Writing about recent events is always hazardous. It can be difficult to establish precisely what has happened and why. There is also a lack of clarity about the relative significance of events.
Americans don’t yet know where the collapse of Afghanistan ranks in the list of American military and foreign policy disasters such as the debacle in Iraq, the fall of Saigon, the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion in Cuba, and the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
But three points are surely certain, first, the shambolic exit from Afghanistan is a major setback that will undermine U.S. credibility for years to come. As Henry Kissinger said, “To be an enemy of the US is dangerous, to be a friend is fatal”.
Second, Afghanistan fell because America forgot the lessons of history. It does not understand the world beyond its borders, which is very different than the U.S.
Finally, given how the atrocious implementation of the pullout. of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was, Joe Biden will have to wait a bit before he receives his Nobel Peace Prize. Another black eye for the U.S.
There will be lots of talk in the coming days about the harsh lessons to be learned from America’s retreat from Afghanistan. In April, Biden announced the U.S. would withdraw our military from the country without conditions on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. What an awful historical irony that the Taliban will once again be in control on Sept. 11.
Looking back, there are some indisputable facts about what went wrong in Afghanistan, and responsibility is certainly divisible by more than one president.
On Oct. 7, 2001, the first of these presidents, George W. Bush, launched Operation Enduring Freedom—the invasion of Afghanistan. The operation sought to bring the architects of 9/11 to justice and reduce the threat of terrorism. Then the Afghan mission, which often lacked strategic clarity, morphed from counter insurgency to counter-narcotics and then into capacity building to remake Afghanistan as an award-winning liberal democracy.
The result is a painful lesson of what can happen when immense military might is put in the hands of politicians and their minions who lack the understanding to employ it properly. Equally culpable are politicized American military leaders who consistently lied about the strength of the Afghan security forces.
The result is that the Taliban, a UN-designated terrorist group, defeated the world’s greatest military power. Another self-inflicted blow to America’s reputation that will complicate Biden administration goals to check China’s rise by building coalitions in the Asia Pacific.
According to the Costs of War project at Brown University, the U.S. has spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan since 9/11. That’s $300 million per day for two decades.
And the human costs are even greater. There have been 2,448 service members killed and over 21,000 American soldiers injured in action, along with 3,846 contractors killed. That pales beside the estimated 66,000 Afghan national military and police and over 47,000 Afghan civilians who were killed.
And because the U.S. borrowed most of the money to pay for the war, generations of Americans will be burdened by the cost of paying for it. The Costs of War researchers estimate that by 2050, interest payments alone on the Afghan war debt could reach $6.5 trillion. That amounts to $20,000 for each and every U.S. citizen.
You do not need to support a continued presence in that arid, stone-age country to recognize that things have gone badly. The execution of the U.S. withdrawal has been disastrous, deadly, and humiliating, handing power back to the Taliban in a matter of days. The dramatic unravelling of the situation in Afghanistan puts President Biden’s reputation for foreign policy expertise at risk.
It is worth bearing in mind what former Bush and Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his memoirs: Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”.
But not to worry, this is not your father’s Taliban. They are smarter and tougher.