An Unmitigated Disaster: The pullout from Afghanistan
Over the course of only a few days, the Afghan military and national government fell to the Taliban terror group. But the Taliban’s resurgence and the government’s collapse were entirely preventable, caused entirely by bad decisions made at the top levels of American leadership.
The United States first sent troops into Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. Now, almost 20 years later, we have left. There are two large questions here: First, should the US have withdrawn its troops, and second, did we execute the withdrawal in the best possible way?
The US has sunk, in popular parlance, a lot of “blood and treasure” into Afghanistan. That can be measured at nearly a trillion dollars, 2,300 US troops killed and 20,660 Americans injured. That is a high cost, but when deciding between staying in Afghanistan and leaving, it’s critical to note two things –– timeline and benefits.
At the conflict’s peak, the US had 110,000 troops in Afghanistan. Since 2015, however, we have had only about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that was lowered to about 2,500 by 2021. Spending has been reduced to under 40 billion dollars a year, and we’ve averaged under 14 fatalities a year since 2015, including over a year without a single one. That was not a “forever war.” That was not a large US force when you consider that we have more troops in Italy, the UK, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Spain, Qatar, Japan and Germany. The war in Afghanistan was no more a “forever war” than WWII, and in recent years we had pulled back to such a small force that we could have easily sustained it in perpetuity.
But what was the return for this modest expenditure? The goal of the war in Afghanistan was rooted in 9/11 and the death of over 3,000 innocent American citizens. After the Taliban, who harbored al-Qaeda, refused to give up 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, we began combat operations. We routed the Taliban, killed bin Laden, and, as a side benefit, brought an unprecedented amount of freedom to the Afghan people. Most significantly, for 20 years there were no more 9/11s. There were no more attacks on American soil originating in Afghanistan. With our withdrawal, the risk of the next 9/11 is elevated significantly.
So the withdrawal itself was a foolhardy mission. But even many people who were interested in withdrawing are currently unhappy with the situation. For that matter, this withdrawal has been such a disaster that the number of Americans who support it dropped from 73% in April to just 45% now. What went wrong?
The short answer is everything. We pulled out our last troops before we evacuated our embassy or, for that matter, got our citizens and allies out. Now, that embassy has been taken over, and our people –– over 10,000 Americans and 85,000 Afghans –– are trapped under Taliban rule. We abandoned the larger Bagram Airport without informing our allies, and now we no longer have the airport capacity for effective evacuations. We negotiated with the Taliban, and may have paid them off, to let people get to the airport at all. Now, not only are our people at their mercy, but we only have until their Aug. 31 deadline to get the Americans out. And what about the Americans unable to get out before then? It seems at this point that we will simply abandon them, along with our Afghan allies, to the tender mercy of the Taliban, which has a track record of brutal and heartless attacks on those they consider to be enemies. In the meantime, people are passing their babies over the airport’s barbed wire fence to get them out of the country, and others are hopelessly clinging to planes as they take off, plummeting to their deaths.
This is before touching on the effect on the people of Afghanistan, including but not limited to: Taliban massacres, journalists being targeted, girls being restricted from certain jobs and schools and pictures of women being painted over. Americans, Christians and anyone who helped the previous regime have to worry about the Taliban’s door-to-door searches, the checkpoints where Taliban officials are checking papers and destroying many people’s documents, and much more.
There are only two possibilities as to what happened here: either there was a complete breakdown in the intelligence coming out of Afghanistan, or the intel was accurate and some people made terrible decisions. Reports coming out over the last few days point toward the latter.
So where did the withdrawal go wrong? Here, we arrive, finally, at the commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces, whose approval, if not leadership, created this mess: Joe Biden. His messaging about this has been confusing, even downright contradictory. Not only that, but he lied to the American people.
He described the situation in Afghanistan as an “endless war” which would add “endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.” This, as discussed above, is a completely false claim to make about the situation he inherited. He claimed he had no choice due to the deal that the Trump administration made with the Taliban, despite the fact that the Taliban violated the terms of that agreement, and that Biden has proven completely willing to get rid of many Trump deals he didn’t like. He claimed, in a ridiculous smear, that the Afghan army’s collapse proved that they were not willing to fight the Taliban, despite the fact that the Afghan army has lost over 70,000 troops over the course of this conflict, far more than the US ever did.
Furthermore, on July 8 the president assured the world that the odds of “the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” This proved to be incorrect and to conflict with many intelligence reports now being released to the public. He then claimed during an Aug. 18th interview that chaos was always going to be part of the withdrawal and that this was in fact the best it could have gone. If that’s true, not only does it raise questions about his previous briefings, but also about why he scheduled a vacation for a time of crisis. In the same interview he callously dismissed the people who had fallen from planes, saying (falsely), “that was four days ago-five days ago”. He asserted that no one was dying at the Kabul Airport (which is incorrect), that the US has no troops in Syria (incorrect) and that he wasn’t told by his own advisers to leave troops there (evidence says this is also incorrect).
This entire episode has shown the world one thing: America is a bad ally. We betrayed the Afghan army, cutting off their air support, intelligence and even contractors to maintain their vehicles, and then blamed them for their loss. We betrayed our coalition partners, leaving them under an oppressive regime with no way out. And we betrayed thousands of our own citizens, leaving them stranded in Afghanistan with no guarantee of their safety as they try to escape.
What does this mean for our geopolitics? President Biden has made the unbelievably false claim that our adversaries would like nothing more than for us to stay in Afghanistan. But all evidence suggests otherwise. It seems more likely that our adversaries –– China, Russia, North Korea, Iran –– are overjoyed in seeing a weak America unwilling to help its allies, led by a weak President unable to handle crises.
What message will Taiwan take from this? What about Hong Kong? Israel? Can they trust the United States, particularly this administration, to stand by them in their own struggles? Recent events unfortunately suggest not.
Photo caption: US Marines at a Kabul Airport evacuation checkpoint, Aug. 20, 2021
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons