In the Graveyard of Empires

Tues., Aug. 17: The lights go out in Kabul, and everyone wants someone to blame


1. In the Graveyard of Empires

I wrote recently about how good leadership requires a willingness to be wrong. I was discussing Governor Ron DeSantis’s handling of the COVID outbreak in Florida. But over the weekend, as I watched the Taliban overrun Kabul, I wondered if that same principle doesn’t apply to Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Do the shifting circumstances on the ground call for a reevaluation of our plans?

I don’t have a good answer.

I’m not an Afghanistan expert. But I know that no power—not Alexander the Great, not the Soviet Union, not the United States—has brought the country to heel. And in retrospect, it’s obvious that the U.S.’s mission was doomed the moment it switched from destroying Al Qaeda to establishing a Western liberal democracy—i.e., “nation-building.”

The government the U.S. propped up was thoroughly corrupt. As The New York Times reported in 2015:

Over the past few years, faith in the government and the warlords who were allied with the government, never strong, has rapidly diminished. Militias and Afghan Local Police forces installed by the American Special Forces were largely unaccountable. They extorted protection money from farmers, and committed rapes and robberies. But because they had guns and the backing of local strongmen close to the government, people’s complaints were ignored.

The Obama administration spent $6 billion a year to equip and train an Afghan military, but—despite public pronouncements to the contrary—it was clear long ago that Afghan forces wouldn’t be able to beat back the Taliban without active U.S. support. After the Trump administration made a deal to withdraw American troops—which included releasing thousands of Taliban prisoners—the Taliban made its move:

The spectacular collapse of Afghanistan’s military that allowed Taliban fighters to walk into the Afghan capital Sunday despite 20 years of training and billions of dollars in American aid began with a series of deals brokered in rural villages between the militant group and some of the Afghan government’s lowest-ranking officials. …

Over the next year and a half, the meetings advanced to the district level and then rapidly on to provincial capitals, culminating in a breathtaking series of negotiated surrenders by government forces, according to interviews with more than a dozen Afghan officers, police, special operations troops and other soldiers. …

The Taliban capitalized on the uncertainty caused by the February 2020 agreement reached in Doha, Qatar, between the militant group and the United States calling for a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some Afghan forces realized they would soon no longer be able to count on American air power and other crucial battlefield support and grew receptive to the Taliban’s approaches. (WaPo)

Read the Doha agreement here

The Doha agreement, the Post continues, “left many Afghan forces demoralized, bringing into stark relief the corrupt impulses of many Afghan officials and their tenuous loyalty to the country’s central government.”

Here’s a good Twitter thread for those who want the bullet points.

The Taliban picked up the pace when Joe Biden plans to remove the last 2,500 troops by the end of August. And over the last week, Afghan forces melted like butter on hot pavement, catching U.S. officials flatfooted.

Just five weeks ago, Biden confidently asserted that there would be no pictures of Saigon-in-’75 images of helicopters fleeing a fallen embassy. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan,” he said on July 8.

He added, in words he’d no doubt love to take back, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

And yet:

The image of desperate people falling off of an escaping plane may be worse:

As The NYT’s David Sanger writes, Biden’s team gravely miscalculated.

Even many of Mr. Biden’s allies who believe he made the right decision to finally exit a war that the United States could not win and that was no longer in its national interest concede he made a series of major mistakes in executing the withdrawal. …

Yet having decided in April to set the Sept. 11 anniversary as the date for the final American withdrawal, he and his aides failed to get the interpreters and others who helped American forces out of the country fast enough, and they were mired in immigration paperwork. There was no reliable mechanism in place for contractors to keep the Afghan Air Force flying as Americans packed up. The plan Mr. Biden talked about in late June to create what he called an “over-the-horizon capability” to bolster the Afghan forces in case Kabul was threatened was only half-baked before those Afghan forces collapsed.

By their own account, Mr. Biden’s aides thought they had the luxury of time, maybe 18 months or so, because of intelligence assessments that wildly overestimated the capabilities of an Afghan Army that disintegrated, often before shots were even fired. On July 8, the same day he said there was no need to worry about an imminent Taliban takeover, Mr. Biden said that “relative to the training and capacity” of the Afghan security forces, the Taliban are “not even close in terms of their capacity.” He now knows that what they lacked in capacity, they made up for in strategy, determination and drive.

