August 15, 2021

Who Lost Afghanistan?

Surely the question of who lost Afghanistan is destined to be an oft-asked question. There will be a lot of blame to go around, but the question of what could have been done is at least as interesting. In truth, Afghanistan lacks a compelling national identity and, if history is any guide, is virtually ungovernable. Perhaps the Taliban can return Afghanistan to the seventh century; no one seems capable of taking it to the twenty-first.

Republicans will be quick to blame President Biden for what appears to be the coming total defeat. Democrats will, I hope, point out that it was the Trump administration that negotiated the U.S. withdrawal while getting virtually no concessions from the Taliban in return. In fact, under Mr. Biden, the U.S. is leaving later than when the last administration agreed to do so. But the president was unwilling to try to pull a rabbit out of what was clearly an empty hat.

There is no doubt that most Americans wanted the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan and terminate the war that has seemed interminable. There is no evidence that extending the war another year or another five years or another ten years would have resulted in a stable, modern, democratic Afghanistan. Long before now, the futility of pouring resources into that benighted Asian country became apparent.

A succession of American presidents believed (or pretended to believe) that, at the very least, we could build an Afghan military capable of defending its country. But we have clearly failed at that task. We experienced a similar failure in Vietnam, which should perhaps have tempered our expectations. Frankly, I do not know how to build a modern, competent fighting force in a backward country with a corrupt government. It may be impossible.

Our adventure in Afghanistan began rationally enough but quickly took a wrong turn. The original objective was to eliminate terrorist training camps and to capture Osama Bin Laden. Obliterating training facilities was easy. Capturing the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was more difficult, particularly as President Bush decided to open a totally unjustified second front against Iraq, a move that diverted both resources and attention. Bin Laden slipped away, thereby sending the message that one could attack the United States and get away with it. We then made the fatal mistake of trying to replace the Taliban government with a democratic one. The bootless task of nation-building, a task our presidents were loath to admit, was begun. Clearly, that task has failed.

The adventure begun under President Bush continued under Presidents Obama and Trump. Donald Trump essentially negotiated an American withdrawal absent any concern for its consequences. That decision was inherited by President Biden, who seemed to have a fatalistic (though surely realistic) view of the end of our Afghan involvement.

President Biden could not reasonably have avoided defeat short of committing us to a forever war. He deserves credit for acknowledging the inevitable. He must accept blame, however, for a chaotic departure from Afghanistan that has failed to extract our Afghan allies who may face elimination under a Taliban regime. As of this writing, it is not even clear that we can safely extract our diplomats and American civilians from harm’s way.

The Taliban has pledged to offer a different kind of governance than it practiced when last it was in power. One can hope that it does so, but such an eventuality seems unlikely. All we can do now is pray for Afghanistan and its people.

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