A tragedy on all fronts

American hubris, Afghan corruption contributed to the country’s stunning, but not entirely surprising, downfall — and now ordinary Afghans will pay the price.

President Joe Biden. Former President Donald Trump. The U.S. military. (Former) Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Afghanistan’s rapacious warlords, commanders and bureaucrats. Those are just some of the actors to the blame for the Taliban’s takeover of the country. Perhaps the only ones blameless are the Afghans who risked their lives for us or who prospered after our invasion but are now sitting ducks, either for slaughter or repressive Islamist rule.

It’s of course easy to point fingers in hindsight, and there is no one narrative that defines a country, or conflict, as complex as Afghanistan.

But some clear, devastating revelations have emerged about what went wrong, both over the last 20 years and in the last few days. And while the lightning speed with which the Taliban reclaimed the country stunned everyone, it was, in many ways, fated to happen.

Afghan Special Operation Kandak commandos conduct small arms barrier firing drills in Kunduz province on Jan. 13, 2018. Despite years of training and billions of dollars, the Afghan army failed to prevent the Taliban from taking over the country. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sean Carnes)

Vietnam Déjà Vu

The ease with which the Taliban strode into Kabul on Aug. 14 while the president fled and the U.S. military scrambled to evacuate embassy personnel was a damning indictment of just how much America’s experiment to remake Afghanistan failed.

That Sunday, amid the frantic evacuation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken went on the morning talk shows and declared that the fall of Kabul was nothing like the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War.

It was a laughable denial, even by diplomatic standards, as television screens blasted images of American Chinook helicopters flying over the U.S. embassy compound — smoke bellowing in the air as diplomats hurried to destroy documents. Meanwhile, Kabul’s airport was overrun with desperate Afghans trying to flee. That produced what is sure to be an iconic image of an Afghan who sneaked inside the wheel well of a departing U.S. military cargo jet and fell to his death.

Despite the chaos and suffering, President Biden has remained steadfast in his determination to exit Afghanistan ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

In remarks on Aug. 15, he doubled down in the face of intense criticism, saying that while the scenes at the airport were “gut-wrenching,” he stood “squarely behind his decision.”

“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country; the Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” Biden said. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”

His remarks echoed an earlier statement:

“Over our country’s 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in US history. One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.”

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Biden understands the sunk cost fallacy that permeates U.S. military thinking — i.e., because we’ve already invested so much blood and treasure, we can’t squander it all by leaving.

If only we had a little more time…

But Biden is right that five years, or even five months, would not have changed the outcome. As four presidents have discovered, there is no easy way out of America’s longest war, which has claimed the lives of 2,400 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Afghans.

While he pledged not to burden his successor with an unwinnable war, Biden was less charitable to his predecessor, pointing out that he inherited a deal cut with the Taliban by former President Trump, who set a withdrawal deadline and even invited the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of 9/11. (Fortunately, Trump’s advisors talked him out of that cockamamie photo-op.)

The next day, though, Biden at least backtracked and did what Trump could never do: Declare that the buck stops with him and admit that events caught him off guard.

Yet it’s no secret that Trump shares some of the blame. His peace negotiations in Doha were a rushed sideshow whose purpose was to provide cover for a president intent on exiting Afghanistan one way or another. The Taliban gladly played along while planning for their military victory.

Fox News is now calling Biden heartless for giving up on Afghanistan. When Trump did it, they called him heroic.

To be fair, not all Republicans are hypocritically singling Biden out for criticism. Some such as Sen. Lindsey Graham have slammed both Trump and Biden for pulling out of Afghanistan. Others have blasted Biden not for the withdrawal itself, but for how it was executed — which was anything but the “orderly” departure Biden promised.

Yet I doubt Trump would’ve done a better job considering his entire presidency was the exact opposite of orderly.

And let’s not forget that the former president had years to facilitate an orderly process for granting special immigrant visas (SIVs) to Afghan interpreters and other locals who worked for us — but he ever did. (In fact, Iraqi interpreters are still languishing in bureaucratic limbo in part because of Trump’s tightened immigration policies).

A History of Abandoning Allies

But the buck does stop with Biden, especially when it comes to the thousands of Afghans who risked their lives for us and now face possible death because the U.S. couldn’t get them out in time.

That falls squarely on Biden — as do the intelligence failures that led to the botched evacuation. Biden is known for maintaining a disciplined team, but some of them will have to go, including possibly national security advisor Jake Sullivan.

While it’s true the White House made a concerted effort to speed up the SIV approval process, it was still woefully inadequate. As of mid-July, only about 2,000 Afghans had been evacuated — out of at least 80,000 applicants and their families.

On Aug. 17, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the government is aiming to evacuate 22,000 “at-risk” Afghans to U.S. bases in the coming weeks.

That’s a good start, but where was that sense of urgency when Biden announced a withdrawal date months ago?

