In the Afghanistan debacle, so many errors and so little candor

The closed entrance gate of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Aug. 15, after U.S. personnel were evacuated. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
The closed entrance gate of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Aug. 15, after U.S. personnel were evacuated. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Taliban cut through Afghan forces like butter, prompting the U.S. ambassador to decamp to the airport on Sunday, the overriding reaction among those on both sides of the debate about whether to evacuate all U.S. troops was disgust. That was the entirely reasonable reaction after 20 years of military leadership dissembling and overpromising.

“Early Sunday morning, the government-held city of Jalalabad surrendered to the militants without a shot fired, and security forces in the districts ringing Kabul simply melted away. Within hours, Taliban forces reached the Afghan capital’s four main entrances unopposed,” The Post reports. “The pace of the military collapse has stunned many American officials and other foreign observers, forcing the U.S. government to dramatically accelerate efforts to remove personnel from its Kabul embassy.” Watching the Afghan president scamper out of the country, while thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who helped us went into hiding, was simply galling. The assessment of the Afghan military’s competence was wildly wrong and failed to account for a series of deals between Afghan forces and the Taliban “offering money in exchange for government forces to hand over their weapons,” The Post says.

But the military leaders too eager to say “things are getting better” are not the only authors of this tragedy. Countless think-tank experts, military consultants and pundits tut-tutted for a decade or more that if we just sent enough troops, all would be well. Three presidents perpetuated a fruitless war, refusing to concede that whatever the merits of the 2001 invasion, nation-building had been an abject failure. (At least President Barack Obama settled on a defensible middle ground — lowering troop levels to a relatively low level with reduced risk.)

Rosa Brooks, a former State Department adviser and Defense Department counselor, observed, “For 20 years, U.S. military leaders pretended the Afghan military they were supposed to [be] building was far more capable and cohesive than they knew it to be. And US civilian leaders pretended to believe them, because it would have been too embarrassing for everyone to admit that we were screwing up and had neither the resources to fix things nor the political will.”

The same pundits who argued for our indefinite mission have the gall to argue that the dissolution of the Afghan forces was our fault. These were the troops these pundits insisted had made tremendous progress. The U.S. departure was a blow to morale, they tell us. Apparently, that progress they once touted was a mirage. The unraveling of the Afghan government only underscored the validity of President Biden’s argument that it would have made no difference if we could have remained another year or another decade.

The “end the forever wars” crowd also deserves a good deal of the blame. That line of argument suggested we could pick up and leave at any time without adverse consequences. Perhaps that was true late in 2001 when the Taliban was back on its heels. Thereafter there was no quick fix or easy escape.

"The Afghanistan Papers" author Craig Whitlock explains how presidents misled the public about the war in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. (Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

Although Biden correctly saw the past 20 years had come to naught, this administration’s implementation of our departure has been nothing short of disastrous. Insisting, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken did, that we had no choice but to follow former president Donald Trump’s deadline (extended a few months from May) insults our intelligence.

Since when are Trump policy decisions sacrosanct? The miscalculation that the Afghan government had months to survive after we left proved to be as disastrous as every other military assessment over the past 20 years. As a result, the scramble to destroy classified documents, remove our own personnel and live up to our pledge to offer refuge to those who aided us threatens to undo months of assurances that the United States is “back.” We have removed only a fraction of the population of Afghans whose lives will be endangered because of their association with the U.S. Fecklessness is the order of the day. To accomplish anything resembling an orderly evacuation, we have now have 6,000 troops in place. Perhaps we should have started the evacuation of Afghans with that contingent already on the ground.

The entire debacle is swathed in ludicrous bureaucratic obfuscation (we are not evacuating, just “reducing our footprint”) and cringeworthy “warnings” to the Taliban that they’ll be international pariahs if they continue to act precisely as they have for decades. One can imagine the Taliban’s representatives utterly nonplussed by the notion that they should be motivated by their reputation in the “international community.”

Biden deserves both credit and blame. He was the first president to refuse to accept Pentagon spin that the war was “winnable” and that the Afghan forces were shaping up to be a reliable force. However, the decision to fast-forward to complete evacuation without adequate planning and a full appreciation of the results (based largely on a poor assessment of the Afghan military’s resilience) will be a blot on Biden’s record. He had a poor hand but played it terribly.

Whether the end of our involvement in Afghanistan will have long-term impact on U.S. national security and adverse political consequences for Biden in large part depends on whether al-Qaeda will reconstitute itself and threaten the United States and its allies.

Promises of “over the horizon” intelligence and military capacity to prevent that from happening should be taken with a boulder of salt. If we could not grasp developments in Afghanistan when we had troops on the ground, it is difficult to argue that we will be able to peer into Afghanistan from afar. The real test of Biden’s decision will be whether terrorists with a capability to project power outside Afghanistan take root.

Every president inherits his predecessor’s mistakes, but if one is to widely depart from the status quo (e.g., pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, yank troops from Afghanistan), the commander in chief better darn well be sure he is not making matters worse. In that respect, both Biden and his predecessor engaged in rash, politically driven decisions that left the United States worse off than the situation they inherited.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

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