Afghanistan: 10 Takeaways


On August 30th, The United States military left Afghanistan.  This departure ended the longest war in our history, the 20-year US presence in Afghanistan.  Our military command announced: “Over an 18-day period… U.S. and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians.” There are ten takeaways from this experience.

1. The US presence in Afghanistan began with national unity and ended with divisiveness. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States was traumatized.  Congress wanted to do something and therefore passed the “Joint Resolution to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States” — an authorization that led to the US military operation in Afghanistan.   On September 14, 2001, when Congress considered the  joint authorization of military force, only Representative Barbara Lee opposed it.

20 years later, the United States is divided. The latest Pew Research polling (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/31/majority-of-u-s-public-favors-afghanistan-troop-withdrawal-biden-criticized-for-his-handling-of-situation/) indicates that the majority of Americans (54 percent) support the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, but 42 percent oppose this, and 4 percent are not sure.  (Not surprisingly, attitudes about Afghanistan are split along Party lines.)  42 percent of respondents feel that Joe Biden has done a poor job “handling the situation in Afghanistan.”

The national Republican leadership opposed the evacuation.  Speaking on Fox News, Senate Minority Leader McConnell called the decision to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan “one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history… We leave behind exactly what we went in to solve 20 years ago.” Republicans continue to be the party of No: no evacuation, no vaccination.

2. The War in Afghanistan has ended but the War on Terror continues.  The US went into Afghanistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the others responsible for the 9/11 attacks.  In May of 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.  Most of the other original Al Qaida leaders have been captured or are dead.

On August 31st, Biden observed (https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/joe-biden-speech-transcript-the-war-in-afghanistan-is-now-over ): “This is a new world. The terror threat has metastasized across the world, well beyond Afghanistan. We face threats from al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia.”  In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen an Al Qaida variant in Afghanistan, ISIS-K; on August 26th, they took credit for the huge suicide bombing at the Kabul airport.  Biden said, “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called Over The Horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground, or very few if needed.”

It will take a while to determine whether our total withdrawal from Afghanistan was the right step to take in the ongoing war on terror.  I think it was, but many Republicans disagree.

3. The US evacuated most but not all critical evacuees.  In his 8/31 speech, President Biden touted the effectiveness of the evacuation.  He indicated that more than 5500 Americans had been evacuated and somewhere between 100-200 remained in Afghanistan,  Biden explained, “Most of those who remain are dual citizens, long time residents, [who] earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan.”

Republicans are apoplectic that some Americans remain.  It will take a while to determine how effective the evacuation actually was.

4. We’ve taken a critical step towards a new foreign policy.  In his August 31st speech, Joe  Biden talked about ending “the forever war.”  He said, “As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation in the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. To me there are two that are paramount. First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals. Not ones we’ll never reach. And second, I want to stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.”

This is potentially a big deal: a policy shift that will see a reduction in Us foreign bases and a reduction in the DOD budget.

5. The US may have lost prestige.  There’s been a lot of talk suggesting that the United States has lost international prestige, because of the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Perhaps, but to the best of my knowledge, all of our allies pulled out before our last troops left.  (Politico reported that our additional support of UK evacuations set up the August 26th suicide bombing.)  Hmm.  These same allies were already pissed off by Trump’s unilateral deal with the Taliban.

6. This was Trump’s fault.  Biden said, “By the time I came to office the Taliban was in it’s strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country…
So we were left with a simple decision, either [carry] through on the commitment made by the [Trump] administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war. That was the choice, the real choice between leaving or escalating. I was not going to extend this forever war and I was not extending a forever exit.”

7. Biden conducted a level-headed cost-benefit analysis:  “I refuse to continue to war that was no longer in the service of the vital national interest of our people… After more than $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan…And most of all, after 800,000 Americans served in Afghanistan, I’ve traveled that whole country, brave and honorable service. After 20,744 American service men and women injured. And the loss of 2,461 American personnel, including 13 lives lost just this week. I refused to open another decade of warfare in Afghanistan” “We see it in the grief born by their survivors. The cost of war, they will carry with them their whole lives. Most tragically, we see in the shocking and stunning statistic that should give pause to anyone who thinks war can ever be low grade, low risk or low cost, 18 veterans on average who die by suicide every single day in America.”

8. This was not the disaster Republicans predicted: On September 29th, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham said: “The parade of horribles are about to unfold … We’re leaving thousands of Afghan allies behind who fought bravely with us. We’re going to leave hundreds of American citizens behind. The chance of another 9/11 just went through the roof.”  Graham is wrong.

On August 31st, conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted: “Trump REPEATEDLY demanded that we bring our soldiers home, but only President Biden had the balls to do it.”  She described Trump as a “Wuss.”

9. The 20-year Afghanistan War was marked by Intelligence failures.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that we’ve seen massive intelligence failures for the last few months; the entire war has been marked by intelligence failures. Late in November 2001, Osama bin Laden and many Al Qaeda fighters were cornered in the remote Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Then President George W. Bush made the decision to capture bin Laden by relying upon Afghani mercenaries.  This didn’t succeed, because of bad intelligence.  And on and on.

In July. Joe Biden said this about the withdrawal of American troops: “it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.   Together, with our NATO Allies and partners, we have trained and equipped… nearly 300,000 current serving members of the Afghan National Security Force… We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military.  We provided advanced weaponry….  But most critically, as I stressed in my meeting just two weeks ago with President Ghani and Chairman Abdullah, Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future that the Afghan people want and they deserve.”  At the time US intelligence believed that the Afghani forces would withstand the resurgence Taliban.  Our intelligence was wrong.

10. Biden’s approval rating has taking a hit, but it won’t last.  The latest 538  poll summary shows that 46.2 percent approve of Biden’s performance and 47.9 percent disapprove — the first time, since taking office, that Biden has been “underwater.”

BB prediction: Joe Biden is a leader.  He will weather this storm, and his approval ratings will go  up.