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, arrives at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 17, 2021. Despite an intense effort to evacuate Americans and Afghans in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 14, nearly 80,000 Afghans and their families remain in bureaucratic limbo — and danger. (U.S. Navy photo by Capt. William Urban)

Yes, State Department officials struggled with mountains of red tape, especially because the pandemic suspended in-person interviews, but ultimately that’s no excuse. If leaders really want something done, they find a way to get it done.

The abandonment of our allies will leave an indelible stain on both the Trump and Biden administrations. Of all the what-ifs of the Afghan war, this is the most shameful. And not only is it morally reprehensible, it’s also strategically stupid.

Who will want to risk their lives now to help us in the future, knowing we’ll simply abandon them in the end?

We did it in Vietnam. We did it in Iraq. The Taliban itself emerged from the ashes of Russia’s failed intervention of Afghanistan in the 1990s after they resisted the Soviet occupation with covert CIA backing — only to see that support dry up as soon as the Soviets retreated.

I can only imagine how much history professors want to bang their heads against a wall watching politicians and military leaders blithely ignore the lessons of the past.

The other common thread among all these military quagmires is hubris.

Hubris led to former President George W. Bush’s fateful decision to divert resources from Afghanistan and launch a second war in Iraq.

Hubris has led many Americans to assume that our military, because of its sheer superiority, has the right to invade countries when it suits us and the power to remake them overnight.

And hubris led to the lack of planning to evacuate Afghans as U.S. intelligence and military officials consistently underestimated the Taliban — while overestimating the Afghan army.

Underestimating the Enemy

For years, U.S. officials referred to the Taliban as a ragtag band of militants, refusing to give them any credit for how shrewd and persistent they could be.

As Susannah George of The Washington Post reported, the Taliban capitalized on the uncertainty engendered by the pending U.S. withdrawal to cut deals with low-level officials (and some commanders) in rural villages under the guise of ceasefires, when in fact they were offering money in exchange for the government forces’ weapons.

This explains why so many police and soldiers laid down their arms as the Taliban took province after province.

Now that their takeover is complete, Taliban leaders are trying to revamp their image. They’ve ordered fighters not to gloat, loot or target enemies. They’ve even offered “amnesty” to all Afghans and urged women to join their new government (as fully covered props I imagine).

By projecting this “Sharia lite” version of their harsh Islamic rule, the Taliban no doubt hope the world will offer them legitimacy (and aid) while looking away when they invariably inflict retribution on the Afghan people.

But while many Afghans, especially women, are justifiably terrified of the Taliban’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, not everyone is that worried.

This gets to another dynamic the U.S. underestimated: the support the Taliban enjoyed, particularly outside of Kabul.

Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary told the BBC Global News podcast that between fear and uncertainty, “there have been rays of hope” and “what everyone wants is to have a normal life, a peaceful life, perhaps not very developed, but just something people can go to restaurants, go to hospitals, schools and not getting killed.”

“What we have to remember is that one of the most prevalent features of the last 20 years was that everywhere was a frontline,” he said.

Of course, those frontlines were drawn by Taliban fighters who perpetuated the violence.

But in our autopsy of what went wrong, we have to concede that the Taliban are part of Afghan society, which is why they were able to blend in and out so easily. Many Afghans are far more ideologically close to the Taliban than to foreign invaders whose culture never meshed with their own.

It’s cliché but Afghanistan is (even more so now) a graveyard of empires. Afghans take great pride in warding off invaders, and many respected the Taliban’s resistance.

It was both naïve and arrogant to think we’d succeed where so many others had failed and transform a poor, tribal society into a Western-style democracy — or build an army from scratch that mirrors the world’s most sophisticated military.

Perhaps the one government entity that took off the rose-colored glasses is SIGAR (the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction). Its oversight reports were one of the rare reality checks throughout the war.

And its latest “lessons learned” report is essential reading. Among its findings:

  • “U.S. officials prioritized their own political preferences for what Afghanistan’s reconstruction should look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve.”

  • “The U.S. government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly.”

  • “U.S. officials rarely had even a mediocre understanding of the Afghan environment.”

The latter crippled military training, which experts such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates now agree should’ve been more narrowly focused on helping Afghans fight a guerilla insurgency.

Obviously trying to build the DoD in Kabul made no sense, but everything seems obvious in hindsight. There’s no guarantee that switching up our training would’ve made a difference. The Taliban, after all, are excellent guerilla fighters, employing the type of tactics that the Viet Cong used to beat a superpower.

And like the Viet Cong, the Taliban had an inherent advantage over Americans: patience.

One expression made famous by a Taliban commander encapsulates the American dilemma: “You have all the clocks but we have all the time.”

This ability to wait out the Americans was perhaps the most powerful weapon in the Taliban’s arsenal — along with the U.S. tendency to repeat history.

