For most of the past 20 years, the United States has had a clear policy in Afghanistan: avoiding reality. We kept telling ourselves that if we stuck it out a while longer and did one thing or another differently, the outlook would brighten, paving the way for us to leave in the glow of victory. But that improvement never came.
President Joe Biden has now faced the immutable facts that have long been denied, and he intends to act in deference to them by withdrawing American forces, come what may.
Twenty years of futility, in his mind, are enough.
Governing often requires choosing not between a good and a bad alternative but between one that is terrible and one that is worse. Biden harbors no illusions about the consequences of leaving Afghanistan to its fate. But he also has no illusions about our chances of preventing those consequences, whether we leave in five months or five years.
It was hard to imagine this endless entanglement in 2001, when the U.S. launched a war in response to the 9/11 attacks. In a matter of weeks, we toppled the Taliban government and forced al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden into hiding. It was a stunning triumph that did President George W. Bush proud.
But pride goes before destruction, says the book of Proverbs, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Bush and those around him acquired a bulletproof sense of infallibility that lulled them into thinking the crucial work in Afghanistan was done. On May 1, 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared an end to “major combat activity,” turning our focus to “stabilization and reconstruction activities.”
At that point, 52 American service personnel had died in the war. Another 2,302 would die.
His pronouncement came the same day that Bush made his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. But the supposed victories came to exemplify an unlikely new concept: “catastrophic success.”
The easy part of each war came first, and it gave the impression that the easy part was the whole story rather than the mere prologue. It also conveyed the impression that if the U.S. continued to apply its peerless military might, tactical creativity and benevolent intentions, we couldn’t fail. But fail we did.
The story of Afghanistan is a story of how the greatest superpower in the history of the world was repeatedly humbled by ragged guerillas who were short on money and advanced weaponry but long on motivation and ferocity. We were fatally handicapped by something we had and they didn’t: the option to leave.
We might have given more thought to the dismal experience of the Red Army, which invaded in 1979 and left in 1989, bloodied and beaten. The Soviets, wrote Patrick Brogan in his book “The Fighting Never Stopped,” “got sucked into Afghanistan much as the United States got sucked into Vietnam, without clearly thinking through the consequences, and wildly underestimating the hostility they would arouse.” They failed to learn from our mistake, and we failed to learn from theirs.
Biden, however, is not one for foolish denial. He has set a firm date for withdrawal while dismissing the idea of making it dependent on conditions in Afghanistan. As for any such conditions, he asked: “By what means and how long would it take to achieve them, if they could be achieved at all? And at what additional cost in lives and treasure?”
He didn’t offer false comfort. He is obviously prepared to accept a grim aftermath, which could include a full-scale civil war, a Taliban takeover and the suppression of women’s rights. U.S. forces could evacuate in the midst of a collapse, much as they did in Vietnam.
Biden decided that outcome was foreordained and merely postponing it is not worth the price. As for Afghanistan once again becoming a base for attacks on the United States, the 2001 experience ought to be a formidable deterrent. Besides, al-Qaida has moved on to numerous other countries, including Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Algeria.
No one should assume that the matter is closed. Biden may encounter considerable resistance from the military. He will get fierce criticism from Republicans. His decision goes against the long-prevailing Washington wisdom. It would be no surprise to see him extend the deadline.
But for now, Biden has had enough, and he thinks the same is true of the American people.
We have lost a lot in Afghanistan. But we have gained a useful measure of humility.