Why We Failed: The American Exit From Afghanistan

H.R. McMaster, Nikki Haley, Justin Amash, Elliot Ackerman, Thomas Joscelyn, Eli Lake and Jacob Siegel weigh in.

While the leader of the free world hunkers down at Camp David and his top spokeswoman is “out of office,” many of us are left wondering what to make of the horrific images coming out of Afghanistan.

In lieu of an explanation from President Biden, I asked some of the most thoughtful people I could think of to answer the question: What are we to make of what just happened? What is the meaning of it for Afghanistan, for America and for the world?

Some served in Afghanistan. Others made policy decisions that shaped the war. Still others have been bearing witness to it — and helping the rest of us make sense of it — for two decades.

Some believe the collapse was inevitable, even as they acknowledge the tragedy. Others believe it was avoidable and that, as Gen. H.R. McMaster puts it below, “it will be years before the stain of 2021 can be effaced.” — BW


Blame Our Incompetent Leaders. Especially Our Generals.

By Thomas Joscelyn

America should never fight a war like the one in Afghanistan ever again. From the very beginning, America’s military brass and political leaders were ambivalent about the conflict. Their incompetence has now culminated in a Taliban victory.

There is plenty of blame to go around.

Blame President Bill Clinton. His administration didn’t take Al Qaeda seriously. Clinton and his advisers passed up multiple opportunities to target Osama bin Laden. The Al Qaeda threat manifested on Clinton’s watch, leading to 9/11 and, ultimately, the war in Afghanistan.   

Blame President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. In 2001, they had the opportunity to deliver a death blow to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But instead of committing the forces necessary to hunt down bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others, they hesitated. The U.S. relied on local warlords and other actors, some of whom were duplicitous. Bin Laden and Zawahiri finagled their way out of the remote Tora Bora Mountains. Al Qaeda regrouped in the years that followed.

Blame Barack Obama. Obama decided it was in our “vital national interest” to help the Afghans build the “capacity” to defend their country on their own. In December 2009, he committed forces at their peak, more than 100,000 of them   to accomplish the task. More Americans were killed in Afghanistan during Obama’s war than in any other period of this debacle. But Obama wasn’t fighting to win. His surge in forces came with an expiration date of just 18 months and then he chased a fanciful peace deal with the Taliban. To his credit, Obama ordered the raid that killed bin Laden. But Al Qaeda lived, despite Obama’s attempts to declare the group dead.

Blame Donald Trump. His instinct was to bring the soldiers home. Instead, he agreed to a small increase in America’s footprint, claiming that the U.S. was fighting for “victory.” He didn’t mean it. 

Blame Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who portrayed the Taliban as America’s counterterrorism partner, saying the group had agreed to “work alongside of us to destroy” Al Qaeda. Trump repeated Pompeo’s claim, saying the Taliban “will be killing terrorists for us.” This is nonsense. The Taliban’s men are terrorists and there’s no evidence they’ve broken with Al Qaeda. 

Blame the generals. It is true that they were asked to fight a war that was undermined by America’s erratic political leadership. But no general ever stood up to say: No. We cannot prosecute an unwinnable war. 

Since 2018, the U.S. military has been invested in the State Department’s delusional peace process with the Taliban, repeatedly claiming that there was no “military solution” to the conflict. But this was always a lie. 

As the Taliban takes control of Kabul, Americans can see for themselves that the jihadists had a “military solution” in mind all along. The Taliban and Al Qaeda were never ambivalent about their jihad. They were fighting to win.

In the end, President Joseph Biden wasn’t ambivalent about the war either. He was willing to watch the jihadists resurrect the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. And so they have. 

Thomas Jocelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a senior editor at The Long War Journal


Liberty Cannot Be Imposed Through Force

By Justin Amash

The U.S. nation-building project in Afghanistan was doomed to fail. Twenty years of war and occupation. Untold casualties. Two trillion dollars, including nearly $100 billion to train and equip the Afghan security forces. For years, U.S. military commanders touted those forces as the mainstay of a free and safe Afghanistan; the Taliban routed them in a week.

For millions of people in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s ascension is a catastrophe and a tragedy. But there’s abundant evidence we’d have seen largely the same outcome had U.S. forces left Afghanistan 15 years ago or remained for another 15.

