The scenes at Kabul’s international airport are heartbreaking. Thousands of Afghans, trying to flee the grip of the Taliban, swamped the airport hoping to catch a flight out.
Some desperate Afghans even tried hanging onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 as it was taking off. Regrettably, a few Afghans dangling from the bottom of the plane eventually fell to their deaths.
The Taliban was ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition two decades ago for not handing over terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. Until last week, the Taliban was a decentralized, and often localized, insurgency.
While it could control dozens of rural districts across the country, the Taliban was unable to capture and hold even a single provincial capital in almost 20 years. Now, the group controls the whole country.
Nobody claims that, before the takeover by the Taliban in these last few days, Afghanistan was perfect. But even with all its flaws and challenges, the Taliban was never even close to taking over the whole country.
When President Joe Biden entered the White House, the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan was nothing like it was in 2001, when the U.S. invaded and ousted the Taliban. Nor was it like 2009, when President Barack Obama increased the number to more than 100,000 troops.
Instead, Biden inherited a contingent of about 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan—the majority of whom are training and mentoring the Afghan military.
The remainder were conducting counterterrorism missions, removing threats before they could mature to harm the U.S. and our interests. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan closely resembled the type of “train and advise” missions that America conducts in numerous countries around the world, like Somalia or the Philippines.
The reason why the American public viewed the mission in Afghanistan differently, however, comes down to the “end the forever wars” rhetoric that was started with President Donald Trump and continued with Biden. Considering that we now know that the alternative to keeping this small mission in Afghanistan is full Taliban control, it is clearer than ever that maintaining 2,500 troops was a reasonable and responsible approach.
While these troops were not enough to ensure total victory for the Afghans, they were enough to keep the Taliban out of power.
Nobody can argue that it is in America’s interest to have the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan—but through a mixture of incompetence, stubbornness, and aloofness, this is exactly what Biden has done. It is a sad geopolitical irony that the Taliban will actually control more of Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2021, than it did on Sept. 11, 2001.
Not only does the Taliban now control the country, it also has billions of dollars in U.S. military equipment and supplies at its disposal. A total fiasco.
No reasonable person can claim that this outcome is preferable to maintaining a few thousand troops and contractors, with very low risk of casualties and relatively low financial costs, in order to keep the Taliban out and terrorists’ heads down. This is the policy that Biden could have pursued. He did not.
America lost. The Taliban has won. The Afghan people will suffer. Many will die.
Some people are reasonably asking why the Afghan military refused to fight. After all, the Afghan military has fought gallantly in the past and suffered tens of thousands of its soldiers killed in action. But the sudden withdraw of all U.S. forces from the country was a devastating blow to its morale. In particular, the way the U.S. snuck out of Bagram Airfield in the middle of the night without telling its Afghan partners was shameful.
The withdrawal of all U.S. troops was accompanied by the removal of all the key enablers that supported the Afghan military, such as close air support, logistics, and maintenance and intelligence, and all the associated U.S. contract personnel. This was the final blow to the Afghan army.
With Americans gone, many Afghans flipped sides to the Taliban for reasons of survival. Allegiances between local Afghan tribes and warlords changed according to the direction in which the tide of success is seen to be flowing at the time. This is the peculiar Afghan way of warfare in what is a deeply tribal society. However difficult it might be for Americans sitting thousands of miles away to understand, this is the reality.
Most of my adult and professional life has had a connection to Afghanistan. As a junior U.S. Army officer, I served in Afghanistan for one year, in 2005. When I worked for the British Conservative Party, and later as a top aide to the British defense secretary, I worked on Afghan policy issues from a British point of view and made regular visits to the country. I have lost friends, colleagues, and classmates there.
I love Afghanistan: its people, its history, its food, and its very complex and different cultures. Like many veterans of the Afghan war, I have watched Biden’s abandonment of Afghanistan in a state of shock and disbelief.
But this personal and emotional attachment to Afghanistan is not why I am most saddened and disappointed by Biden’s actions. Instead, it is knowing that we are less safe as a nation, and that this whole debacle was so easily avoidable, that gets to me most.
There is one person responsible for the horrific scenes coming out of Afghanistan today: President Joe Biden. He had the power to maintain a meager number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The fall of Kabul, and the hasty, messy, and chaotic evacuation of the American Embassy, is a stain on America’s honor and prestige. The Russians, Iranians, and Chinese are gloating. Our security partners are watching and wondering. Islamist groups around the world will be emboldened like never before.
It is impossible to understand fully what the consequences will be for America, the region, and the world.
It is a dark day for America.
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