Let’s not mince words: Biden failed. This is a categorical, unequivocal foreign policy failure. It’s a military failure (no one will say that aloud), it’s an intelligence failure, and it’s a political failure.

A lot of Afghans—women especially—will pay a terrible price.

With the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan after two decades, millions of Afghan girls and women are fearful, wondering what lies ahead. They had banked on a future with their fates tied to those of the United States and its NATO allies, but now those ties have been suddenly severed. The international community is looking away just as these women are looking for a lifeline.

Of course, failure is an orphan, and so the same Republicans who lined up behind Trump’s withdrawal policy—and, in many cases, George W. Bush’s forever wars—were quick to distance themselves from the stink.

As recently as last month, Trump had credited himself for “all the troops coming home.”

On Saturday, however, he tried to rewrite history:

  • “Had our 2020 Presidential election not been rigged and if I were now president, the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal. I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable. It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that much better than anyone.”

The Republican National Committee likewise removed a page from its website touting Trump’s “historic” deal with the Taliban.

Republicans lined up to take shots at Biden, some cheaper than others.

  • Trump, Sunday: “It is time for Joe Biden to resign in disgrace for what he has allowed to happen to Afghanistan, along with the tremendous surge in COVID, the Border catastrophe, the destruction of energy independence, and our crippled economy. … It shouldn’t be a big deal, because he wasn’t elected legitimately in the first place.”

  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Sunday: “This is in the context of the Biden administration that has basically abandoned the global stage in favor of climate change. They’ve been focused on critical race theory while the embassy is at risk.” (Pompeo negotiated the deal under which the U.S. is now withdrawing.)

  • Mitch McConnell called it a “shameful failure of American leadership.”

  • Sen. Rick Scott, the Florida Republican who heads the Republican Senate campaign committee, suggested—via a “serious question”—that Biden should be removed through the 25th Amendment. (Scott, who oversaw what was then the largest health care fraud in American history, twice voted against removing Donald Trump from office following his impeachments.)

  • U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew—a former New Jersey Democrat who switched parties ahead of the 2020 election—called for the resignation of not just Biden, but Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the “Senate president,” who is also Kamala Harris.

  • Sen. Thom Tillis: “I’ve been hearing from a number of veterans who served in Afghanistan. Some are angry, others are despondent. Our troops did everything we asked them to do and more. They served with honor, duty, and purpose. They need to know we will never forget their service and sacrifice. The catastrophe we are witnessing today is a failure of our political leadership, not our men and women in uniform.”

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham: “It is only a matter of time until al-Qaeda reemerges in Afghanistan and presents a threat to the American homeland and western world. President Biden seems oblivious to the terrorist threats that will come from a Taliban-run Afghanistan.”

  • U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas: “This is an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. This will be a stain on Biden’s presidency, and I think he is going to have blood on his hands for what they did.”

This is a stain on Biden’s presidency. But there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Begin in late 2001, when the Bush administration rejected a Taliban offer to negotiate with the U.S.-endorsed Hamid Karzai government, then diverted its attention to Iraq, a more appealing target. Continue with the Obama administration, which declared the Afghanistan war over, though nearly 11,000 troops remained.

Obama promised to withdraw the rest of the troops by the end of 2016, coinciding with the end of his term in office, save for a residual force at the U.S. Embassy. …

Yet the president faced countervailing pressures to stay put from the Pentagon and hawks in Congress. Obama had tried a similar staged approach to end the war in Iraq, where the U.S. military ceased combat operations in 2010 and exited entirely a year later. But those moves soon backfired.

In the absence of U.S. troops, the Islamic State—an al-Qaeda offshoot—swept through the country and seized several major cities as the U.S.-trained Iraqi army put up scant resistance.

Obama wanted to avoid the same fate in Afghanistan, but he needed to buy more time for U.S. forces to build up the shaky Afghan army so it would not collapse like the Iraqi forces had. He also wanted to create leverage for the government in Kabul to persuade the Taliban to negotiate an end to the conflict.

To make it all work, Obama conjured up an illusion. He and his administration unveiled a messaging campaign to make Americans think that U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would stay out of the fight, with duties that relegated them to the sidelines.

Trump put in motion a deal that empowered the Taliban and destabilized Afghan security forces. (Trump also invited the Taliban to a 9/11 hang at Camp David.) Trump wanted Americans out by May 1, 2021. Biden extended the deadline to August, but he made no bones about his intentions. After two decades, 70% of Americans said they wanted the troops out, and he was going to give them what they wanted.

