Our Afghan Disgrace
America’s chaotic withdrawal is not a success. It should not be sold as one.
By David Hamburger
In the final hours that the American flag flew over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, staff rushed to destroy sensitive material. Others burned the stars and stripes, fearing that flags would become fodder for Taliban propaganda once the militants took control of the compound. At about the same time, Antony Blinken appeared on Sunday news shows. Even as the split-screen display showed helicopters evacuating the embassy compound in Kabul, the secretary of state rejected parallels with the fall of Saigon, proclaiming that the United States had achieved its goals and was engaged in an orderly withdrawal. But the truth is that we failed even in the Biden administration’s narrow aims in Afghanistan. And we failed shamefully.
Despite the president’s stated goal of doing so, we will almost certainly not maintain a diplomatic presence in the country. Our “deliberate, orderly” withdrawal was chaotic even before the Taliban swept into Kabul. Most sickeningly, it now seems that we will look on as tens of thousands of Afghans who fought alongside NATO forces and their families, whom the president promised to protect, find their routes of escape winnowed into nonexistence.
However impossible the prospects of nation-building in Afghanistan, none of this is a success. Casting it as one adds insult to injury, willful blindness to moral failure.
And yet, the administration has stubbornly continued to disclaim responsibility for Afghanistan’s fate.
Even as regional capitals fell earlier this month, closing off access to consular services for Afghans seeking to make good on his promise of “special immigrant” visas, President Biden insisted he harbored no regrets about his decision. As late as Saturday, the president claimed that the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban meant the timeline for America’s withdrawal was all but immutable if extensive hostilities were to be avoided. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi commended the “wisdom” of the president’s statement, adding a note about the importance of including women and girls in discussions of “the future of Afghanistan.” Given reports of women being barred from coming to work in Taliban-controlled territories, and female reporters hunted by Taliban forces, Pelosi’s statement, barely 24 hours old, has already acquired a twisted air of the parodic. On Sunday, Blinken described the situation of women and girls as “searing” while expressing a hope that the Taliban would come to see that gender equality was a matter of national “self-interest.”
Nearly all repeated the argument that the choices before the president were immediate withdrawal or prolonged engagement. But it was never so stark. Every day the Taliban was deprived of Kabul was a day more the United States had, at the very least, to secure the lives of those Afghans it promised to rescue. Though the administration speaks of alternatives in terms of years of conflict, for some former allies the margin of survival is better measured in days. Each life saved would have been a debt repaid; each day the Taliban was not forestalled, whether in the name of inevitability or strategy or prudence, is now a promise broken.
We may wish to be finished with Afghanistan, but the circumstances of our departure will not release us so easily. An impending refugee crisis threatens regional stability and the capacity of our European allies, who will bear a heavy burden. On Sunday, the Pentagon reduced the expected timeline for al-Qaida’s retrenchment even as President Biden continued to argue that the United States has been successful in its aim of defeating the terror group in Afghanistan. (At the same time, Taliban forces apparently freed thousands of militants, among them al-Qaida members, from a prison on the outskirts of Kabul.) And the undermining of American standing in the eyes of both allies and competitors strains the credibility of an administration that pledged to return the United States to a position of cogency and strength in the world arena after four years of caprice and chaos.
In 2020, then-candidate Biden spoke candidly about Afghanistan with Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation.” The approach he outlined aligns with a realist worldview: America should reserve military action for threats to its national security or that of its allies, preferring to use other tools to promote human rights around the world. “There’s a thousand places we can go to deal with injustice,” Biden argued, and America cannot intervene in all of them. “Are you telling me we should go into China?” he asked Brennan before arguing that he would bear “zero responsibility” for life under the Taliban should it regain power.
But there is a difference between inaction and abandonment, just as there is a difference between realism and fatalism. It is a distinction that Biden understood when he issued a deservedly withering criticism of President Trump’s abrupt 2018 decision to abandon our Kurdish allies in Syria, a decision justified under the familiar twin refrains that we had vanquished the terrorist threat and needed to bring our troops home. It is now a distinction the administration seems intent on eliding.
Beyond the failure to recognize a special duty of care, there is another troubling aspect of the administration’s messaging: its refusal to accept moral responsibility for the predictable outcome of its own actions and its implicit negation of its own capability. As Eliot Cohen wrote in the Atlantic late last month: “To suggest, as the administration has, that the catastrophe that impends in Afghanistan is not our responsibility is factually and morally false. We have made a brutal choice, an understandable choice, but not a morally neutral choice.”
