The scenes were depressingly reminiscent of April 1975 when Saigon fell. American transport helicopters flew above a city descending into chaos as the enemy invaded, largely unopposed. Terrified nationals feared death from insurgents drunk with the excitement of victory. Smoke rose from the American embassy as documents and computers were burned.
It looked like Vietnam 2.0, a repeat of the embarrassing defeat for a country that once bragged that it had never lost a war. It looked like Vietnam because, in large measure, our assessment of what would happen when U.S. troops left was wrong. Depending on your perspective, the U.S. should never have left or should have figured out a way to evacuate without suffering humiliation, embarrassment and, more importantly, the loss of nationals who had aided in the now-abandoned U.S. mission.
The Kabul evacuation will be complete in a week or so, if not sooner. What will persist is something else that will take us back to the 1970s—self-doubt, finger pointing, and political accountability. All those things in the 1970s, arguably made the U.S. stronger. Our national arrogance was blunted, and those responsible for expanding the war and lying about it were held accountable. Will the 2020s be similar?
Since President Biden’s announcement in May that he would withdraw all troops by September 11, many observers have suggested that the timetable was unrealistic. Reports also suggest that when the President accelerated the timetable, he did so against the advice of senior military advisors. That report appears to be accurate and, with time, will likely be verified.
So, is the story of the end of the 20-year war the story of a presidential mistake? It’s not that simple. Although, with the benefit of hindsight, Biden appears to have miscalculated the logistics of the evacuation, it is less clear that he deserves to be blamed for the whole debacle. Biden’s two predecessors, after all, also called for an end to American military involvement in the country, concluding, as Biden did, that the human and financial cost no longer justified staying.
Biden’s decision appears to reflect the need to move on from a war that, some would argue, was impossible to “win” from the day it started. History tells us that foreign invasions of Afghanistan have always failed. Ironically, America had the example of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan that began Christmas Eve 1979 and lasted a decade. The engagement was a disaster for the Soviets, who lost more than 15,000 soldiers.
In announcing the August 31 target for completing withdrawal, Biden offered his rationale:
After 20 years — a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded, and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health — I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.
This rationale appears sound. I have yet to hear anyone present a credible alternative course of action. Republicans suggest the evacuation was “botched” and premature, but we haven’t heard how staying longer in Afghanistan would result in a complete defeat of the Taliban. As Biden explained on August 14:
One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.
We now know that another year, or five years, of engagement in Afghanistan would not have changed the outcome. In this sense, Biden was right to decide to withdraw.
The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and that government’s ultimate defeat are now history. Who deserves the most blame? Biden? Trump, who negotiated a “settlement” with the Taliban that strengthened their position in the country and pledged a complete U.S. withdrawal by May 2021; Obama, who kicked the can down the road; or George W. Bush, who started the war without thinking about how it would end?
The embarrassment America suffered this week will be less painful than the future that appears likely for many Afghan citizens. That future includes death and torture for Afghans who supported the U.S. mission and will now suffer retaliation. Inevitably, many will not make it successfully out of the country.
Then there is the question of what type of regime will govern the country. Fears are rampant that girls and women will be banned from education and stripped of most civil liberties. A medieval system of justice may also return. Another final fear is that Afghanistan will become a haven and operating base for terrorism against the U.S. and western civilization.
The worst of the Afghanistan story may be yet to come.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and occasionally goldendoodles.