Overestimating Our Erstwhile Allies

The Pentagon Papers turned the tide of the Vietnam War and exposed an enduring truism of the U.S. military: Its leaders are addicted to obfuscation and unwarranted optimism.

Afghanistan proves the Pentagon hasn’t kicked the habit.

The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers offers a searing portrait of how military brass painted an overly rosy picture of the Afghan army to sustain the support of the American public, while portraying that same army as a mess to secure money for training (vowing that would make them ready to take over security so Americans could leave).

“In fact, according to documents obtained for the forthcoming Washington Post book “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” U.S. military officials privately harbored fundamental doubts for the duration of the war that the Afghan security forces could ever become competent or shed their dependency on U.S. money and firepower,” The Post’s Craig Whitlock recently wrote.

Snippets about the true state of the Afghan army are sobering.

One retired U.S. officer who spoke to The Post “estimated that only 2 to 5 percent of Afghan recruits could read at a third-grade level despite efforts by the United States to enroll millions of Afghan children in school over the previous decade.”

Whitlock also writes that the Obama administration’s push to rapidly expand the army and police had the effect of sacrificing quality for quantity.

Regardless, as experts have pointed out for years, the rosters were a fraction of the official 300,000 figure that the U.S. still keeps touting — a number inflated by “ghost soldiers” put on the payroll by Afghan commanders to steal U.S.-funded salaries.

It’s this type of corruption that bred frustration and fatalism among the rank-and-file, who often complained of not being paid for months. Some on the frontlines even reportedly ran out of food and ammo.

Soldiers were demoralized, desertions were common, and yet U.S. military commanders kept insisting Afghans had the will to win the war.

Biden was not immune to this hyperbole. Just last month, he praised the Afghan army for being “as well-equipped as any in the world” and said a Taliban takeover was not inevitable.

Shortly after the Taliban did take over, Biden said: “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

Afghans Not a Monolith

Pinning the blame entirely on Afghans, though, is an insult to the 60,000 Afghan troops and police officers killed since 2001.

We also have to recognize that at some point, self-preservation kicks in. When Trump announced America’s pending departure, many Afghans realized their government would crumble without U.S. support and decided that siding with the Taliban was the safer bet.

We can judge these Afghans for not fighting back, but we also need to ask ourselves how courageous we would be if given the choice between life and death, especially against an enemy who has no qualms executing innocent people.

That’s not to say all Afghans are innocent victims. Plenty have been complicit in their country’s downfall because of their own opportunism.

Corruption has always been endemic in Afghanistan, but it exploded as the U.S. kept throwing billions of dollars at the country to stand up its institutions.

From the lowly police officer demanding a checkpoint bribe to the high-ranking official taking contract kickbacks, graft become woven into daily Afghan life, eroding loyalty to the government.

Author Carter Malkasian, who served as a civilian advisor in Helmand, theorizes that greed is why “numerically superior and better-supplied soldiers and police were being defeated by poorly resourced and unexceptionally led Taliban.”

U.S.-backed soldiers were fighting for money, whereas the Taliban were fighting “for belief, for janat (heaven) and ghazi (killing infidels),” he wrote in a July 6 essay for POLITICO. As one Taliban religious scholar told Malkasian: “The Taliban are willing to lose their head to fight.… How can the army and police compete?”

Ironically, of all the officials who kept his hands relatively clean and genuinely believed in the Afghan experiment was the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani. A seasoned technocrat, Ghani was highly intelligent, but by most accounts, he was also arrogant and unable to form the kind of alliances needed to survive in politics.

Ghani hightailed it out the country when the Taliban entered Kabul, cementing many Afghans’ belief that the government wasn’t worth fighting, let alone dying, for.

Cold-Hearted, or Clear-Eyed?

If Afghans won’t fight for their country, Biden argues that Americans shouldn’t either.

The Beltway consensus is that America’s retreat will embolden our adversaries, who’ll pounce on our weakness. But Biden is correct in pointing out that our adversaries — from China and Russia to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — would like nothing more than to bog us down in wars and bleed us dry.

The foreign policy establishment also believes Biden’s reputation will be tarnished for turning his back on Afghanistan, but polls and past experience suggest otherwise.

Ignore the daily drip-drip of sagging poll numbers. They’re no indication of support a year from now.

Biden is betting that voters — fatigued by endless Mideast entanglements — will agree that Afghanistan is not worth any more American sacrifices.

It’s a cold calculation for a man widely known for his compassion, but it’s important to remember where Biden’s sympathies lie. Like Trump, Biden has always believed that American national interests should come first. But unlike Trump, who used the military as his political prop, Biden had a son who served in the Iraq War, so he knows what it’s like to be a parent worrying about a child fighting abroad.

