to so many. We’ve had a couple generations of young Americans fighting there: more than 2,300 dead, many more traumatic brain injuries, brutal effort. As I noted yesterday we have a profound obligation to protect the Afghans who worked with us and are now imperiled by that association. We can and should honor that effort and sacrifice. But that doesn’t change the picture we can see here clearly in front of us.
It’s clear that while able, operationally, to understand the limitations of the Afghan army, the US military simply bought into this facade. As Lute says above, “the Pentagon believed its own narrative that we would stay forever.”
In an exchange with David Rothkopf yesterday I saw Eli Lake, one of the most confident and reliable defenders of the wars of the Bush-Cheney era, tell Rothkopf, “This is on Biden” and then blame the situation on the exigencies of the US withdrawal. Biden “didn’t have to surprise the Afghan govt. by announcing an unconditional withdrawal at the start of the fighting season in the middle of his policy review. He could have made contingency plans. And he will not be able to hide from the judgment of history.”
It probably made most sense to leave Afghanistan in 2002 or 2003. The Taliban were roundly unpopular by the time the US military and mostly its local allies had driven them off. A critical, critical decision was made in late 2002 both to remain in Afghanistan but move it to the backburner as we launched on to our folly in Iraq. These were critical errors, though how much they actually impacted the final result seems quite uncertain to me. Nor should we forget that Barack Obama came to office in 2009 with a promise to redouble efforts in Afghanistan while disentangling the country from its continuing involvement in Iraq. That was 12 years ago, eight of which were during Obama’s presidency. There’s a lot of blame to go around.
After Biden’s inauguration, Pentagon leaders reportedly told the new President that despite his desire to withdraw, it wasn’t the right time. The Taliban had been strengthened under Trump’s feckless management of US national security policy and efforts to negotiate what amounted to a handover of the country to the Taliban. Maybe. But I doubt it. Trump’s foreign policy – to the extent one can call it that – was catastrophic. But I don’t buy efforts to put this on him.
Like I said, there’s plenty of blame to go around. And those most to blame are, I think, more guilty of self-delusion than deceit.
Now, the domestic politics are another matter entirely. Republicans are past masters at blaming Democrats when they’re called in to clean up after Republican mistakes. Americans don’t like to lose wars. That’s baked deep into American politico-military culture for a century. And in truth the same applies for most other countries. It’s hard to get much credit rightly revealing that much of the time and lives and treasure spent over 20 years went to waste. I continue to believe that the American public simply doesn’t care about Afghanistan nearly as much as military and foreign policy elites think they should or want them to.
To the extent there’s a political strategy for the President, it’s to stick to his guns. It would be a grave political mistake to begin handwringing over the fall of Kabul or second-guessing the decision. It’s done. If nothing else, Lake and his cohort are right: Biden owns the decision. He needs to combat overheated insider DC nonsense like this. Since it was the right decision he should not run away from it. It’s sad to see what it is happening, he should say. But after 20 years of support, it was time for the Afghans to stand on their own.
A month ago, Biden said this: “Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us that the current security situation only confirms that “just one more year” of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for being there indefinitely. It’s up to Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country … I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”
This is right. However ugly the denouement, Biden understood the reality of the situation better than his military advisors. He was and is more in line with US popular opinion which long ago soured on our perpetual occupation of Afghanistan. Whether they will reward him or punish him for following through on that judgment I can’t say. But the best way to ensure the former outcome is to be clear, direct: After 20 years it was up to the Afghans to decide their own future. This is a fight for Afghans, not another generation of American boys. A perpetual deployment was not in the security interests of the United States.