Claiming that an imperfect strategy imperfectly executed is a success makes a virtue of professing impotence and projecting it as prudence. That is not mature humility born of a realistic appraisal of what can and cannot be accomplished; it is a coddling self-exculpation cloaked in the language of realism.
If the great threat of idealism in foreign policy is overreach, the great threat of realism is the allure of rationalization. The goal of a democratic Afghanistan capable of ensuring its own stability may have been impossible, and the fall of Kabul inevitable, by the time President Biden took office. Perhaps the costs to U.S. interests will be less than projected, and the gains clearer than they seem at the moment. The Biden administration may still succeed in the necessary work of shifting American efforts toward peer competitors abroad and once-in-a-generation challenges at home. Viewed through the prism of immediate national interest, the wrenching call to draw down our presence in Afghanistan may have been the right one.
But none of that can excuse the intemperance with which the decision was carried out, nor the stubborn insistence by the administration that all has more or less gone according to plan. No level of rhetorical alchemy will transform our heedless pursuit of the least bad option into a success story. To pretend that it can adds offense to disgrace.
David Hamburger is director of operations at Persuasion.
In the past few days I have read more than a dozen articles about what happened in Afghanistan. None of them capture the real disgrace as well as David Hamburger's article. One can debate whether we had to leave or not but there is no debate that the way we left showed gross incompetence, disloyalty to allies and most grievously a lack of concern for human lives. One should have expected better from America!
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg
I understand your critique is more about the media and the Biden Administration unironically declaring a disaster a success, and America earnestly fooling itself about the collapse of the Afghanistan mission, but Afghanistan was an unequivocal disaster from the very start, and could only end one way. And so it is ending.
I am less frustrated by the dissembling of politicians (we expect them to dissemble and they unfailingly rise to meet our expectation) than the willful refusal of people who are supposed to be smart (journalists and political advisors) to read and understand history. History doesn't necessarily repeat itself (except in the current case in Afghanistan, and oh boy is it repeating itself now), but history does provide lessons and guidance on how to tackle immediate problems. All these lessons were tossed out the window when the US invaded Afghanistan, to almost universal cheering from American media and American mobs (I recall vividly the announcement over the PA as I was leaving the SCTA land speed trials in El Mirage, CA, that the US bombing of Afghanistan had begun, and the resulting applause from the participants and spectators. It was nauseating).
Afghanistan isn't called the Graveyard of Empires for nothing, and I use to boggle at right-wing friends who insisted we could only "succeed" in Afghanistan once we took the gloves off and lost our squeamishness about engagement, as if the Soviet Union ever experienced a moment of squeamishness about anything during their decade of failure in Afghanistan. Our failure lasted twice as long as theirs because, honestly, we cared less. As monstrous as the USSR was, they didn't see the point in inflicting war on themselves and Afghanistan when it was clear they could not achieve their goals there. America, on the other hand, couldn't care less about the fate of far-away poor people (or the poor Americans who fight our wars) as long as CNN was looking the other way and the defense contractors who help pay for US elections were rolling in the hay.
The blueprint for how Afghanistan was going to go, for what happens when you start a war in a poor country with no idea of how you are going to extricate yourself, is in every best-selling book about the Vietnam War: Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Max Hastings, even General McMaster. Is the fall of Kabul at all similar to the fall of Saigon? It is almost exactly like the fall of Saigon (including the fate of the local people who assisted America's foolish mission), and could have been predicted that early October weekend in 2001 when the bombs first fell. The only thing we couldn't predict was how long the US would prolong the misery.
And misery it surely was, as anyone who has read Gopal Anand's No Good Men Among the Living could tell you. But does anyone actually read anymore? Did anyone in the Bush Administration or the national media read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars or even the first Flashman book before cheerfully wading into a situation they clearly did not understand, and proceeding to reproduce just about every mistake made by Johnson, McNamara and Nixon in Vietnam?
And as we express astonishment at the speed and success of the Taliban's sweep across Afghanistan in 2021, is there no one in the media old enough to remember the Taliban's equally astonishing sweep across Afghanistan in 1996? So we enforced a 20-year interregnum in the Taliban's rule of Afghanistan, at the cost of the untold additional suffering and injustice that accompanies all wars. Aren't we proud of ourselves?
I can't get very angry about the fall of Kabul. I saw it coming 20 years ago and have used up all my anger since then. And I must confess there is something about today's media outrage that is as insincere as the Biden Administration's oh so predictable bullshit and spin. Surely sophisticated commentators saw the writing on the wall as far back as 2002.
This could only have ended one way. And so it is ending.