Before looking at the endgame, we should examine the background to our involvement in both distant places.
We had no legitimate security interests in Vietnam. Our initial reason for fighting there was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s refusal to allow elections that had been agreed to in the 1954 Geneva Accords because it was apparent that Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh would win in a landslide. The next two decades were an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. and the Vietnamese.
In contrast, we have vital security interests in Afghanistan. If the Taliban resurgence reconstitutes a safe haven for al Qaeda and ISIS, from which these terrorist organizations can plan new attacks on the U.S., we will be right back where we were on September 11, 2001. And given the abysmal performance of our intelligence agencies—their inability to predict that the Afghan government and armed forces were houses of cards that would collapse at the first hint of Taliban aggression once our token military presence ended—they will be unlikely to even know that the jihadists are back in the country, much less where they are and what they might be planning.
Blame for the Afghan debacle and the inevitable human tragedy that will follow—the execution of thousands of Afghanis who worked for the U.S. military and contractors and the total subjugation of women—rests with four U.S. presidents. Joe Biden does not “own” what is happening by himself. George W. Bush quite properly went into Afghanistan in order to neutralize al Qaeda and hunt down Osama bin Laden. Bush then foolishly rejected a negotiated surrender offer from the Taliban, instead unreasonably demanding unconditional surrender. Barack Obama subsequently succeeded in killing bin Laden because he appropriately ignored Pakistan’s protestations of a violation of its sovereignty.
Both presidents, however, made three disastrous mistakes:
- Allowing the Taliban to have a safe haven in Pakistan. Whenever the Taliban came under U.S. military pressure, they slipped over the border to safety in Pakistan. The U.S. is Pakistan’s largest foreign aid donor. We provide billions in military, civilian and humanitarian assistance. What do we get in return? A country that actively aided and abetted our enemy. How we could allow that to happen is inexplicable. Bush and Obama should have gone into Pakistan with overwhelming military force to annihilate the Taliban.
- Believing that Afghanistan was a candidate for nation-building. They should have understood from 2,500 years of history that Afghanistan’s intense tribalism, forbidding topography, and unrivalled corruption make the notion of nation-building a laughable pipedream. Alexander the Great couldn’t do it. The British in the 19th century failed to do it. The Soviet Union in the 1980s was forced out of the country, defeated by the rag-tag Afghan precursors of the Taliban despite its overwhelming firepower and military technology.
- Throwing at least $88 billion at training the Afghan army. How could our presidents and their advisors have been so naive as to believe that the Afghan army would fight to defend a monumentally corrupt government that treated its soldiers with disdain and disrespect, often going months without paying them, instead diverting their pay into their own pockets. The lessons of Iraq, where an earlier ghost army vaporized when under attack because they had no stake or interest in defending a monster like Saddam Hussein and his corrupt dictatorship, were sadly never absorbed by either our leaders, their national security advisors, or our intelligence agencies.
Donald Trump’s major contribution to the Afghan mess was negotiating a disastrous deal with the Taliban. During the negotiations, he invited Taliban thugs to meet with him at Camp David on 9/11/2019, a terrible idea that his staff had to talk him out of. The “deal” had the U.S. pledge to leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 in return for…nothing. Trump followed it up with a phone call to Taliban leader and chief butcher, Mullah Barador, after which the easily duped president bragged about what a great guy the murderous mullah was and what a wonderful relationship he had developed with him. Shades of Kim Jong Un.
Don’t fault Joe Biden for pulling out of Afghanistan. All four war presidents wanted to do that. His three predecessors lacked the guts to bring it off. He also is not to blame for the bureaucratic mess that is the 13-year old Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghanis who assisted us. The State Department’s visa bureaucracy has a 90-year history of hostility to refugees. Heads should roll for this disgrace. But he is accountable for badly mismanaging the evacuation of Americans and our Afghan allies who may now pay with their lives.
When the failed Bay of Pigs invasion blew up in his face, President Kennedy immediately went on national television and said: “We intend to profit from this lesson. There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan… I'm the responsible officer of the Government…” Biden said “the buck stops with me” with respect to the pullout, then blamed everyone else for the botched evacuation.
What is also being lost amid the chaos at Kabul airport is that thousands of our Afghani helpers are nowhere near that facility and have no hope of getting there. They are in Kandahar, Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad and other cities distant from Kabul. Nothing is being done to get them out.
Some of this tragic fiasco might have been avoided if our policymakers and their congressional overseers had ever bothered to read the hundreds of reports issued over the past thirteen years by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), especially the eleven “Lessons Learned” reports that warned of what actually ensued. SIGAR’s 200 employees sounded the alarm about Afghanistan countless times. Unfortunately, no one listened.
We now need something like an Afghanistan Review Commission to determine how and why our 20-year involvement in the Afghan quagmire went so terribly wrong and how we can avoid similar disasters moving forward.
August 20, 2021