Is Antony Blinken right that there was no middle ground in Afghanistan?

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a briefing at the State Department on Aug. 2. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a briefing at the State Department on Aug. 2. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), among those who wrongly believed Afghan forces were moving toward self-sufficiency over the past 20 years, acknowledged on Sunday: “Look, I think absolutely President Biden bears responsibility for making this decision. But there is no question that President Trump, his administration, Secretary Pompeo, they also bear very significant responsibility for this,” she said on ABC News’s “This Week.” She added, “President Trump told us that the Taliban was going to fight terror. Secretary Pompeo told us that the Taliban was going to renounce al-Qaeda. None of that has happened.” If anything, such blather convinced the Taliban we were fools and that waiting us out while buying off Afghan forces was bound to pay off.

Watching the Afghan army dissolve as its president flees the country should convince even the most optimistic pundits that Afghanistan was not “fixable.” Whether the intelligence community failed to relay facts to the military and civilian leaders or whether three presidents chose to hear only what they liked, any progress in helping to set up a viable national government and military was illusory.

Among the most important remaining questions is whether a small residual force of a few thousand could have maintained the status quo — neither allowing Afghanistan to fall into chaos nor committing hundreds of thousands of troops with high casualty rates. Cheney argued that “with air power, working with the Afghans, we were able to keep the Taliban at bay. We were able to prevent the Taliban from establishing safe havens with 2,500 to 3,500 troops on the ground.” If accurate, the decision to sprint for the exits is both militarily and morally indefensible.

But was this the case? Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted on NBC News’s “Meet The Press”:

During the time from when the agreement was reached to May 1st, the Taliban had stopped attacking our forces, stopped attacking NATO forces. It had not sought to take over the country, the entire country, by going at these major provincial capitals. Come May 2nd, if the president had decided to stay, all gloves would’ve been off. We would’ve been back at war with the Taliban attacking our forces. The offensive you’ve seen throughout the country almost certainly would’ve proceeded. We would’ve had about 2,500 forces in country, with air power. That would not have been sufficient to deal with the situation.

Given that the intelligence community and military got just about everything wrong for 20 years, it is hard to tell what would have happened. Would 6,000 troops (our new head count) and a functional Afghan army have kept the peace with little risk to U.S. forces? Would we really have been compelled to send tens of thousands of Americans back into Afghanistan? That seems to be the most critical question — and one that remains very much open. Blinken might be entirely correct. Judging from the swiftness of the Taliban’s advance and the total unwillingness to fight among Afghan troops (albeit without U.S. support on the ground), the real choice may well have been between zero troops and full-scale war.

There was one way we might have known whether Blinken or Cheney had it right: Biden could have dispensed with the fiction we were bound by Trump’s irresponsible deadline. Without setting a new date for complete evacuation, we could have declared our military campaign was over, just as the Korean War ended with the 1953 armistice. The Korean conflict ended, yet more than 28,000 forces remain there today. No one argues that the Korean War is still going on, but our presence is an insurance policy against a resumption of hostilities. It is a tripwire, so to speak.

Certainly, Afghanistan is not South Korea. Nor is it Germany, where we have about 35,000 troops. The fundamental flaw at the heart of this tragedy is that Afghanistan does not appear to be a viable nation state, let alone a viable democratic nation state. But it seems we had an obligation to at least test the hypothesis that we could have maintained a small force at little cost. Sometimes the least worst alternative is all we can do.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

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