Then, after 20 years and $2 trillion, the Afghan government collapsed faster than anyone—or, at least, anyone in the Biden administration—imagined.

Biden blames Trump for hooking him to a bad deal, which is true and not. The Taliban wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain, so Biden had every ground to renege. He got out because he wanted to get out; he’s believed we should leave Afghanistan since he was Obama’s VP. The conditions on the ground would have always provided an excuse to stay longer if he wanted one.

We’ve known for years that our exit would lead to a Taliban takeover. No previous president wanted the political risk of ripping off the Band-Aid. For better or worse, Biden took it.

As Biden frames it, the alternative was staying indefinitely. In the Washington Post, neocon Max Boot makes the case for doing just that:

“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,” Biden insisted. That’s only true if it was inevitable that the U.S. military would pull out. But U.S. forces are still present in far larger numbers in countries such as Germany, Japan and South Korea after more than 70 years. There was nothing foreordained about the withdrawal of 2,500 U.S. advisers in Afghanistan. Indeed, the United States is maintaining a similar-size mission in Iraq with almost no controversy.

Many argued that a mere 2,500 U.S. troops could make no difference. The history of the past few months repudiates this view: The final Taliban offensive began only when the U.S. troop pullout was nearly complete. For 20 years, U.S.-trained Afghan forces have gotten used to operating with the support of U.S. airpower, intelligence, advisers and other enablers. Their precipitous withdrawal beginning in April—at the start of the Afghan fighting season—led to a predictable unraveling of Afghan forces. Even some who support the withdrawal concede that Biden’s execution of it has been an “unmitigated disaster.”

Boot undersells the role of the Afghan government in the debacle. President Ghani refused to compromise and inflamed ethnic tensions, which made the Taliban’s rise easier. But Boot’s overall point isn’t without merit.

The U.S. has about 35,000 troops in Germany, 14 times more than the force we had in Afghanistan. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 20 years, but we’ve been in Germany for more than 75, including 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell.

While 2,448 American troops have died in the Afghanistan war—along with 3,846 U.S. contractors, at least 66,000 Afghan police and security officials, 51,191 Taliban and opposition fighters, and 47,245 Afghan civilians—it’s been more than four years since an American was killed in action.

On our end, that’s a relatively small commitment. But is it worth holding off the Taliban? Would it matter that we’d have to make the commitment indefinitely?

If our indefinite presence could keep the Taliban out of power, would that alone justify our perpetual intervention? What if it fueled the country’s civil war, which has already claimed 165,000 Afghan lives?

I don’t know the answers to those questions.

America went into Afghanistan full of hubris and bravado, looking to kick Jihadi ass for the Red, White, and Blue. When the ass-kicking turned into a slog, presidents tried to not be the Guy Who Lost Afghanistan, which meant deferring to generals who were always another year and $100 billion from Mission Accomplished.

Biden is willing to lose. Whether he’s brave or stupid, history will decide.

History will also argue over who lost Afghanistan, or whether it was lost from the moment we went in. In the meantime, our intellectual energy is better spent grappling with the limits of American power than on a partisan poo-slinging contest. (Don’t worry. I’m not that naive.)

In the short term, Biden will take a political hit, though I’m not sure how sticky it will be. He’ll probably need to put a head on a pike before long, if only as a tacit admission that he screwed up. And he’ll damn sure need to get the next part right.

Our immediate concern is evacuating everyone the U.S. has placed in the Taliban’s crosshairs: not just American citizens but also journalists, rights leaders, women who offended their new overlords’ totalitarian sensibilities, girls who will be forced to marry Taliban leaders, LGBTQ people, anyone who worked with the U.S. military or the deposed government. Whoever wants to leave, really.

Pack them in a plane. Get them out. Deal with the paperwork later.

  • Canada has vowed to take in 20,000 refugees.

  • If the U.S. won’t at least quadruple that, we should hang our heads in shame. (If those crying crocodile tears today about Biden abandoning our allies don’t welcome Afghan refugees with open arms tomorrow, that tells you everything you need to know about their sincerity.)

  • We broke it. We bought it.

  • See this thread, from a Georgia state representative.

What the world can do for those left behind over years to come is a subject for another day. Again, there are few good choices.

In the graveyard of empires, that’s a recurring theme.