America’s longest war is coming to an abrupt and messy end with images of helicopters over Kabul looking startling like the fall of Saigon when North Vietnamese forces took South Vietnam’s capital in 1975 and overstuffed choppers hurriedly carried away the last of U.S. diplomatic, military and civilian personnel. Nothing symbolizes a superpower’s hubris and impotency quite like leaving what was once a field of combat with tail between legs live on global television broadcasts. Making matters worse, President Joe Biden spoke to this very possibility in July, telling reporters that there were “zero” parallels between the fall of Saigon and what was supposed to be an orderly drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Yet there were the helicopters circling the U.S. embassy, smoking billowing as sensitive documents were burned. The Afghan government fell. Taliban fighters occupied the presidential palace.
It did not take long for the long knives to come out nearly 7,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., as Republicans sought to pin the blame for this humiliation entirely on President Biden while he and others in the administration saw it as chiefly inherited. The reality surely lies somewhere in between. Yes to GOP leaders who pointed out that the president’s date-certain approach to pulling out troops was an invitation to trouble. But yes also to President Biden who in a speech Monday afternoon reminded Americans that Afghan leaders fled the country and its military seemed wholly uninterested in putting up a fight. A decision was made that the United States had spilled enough blood and money in Afghanistan in a mission that had evolved from seeking justice for the 9/11 attacks, which U.S. forces did, to nation building, a role the U.S. military has failed before.
We do not seek to minimize President Biden’s part in this tragic denouement but efforts to lay it entirely at the feet of his seven months in office are preposterous on their face. To hear former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tell it, one would believe that the Trump administration’s 2020 deal with the Taliban to greatly reduce the U.S. military presence had no bearing whatsoever on these events. Yet it was the Trump administration’s focus on troop withdrawal and ending “forever wars” — perhaps on top of miscalculations that the Afghan government and its military were prepared to stand on their own — that set President Biden up for failure. The only difference is whether the collapse happened now or later, over the course of days or perhaps months.
What Americans know for certain is that more than 3,000 of their countrymen died and more than $1 trillion was spent in that distant country in the name of protecting the United States and making the world a better place. If the return of the Taliban means a return of al-Qaida or some equivalent terrorism organization that takes renewed aim at Western targets then today’s recriminations will pale in comparison to those to come. al-Qaida terrorism attacks of recent years have been small in scale and mostly directed at targets in the Middle East. As it stands, the war in Afghanistan can’t be regarded as a complete failure given the fate of Osama bin Laden and other 9/11 plotters. The effort to lead that country toward a more economically and politically stable ally of the West? That appears to be the disaster.
In time, the U.S. will need to study the mistakes of these two decades in Afghanistan to better inform military and foreign policy choices in the future. Given how Congress was unable to assemble a bipartisan commission to review the events of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, we hold out little hope that politicians will produce a meaningful review. It may take some time to get past the current finger-pointing but perhaps the ultimate lesson will be about the limits of military power. Yet wasn’t that the lesson of Vietnam? Simply arming, advising and fighting on behalf of an ineffective and corrupt government does not provide sustainable benefit. A dysfunctional government is still a dysfunctional government. After that, the only choice is to, as critics of the Vietnam War so often pointed out, either bomb your enemy to the Stone Age or cut your losses and run. And so unheeded history repeats itself.
One way or the other, it is difficult not to feel deeply discouraged about these events. A lot of Maryland families made terrible sacrifices for this war. Many continue to do so. To see the brutal Taliban rise again, to know what it means for women in that country or specifically for those individuals who assisted U.S. military as noncombatants but were not evacuated in time, that will raise the inevitable question: Was it all worth it? Those who claim to be certain of the answer perhaps aren’t paying close enough attention.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.