By Dick Polman
Anyone who professes to be shocked by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has not been paying attention.
It was always bound to happen. It was merely delayed because Uncle Sam kept his trillion-dollar finger in the dike for 20 years. Were we fated to remain forever, in a land that had already proved fatally inhospitable to the British and the Russians and Alexander the Great?
The harbingers of failure had long been obvious, but most Americans, benumbed by the war, had long ago stopped paying attention. In 2019, word leaked that the U.S. officials entrusted with propping up the Afghan regime were disgusted with their proteges, saying in memos and private interviews that “after almost two decades of help from Washington, the Afghan army and police are still too weak to fend off the Taliban.”
They were weak largely because they were deeply corrupt. In the private words of Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador, “they’re useless as a security force because they are corrupt down to the patrol level.” Nevertheless, as another U.S. official admitted to government interviewers in 2015, “The less they behaved, the more money we threw at them.”
Fairly or not, President Biden will own the humiliating images of retreat – but, in reality, the Afghanistan debacle was authored by American presidents from both political parties. What we’re seeing now is a bipartisan clustermuck.
It was launched by George W. Bush, who committed us to the impossible task of nation-building. (From his 2005 Inaugural address: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture,” even though, he admitted, “our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill.”)
It was sustained by Barack Obama, who approved a troop surge in 2009 and whose military spokesmen kept saying there was light at the end of the tunnel (Gen. James Mattis to Congress in 2010: “We’re on the right track now.”).
It landed in the capacious lap of Donald Trump, who decided it was time to get out, who invited the Taliban to Camp David in 2019 (“We’re getting along very, very well with the Taliban”), and who set a May 1, 2021 withdrawal deadline for U.S. forces.
Nevertheless, Republicans are predictably hammering Biden, conveniently forgetting that antiwar sentiment has long been rampant in their own ranks. Mitt Romney, the Republican’s presidential nominee in 2012, said of Afghanistan in 2011: “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.”
As recently as last April, Trump endorsed Biden’s announced intention to withdraw the troops: “Getting out of Afghanistan is a wonderful and positive thing to do. I planned to withdraw on May 1, and we should keep as close to that schedule as possible.”
“Biden understood that the choice was between getting out or being stuck there with no end in sight, and he rightly judged that the former was better for the United States,” wrote historian and veteran conservative commentator Daniel Larison. “The fact that the Afghan government has lost so much ground so quickly proves that the U.S. failed in building a functioning state that could fend for itself… Far from showing the folly of Biden’s decision, it confirms the wisdom of it. A state as rickety and incapable of protecting itself as this one would not have been saved by delaying withdrawal a few more months or even years.”
As Biden said on Saturday, “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.”
That view also jibes with the sentiments of the most Americans. He’ll likely take a hit in the short run as the images of surrender resonate globally – although that’s akin to blaming President Gerald Ford for our chaotic final departure from Vietnam in 1975 – but the fact remains that the current withdrawal is supported by 70 percent of Americans, including 56 percent of Republicans.
What most Americans appear to understand – even while mostly tuning out the war – is that leaving Afghanistan is basically the least bad option. There’s no point in investing a few more trillion dollars and more American bodies just to keep meeting the definition of insanity, the compulsion to do the same thing over and over again in expectation of a different result. It takes wisdom and political courage to face reality.
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net.