“Already we have members of our military whose parents fought in Afghanistan 20 years ago,” Biden said in a White House speech last month. “Would you send their children and their grandchildren as well? Would you send your own son or daughter?”

For years, Biden’s been consistent that it’s not America’s place to save the world.

That’s why some conservatives are being ridiculous now in claiming that Biden, diminished by age, is somehow being manipulated by advisors to leave Afghanistan.

As POLITICO Playbook noted on Aug. 16: “In all of our reporting about Biden’s presidential style, the evidence is stronger that he’s a micro-manager…. On the Afghanistan pullout, he overruled his top military advisers and ignored the near-unanimous view of the Washington foreign policy establishment.”

It was a viewpoint he embraced as far back as 2009, when President Obama was debating whether to surge troops into Afghanistan.

Obama did, and it didn’t work.

Will Trump and Biden’s approach work? Who knows.

That’s really the only consistent truth about Afghanistan: We have no idea what to do about it.

No Easy Way Out — or Easy Answers

All we know is that as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the Taliban are firmly back in power and we’re back to the same dilemma we faced before the attacks: Do we isolate the Taliban again? Or do we work with them to ensure that al-Qaeda doesn’t gain a foothold again?

The intelligence community has finally admitted that al-Qaeda could reconstitute itself fairly quickly, and if another 9/11 happens under his watch, Biden’s legacy will be ruined. So odds are he’ll take a pragmatic approach and engage the Taliban, even if they return to their medieval ways.

And sadly, they probably will. Activists, journalists and Afghans who supported the U.S. will be killed. Women will return to a life of isolation and fear. Hard-fought gains will be reversed.

The first female police officers to attend the General Commando of Special Police Units’ Female Foundation Course listen to remarks during their graduation ceremony at the Special Police Training Center in Kabul on April 5, 2018. Now that the Taliban have retaken Afghanistan, women and girls will likely have to return to being confined to their homes under the group’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. (U.S. Army photo by Austin T. Boucher)

Watching the calamity unfold must be anguishing for the U.S. troops who served in Afghanistan. I have no doubt the military genuinely wanted to help the Afghan people. And it’s not that Americans, including Biden, don’t care about the plight of Afghans who were given a taste of freedom, only to have it snatched away.

But it doesn’t answer the fundamental question: What can we do about it?

The experts, of course, are awash with suggestions, most of which are recycled from the same tired playbook.

More humanitarian assistance? We flooded the country with it. Withholding assistance from the Taliban? They survived for years without it. Regional dialogue? Sure, because we haven’t done enough talking. Work with partners to contain the security threat? Novel concept. Exerting more diplomatic pressure and getting other countries to help? What in the world do you think we’ve been doing for decades?

Some have even floated the idea of sending international peacekeepers — as if the Taliban would just fling the doors open for them.

Perhaps the U.S. could’ve maintained a residual counter-terrorism force to at least preserve Kabul and give negotiators more leverage, but the Taliban would’ve eventually fought their way in or waited us out. Economic carrots might work, although the Taliban may be able to get those elsewhere with less strings attached. A swift military strike at the first sign of a terrorist threat developing on Afghan soil might curtail the Taliban’s cooperation with al-Qaeda, or push it underground.

I just don’t know if there’s anything we could’ve realistically done to avoid the tragedy we’re seeing play out.

What I do know is that Biden still has the power to at least minimize some of the suffering by evacuating the tens of thousands of Afghans whose loyalty could now cost them their lives. It won’t be easy because many are spread out across the country, but it’s doable — and it’s the least we can do.

As Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), an Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, said during a recent briefing: “Send in the combat power and the troops that are necessary to secure that airport and keep it open as long as we possibly can. We have the means. We have the ability. We are the United States of America.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine Corps veteran, put it more succinctly. “Cut the bureaucratic BS. Put people on planes, land them at bases and deal with the paperwork later.”

And I’ll say it: If the Taliban try to stop us, shoot them. This is one area where American bravado is warranted. The Taliban are on the verge of getting everything they’ve wanted. If we make it clear that we’ll get out of their way, but not before we evacuate a certain amount of people — and we’re willing to fight to get them out — they’ll step aside so they can finally be rid of us.

Biden has said troops will remain in Afghanistan past Aug. 31 to get all Americans out. Good. They should remain even longer to get our allies out as well.

Republicans and Democrats have found common cause in evacuating Afghans — because it’s a no-brainer. A group of bipartisan lawmakers Congress have also suggested streamlining the visa process to get vulnerable Afghan women and girls out.

That, too, won’t be easy, but it can be done if the willpower is there.

Biden has cited a lack of willpower among Afghans as his reason for leaving. Now, we have to hope he has the willpower to stay long enough so we don’t leave our friends behind.

We can also only hope that as the military evacuates people from Afghanistan, it remembers this moment when it’s debating whether to invade the next Afghanistan — and that it chooses humility over hubris.