That’s not to absolve the Biden administration of its part in this disaster. The administration failed to appropriately arrange for the evacuation of troops, civilians, and our Afghan partners. President Biden was naïve or reckless as he shrugged off the capabilities of the Taliban and assured Americans of an orderly withdrawal.

But Biden also looks to make good on his pledge to leave Afghanistan, despite the political risks. The sudden and total collapse of Afghan forces confirms the rightness of his decision as a policy matter, even as he pays the price politically. If after billions of dollars and 20 years of preparation, Afghan forces are unable to stand on their own feet without continuous U.S. support, then it was never going to work out.

If there’s one constant in politics, it’s that people in power will perpetuate lies to protect themselves from accountability. Our political leaders have long recognized the futility of U.S. efforts to reshape Afghanistan, but the more lives lost, the more money funneled into the conflict, the more they sought to conceal the truth from the public.

Hubris bolstered the status quo: If they could hold out a bit longer, they might defy the inevitable. Politicians justified the extended mission on grounds of humanitarianism and denying terrorists a safe haven. But if those are legitimate rationales for U.S. occupation, then there are dozens of countries we must invade. And while U.S. troop casualties are down, U.S. strikes in Afghanistan reached record numbers in recent years, devastating the population.

We don’t know what will happen to Afghanistan in the years to come, but we do know that liberty and peace cannot be imposed through force. The people of Afghanistan must shape their own future, and we must accept the uncertainty that comes from living in a world we cannot control.

From 2011 until 2021, Justin Amash represented Michigan as a member of Congress. He was the highest-ranking Libertarian Party officeholder in the country. 


The White House Transforms Stalemate Into Catastrophe

By Eli Lake

To those cheering the ending of an endless war, this was all inevitable. Afghanistan, they remind us, is the graveyard of empires. It was always hubris to think America could tame such a wild and perilous land.

Don’t believe it. A better way to think of America’s humiliating defeat in its longest war is that President Joe Biden, and President Donald Trump before him, enabled a catastrophe to end a stalemate.

Let’s just stipulate the fair criticisms of the 20-year war for Afghanistan. Its leaders and warlords are corrupt. Its military is weak, despite billions of dollars of U.S. investment and 2,448 U.S. soldiers lost. In most of the country, the culture is hostile to anything resembling liberalism. Many of America’s allies in the country were fiends.

All true. Yet the status quo of two weeks ago was far better than what is coming. 

Consider a few recent headlines. In Shir Khan Bandar, a port city on the border with Tajikistan, an order went out instructing local imams to provide a list of unmarried women and widows, beginning at age 15, so they can be “married” off to Taliban commanders. In Kandahar province, Taliban fighters tortured and then murdered a popular comic named Nazar Mohammad. When asked Sunday whether the Taliban would return to meting out medieval punishments like amputation and stoning, a spokesman for the terror group said it would be up to the Islamic courts.

That’s a tragedy, say those Americans who applaud war’s ending. But why, they ask, should another American die so Afghan girls can go to school? This misses the price paid in American honor.

As a candidate in 2020, Biden made a similar mistake. He was asked on Face the Nation whether or not he would bear some responsibility for the treatment of Afghan women if the Taliban seized control of the country after he as president ordered a withdrawal. “No I do not,” he said. “Are you telling me we should go to war with China because of what they are doing to a million Uighurs out in the west in concentration camps, is that what you’re saying to me? . . . I bear zero responsibility.”

This is morally illiterate. The question is not whether America should prevent an atrocity in a country where it is not fighting. It is whether America should keep a few thousand forces in a country that have prevented the atrocities that are now unfolding. 

Bill Clinton’s decision not to intervene in Rwanda and Barack Obama’s decision to call off strikes in Syria at the last minute were shameful. But they were failures to respond to a horror not of America’s making. Biden’s decision is resulting in a horror which he had no intention of preventing.

In this respect, Biden’s closest parallel is Donald Trump. When Trump announced by tweet that he was ending U.S. support for the Kurdish fighters that helped destroy the ISIS caliphate, it forced them to side with our adversaries in Russia and Iran, as our ostensible ally, Turkey, invaded the Kurdish regions with jihadist militias. But Trump only betrayed a brave militia. Biden has betrayed an entire country.  

