How to Lose a War in the Graveyard of Empires
First gradually, then suddenly
On Nov. 2, 2001, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, one of the world’s most influential columnists, wrote, “A month into the war in Afghanistan, the hand-wringing has already begun over how long this might last. Let’s all take a deep breath and repeat after me: Give war a chance.”
We gave war a chance for 20 years. Nearly 2,500 U.S. servicemembers and some 170,000 Afghans died. And then everything went to shit overnight.
Actually, it only looked like everything went to shit overnight. The reality is more like that Hemingway line about the two ways you go bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Let’s not mince words: Joe Biden owns the suddenly. The chaotic withdrawal was a failure of planning, intelligence, policy, imagination, whatever you want to call it. Biden set the U.S.’s end-of-August withdrawal deadline in April. The White House knew the Taliban was advancing. It knew the Afghan government was weak. It knew it had tens of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies to evacuate and a huge visa backlog to work through.
Events happened faster than anticipated, but that doesn’t excuse the scenes outside the Kabul airport, the reports of Americans being beaten by the Taliban as they tried to escape, the betrayal of those abandoned to the new regime.
Nor does it excuse Biden’s apparent foot-dragging on flying out Afghans because he worried about the optics—in other words, that conservatives would fearmonger about refugees and terrorism and the immigration. (They are; it just shouldn’t matter.)
Biden claims there was no way to stage a non-chaotic withdrawal, and some of his defenders argue that an overly hawkish media has lost perspective. On CNN this weekend, former George W. Bush strategist-turned-critic Matthew Dowd called the coverage “way over the top,” pointing out that the White House has so far evacuated at least 30,000 people without losing an American life. (By Tuesday, that number had risen above 70,000.)
Perhaps, but this nonetheless represents a stain on Biden’s presidency. What went wrong will be dissected and debated for years. But something did, and on Biden’s watch—and many Afghans will suffer for it. (Polling suggests Biden is paying, too.)
As much as Biden’s critics want failure to be an orphan, however, there’s more than enough blame to go around. The gradually piece was a bipartisan, multi-decade, multi-trillion-dollar misadventure doomed almost from the start.
America went into Afghanistan full of hubris and bravado, high on post-9/11 moral superiority and looking to kick Jihadi ass for the Red, White, and Blue. But after failing to capture Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the Bush administration pivoted to more politically convenient ass-kicking in Iraq while Afghanistan turned into the perpetual, no-win slog of “nation-building.”
As Dowd told CNN: “The original sin of the problem we’re seeing unfolding and everything that’s happened in 20 years is at [Bush’s] doorstep.”
The original sin, yes. But he wasn’t the only sinner.
Soon after taking office, President Obama—who, having opposed Iraq, decided Afghanistan was the “good” war—ordered a “surge” of troops to halt Afghanistan’s deterioration. His administration spent $6 billion a year to equip and train the Afghan military, but—despite public pronouncements to the contrary—its forces could never stand on their own. Yet in late 2014, Obama declared the war over, though nearly 11,000 American troops remained.
But the wheels of the Taliban’s victory were set in motion by Donald Trump, whose secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, signed an agreement in February 2020 that amounted to little more than capitulation. Trump agreed to remove U.S. troops by May 1, 2021—Biden delayed it by several months—and arrange for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. In exchange, the Taliban promised to negotiate with the Afghan government—not give up its military campaign or agree to power-sharing—and refrain from terrorism.
Unsurprisingly, the agreement “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,” The Washington Post reported.
After Trump pulled out all but 2,500 troops, the Taliban made its move, striking deals with Afghan officials in rural areas, then provincial capitals, and finally culminating in the negotiated surrender of Afghan forces earlier this month. And while Trump and Pompeo now insist they would have gotten Americans and Afghan allies out safely, the Trump administration is largely responsible for the Afghan visa backlog that has bedeviled Biden’s State Department.
So it’s not without justification that Biden blames Trump for hooking him to a bad deal. But Biden didn’t leave merely because his hands were tied. He got out because he wanted out. He’s believed the U.S. should leave since he was Obama’s VP.
For 20 years, presidents have studiously avoided being The Guy Who Lost Afghanistan and worried about opposing a media groupthink that views U.S. military occupation as an objective good. For better or worse, Biden ripped off the Band-Aid.
It’s not unreasonable to question whether withdrawal was the right decision. After all, a relatively small commitment (about 10,000 troops) and minimal sacrifice (63 deaths since 2017) had kept the Taliban at bay; maintaining it might have preserved Afghanistan’s liberalization, especially for women and girls.
Of course, that commitment would have required reversing Trump’s withdrawals and reneging on his deal with the Taliban, which likely would have ignited a new round of intense fighting. It would also have to be indefinite, come in support of a thoroughly corrupt government, and face opposition from more than two-thirds of Americans.
There were no good options. There haven’t been since we strode into the graveyard of empires—an unconquerable country that turned back the British Empire and the Soviet Union—determined to win an unwinnable war.
This was a quagmire of our own making. And before we lost it suddenly, we’d lost it gradually.