Was it worth it? Now, America is humiliated by the same fascist gang that hosted al Qaeda before 9/11. That gang will almost certainly offer a safe haven for jihadists with revenge on their minds. Women who dreamed of a 21st century life will be forced back into the 8th. Allies that count on America to protect them from China, Russia or Iran will now think twice if that protection will come in their hour of need. All to bring a few thousand forces home from a war fought to a stalemate. Shame.

Eli Lake is a columnist for Bloomberg and a fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas, Austin.


The Stain of 2021

By H.R. McMaster

We heard that it was past time to “end the endless wars.” But wars do not end when one party disengages and the enemy is waging an endless jihad. 

We heard that we had accomplished nothing in Afghanistan. But then we watched as the Afghan people, especially women, overnight lost the freedoms they secured over two decades with the support of the United States and our partners.

We heard that the Taliban had changed, that it would share power, that it would be more benign this time. Then we we watched as the Taliban forced “marriages” with 15-year-old girls as cover for rape and gunned down civil servants in public squares.

We heard that the Taliban was distinct from and different from Al Qaeda. But anyone with eyes could see that those groups are intertwined and the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is as much a victory for Al Qaeda and other jihadists as it is for the Taliban.

We heard politicians enjoin “the international community” to express disappointment in the Taliban’s behavior. But the idea that these enemies of humanity are concerned about chiding tweets or disapproving speeches in American and European capitals is ludicrous.

We hear that Afghan forces should have fought harder, that they rolled over, that they lacked will. But tens of thousands of Afghans made the ultimate sacrifice and the psychological blow delivered through America’s sudden retreat fell harder than even the physical blows that the Taliban delivered.

We heard, again and again, that there was no military solution to the war in Afghanistan. But the Taliban clearly had one in mind.

We hear that the consequences of this lost war can be managed. But self-defeat based in incompetence and lack of will should be cause for grave concern.

There is much more suffering and violence ahead. It will be years before the stain of 2021 can be effaced.

H.R. McMaster retired from the United States Army after 34 years. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and is the author of “Battlegrounds” and “Dereliction of Duty.”


American Hubris and Mendacity

By Jacob Siegel

The fall of Afghanistan is tragic but entirely unavoidable. American officials could claim for years that the country was progressing toward a day of independence but only by preventing that day from coming.

It didn’t have to be this way. By 2004, the American-led war had achieved a partial but significant victory against both Al Qaeda, the international terrorist group that attacked the U.S. in September 2001, and the Taliban, the Islamist government of Afghanistan that harbored them. But rather than leverage that victory into peace, the Bush administration decided to stay and invent a new Afghanistan. 

In 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected president after being hand picked by the U.S. Karzai’s rule was subsidized by CIA agents handing him tens of millions of dollars in cash in suitcases and shopping bags. Karzai, who later said this  “ghost-money” was “nothing unusual,” won re-election in 2009 “after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes,” according to The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers. In 2013, an anonymous American official told the Associated Press that “the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.” 

Extrapolate the Karzai fix over 20 years and you’ll have a sense of why average Afghans were not keen to stand and fight against the better organized and far more motivated Taliban. However capable isolated Afghan military units might be, at the national level it was a paper army that existed to satisfy American, not Afghan, priorities. Cut the cord of U.S. funding and military power, and it simply stops playing.

In 2012, I spent six months in Western Afghanistan as a U.S. army officer. While the war had long since ceased to serve any vital national security interest, it became clear why we were there: it provided lucrative opportunities for the defense industry and a relatively safe means of career advancement for senior U.S. officials and military officers. To justify this state of affairs, they denigrated the notion of military victory as unsophisticated and obsolete. The fact that America was no longer fighting the war to win was no reason to end it, they insisted. But of course that is the best reason, since a war fought for any purpose other than a commonly recognized standard of victory, tends to become a malleable instrument to serve the people leading it.  

John Sopko, who headed the Congressional watchdog group on the war, cites two causes of the U.S. failure in Afghanistan. One is the “hubris, that we can somehow take the country that was desolate in 2001, and turn it into a little Norway.” The other is the “mendacity” of U.S. military and civilian leaders who misled the American public by exaggerating meager accomplishments and holding out the promise that, finally, we were “ready to turn the corner." 

When it comes to the nation’s longest war, the Biden administration, amazingly, has been steadfast and weak. Ending a war that long ago stopped protecting vital American interests took real resolve. But Biden did so while on a retreat in Camp David, where he’s spent days avoiding questions from reporters while Afghanistan explodes. Meanwhile, Jen Psaki is on vacation.

Despite knowing for months that this day was coming, military planners could not manage to keep many millions of dollars in U.S. equipment from immediately falling into the Taliban’s hands. They failed to arrange safe passage for American personnel now stranded in Afghanistan. Worst of all are the pathetic public attempts to bribe the Taliban by promising future payments to the group only if they refrain from attacking the U.S. embassy. Once again, as happened with ISIS in Iraq, the U.S. has armed its enemy.

Jacob Siegel is a senior writer at Tablet magazine. He co-hosts Manifesto! a Podcast with the novelist Phil Klay. Siegel served with the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2006-2007 and Afghanistan in 2012. 


The Price of Joe Biden’s Failure

By Nikki Haley

I will never forget the day my husband Michael deployed to Afghanistan as a Major in the South Carolina Army National Guard: January 10, 2013. It was tough for our family to watch him go. But we knew that he, like so many Americans, was doing his duty and protecting our country.

Now I’ll never forget August 15, 2021: the day Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Just a month ago, President Biden assured us it was “highly unlikely” this would happen. America is now begging the Taliban to let us remove our embassy personnel. It’s a humiliating sight.

We went to Afghanistan in 2001 for one reason: To destroy the Taliban government that protected the terrorists that came for us. Over the two decades that followed, we maintained a small yet capable military presence in Afghanistan. By this past January, we had just 2,500 troops there. That’s fewer soldiers than we have in about a dozen other countries today and our presence kept the Taliban in check.

In April, President Biden announced we would withdraw the remainder of our forces without any pre-conditions on Taliban conduct. No one should have been surprised at what’s happened since and everyone should be honest about what will happen next: The Taliban will enslave the Afghan people once again.

There are many barbaric regimes in the world. It is not America’s duty to police them.  Afghanistan, however, is different. Twenty years ago, the terrorists bred in that country came for us. Now they are getting what they wanted.

They aren’t the only enemy satisfied by our defeat. China, Russia and Iran are watching a weak and retreating America unable to protect our interests. As a result, America is less safe today. That’s the biggest price we’ll pay for Biden’s failure in Afghanistan.

Nikki Haley is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a former governor of South Carolina.


A Tragedy in Four Acts

By Elliot Ackerman

America’s war in Afghanistan is a tragedy told in four acts. In each, a different president plays the leading role. In each, he makes a fatal mistake.

Act I: Don’t Take Your Eye Off the Ball. Starring President George W. Bush. 

When the Taliban-led government refuses to turn over Osama bin Laden after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush sends American troops into Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. After just two months, Taliban rule collapses. U.S. victory is decisive, but the administration loses focus as it mobilizes for the Iraq War. The Taliban reconstitutes itself as America fixates on Iraq. The first fatal mistake.

Act II: The Right War. Starring President Barack Obama.

Iraq was the wrong war; Afghanistan the right one. That’s what Obama runs on in 2008 and it’s a shrewd political move, allowing him to be both a hawk and a dove. After his win, President Obama is under pressure to set an exit date for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And in December 2009, in a speech delivered at West Point, he commits to one: 2014. Announcing a time-based, as opposed to a conditions-based, exit strategy is a crucial misstep. A second fatal mistake.

Act III: A Bad Deal. Starring President Donald Trump. 

Trump’s “America First” nationalism leaves little room for sustained involvement in Afghanistan. The self-styled dealmaker negotiates — at length — with the Taliban. In doing so, he undercuts the Afghan government. The result is an unstable ceasefire (violated on numerous occasions by the Taliban) and a commitment that all U.S. troops will depart Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. When Trump loses re-election, his successor inherits this deal. 

Act IV: Sunk Costs. Starring President Joe Biden. 

During the first six months of Biden’s presidency, a total of two U.S. service members are killed by the Taliban. There are 2,500 American troops in the whole country. But Biden won’t budge. On August 14 he says: “I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war on to a fifth.” His decision-making based on sunk, as opposed to future, costs is our fourth, tragic mistake. 

But classical tragedies don’t have four acts. Any dramatist knows they typically play out in five. Whatever crawls out of the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is what will deliver us the fifth, final and devastating act to this tragedy.

Elliot Ackerman is a Marine who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also an author, most recently of “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.”

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